Image by Shafin Al Asad Protic from Pixabay

A large part of the country has been under the smoke from the Canadian wild fires. Will their opinion on climate change change?

As climate change dropped its calling card on the East Coast last week in the form of thick, dangerous smoke, millions of Americans and Canadians shared the jarring experience — forced to retreat indoors, cancel plans, wear masks and breathe hazardous air. The smoke that Canadian wildfires sent swirling over swaths of North America blanketed cities including New York, Philadelphia and Toronto, shocked many Easterners, broke air quality records and threatened people’s health. It also created a window, climate experts say, for catching people’s attention. “When these events happen, they’re a really important opportunity for helping the public make the connection between these kinds of events and climate change, and helping them understand what they can do,” said Meade Krosby, a senior scientist at the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group.

There have been other climate incidents but this one was different. It affected our breathing.

The widespread punch delivered by the smoke wasn’t unusual. Recent U.S. hurricanes, droughts and heat waves have arguably been deadlier and more disruptive. But experiencing extreme weather firsthand can change the way people think about climate change, researchers said. Walking outside to a blanket of smoke and an orange-tinted sky makes the issue suddenly real, “concrete and relevant,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. “There’s nothing like the power of direct experience,” said Leiserowitz, an authority on climate and public opinion. “These events touch us in a way that abstract articles about the latest … findings of climate science [don’t].” Whether the 2023 smoke emergency will lead people to take action — such as calling political representatives, joining environmental organizations or changing personal habits — is far from clear, experts said. The smoke event will affect different people differently and has not yet fully played itself out. But for at least some people, experts said, it will probably push forward their thinking on climate change.

Past disasters have driven change especially if public opinion is involved.

Past disasters have prompted many to take steps to prepare for the next one and at times created political momentum, but they have not necessarily led to systemic change. Global leaders have yet to take urgent action to both reduce emissions driving climate change and help vulnerable communities adapt, as scientists have urged. Still, weather events have the potential to affect people’s attitudes and behavior, research has shown, though many other factors play a role, a 2021 study from Princeton University concluded. “It has been a dramatic presentation of a natural disaster this week. So many people saw firsthand the increasing risks that climate change poses,” said Gaurab Basu, a primary care physician and health equity fellow at the Harvard Chan Center for Climate, Health and the Global Environment. “How long that persists and how it translates into action, I think, is up to all of us.” As of Saturday, there were over 420 active fires burning across Canada, including more than 120 in Quebec, the source of most of the smoke wafting into the eastern United States. What is unfolding in Canada is consistent with climate change, which is known to be influencing the frequency and severity of wildfires, scientists said. Many of these Quebec fires were sparked by lightning, and they are burning in forests that some specialists say could be better managed to be less conducive to large blazes. But heat and drought have also been factors: Record-high temperatures have struck the provinces of Alberta, Nova Scotia and Quebec this year; some parts of Alberta recorded average temperatures more than 12 degrees higher last month than in a typical May. Canada’s Atlantic region has been heavily affected by droughts since February.

We have a complicated relation with climate change in we want to solve the problem but also want to stay cool.

As a whole, Americans have a complicated relationship with climate change, research shows. Polling by Leiserowitz and other researchers in December found that about half of Americans surveyed think U.S. residents are being harmed by global warming “right now” and 47 percent say they have personally experienced its effects. A full 50 percent think people in their communities will be harmed by global warming. While nearly two-thirds of Americans say they are at least somewhat worried about the issue, the same survey found that fewer than half think their friends and family take action about it or that “their friends and family expect them to take action.” It’s not necessary for someone to experience climate change’s effects to care about the issue, Leiserowitz noted, but for some people,feeling the impacts on their home turf can “make the difference.” Being caught in a disaster — whether stuck indoors during a wildfire, fleeing floodwaters or sheltering from a hurricane — changes the way people think because it counters the delusion that it couldn’t happen to them or their family. Humans want to feel safe, so when people hear about something like a wildfire or a hurricane somewhere else, they often run through the reasons “that can’t be me,” said Tiamo Katsonga-Phiri, director of the Trauma Disaster Recovery Clinic at the University of Denver. East Coasters watching the West Coast deal with wildfires over the past several years, for instance, may have believed the problem couldn’t reach them.

Some say that climate change is in the distance.

Keeping that distance means people sometimes regard climate change as a far-off issue that doesn’t affect their community, their family or themselves, experts said. When a disaster does arrive, “it now becomes very painfully true and very painfully real that you’re not as safe as you thought,” Katsonga-Phiri said. Those personal experiences, along with hearing about other people experiencing the impacts of climate change, were among the top reasons people reported for changing their opinions about global warming, Yale researchers found in a separate 2022 study. Among Republicans in particular, having a personal experience with the impacts of climate change was one of the strongest predictors of changing opinions, according to the study. People are also influenced, however, by their emotional responses to the disaster, their values, what people around them say, what they see in the news and on social media, and what they hear from leaders, Leiserowitz said. With Americans on a spectrum from dismissive to alarmed about climate change, their preexisting attitudes also play a role, he said. That means something like last week’s smoke event can be a steppingstone on people’s “learning journey” about climate change, which starts with becoming aware of the issue and ends with understanding that solutions exist and that individuals can play a role, Leiserowitz said. “That experience can, for some people, be part of that learning journey where they suddenly go, ‘Oh, my God, this is happening right here, right now. This is something that is directly affecting people I care about or myself.’ Then it opens up the next step, which is, ‘How can I get involved to make sure this doesn’t happen to other people or myself again?’”

We come to the table from different paths.


That means the event may push people one step forward, but they come from different starting points. Many might learn more about climate change or discuss it with people they know. Some people might call their representatives or join an environmental group; for a handful, it might be the tipping point into more aggressive activism. Simply talking about climate change with others is an important step, Krosby said. “Everyone can participate in this, and I think it’s important that people recognize that,” said Adah Crandall, 17, an organizer in the Portland chapter of the youth-led climate organization Sunrise Movement. “It can be really hard to turn this sort of fear and apathy into action. It’s really scary to look outside and see these disasters out your window, and it can be really hard not to feel hopeless.” Experiencing heat waves and wildfires growing up in Oregon, along with attending school in a highly polluted area, spurred Crandall to get involved in the climate movement, she said. She graduated from high school on Thursday — and she did it a year early, because “I feel that I can’t stand to wait around another year in a high school classroom as my generation’s future is burning,” she said. Crandall said she hoped the effects of the Canada wildfires would “serve as a catalyst” for people who experienced it — particularly the country’s political leaders. “Obviously, I don’t want anyone to walk outside and see wildfire smoke,” Crandall said. “There’s also a part of me that wonders: Is this what has to happen in order for people to take the leap and get involved?”

Of those getting involved are the youth suing Montana for violation of their state constitution.

Could the Canadian wild fires shift public opinion