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Politics

Will America’s Wet, Hot Summer Upend the 2024 Race?

Election season is about to heat up — literally. The question is whether voters will care.

A ballot box in the desert.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Of the 158 days left to go before the presidential election, 94 of them will fall during the summer. Such an alignment is not entirely a coincidence — the 29th U.S. Congress designated the first Tuesday in November for voting in order to avoid summer planting and the autumn harvest — but in 2024, the overlap between the hottest months of the year and the feverish finale of the presidential campaign is especially apropos.

Fire agencies have warned of an “above average” wildfire season in the Southwest, northern Great Lakes, northern Great Basin, and Hawaii. Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued the most active hurricane outlook in its history. The western Great Plains and the intermountain West are in a worsening drought. Forecasters at AccuWeather predicted widespread heat waves over much of the eastern and southern United States in the coming months. Emergency managers are bracing for the “new normal” of deadly summer rainfall.

But will a wet, hot, climate change-driven summer be enough to tilt the election in someone’s favor?

We know that climate-related issues can swing elections — clean air and water, cheap energy, and creating new high-paying jobs all poll exceptionally well. Voter interest tends to drop off, however, when these things are framed as climate issues. And on the darker flip side, the realities of living in a hotter world, including “unchecked migration, economic stagnation, and the loss of homeland,” are “precisely the kind of developments that have historically fomented authoritarian sentiments,” Justin Worland argued in Time earlier this year. Donald Trump, meanwhile, has repeatedly proved eager to go toe-to-toe with President Joe Biden on things like clean energy, electric vehicles, and climate science.

But how much extreme weather events themselves could swing the November election is far less clear. Research suggests that even living through a traumatic event like a wildfire or hurricane isn’t necessarily enough to convert you into a climate voter. “Experience matters, but I don’t know that it matters in the way that people wishcast it to,” Matto Mildenberger, a political scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara who has studied the relationship between proximity to wildfires and pro-environmental voting, told me.

As Mildenberger explained, “In order to experience a wildfire or a heat wave or a flood and have that galvanize you into wanting to see more ambitious climate action, you’d have to experience and understand yourself as a victim of climate change.” For decades, fossil fuel interests have worked to undermine the scientific narrative and cast doubt on the links between extreme weather and climate, which is why even Republicans who experience disasters firsthand still “fall back onto stories about how there have always been wildfires, there have always been droughts.”

In other words, this is not a chicken-or-egg enigma. How voters already think about climate change is what shapes their ensuing narratives about disasters. Peter Howe, a professor of geography at Utah State University who studies public perceptions of climate change, conducted a survey of research on behavioral outcomes in relation to extreme weather that reinforced this idea. He found that “extreme weather may reinforce opinions among people who are already worried about climate change, yet be misattributed or misperceived by those who are unconcerned.”

There is evidence that linking climate change with extreme weather could actually backfireat the ballot box for green-minded candidates. A 2022 study led by Rebecca Perlman, a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, found that Republicans who saw references to climate change after a wildfire became less likely to support an energy tax that would “protect against future wildfires and other natural disasters.” Concerningly, this pattern even showed up (albeit with “weaker and generally nonsignificant effects”) among Democrats and Independents, leading Perlman and her coauthor to suggest that “on the margin, attributing weather-related natural disasters to climate change may be a losing political proposition with voters.”

Perlman confirmed that she would be “surprised” if extreme summer weather had “much impact on voting at the national level” when I reached her via email. But that “doesn’t mean it will be precisely zero,” she went on.

Mildenberger made a similar point. Though a hurricane or a wildfire is unlikely to peel Republican voters away from Trump (and might even push some deeper into his arms), if you take a more regional lens, then you could “easily expect extreme weather events to reshape how people are prioritizing their vote, or their likelihood of volunteering, or how they’re talking to their friends and family about the current administration.”

But while hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, and heat waves can confirm Democratic priors and motivate liberals who wouldn’t otherwise have voted, Matthew Burgess, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder, warned me against lumping all conservatives together as uniformly undisturbed. “Even deep red parts of Colorado get worried about drought and water scarcity,” he pointed out.

Burgess’ research has found that Independents and liberal-to-moderate Republicans worry about climate change only slightly less than moderate-to-conservative liberals do; it’s conservative Republicans who are set far apart from the rest of the electorate, sometimes skewing results. In other words, while many studies look at extreme weather events and climate change attribution and frame the results as Republicans versus Democrats, the actual split in how voters interpret extreme weather events might be better framed as between the mostconservative Republicans and everyone else.

The bigger question, in Burgess’s mind, is whether extreme weather could ever rival issues like crime or inflation, which generally affect a greater portion of the electorate, for a place in voters’ hearts. “If you had a really big natural disaster that directly affects a broad swath of people, and whose link to climate change is really clear — that would be the type of thing I would expect to have an effect” on voters, Burgess said.

Admittedly, it’s scary to imagine what exactly that event might be. A massive wildfire season with smoke that blankets the entire country or breaks out in a place we don’t expect? Hurricanes that pummel both the East Coast and the West Coast? So much flooding that whirlpools appear in the streets of American cities? Or something we haven’t already experienced and maybe haven’t even anticipated?

If there were ever a summer to find out, it’d be this one. It’s another “hottest year ever” on Planet Earth, and even if Americans don’t ultimately vote like it, that truth will remain.

Jeva Lange profile image

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City.

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