First it was the moon landing, vaccines, and New Coke. Now nutty conspiracies are surrounding the life-and-death matter of hurricanes.
With warming waters providing extra fuel, tropical cyclones have become more frequent and more intense in recent years, causing deadly flooding, widespread power outages, and hundreds of billions of dollars in damages. Some people (ahem) see a sinister plot behind it all, an attempt to overhype the threat of disasters so that Big Government can take over (or something). This bonkers “hurricane trutherism” has spread from right-wing blogs to a much broader audience.
And it might already have real-world, fact-based consequences. A working papersuggests that by downplaying hurricane risk, conservative media hosts like Rush Limbaugh could be discouraging people from getting out of harm’s way.
Before Hurricane Irma struck Florida in 2017, causing more than 100 deaths and $50 billion in damages, hurricane trutherism got a lot of attention. Limbaugh — the most popular talk show host in the country — cast doubt on Irma’s severity and the motivation behind advisories prodding people to evacuate.
“Here comes a hurricane, local media goes on the air, ‘Big hurricane coming, oh, my God! Make sure you got batteries. Make sure you got water. It could be the worst ever. Have you seen the size of this baby? It’s already a Cat 5.” Limbaugh went on to suggest that the hype about Irma would lead to a bigger audience for TV stations, a boost in local business from worried residents stocking up on supplies, and of course, “panic” over climate change. Shortly thereafter, Limbaugh evacuated from his South Florida home to escape Irma’s wrath.
The right-wing commentator Ann Coulter followed with her own take on Twitter: “HURRICANE UPDATE FROM MIAMI: LIGHT RAIN; RESIDENTS AT RISK OF DYING FROM BOREDOM.” Limbaugh and Coulter’s comments were covered by the mainstream media, and Google searches for “hurricane conspiracy” reached an all-time high.
The damage was done. For their study, the researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles found that only 34 percent of Floridians who likely voted for President Trump in the 2016 election evacuated before Irma hit, compared to 45 percent of Hillary Clinton voters. But ahead of two other hurricanes — Matthew in 2016 and Harvey in 2017 — when skepticism of hurricane threats was less widespread in the media, the researchers found that Trump and Clinton voters evacuated at similar rates.
The researchers looked at GPS location data from 30 million smartphone users to compare evacuation patterns for hurricanes Matthew, Harvey, and Irma, and juxtaposed that with voting data from the 2016 presidential election. The authors declined Grist’s request to comment because the paper is in the final stages of peer review.
Jennifer Marlon, a research scientist at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication who was not involved in the study, said the findings appeared to be in line with recent research showing that the media can have a strong effect on decision-making.
“In the Trump-voting districts in this study, there’s a natural skepticism of the government, and I think that skepticism is being exploited to the great detriment of people’s health and safety,” she said. “We tend not to think of evacuating a hurricane as having anything to do with partisan politics, but we’re starting to see that it is becoming part of the political debate.”
Limbaugh isn’t the only one undermining public trust in hurricane forecasting. Earlier this year, Trump doubled down on a lie that forecasts had projected that Hurricane Dorian was headed to Alabama, going so far as to present a doctored NOAA map extending the hurricane’s range of possible paths with a Sharpie.
To be sure, the media does get excited about hurricanes — there’s a lot at stake — and viewership ratings do tend to spike during big storms. But doubting that hurricanes are dangerous can put lives at risk.
A recent study from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that as hurricanes become stronger, it hasn’t led more people to evacuate. A survey of coastal residents in Connecticut found that people who had evacuated in the past — and later thought it had been unnecessary — were less likely to plan to leave town in the event of a future hurricane.
Hurricane trutherism is just one of many conspiracy theories tied to climate change out there. Youtube is full of misinformation about geoengineering and chemtrails, the white clouds that airplanes leave in their wake. Though it’s good sport to mock these ideas, they stem from real fear and can pose real dangers to those who believe them.
“Although often parodied as inconsequential fantasies entertained by disenfranchised people on the fringes of society,” the authors of one 2015 studywrote, “conspiracy theories can influence what ordinary people intend to do in important domains,” like voting or vaccinating their children.