It is tornado season in the Gulf Coast, leaving many states vulnerable to high winds, rain and destruction. Not only do natural disasters like tornadoes impact the environment, but they are also costly: According to data from the National Centers for Environmental Information, 2022 tied 2017 and 2011 for the third highest number of billion-dollar natural disasters.

At the end of March,  a tornado touched down in Mississippi and Alabama and killed 26 people. There were over 24,000 power outages across Mississippi and the path of destruction is about 100 miles long. 

Aaron Sparks, assistant professor of political science and policy studies

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, increasing temperatures lead to an increase in the possibility of natural disasters. This, combined with rising sea levels, can lead to more natural disasters in places that aren’t as commonly hit. Aaron Sparks, Elon professor of political science, spoke with Elon News Network about how environmental policy can help mitigate the effects of natural disasters. 

Part of the reason for the recent tornadoes in Mississippi were higher temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico. How would higher temperatures continue to have an effect on natural disasters in the future?

It can touch on policy in a few ways. We think about climate change policy in these two ways, adaptation and mitigation. Adaptation is about resiliency. How do we adapt to this world in which the climate has changed, and is bringing about more natural disasters and everything else that comes with that. With hurricanes, we know that sea level rise is a problem, so we can prepare for that by building sea walls and expanding levee systems. We've seen coastal communities and low lying areas do a lot of that since Hurricane Katrina, so close to 20 years ago. Now, with thunderstorms, it's sort of more random, but if we're seeing them become tornadoes, and are starting to affect different areas more commonly, then you would probably expect to see some early warning signs, and flooding infrastructure to deal with flooding and wastewater or runoff. We'd expect to see shifts in funding that kind of stuff. If tornadoes become more common in certain areas, then you would hope to see those kind of warning signs that would at last save lives here if not saving property. 

And then in terms of mitigation, that's like pretty much what do we do to actually prevent climate change from getting worse, and so reducing carbon emissions. I did research with Doctors Usry and Hussar. Hussar runs Elon Poll and Usry is like second in charge. They did pre and post Hurricane Michael in 2018 of surveying North Carolina attitudes toward climate change, and preparedness and support for policies that would mitigate climate change. And so we used that as sort of a quasi natural experiment to see how preparing and being affected by the hurricane shifted attitudes toward climate change. 

We found that in general, when people experienced the hurricane they became more concerned about climate change and more supportive of policies to address it. With the exception that the sort of the most extreme Republicans went the other direction, they became more skeptical of climate change. And our speculation we couldn't test that was that they're sort of the ones that are most plugged in to the news. And so they're hearing you know, President Trump saying things like climate change is a hoax or this isn't climate change. 

Do you know what policies are in place in the federal and state governments to help in terms of mitigation against climate change?

Last August, Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which has about $380 billion toward climate policy. Some mostly centered around electrification and renewable technologies. So, it's mostly providing tax incentives for individuals and companies to move away from fossil fuels, moving away from internal combustion cars and toward electric vehicles, and away from coal and natural gas and towards solar and wind. … Since that was passed, companies have invested 200 million in that too. 

So, part of the idea is that the federal government is providing these tax incentives and spending money that way it encourages all this private investment into that market place too, because you can get those federal tax dollars if you're spending money in that area. So it's sort of a way to grow those businesses that are providing renewable technology. 

Electric vehicles, going to heat pumps in homes; there's weatherization money, like especially for low income people to sort of make your house more weather tight, so heating and cooling bills are less expensive. There's money incentives to get induction stovetops instead of gas. So a lot of these kinds of consumer level things too.They're all different programs within the inflation Reduction Act. 

At the state level, a year and a half ago they passed House Bill 951, Energy Solutions for North Carolina. According to Governor Cooper, it requires the North Carolina's utility commission, they're the ones who regulate Duke Energy, and many other power companies, the steps needed to get North Carolina a 70% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by 2050. It's not as aggressive as some of these states we've seen pass 100% clean energy laws, but it moves North Carolina a lot more forward than where we were. Those are the biggest policies in place right now at North Carolina and the federal level.

What do you think could be done, apart from living through a natural disaster, to get people to pay more attention to climate change?

One thing I'd say is that the public actually is pretty supportive of climate policy, and rates it fairly highly among important problems. It’s usually behind economy and jobs and sort of like the obvious day to day things like health care and education. It's usually up there. If you're trying to persuade someone who's kind of on the fence, the best way to do it would be to have someone who shares important parts of their identity with them, so if you want to convince, say, some, conservative farmers about climate change, have another farmer talk to them about it. You don't bring in the activist professor to talk to them because you're just not going to match on that. Or if you're talking to religious groups, having another pastor or religious people talking to them about it.

Also on this idea of threat is that a lot of the rhetoric around climate change can lead to despair. And you hear the term climate grief and young people especially are kind of in despair, like what can we do, the world that we're going to grow up in is going to be so changed and ruined. And so that using too much of that sort of extreme threat language demobilizes people, so they are less likely to get involved and active on the issue. When what you really want is for them to be active on the issue. So you have to make sure you're also talking about in positive ways, like here are the progress we're making, here are the things you can do that really make a big difference. So that you can encourage positivity around it rather than feelings of helplessness.

Do you have any thoughts on ways that Elon could do a better job in sustainability practices?

Well, I think our sustainability office does a really good job. I'd be interested in an energy report of where the biggest emissions from the university are. I would guess a lot of it is like all the cars on campus and probably even faculty travel to conferences and fundraising trips and things like that, because airline emissions are so high. Not popular necessarily with students but making it a little bit harder to have cars on campus and you're trying to encourage more people to not have cars and trying to encourage more people to not have cars.

I have an electric vehicle and I often have trouble getting a charging spot. And so investing in some more of those would make it easier for people to make the decision to switch to electric vehicles to commute. We could put solar on all these buildings that don't have shade all day long, so that would be something that I'd like to see.

Another big thing, thinking about travel, would be study abroad. And so figuring out what can we do to offset that travel. … If you could, for every ton of emissions from travel abroad, put something in a fund to put solar on buildings or something.