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Will UK floods bring an end to climate silence?

Feb 17, 2014 by | 1 Comment

The wet­test January in the UK in 250 years fol­lowed by a stormy February have brought misery to many thou­sands. Floods have sub­merged large chunks of the south-west of the country, a key stretch of railway col­lapsed into the sea, and the river Thames spec­tac­u­larly burst its banks, delu­ging towns and villages.

As a state­ment from the UK’s weather ser­vice, the Met Office, made clear, these are the sorts of events that are made more likely by cli­mate change. But a strange dis­con­nect has run through main­stream media cov­erage and polit­ical dis­course. Amid the clamour to appor­tion blame and polit­ical point-scoring, one con­ver­sa­tion was con­spicu­ously low pro­file: whether this is a bitter taste of what cli­mate change has in store for the UK.

For a long time, social sci­ent­ists have been inter­ested in the impact of flooding and other extreme weather on public atti­tudes to cli­mate change. Because it is regarded as a dis­tant and intan­gible threat to people across much of Europe – not here, not now and not us – com­mu­nic­ating its risks has proved to be a sig­ni­ficant chal­lenge. Intuition would sug­gest that per­sonal exper­i­ence of the sorts of events asso­ci­ated with cli­mate change would cut through the psy­cho­lo­gical security blanket that usu­ally keeps the issue at arm’s length. And sure enough, research has found a link between being flooded and elev­ated con­cern about cli­mate change.

In a study pub­lished in 2011 (Nature Climate Change,, people who had been flooded expressed not only higher levels of cli­mate con­cern but a greater will­ing­ness to reduce their carbon foot­prints. In another more recent survey of Welsh cit­izens, those living in a recently flooded area were 10 per cent more likely to agree that the impact of cli­mate change is already being felt.

Sudden and extreme events like flooding are a grim reminder that the cli­mate is chan­ging. But even mundane changes can play a role in shaping opinion. An ana­lysis of US views over two dec­ades found a clear and con­sistent rela­tion­ship between average tem­per­at­ures and belief in the reality and ser­i­ous­ness of cli­mate change. The study even put a figure on this: for every degree that tem­per­ature rose above the average over the pre­vious 12 months, there was a 7.6 per cent increase in agree­ment that the world was warming.

So will the 2014 floods cata­lyse a dra­matic reduc­tion in public apathy to cli­mate change? A new study led by my col­league Stuart Capstick sug­gests that some people will be unmoved – because weather pat­terns are inter­preted according to existing beliefs and values. The research focused on per­cep­tions of cli­mate change during a cold snap that engulfed the UK in 2011, ana­lysing responses according to polit­ical views and values.

Those who were more indi­vidu­al­istic and endorsed free-market eco­nomic prin­ciples were more likely to be cli­mate scep­tics, and this group saw the freezing tem­per­at­ures as evid­ence that the world was not warming. But three times as many people viewed the dis­ruptive, chaotic weather as proof of a chan­ging climate.

Extreme weather, like every aspect of the highly polar­ised topic of cli­mate change, is thus sub­ject to powerful psy­cho­lo­gical, cul­tural and polit­ical fil­ters, which con­spire to pro­duce con­founding out­comes. The Daily Mail – a news­paper renowned for its scep­tical edit­or­ials and reporting – responded to the floods in a pre­dict­able manner. Rather than cri­ti­cise the gov­ern­ment for failing to invest in cli­mate change adapt­a­tion, the paper picked a familiar vil­lain – the over­seas aid budget – and argued that it should be redeployed to help flood victims.

As much as cli­mate change is a sci­entific issue, the stories we read about it are important too.

Scientists are under­stand­ably reluctant to make causal links between any single weather event and the com­plex dynamics of a chan­ging cli­mate. Definitive proof that this weather is the result of cli­mate change is cur­rently beyond us. But without a coordin­ated and con­sistent mes­sage that more flooding is on the way for the UK if ambi­tious action on cli­mate change is not forth­coming, there is no guar­antee that the public will join the dots. In the absence of a coherent nar­rative on this, uncer­tainty flour­ishes and scep­ti­cism is likely to grow.

The soci­olo­gist Robert Brulle tracked US public opinion on cli­mate change over more than a decade, piecing together events and influ­ences that had swayed views. Brulle’s ana­lysis pointed strongly to the import­ance of “elite cues”; that is, sig­nals and mes­sages that people get from the media, politi­cians and other high-profile voices. What they say mat­ters – espe­cially when they say nothing.

Unsurprisingly, with such a muted national con­ver­sa­tion in the UK, public interest has dwindled. A cli­mate silence prevails.

A report I wrote for the Climate Outreach and Information Network at the end of last year argued that the cli­mate change debate urgently needs new nar­rat­ives that make the link between the cli­mate chal­lenge and ordinary people. Climate change will have an impact on most aspects of society, yet it remains stuck in an envir­on­ment­alist niche, as if only greens needed to con­cern them­selves with the effects of a warmer world.

In flooded Oxford, res­id­ents held a demon­stra­tion that posed a simple ques­tion: can we talk about cli­mate change now? Belatedly – and after thou­sands of homes have been dam­aged by floods – the issue of cli­mate change is gradu­ally re-entering the national dis­course. It may be the only silver lining in an oth­er­wise thor­oughly grue­some winter’s tale.

Originally pub­lished by the New Scientist magazine 14.02.14

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