Will UK floods bring an end to climate silence?
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, doi.org/dkpspz), 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.
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