The social consensus on flooding and climate change

A new study finds that those directly affected by floods are more likely to agree climate change is a serious issue – and offers pointers for how to engage the public more effectively around flood risks

Exactly one year ago, fierce winter weather was causing havoc across the UK. Large parts of the Somerset Levels were submerged, Wales had been battered by coastal storms, residents in the Thames estuary were on red-alert, and Cornwall was cut off by rail, as the line at Dawlish collapsed into the sea.

Although storms are an integral part of the great British winter, these floods were remarkable, leading the news agenda for weeks on end and causing disruption to thousands of people’s lives. In a changing climate, floods like these will happen more often, and they will become more intense. But did people make the link between the flooding and climate change?

A new study released today by the Understanding Risk team at Cardiff University provides some fascinating answers to this question. In the months following the flooding, a nationally representative survey of around 1,000 people was conducted, asking about people’s views on climate change, on the floods, and whether they saw a link between the two.

The results were striking. Most respondents (85%) felt that flooding had become more common, and that it would continue to get worse in the future. At the same time, scepticism about climate change was at its lowest for 10 years: very few people disputed the link between human activity and climate change.

Two-thirds of respondents thought the floods were a sign that the impacts of climate change were already beginning to be felt, while an even clearer majority (72%) agreed that the floods were a sign of what we should expect in the future from climate change.

As would be expected, people also pointed to other important factors (such as insufficient investment, and poor river dredging) to explain the damage caused by the flooding. But climate change featured surprisingly strongly in the mix. So did the flooding act as a trigger, focusing people’s minds on the risks of climate change?

A standard survey would be unable to answer this question. Tempting as it may be to make this inference, it is crucial not to confuse correlation with causation: perhaps people who were already concerned about climate change were more inclined to make a link to the floods, rather than the other way around.

But in this study, the nationwide survey was compared to a second group who lived in one of five areas of the country that had been directly affected by the flooding. This allowed the researchers to examine the impact that “being flooded” had on people’s attitudes towards climate change.

Again, the findings were striking. People who had experienced flooding were not only more concerned about climate change, but also more likely to report that they had become more concerned about climate change in the past 12 months. In the national sample, around 15% of people spontaneously named climate change as one of the three most serious issues facing the country – in the flood-affected sample, this rose to nearly 30%. When asked whether their local area was likely to be affected by climate change, 61% of respondents who had been flooded said yes, compared to only 15% of the national sample.

It is perhaps not surprising that floods of this magnitude would leave a mark on the national consciousness. But the fact that the flooding also impacted on people’s views about climate change is important. And from a communications perspective, the findings offer some crucial signposts for how to engage the public more effectively.

Firstly, events like these provide a chance to build public support for policies that will reduce climate risks in the future – provided communities are approached in a sensitive and respectful way. Climate change is a notoriously intangible risk for people to grasp. But when floods bring the problem closer to home, there is a window of opportunity for having a national conversation about climate change that is not usually open.

The survey findings also offer some guidance about what form this conversation could take. There were consistently high levels of agreement with statements about the increasing prevalence of flooding, attribution of the floods to climate change, the need to be better prepared in the future and the importance of supporting an international agreement to reduce carbon emissions.

To illustrate how these findings are relevant to public engagement, consider the following example narrative – the sort of statement that a campaigner, a policy maker or a community activist might make:

“It’s clear that the climate is changing – many of us have noticed the signs. In fact, after the economy, immigration and the NHS, climate change is one of the most serious issues facing the UK. Most people sense that flooding is already getting worse, and fear that it will keep getting worse in the future. The floods of 2014 show us what we can expect from climate change, but we were unprepared and understandably, people felt angry. The government should take steps to protect people from flooding in the future, by supporting an international agreement to limit carbon emissions in Paris later this year.”

It is a powerful message – but every single sentence reflects the sentiments expressed by survey respondents, and draws on the exact wording of questions where there was agreement by more than 70% of those surveyed.

Because of the probabilistic and often indirect link between weather and climate, clearly worded statements about cause and effect – or confident predictions about climate impacts in the future – are often problematic for scientists to make. Data on public perceptions cannot overcome the challenges associated with the complexity of the relationship between weather and climate. But the survey findings suggest that appealing to popular opinion on the need to take climate impacts more seriously may be an effective alternative approach.

The message for politicians, campaigners and communicators is clear: scepticism is low, and concern about flood risks is high. The argument that climate change is a “vote-loser” is no longer a credible excuse for inaction.

This article was originally published by The Guardian on 29.01.15

Will geoengineering make people give up cutting their carbon footprint?

Wealthier people are more susceptible to the trap of saying they won’t take action on emissions when they know engineering the planet’s climate is a possibility.

Wealthier people are more susceptible to the trap of saying they won’t take action on emissions when they know engineering the planet’s climate is a possibility.

If you thought there was a machine that could magically remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and bury it underground, would you be less likely to worry about reducing your own carbon footprint?

The question is not entirely hypothetical. Geoengineering is the catch-all term for a suite of technologies that could one day be used to alter the Earth’s climate and combat global warming. Most of them are unlikely to ever see the light of day: they are considered too risky, too unpredictable, or too reckless to be taken seriously by the scientific community.

But the warnings from scientists about the dangers of a warmer world (and the inadequacy of existing climate policies) have become shriller by the year. And as a result, the voices whispering that geoengineering could one day become a reality have grown harder to ignore.

As geoengineering has gradually moved on to the policy agenda, debates about the ethics of meddling with the global thermostat have become more prominent. Central among these is whether geoengineering might undermine fragile public and political support for the more pressing business of reducing carbon emissions.

This is what is known by economists and philosophers as a ‘moral hazard’ argument: the phenomenon whereby people who feel insured against a particular risk are more likely to exhibit risky behaviour. Will the prospect of geoengineering make people feel ‘insured’ against the risks of climate change, and indulge in ‘riskier’ environmental behaviour themselves?

In a paper published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society on Monday, my colleague Nick Pidgeon and I attempted to answer that question. Using a nationally representative online survey, we provided 610 people with a ‘factsheet’ about geoengineering, and then asked them a series of questions.

One striking finding was that some people seem more susceptible to the ‘trap’ of the moral hazard than others.

People who were wealthier, and who identified with self-focused values such as power and status, were more likely to agree with the statement “Knowing geoengineering is a possibility makes me feel less inclined to make changes in my own behaviour to tackle climate change.”

In general, people who are wealthier have bigger carbon footprints. Our findings suggest that people with bigger carbon footprints may treat geoengineering as an excuse to avoid personal behavioural changes. People in the study who held pro-environmental values didn’t see themselves as susceptible to the moral hazard, but feared that other people – and especially politicians – would take their eye off the ball if geoengineering was on the horizon.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, climate change sceptics were not particularly worried that geoengineering would distract attention from other climate policies. After all, if someone doesn’t support policies to tackle climate change in the first place, then the moral hazard of geoengineering is really not a hazard at all.

Previous research has suggested, though, that geoengineering could be more appealing to sceptics than existing climate policies (as it doesn’t involve regulating industries or government intervention in people’s daily lives) or that it could even galvanise support for climate change among this group.

But our findings did not back this. Learning about geoengineering from the information provided in our study didn’t alter levels of concern about climate change among sceptical participants.

This is the first time that any systematic evidence has been produced on how this key aspect of the geoengineering debate will shape the public discourse as it moves into the mainstream. What seems clear is that people with different values (and views on climate change) will respond to the logic of the moral hazard argument in very different ways.

For those deeply worried by society’s inadequate response to climate change, and doubtful of politicians’ commitment to the issue, the moral hazard of geoengineering confirms their worst fears.

But for people with an inconveniently large carbon footprint – or those who had no intention of reducing it in the first place – the prospect of geoengineering could be less a of a moral hazard and more of a ‘moral license’ to continue with business as usual.

This blog first appeared on the Guardian.


Don’t give up on engaging conservatives

Paul Connor argues that social psychology findings give hope that conservative audiences can be engaged on climate change.

This guest post is by Paul Connor, a postgraduate researcher in social psychology at the University of Melbourne. His research is currently focused on climate change communication and pro-environmental cultural change processes.

There is little doubt that the issue of climate change has become increasingly polarised along political lines over the past decade. Yet despite this trend, it remains important for climate advocates to remember that this party-line split is far from absolute. In both Australia and the USA, for example, one in four conservative voters still accepts the basic tenets of climate change science, and as the following research suggests, there may be ways of tailoring climate messages to increase their appeal to such audiences.

System-Sanctioned Change

In their 2010 paper, Irina Feygina of New York University and colleagues explored the connection between environmental attitudes and a psychological tendency known as ‘system justification’. This is a  tendency strongly related to conservative political attitudes to defend society’s status quo and see ‘the way things are’ as ‘the ways things should be’. Across two experiments, results showed system justification to be correlated with the denial of environmental problems. Indeed, the extent to which people reported holding system justifying beliefs largely (but not totally) explained the connection between people’s political orientation and their environmental denial.

Following this, Feygina and colleagues presented people with a generic message about the environment, and some of them also a ‘system-sanctioned change’ message, which read:

“Being pro-environmental allows us to protect and preserve the American way of life. It is patriotic to conserve the country’s natural resources”.

While results showed that there was no overall difference between the ‘system sanctioned’ message and the normal message in promoting pro-environmental intentions and behaviours, the system-sanctioned message was significantly more effective among people high in system justification. The authors concluded that: “…reframing environmentalism as supporting (rather than undermining) the American way or life eliminates the negative effect of system justification on pro-environmental behavior”.

Co-Benefits Framing

A 2012 study by Paul Bain from the University of Queensland and colleagues explored whether climate change sceptics could perhaps be sold on climate change action by stressing its possible co-benefits in addition to mitigating climate change. They presented a large sample of people (including 128 climate sceptics) one of three ‘personal testimonials’ relating different reasons for supporting climate action.

The first suggested climate action would create a friendlier society (“I think it’d make us more considerate in other ways – like looking out for each other, and caring for people in the community”). The second suggested it would promote societal development (“Taking action to reduce energy pollution would lead to new scientific breakthroughs and new industries”). And the third suggested it would prevent environmental destruction (“We’d be less affected by food and water shortages”).

As expected, results showed that the testimonials promoting the co-benefits of climate change action produced significantly higher pro-environmental intentions among the sceptics than the testimonial focused on environmental destruction. Moreover, the co-benefits testimonials were also more effective in producing environmental citizenship intentions even among the climate change believers (though this effect did not reach statistical significance).

Stressing the Consensus

Research indicates that the public vastly underestimates the level of consensus around climate change science. A 2011 study in the USA found that among its 751 participants, 66% could be classified as ‘consensus not understood’. Moreover, the results showed that there was a strong correlation between people’s perceptions of the scientific consensus around climate change and their support for climate change policies, with people’s perceptions of the scientific consensus were shown to explain nearly 60% of the variance in their support for climate policies.

Extending upon these findings, Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol and colleagues investigated the effects of increasing people’s perceptions of the scientific consensus. They began by asking people how many out of 100 climate scientists they believed endorsed the consensus view. Following this, they provided half of the people with information about the factual 97% scientific consensus on climate change.

They then asked again about people’s climate beliefs, as well as their endorsement of ‘free-market’ ideology, which is known to be related to lower belief in climate change. Results showed that providing the consensus information had a large effect.

On the follow-up questioning, the group that received the consensus information showed significantly higher belief in climate change than the group not provided the consensus information. In addition, while endorsement of free market capitalism displayed its normal correlation with lower belief in climate change among the group who did not receive the consensus information, among the people who received the consensus information there was no such correlation.

The authors concluded that “the role of ideology was drastically attenuated when participants were provided with information about the scientific consensus”. These studies indicate that climate activists do not necessarily need to give up on conservative-minded demographics. Instead, they show us that by keeping in mind the arguments and frames that appeal to conservatives, the non-climate related benefits of climate action, and the importance of an accurate understanding of the scientific consensus, there are ways of subtly tailoring communications that will be more effective among more conservative audiences.

Download COIN’s report on engaging with conservative audiences here.

See No Evil?

What if – despite positive attitudes towards the environment – people unconsciously block out images of climate change they don’t want to see?

This was originally published by the Guardian Sustainable Business, on Thursday 13th December, 2012.

Here’s an old chestnut: why, if people’s attitudes towards the environment are (in general) positive, and if levels of concern about climate change are consistently high, don’t these attitudes translate into meaningful behavioural changes?

Typically, answers to this question cite financial and motivational barriers that create an attitude-behaviour gap, or the lack of infrastructure (e.g., public transport) required for people’s low-carbon intentions to become a reality. But a new study released this month suggests a different answer – the views that people express in opinion polls may not actually be the best guide to what they really think about climate change and sustainability.

Geoffrey Beattie and Laura McGuire at Manchester University asked whether people’s ‘explicit’ attitudes (the responses people give in surveys and opinion polls) or their ‘implicit’ attitudes (which can only be revealed by people’s reaction times on a specially designed task) best predicted the amount of attention they paid to iconic images of climate change.

Implicit attitudes are measured using something called the Implicit Association Test (IAT), developed in the 1990s, and now widely used in social psychology. The basic premise of the IAT is that if two concepts are strongly associated in someone’s mind, then they will be able to quickly and correctly categorise them in a computer task (whereas concepts that are less strongly associated will take longer to process).

Beattie’s previous research has found that people’s explicit and implicit attitudes towards climate change and low-carbon products do not always match, suggesting that some people may not be as green as they say they are. But in their new study, Beattie and McGuire took this argument one step further.

Participants were asked to rate how much they agreed with statements such as ‘I prefer a product with a low carbon footprint’, but they also completed an IAT where they had to assign a series of positive or negative terms to the target category of ‘low carbon footprint’. The researchers then showed them a series of images, some of which were iconic negative images of climate change (e.g., a stranded polar bear) some of which were positive images of nature (e.g. a field of sunflowers), and some of which were everyday household objects. Intermingled across a series of slides, participants could choose which images to look at.

The results were striking: only implicit attitudes predicted how long people looked at iconic images of climate change. It did not matter if people had expressed a positive explicit attitude towards low-carbon products. Only people with strongly positive implicit attitudes (i.e., the people with quick reaction times between positive terms and the category ‘low carbon footprint’) chose to linger on the climate change images.

These findings suggest that even people who express a high degree of concern about climate change, or who claim a great deal of interest in low-carbon products, may actually be unconsciously shielding themselves from imagery associated with climate change, and by extension, deeper reflection on how to change their behaviour in response to it.

As Beattie and McGuire put it:

“People can choose not to go to the cinema to watch An Inconvenient Truth, people can ignore television documentaries on climate change, people can fail to attend to images of climate change (and this whole process does not have to be conscious either)…(W)hat happens if you never see the evidence for climate change? What hope for the planet then?”

Beattie and McGuire’s study provides a partial answer: that we cannot necessarily trust survey findings to tell us the full story about people’s views on climate change and sustainability. But although implicit attitudes may paint a more complex story about public perceptions of climate change and sustainability, psychological research is starting to reveal what influences people at the implicit level.

For example, one study asked people to associate themselves with a particular brand of drink rather than another, and then looked at how this influenced their scores on the IAT. Implicit attitudes became more positive when people believed that the drink in question was linked to their self-concept – the kind of drink that someone like them would buy.

Making sustainable behaviour something that is linked to people’s self-identities, rather than simply a series of unrelated, disjointed actions, has been shown to increase the chance that people will act sustainably across a range of different situations. Perhaps one way in which developing a green self-identity manifests itself is through increasingly sustainable implicit attitudes.

And it is these hidden thoughts – rather than the views measured in opinion polls – that may hold the secret to deepening public engagement with climate change and sustainability.