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

Could UKIP’s rise undo the climate change consensus?

With a surge in votes for the UKIP party – which is strongly sceptical about climate change – at the recent UK local elections, is the hard-won cross party consensus on climate change under threat?

The surge of support for UKIP at the local council elections this month suggests Britain, or at least some of it, is experiencing a lurch to the right.

The party’s rag-bag of populist policies, described as “post-ideological” because they lack core principles to bind them together, nevertheless out-flank the Tories. Any move to the right is bound to have serious consequences for climate change and environmental policies. Only today, Lib Dem Energy Secretary Ed Davey warned that: “Public support is chipped away if the populist politicians refuse to engage with the evidence of the science and just ignore it.

In the US, environmental views have become so polarised that they function as a reliable indicator of political views. But a new study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows quite how extreme this polarisation has become.

The researchers, led by Dena Gromet at the University of Pennsylvania, compared the views and behaviours of liberal and conservative voters. Their hypothesis was that an emphasis on the “environmental” credentials of products or policies might reduce their appeal to conservatives (who would not want to be associated with the left-ish connotations of environmental concern).

Policies aimed at carbon reduction – an issue most closely associated with environmental concern – produced a pronounced split based on political leaning. Conservative voters were strongly against, liberal voters strongly for. Other policies, such as reducing dependence on foreign oil or reducing energy costs, demonstrated the same, if less pronounced, ideological split.

A second test saw participants provided with money to purchase either an energy-efficient or old-style incandescent light bulb. They found that any label which mentioned or championed the environmental benefits of the bulb repelled conservative shoppers. Without such a label, they were happy to buy it.

The study is only the latest in a growing body of research that points to a consistent relationship between people’s political views and their willingness to engage with environmental issues like climate change.

A long-standing finding in social psychology is that for contentious issues (such as capital punishment), the very same information is likely to be processed in a biased way by people with different prior beliefs. Counter-intuitively, the same information, when assimilated into people’s existing views, prejudices and political preferences, can sometimes force people’s positions further apart, rather than closer together.

Because the politics of environmental issues like climate change are contested, so the “facts” of climate science are filtered through people’s existing beliefs. They are accepted or rejected based on their congruence with an individual’s values or their views about the structure of society.

Those with conservative political views are more likely to be opposed to many of the proposed policy solutions to climate change – regulation of industry, government campaigns to change behaviour, or taxation – and so work backwards to downplay or reject the seriousness of the underlying problem. For those on the left, these policy solutions are more acceptable, and so denial of the underlying problem is unlikely.

While the science around whether human activity is changing the climate is unequivocal, the closely related question “what should we do about it?” is deeply contested. As it should be – scientific descriptions of the risks posed by climate change cannot tell us how we should respond to them. This is a decision for society, of which the underlying science is only a part. Debate and disagreement about climate policy is not only inevitable but desirable in a democracy with pluralistic values. But there is an urgent need for climate change communicators to reach out across the political divide and find ways of engaging political conservatives.

As Gromet’s study demonstrates, by assuming that all sections of society respond in a uniform way to messages about the environment, there is a risk of a “green backlash” against policies viewed as favouring a particular ideological slant.

If political conservatives have so far not found environmental policies to their liking, then a priority for everyone who cares about climate change, whatever their political leaning, is to find a way of reconciling the values of the right with policy responses to climate change that are sustainable and just.

Otherwise – and the rise of UKIP suggests this may be closer than many assumed – the hard-won cross-party consensus on climate change in Britain, enshrined in the Climate Change Act, could be undone.

And that would be an outcome in no-one’s interest – left or right.

This post was originally published by Adam Corner on The Conversation, 21.05.13.