Alternating climate impacts: stories about security?

If hosepipe bans follow suspiciously quickly from flood warnings, how can we build a narrative about alternating climate impacts?

Right from the start, climate change communicators were faced with a challenge. ‘Global Warming’ may be a scientifically-accurate description of what is happening at a planetary scale, but no one lives at a ‘planetary scale’. Instead, we all live in particular places – places where winter still happens, temperatures are not noticeably rising, and where flood warnings are followed suspiciously quickly by hosepipe bans. You can forgive people’s sense that perhaps scientists are not quite as certain about this climate change lark as they claim to be…

As news broke that our collaboration with the ‘Drought Risk and You’ project team would go ahead (in early 2014), the UK was in the grip of the worst winter storms in living memory. It is tempting to agree with Conservative MP Adam Afriyie, standing in the flood water during a Channel 4 interview, when he sagely advised Jon Snow that it was “not the day to talk about climate change”.

But in fact, today is the day to talk about climate change – because it’s the only thing that can help us make sense of the fact that more intense rainfall and prolonged droughts will both become a reality for the UK over the decades to come.

Unlike globally-averaged temperatures, or model predictions about rainfall in 2025, extreme weather events are things people can touch, feel and experience. They quickly become the focus of stories – and they leave a strong impression. Because of this, they have become the focus of psychological research that has wrestled with the challenge of how to communicate the risks of climate change (which are so often ‘not here and not now’ from the perspective of our daily lives).

A recent survey led by the Understanding Risk team at Cardiff University found clear evidence that people who had been directly affected by the 2013/14 winter floods were more concerned about climate change, and more likely to consider it as a serious threat. Even people who hadn’t been directly affected seemed to link the flooding to 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.

While there seemed to be a clear consensus that climate change meant more flooding for Britain, there was less agreement among the public about other climate impacts. Three quarters of the survey sample stated they had noticed signs of climate change in their lifetime, but while 27% pointed to heavy rainfall and flooding, only 14% identified droughts and hot/dry weather.

Like the idea of a prolonged cold snap during ‘global warming’, the notion of a drought when flooding is fresh in people’s memories is a difficult sell. Even though droughts and floods are just two points on a watery continuum, they feel like polar opposites in the public mind: we can’t have both at the same time. But with climate change, we can – and we will.

Its crucial to start developing and promoting narratives about climate impacts that don’t inadvertently sabotage future engagement efforts. If flooding is becoming associated with climate change by members of the public, then floods are absolutely an opportunity to engage on the wider issues. But this shouldn’t come at the expense of other climate impacts. Narratives about climate change need to find room for weather events that seem superficially contradictory.

One possibility is to think about individual climate impacts as just examples of a more fundamental problem: a natural environment that will become harder to predict and live in harmony with, a more volatile, fragile climate that will no longer provide the stability and security we’re accustomed to.

In some ways, it is not the ‘climate impacts’ themselves but their implications that are important for developing meaningful public narratives. A volatile climate means a vulnerable tourist industry. Unpredictable seasons produce unreliable harvests. Food and travel (to take two examples), rather than droughts and floods, are more likely to pique the public interest and encourage reflection on the risks of climate impacts across the board.

When climate change is present in the stories that people use to discuss their lives, and what they expect from the future, individual climate impacts will more easily slot into them – and droughts vs floods may not appear so contradictory after all.

This was originally published by the Drought Risk and You (DRY) project.

Flooding catalyses climate concern in Wales

Experience of extreme flooding seems to act as a trigger for enhanced concern about climate change.

First published by the Guardian 04.03.13

Against a backdrop of lukewarm sentiment about environmental issues globally, levels of concern about climate change in Wales are at their highest for many years.

In a poll of 1,001 people by Cardiff and Aberystwyth Universities published on Monday, 85% reported being either fairly or very concerned about the risks of climate change, while 88% agreed that the climate was changing – levels not seen in British opinion polls since the mid 2000s.

The authors of the study reported a number of findings that can be compared directly to previous studies of the UK public as a whole. When identical questions were asked in a UK-wide survey in 2010, notably lower levels of belief in the reality of climate change and concern about its effects were observed.

The survey was conducted at the end of 2012, just after serious flooding swept across the nation, and the results reveal what looks like a significant impact of the floods on people’s views about climate change. Across the sample as a whole, 65% agreed that the country was already feeling the effects of climate change. But the researchers surveyed an additional number of people in an area that was particularly affected by flooding (around Ceredigion). Among this group, the figure rose to 74%.

The Welsh study is not the first to point to a link between weather events and perceptions of climate change. A recent analysis of US public opinion 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 the impact of seasonal weather on climatic beliefs: for every degree above the average temperature experienced over the past 12 months, there was a 7.6% increase in agreement that the world was warming.

So as the impacts of climate change in the UK start to hit home, we might expect to see weather-related variation in the number of people expressing concern about climate change. But as recent comments by Boris Johnson illustrate, this is a double-edged sword. In a recent Telegraph column, the London mayor suggested that the snow outside of his window was a reason to question the reality of global warming.

An important question is the extent to which these latest findings can be extrapolated to the rest of the UK. On the one hand, the timing of the floods is likely to have had a big effect – and so the salience of climate change in flood-ravaged areas of rural Wales may not be mirrored in urban centres across the British Isles.

But many other parts of the UK also experienced flooding around this time, and previous research has suggested that experiencing flooding can increase both people’s willingness to act on climate change, and their concern about the underlying problem.

Of course, it is not possible to construct a direct causal link between any single weather event and climate change. The best that scientists can do is give an estimate of how much more likely, or more severe, a particular weather event will become as the climate changes. The weather presents a paradox for climate change communicators: day-to-day weather is not a good guide to climatic changes at a global level, but it is the only way that most of us will ever experience the climate.

That it takes a situational trigger like flooding to stimulate concern about climate change is perhaps unsurprising – globally, the issue is simply not at the top of most people’s agenda, and it is routinely ranked as less important than the economy, health, or education. Similarly, the power of personal experience to override even repeated statements about facts and figures is well documented – so localised weather is likely to continue to play a central role in the way the public thinks about climate change.

The Welsh experience of flooding in 2012 seems to have acted as a catalyst for concern about climate change, fortunately without any reported loss of lives. But reflection on the relationship between extreme weather and perceptions of climate change raises a troubling question: if it takes a flood, hurricane or heat wave to make climate change a reality, might we not be leaving things a little late?