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

Protecting communities from flooding

A new collaboration between COIN and Exeter University will work with a local community in Devon to help build resilience to future flooding events

 Announcing a new collaboration between COIN and Exeter University

After a series of workshops around the UK helping communities affected by the flooding of early 2014 to begin facing the reality of climate change, we know that most people agree on one thing: the need to be more prepared the next time the flood waters rise.

So we’re very pleased to announce that over the next 12 months, COIN is partnering with Dr Stewart Barr and Dr Ewan Woodley (of the University of Exeter), a range of regional stakeholders, and a number of local community members to develop a community resilience plan for Crediton, near Exeter.

The ‘action research’ project (where the research team investigates, but also helps to answer the question of how to increase community resilience to flooding) will ‘co-produce’ valuable new learning about the impacts, causes and management of flood events in the Crediton community.

Using an approach known as ‘competency group’ meetings, the aim is to bring together and provide a voice for people with different perspectives, skills and experience – from scientists who use computer models to predict how river catchments and flood levels will change, to local citizens’ memories of past flood events and local emergency services’ knowledge about how to manage floods in the future.

The research aims to explore the potential for this kind of knowledge co-production to enable other communities to develop their own strategies for becoming more resilient to flood events.

The project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and has been developed in collaboration with Devon County Council who will, as the co-ordinating local authority with responsibility for emergency planning, provide local knowledge and expertise. The project will also include contributions from the Environment Agency and Devon and Somerset Fire Authority.

Will floods & heatwaves convince people to care about climate change?

Why do floods – but not heatwaves – make people think about climate change?

This is a re-post of a blog by Leo Barasi – you can find the original at his blog Noise of the Crowd.

I’ve been arguing for a while that there’s been too little done to explain to the British public why they should care about climate change. If the problem is seen only to affect animals and people in other countries, campaigners will struggle to win mass support for action to tackle climate change. It has to be made real and personal, or many people just won’t care enough.

But that raises a difficult question. If people don’t already think that climate change will affect them and their family, how do you persuade them they should care?

Fortunately, a mega poll by MORI for Defra provides some answers and the starting point for what a campaign could look like.

According to the UK Climate Risk Assessment, the two most important climate risks facing the UK are flooding and summer heatwaves; I will focus on these as the possible bases for a campaign. However, the poll shows a radical difference in how they are perceived.

It won’t come as much of a surprise that most people in the UK think that flooding is the main risk from climate change (bear with me – it gets more interesting).

The chart below shows the proportion who think flooding has already become more frequent and the proportion who think it will become more frequent by 2050 – and the same for heatwaves. Flooding easily wins out:

UK-impacts-1_Leo

Perhaps this is a product of how heatwaves and floods are distributed. Different parts of the country suffer floods at different times, and most serious incidents get news coverage – while heatwaves tend to hit the country in one go, so coverage is more concentrated. So floods may just be in the news more often*.

But I don’t think that’s the full explanation, and here’s where it starts to get interesting.

A later question asked respondents to move on from considering the likelihood, and to say how concerned they’d be if the UK actually experienced these changes. The results are similar: far more people would be worried by more flooding – in fact, more people say they wouldn’t be concerned by heatwaves than that they would be:

UK-impacts-2_Leo

So, even if a campaign succeeded in convincing more people that, as it were, summer is coming, most people wouldn’t be that bothered by the prospect. The point is superbly encapsulated in ITN’s presentation of the deadly heatwave this summer. A few hundred people may be dying, but overall everyone’s basking in it and generally having a nice time:

UK-impacts-heatwave_Leo

I take two main conclusions from this for campaigns about UK responses to climate change.

Firstly, if someone were to start a campaign now about why people in the UK should want action on climate change, the obvious choice would be flooding. People believe it’s already happening, that it’s going to get worse, and that its worsening would be a major problem. While the poll also shows most people don’t think they personally are at risk from flooding, they’re still concerned and there’s nothing else that has so much legitimacy at the moment.

However, this isn’t to say campaigners should forget about heatwaves. Because another question shows that the conjuction fallacy is affecting the results**. The principle of this fallacy is that people often think that a specific condition, described in detail, is more likely than a broader condition, which is not described in detail, but which the specific condition is an example of.

In this case, we’ve already seen that people don’t think heatwaves are very likely. But when you give them more details about what you mean – make it real – by spelling out the impacts of a heatwave, the proportion who think it’s likely becomes much greater. There’s no equivalent change with flooding, perhaps because most people have already thought about what it means:

UK-impacts-3_Leo

Even with this effect, heatwaves are still seen as less likely – but the gap is much smaller, and the following question that tests concern about these specific impacts finds no difference between the described-in-detail floods and heatwaves.

So the case may not yet have been won for why people in the UK should really care about tackling climate change, and flooding looks like the strongest ground for developing the argument further, with the potential to be credible and effective. But with some work to demonstrate the connection between the principle and what it means in practice, there’s no reason heatwaves can’t ultimately be part of a campaign as well.

* Another factor is that the poll was conducted in the middle of another flood-ridden winter, which probably did swing the numbers a bit – but I doubt enough to explain all the difference.

** I’ve totally read Daniel Kahnemann.