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.

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

Risk & ideology in the reporting of the IPCC

James Painter argues that a focus on risk, rather than uncertainty, could help bridge the partisan divide in reporting on climate change.

In this guest blog, James Painter of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, points to the partisan reporting of the latest IPCC report in UK media and asks whether greater deployment of risk (as opposed to uncertainty) language might help to bridge the political divide…

The first of the IPCC blockbuster reports is now out, and media organisations around the world have been carefully pouring over the latest findings.

Or have they?  A preliminary look at the coverage by UK newspapers suggests that all too often what matters is not the science, but the dominant political leaning of the owner or editors.

For example, an editorial in the (left-leaning) Guardian highlighted the credibility of the report, emphasising the 95% probability that carbon emissions account for at least half of the observed increase in global warming since 1951.

In contrast, the (right-leaning) Daily Mail focused on what it called the ‘extraordinary admission’ by the IPCC that temperatures have barely risen since 1998.  It called for a similar 15 year pause in paying what it called ‘ludicrous green taxes’.

Carbon Brief has already done some interesting initial analysis of UK newspaper headlines.  Using a similar typology to the one we used in a 2011 study on climate scepticism around the world, Carbon Brief found that the right-leaning Mail, Times and Telegraphs exhibited a mixture of ‘impact scepticism’ (climate change is caused by humans but we don’t know how severe the impacts will be) and ‘attribution scepticism’ (we don’t yet know that it is mostly anthropogenic).

In contrast, the left-leaning Guardian, Observer and Independent showed no such scepticism, mostly stressing the severity of climate change and the need for action.

A not dissimilar left-right split can be seen in the US and Australian media too.  A study by Media Matters of the IPCC report found that although many of the major US news outlets included attribution sceptics, the right-leaning Fox News and Wall Street Journal had by far the highest percentage of ‘doubters’.

For example, 69% of the guests on Fox News were sceptics.

All of this is distressing for those scientists who want to see a sober assessment of the science, without it being interpreted through the prism of political preferences.

It also leads to the obvious question of why climate scepticism is largely a right-wing phenomenon in the press.  In our study we argued that the main drivers were the presence of politicians espousing some variation of climate scepticism, the existence of organised interests that informs sceptical coverage, and partisan media receptive to this message.

But of course it is also, to a certain extent, about newspapers reflecting the political, cultural and social values of their readers.

And here we move into territory analysed by many communication scholars who argue that concern about climate change is not only, or even mostly, a product of how much people know about the science.  Values or pre-existing beliefs come first, acting as a filter for the facts.  

Climate sceptics in the media often focus on the uncertainties around the climate science.  These are inevitable given the hugely complex climate system and the difficulties of making accurate projections of likely scenarios.

In a book we published in September, we found that journalists follow prompts from the scientists in reporting all the uncertainties.  Around 80% of the articles contained some sort of uncertainty.  And around half contained a quote from a scientist indicating some uncertain aspect of the science.

But one of the problems with uncertainty is that many people probably don’t understand fully that it is a key element of many areas of research science.  They often think scientists should be certain about things, and confuse their uncertainty with ignorance.

Several experts have suggested that risk language and concepts may be a more helpful way of presenting the information, particularly to policy makers who are very aware of weighing up the costs and benefits of different actions (including doing nothing).

The classic example of this is from the insurance world.  Most people take out house insurance against low probability, high risk events like their house burning down.

Investors constantly use the language of risk, and one top UK banker at HSBC reacted to the latest IPCC report by describing climate change as essentially an ‘issue of strategic risk management’.

Lord Stern, author of the famous 2006 report on the economics of climate change, is an admirer of risk language.   He likes to ask whether the world wants to play Russian roulette with one bullet or two.

And he argues that sceptics have to show they have high confidence the planet is going to experience only the lower end of possible temperature increases for them to make their case that it is not necessary to take action to minimise climate risks.

Risk language is not a panacea – but it may help. After all, climate models can now evaluate how much man-made climate change may have made an extreme weather event like a severe flood more likely.

Such risk assessments usually include probability levels, and what degree of confidence scientists have in their findings.   It would help if we were better at understanding them – but maybe our values will still get in the way….

Climate change: bad for our health

Framing climate change as a public health risk may be a way of pushing climate change into the mainstream

In this blog post first published by the Guardian Sustainable Business on 23.04.13, Adam Corner argues that framing climate change as a public health risk may be a way of pushing climate change into the mainstream.

If there’s something that the British like to talk about almost as much as the weather, it’s our health. When the two combine, they are guaranteed to create headlines. Both extreme heat and extreme cold have a predictable (if preventable) impact on health and mortality.

But although campaigners have struggled for years to fire the public imagination about climate change as an environmental problem, climate change is equally a serious public health issue. And, increasingly, there is evidence that framing climate change as a public health risk might be a better way of reaching beyond the green crowd and into the mainstream.

Could one reason for continuing public ambivalence about climate change be that it has lodged itself in the public consciousness as an environmental, rather than a health concern? A new paper published this month by Canadian researchers Francesca Cardwell and Susan Elliot is only the latest in a string of recent publications that have made exactly this point, arguing that unless more explicit links are made between health risks and climate change, public engagement will remain an uphill struggle.

Cardwell and Elliot found that few participants made an unprompted link between climate change and health. In another recent research study focusing on members of the American public, framing climate change as a public health issue elicited more positive engagement – emotions such as hope, for example – than framing it as an environmental or national security risk, even among individuals who were typically dismissive of climate change.

Studies like this suggest that when communicators explicitly make the links between climate change and health, the public is likely to listen. Put simply, health is one obvious way in which the abstract concept of climate change becomes real for people – one way in which climate change is manifested in our daily lives. So why isn’t the connection being made more frequently?

Some organisations are beginning to join the dots. The Health Protection Agency published a gargantuan report last year, describing in detail the health impacts of climate change in the UK. And at a recent event at the European Centre for Environment and Human Health, I took part in a workshop asking how the health impacts of climate change could be better communicated. It was clear that while there was huge potential for using the health impacts of climate change as a means of engaging the public, there was also a great deal that is not yet well understood.

For example, one way in which some sustainable behaviours can be promoted is by pointing to their co-benefits in terms of health. The obvious example is cycling – both a low-carbon and calorie-burning way of getting around. But what about sustainable behaviours that are not so good for your health? Turning the heating down in the winter is unlikely to be a positive health behaviour, especially for the elderly.

Climate change campaigns undoubtedly have lessons to learn from health practitioners. But although there is some evidence that the “social marketing” of health behaviours may be a useful guide for promoting sustainability, the transition is unlikely to be straightforward.

All of this suggests a more general point: climate change is not only – and is perhaps not even primarily – an environmental issue. Certainly, it is through the campaigns of environmental charities that the subject gained public awareness. But while concern about global temperatures may motivate some people to take action on climate change, most of us care about more tangible, local and concrete issues – with the health of our friends and family being an obvious example.

Health impacts – whether through flooding, increased droughts, or chaotic winter weather – are perhaps the primary way in which most people will experience climate change. And as previous research has shown, anything that can reduce the psychological distance between individuals and the abstract notion of climate change is likely to be an important tool for public engagement.

As a society, we are used to the idea of taking preventative action to ward off health risks, and there is an important lesson here for communicating climate change: the more that climate change can be presented as bad for our health, the more likely it is that folks beyond the keen-green crowd will take notice.

Communicating risk & uncertainty

A short report of a workshop at Oxford University on communicating uncertainty and risk.

How can the risks and uncertainty of climate change be better communicated? This question – regularly posed, but seldom answered – was the central issue addressed at a workshop held at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, on 15th November.

Chaired and convened by James Painter, the author of ‘Poles Apart’ (a report that analysed the prevalence of sceptical climate voices in the media), the opening address was given by David Spiegelhalter, a specialist on risk perceptions based at Cambridge University. Spiegelhalter argued that inaccurate reporting of risk in the media was primarily caused by the poor press releases issued by journals and university press offices – although speaking later in the day, Emily Shuckburgh (also from Cambridge University, and one of the authors of recent report ‘Climate Science & the Media’) suggested that the language scientists use in newspaper quotes is often misleading.

Based on her recent investigation into public views on climate change, Shuckburgh reported that phrases like ‘loading the dice’ (often recommended as a communicative tool to describe the way that climate change influences the chance of extreme weather events) actually led people to infer that climate scientists were ‘loading the dice’ in terms of the underlying science, attempting to unduly influence the outcome of their research.

Nick Pidgeon – Professor of Environmental Psychology at Cardiff University – pointed out that no recommendations for improving the communication of climate change will ever amount to much if it is not properly funded. Pidgeon argued that there is an urgent need for a communications infrastructure to be built into the funding of climate research, such that dissemination and public engagement is considered the norm.

Echoing Pidgeon’s comments, Chris Rapley (ex Director of the Science Museum) proposed that climate scientists need to have the confidence to take more active roles in debates about climate change, raising the intriguing possibility that models of science communication – currently construed – are simply not fit for purpose.

In a sentiment that seemed to be widely shared by the climate scientists present, Myles Allen argued that the forthcoming 5th Assessment Report should be the IPCC’s last. Allen’s view was that a monolithic statement of climate science knowledge every five years was no longer the most helpful way to communicate climate change. Instead, smaller, more focused reports aimed at specific target audiences would make not only a more useful statement of current knowledge, but a less vulnerable target for climate sceptic attacks. One mistake in the entire document can currently provide a reason for some to doubt the veracity of the whole cannon of climate knowledge. If it were not designed to be one, single, definitive statement, this situation could be avoided.

Speaking from the audience, the IPCC’s communications director, Jonathan Lynn, defended the structure of the organisation, and argued against more participative forms of engagement like blogging. The mood of the room, however, suggested this attitude was out of step with the way that most people viewed the future of climate change communication.

Completing the day, a panel of journalists chaired by Tom Sheldon from the Science Media Centre put their perspective on communicating risk and uncertainty across. Fiona Harvey, the Guardian’s well-regarded Environment correspondent, was unambiguous about where she thought most biases and inaccuracies in science reporting came from: the lobby reporters at the House of Commons, fed political ‘leaks’ and ‘spin’ from Ministers and their Special Advisors. Although the source of most science ‘news’ is not politicians, it seems a little bit of ‘In the thick of it’ spirit is reserved for science communication.