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 project, ‘Drought Risk and You’ would go ahead, 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.
It is 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.
Dr Adam Corner is the Research Director for the Climate Outreach & Information Network (COIN) and an Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Psychology at Cardiff University.