Archive for December, 2014
This article was originally published on Carbon Brief.
It’s nearly a year since the storms that led to flooding across much of the UK.
Over the last decade, the UK has experienced a range of extreme weather events: heatwaves, droughts, big freezes, as well as storms and floods. Scientists have linked some of these with climate change, and the IPCC concludesplaces like the UK will experience some extreme weather events like heatwaves and floods more often as a result of climate change.
Some, like former diplomat Sir Crispin Tickell, have suggested that extreme weather events will be the only thing that prompts meaningful action on climate.
But when the UK next suffers more flooding, will it make any difference to the public debate about climate change?
To test the idea, I undertook a research project looking at published opinion polls, newspaper archives and records of parliamentary debates, from 2006 to early 2014, to see the impact UK extreme weather events have on how climate change gets talked about in public, the media, and parliament.
High-water mark of public concern
In terms of public opinion, last year’s floods coincided with a leap in concern about the environment, according to regular YouGov polls measuring which issues people consider the most important.
Following months of sustained flooding, in February 2014 the proportion of people naming the environment as one of the top three issues facing the country jumped from around 7 per cent to 23 per cent. That put it at about the same level as health and welfare. It’s hard to see any explanation for this other than the floods.
One crucial limitation of this measure is that it doesn’t show whether the public were concerned about the environment in general, or climate change in particular, although another poll at the time found 47% thought the floods were climate-related. It also doesn’t measure underlying attitudes, which might change over longer periods.
However, with questions that are asked consistently and regularly, the YouGov poll and a similar Ipsos MORI poll allow us to compare the impact of last year’s floods with responses to other extreme weather events, and see which have attracted the most public concern.
Looking at 13 extreme weather events occurring in the UK since 2006, none prompted a comparable increase in public concern about the environment. In fact, none were associated with any increase above 3 points, which is around the margin of error.
The difference in response to last winter’s flooding, compared with previous events, may be because this type of polling was less frequent before 2010. But it also suggests that last winter was unusual in the impact it had on people’s views about the importance of the environment as a current issue facing the UK.
Media and political: discussions of climate change
Public concern is just one part of the debate. I also looked at mentions of climate change in UK national newspapers, and found that on several occasions since 2006 extreme weather events have led to an increase in media discussion of the issue.
During storms and floods in July 2007, March 2008 and November 2012 (but not following other weather events), media mentions of climate change increased significantly, in each case by around two-thirds.