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Will this latest storm end the silence about climate change?

By Chris Shaw on March 29, 2016

Communicating climate change is difficult. Or at least, it is difficult to have productive and positive conversations about how best to respond to climate change.

Flooding in Oxford University parks. Cycle path is waterlogged from recent rain

Unfortunately, it seems it is much easier to get people’s agreement to messages which say climate change is all a load of rubbish made up by scientists riding a lucrative gravy train.

This difficulty of communicating climate change stems in part from the way politicians and the media have allowed climate change to drop down the news agenda. The vacuum left behind has been filled by sceptic and doubting voices. This has been especially so since the financial crisis of 2008 and the perceived failure of the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009. Research indicates strong and consistent attention to climate change by politicians is a strong determinant of public opinion. We have been paying the price for that lack of attention and consistent messaging from our politicians.

2015 – yet another year of climate extremes

But maybe that’s all about to change. 2015 was not just a record warm year. It was such a huge departure from the record breaking temperatures of the previous ten years that it could well herald the birth of a new era in the earth’s existence, and human history. Tim Flannery calls such moments of powerful climatic shifts gateways. These gateways are periods when the Earth’s climate system experiences shocks that shift it permanently into a different set of norms. There is therefore a real possibility 2015 is a new baseline from which global temperatures will continue their inexorable rise. We have broken the one degree Celsius global warming barrier and we aren’t going back.

It wasn’t just that temperatures went crazy. It was also a year of yet ever more weather extremes. From disappearing snow in America to unprecedented flooding in the UK, things are already getting undeniably crazy. Is it possible for politicians to remain silent in the face of this accelerating chaos?

The politicians start to speak

Sir David Attenborough has said he believes it would now be political suicide for a political leader to deny climate change. If true that is welcome news. Amber Rudd, the UK Climate and Energy Secretary, admitted the recent UK floods were part of a growing trend in extreme weather events that is at least in part attributable to climate change. However, the other possibility is that politicians say what they think the public want to hear on climate change, with no intention of ever acting on their words. One researcher shared an example of that kind of thinking.

Discussing a conference they attended four years ago the researcher reported the words of someone close to the Conservative party who reassured the attendees that they were not to lose any sleep whatsoever about the government’s attitude to green issues – it was simply a matter of going through the motions for the sake of public appearances.

When will the public start to speak?

It is too early to tell how the recent storms have impacted on public concern about climate change and whether that concern has led to a greater willingness to talk about what has to date been a taboo subject for polite conversation. But research carried out following the floods of 2012-2013 indicates that, perhaps unsurprisingly, extreme events do have an impact on levels of public concern about climate change.
But if that expression of public concern is ignored by policymakers, it can quickly turn into despair and apathy. A project I completed last year revealed that decision makers and key players would rather avoid having the public involved in the climate change debate at all. Instead the hope is to find solutions which allow life to carry on as normal without the public ever even knowing anything has changed.

This seems a treacherous strategy. Even if it were possible to meet the current climate change targets, and do so without needing to make any changes to the way we use our energy, (and it’s not) we will still need to make sense of living in a world undergoing radical changes to the weather and posing new and ever more potent risks to our well being as individuals and as a society.

It is therefore essential that a long, loud and inclusive national conversation about climate change gets underway. We need to be building inclusive and accessible debates from the ground up, rooted in people’s lived experience and the values that they hold dear. This will mean building a national strategy for talking about climate change. It will also require finding ways of getting people talking about climate change at work, in the pub, over a cup of tea and at the dinner table.

It won’t be a quick fix. It won’t easy. But we have no choice. The climate is changing and our lives, our politics, our economies have to change with it.

Previously published on Huffington Post

By Dr Christopher Shaw

Chris was part of Climate Outreach’s research team from 2015 – 2023. In that role, he focused on ensuring climate communication practice is informed by a robust and up-to-date evidence base, combining new research with the existing literature to provide communicators with accessible resources to support their work. Chris’s work was driven by a belief that successful climate policies are ones that are shaped by the voices, concerns and aspirations of the people who live their lives outside of the policy and campaigning bubble. Chris completed his doctoral thesis as a mature student in 2011 at the University of Sussex, on the communication of climate risk, a theme he continues to publish on. 

In his previous lives Chris worked as a Geography teacher and then in marketing, always with the ultimate aim of learning how to engage people with climate change risks. Between completing his doctoral studies and starting work at Climate Outreach, Chris held research posts at the University of Sussex and the University of Oxford. Outside of office hours Chris can normally be found either smashing his tennis racket on the ground in frustration at yet another defeat, or wandering aimlessly on the South Downs and blaming inaccurate Ordnance Survey maps for being lost.

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