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Storm Desmond – Who wants to talk about climate change at a time like this?

By Adam Corner on December 8, 2015

In scenes that are – sadly – becoming an increasingly familiar feature of the UK’s winter months, unprecedented levels of rain fell in the North of England and Scotland last weekend. Swollen rivers burst their banks, flood defences failed, and hospitals moved to emergency power supplies. Tragically, several people are thought to have lost their lives as the storm swept the country.

For the tens of thousands of people who have lost power to their homes, seen their property destroyed, or been forced to evacuate their houses, the devastating effects of storm Desmond are more than enough to deal with. Who wants to talk about climate change at a time like this?

The communities affected by the flooding – many for the second or third time in a decade – deserve our solidarity, sympathy and support. But they also deserve not to be put in harm’s way in the first place. In a changing climate, heavier, intense burst of rainfall will happen more often. We can build the flood defences ever-higher, but as the UN negotiations in Paris near to a close, and with global temperatures looking set to smash records again in 2015, we also need to talk about climate change.

Understandably, initial reports focused on the human tragedy unfolding, and the shocking images of life so traumatically disrupted. But in the last few days, a handful of newspapers have pointed to the role of climate change in exacerbating risks like these, with the Guardian arguing that in a changing climate, it is flood defences (not extra runways or high-speed rail) that should be the nation’s number one infrastructure priority. Environment Secretary Liz Truss has said the “unprecedented” weather was “consistent with the trends we’re seeing in terms of climate change”.

Engaging the public around climate impacts and supporting communities who have been most affected has played a central role in our work at Climate Outreach over the past couple of years. As well as holding community workshops in some of the areas worst affected by the 2013/14 winter floods, this year we collaborated with Cardiff University and the ESRC to bring together some of the country’s leading experts on communicating flood risks.

The group included scientists who focus on the ‘attribution’ of extreme weather to climate change, specialists on public engagement, and individuals with first-hand experience of flooding themselves (and of ‘frontline support’ for affected communities).

The group identified nine key principles for supporting communities who have been affected by flooding, and for engaging the wider UK public. Two important conclusions were that scientists are increasingly able to quantify the link between weather events and climate change (so it is not inappropriate to discuss the link between a particular storm and climate change from a scientific perspective), and that the general public is increasingly ‘joining the dots’ between flooding and the wider climate issues.

While uncertainty will always remain in scientists’ statements about a complex issue like the climate, we need to move on from the ‘go to’ position that many senior science communicators have continued to take in the aftermath of storm Desmond – that it isn’t possible (or desirable) to make a link between a single weather event and climate change.

When a patient with a poor immune system suffers repeated illnesses, no-one disputes that their immune system plays a role, even if there are other more immediate causes. Climate change increases the risk of heavy rainfall and flooding – so when heavy rainfall and flooding occurs, we should not refuse to acknowledge its role.

But our expert workshop also pointed to some important ‘ground rules’ for broaching what is understandably a very emotive and upsetting subject. No-one wants to be lectured by climate change campaigners when the water has barely started to recede from their living room. Our workshop recommended that the best people to support and engage communities are ‘trusted peers’ rather than outside campaigners or local authorities. Offering support is crucial, but this should focus on building resilience to future risks, as ‘getting back to normal’ may simply not be possible for communities that have been affected multiple times (and who face further dangers from a changing climate).

Perhaps the most important principle of all – and a central motivation for the work we do at Climate Outreach – is that conversations about climate change should happen before, not after disaster strikes. Building more effective physical infrastructure to protect our communities the next time a turbo-charged storm hits our shores is crucial. But we also need to be investing in the ‘social infrastructure’ to build people’s climate-literacy, so that communicators are able to talk confidently about the link between flood risks in a changing climate, without it appearing to be opportunistic or insensitive, and so people can prepare for what the future will hold.

Unless we move the public conversation forward on climate change – from a scientific to a social reality – we will be starting from scratch every time a new storm hits, and failing to put into place crucial lessons for building coping and resilience that determine the psychological as well as the financial damage of these upsetting and traumatic events.

By Dr Adam Corner

Adam Corner is a writer and independent researcher who specialises in climate change communication and climate/culture collaborations. Adam worked with Climate Outreach between 2010-2021, helping to build the research team, developing Climate Visuals and Britain Talks Climate, and establishing the centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST). Adam has published widely on public engagement with climate change, from academic journals and reports for NGOs to media commentary (including for the Guardian and New Scientist). Currently Adam’s work is split between strategic climate communication projects (like the Local Storytelling Exchange), writing and contributing to reports, and developing the climate communication evidence base into music and cultural spaces.

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