2016 opened to ‘unprecedented’ floods across the UK, Ireland and parts of the US while Australia is in the grips of a bush fire season that is increasing in length and magnitude. For many in these countries, climate change impacts are no longer happening to people far away nor are they the theoretical predictions of scientists – they are horribly real.
This salience is an important element in enabling people to engage with climate change – something that is often thought of as far away in both distance and time – but is it enough? Will repeated ‘unprecedented’ extreme weather events create the social and political pressure we need to adapt our country while slashing our emissions?
There are indications that this is starting to happen, at least in the UK. A recent WWF poll lead to headlines that the “UK public is increasingly worried about effects of climate change in the wake of the Christmas floods” and media outlets traditionally less keen on discussing the scientific reality included headlines stating ‘normal weather is a thing of the past’ because of global warming. This has lead to many climate commentators making the case that, especially off the back of the relatively positive Paris climate summit, we are at a game changing point in time.
I’d say that there is some merit in this view and that discussing climate change is becoming a conversation that is much easier to have in public. It was encouraging to see residents in the US state of Missouri raising the issue amidst their terrible flooding, having been inspired by our previous actions.
However, a closer analysis reveals that we cannot take our foot off the public engagement pedal. The WWF poll’s positive headlines are based on just over a third of people associating the flooding with climate change, meaning two thirds don’t yet. Similarly, the Telegraph’s story is followed by nearly 500 comments, the majority of which are not supportive of the science.
There was a similar spike in public concern and media stories following the 2013/14 UK floods, but once the waters had receded, climate awareness soon returned to a level on a par with that before the flooding. Instead of more political action and better adaptation and mitigation policies, we saw a cut in spending on flooding prevention and a slashing of support for renewable energy.
Whilst increasing ‘unprecedented’ weather events do create a backdrop that enables people to engage with climate change, this tends to be for those already predisposed to care about the issue and those directly impacted repeatedly. If we are to shift public opinion significantly and once and for all, we need to put a lot more time, effort and resources into allowing people to engage with climate change rather than assume that they will.
Most of the actions in the wake of these events focus on what needs to be built to prevent a recurrence of the misery. But equally as important as new physical infrastructure, we need new social infrastructure: the ability to cope with a new reality of life in a changed climate. We are currently in a bizarre climate limbo. We know, rationally through science, that the climate is changing. The effects are starting to bite – even at less than half of the ‘safe’ level of temperature rise agreed in Paris – and we are starting to get the emotional kickers that confirm the reality of climate change in front of our very eyes. But we somehow lack the cultural capacity to accept that things are changing and that we need to be prepared.
Just as surely as ‘obvious’ climate solutions like wind farms have been scuppered and delayed by local communities who feel alienated and marginalised from decision making processes, emergency flooding plans will fail unless they are grounded in the concerns and needs of the people who are most affected.
So as well as completely rethinking our flood and drought defences, we need to rethink how we socially respond to these risks in a changing climate – how does repeated flooding or droughts affect people emotionally, and how can we help build emotional as well as physical resilience into our plans?
This is precisely the focus of our work on climate impacts. Earlier in the year, we brought together some of the UK’s leading experts on flood risks and public engagement from across academia and civil society and published nine principles for supporting flood-affected communities as well as engaging the wider public. In Crediton, near Exeter, we have been working with a group of local residents to produce a community flood resilience plan. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has produced a tool that maps climate impacts against social vulnerability. We are also part of a team working on drought planning, looking at how to effectively enable communities to be part of the decision-making processes that are needed for our changing climate.
These are the kinds of initiatives we need to see more of if we are to adapt psychologically as well as physically. One thing is certain – if we assume that simply experiencing or witnessing extreme weather events will be enough to create the social pressure for politicians to act at the level required to truly address climate change, we will have missed the boat.
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