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Public perception of climate change

According to a recent BBC report Extreme flooding events influence UK climate views. This shouldn’t be too surprising. After all, people are often accused of being complacent about climate change when they see no effect on them personally (a fact compounded by the lack of any upward trend in average global temperatures this century). However, if they are suddenly affected by unusual weather, be it flood, drought or extremes of temperature, it is quite likely that they would be more receptive to messages about such things being part of a trend.

The story goes on to say that the flooding events which had occurred in the year leading up to the survey (carried out in early 2013) were the things which respondents associated most with climate change, while they perceived that heat waves had become less common in their lifetimes.

The study which forms the basis of this report was published in the journal Risk Analysis under the title Climate change beliefs and perceptions of weather-related changes in the United Kingdom. The researchers, from the University of Leeds, found that people’s belief in climate change was related to extreme weather in their neighbourhood, whether it was flooding or heat waves, but it was flooding which had the stronger link. As they say in their abstract, “We link our findings to research in judgment and decision making, and propose that those wishing to engage with the public on the issue of climate change should not limit their focus to heat.”

As this makes clear, the purpose of the research was to see what messages might be most credible when communicating about climate change. This work was part of Defra’s PREPARE programme (programme of research on preparedness, adaptation and risk) which, at a cost of £720,000, was designed to support the development of strategy on adaptation policy, by improving understanding of:

1. Barriers and enablers to organisational and sectoral adaptive capacity
2. The contribution and role of local and household level adaptation in overall UK adaptation
3. The climate risk resilience and adaptation expectations of the public and the underlying motivations behind this
4. The public acceptability of types of climate adaptation approaches, reasons for this and implications for communications with the public
5. The overall equity and distributional impacts of climate risks, climate change risks and adaptation options for UK citizens

Although the Leeds researchers who contributed to the study have only just published their analysis, the final report of the work for Defra was published by the contractor (Ipsos MORI) over a year ago. This can be downloaded from the PREPARE website (PREPARE CA0513 Public climate risk acceptability - Final report). The researchers carried out over 2,000 interviews and also conducted a total of 14 day-long deliberative workshops; by any standards, this was a thorough piece of work.

Respondents were split on the causes of climate change, 31% attributing it mainly or partly to human factors while 49% said it was due to a combination of natural causes and human factors. Despite the lack of agreement on causes, 68% agreed that the worst effects could be avoided by planning well, even though 60% appreciate the uncertainty of what those effects might be.

Interestingly, there was little concern about heat waves, which were not perceived to have become more common (a key point made in the Leeds paper). This illustrates quite nicely the difference in perception between the public and climate scientists. Lay people have a memory of unexceptional recent summers (although 2012 was, of course, exceptionally wet), while many in the climate change community look at monthly, seasonal and yearly averages plus the output of the computer models they continue to place so much faith in.

The participants in the workshops seem to have taken a pretty balanced view of climate change preparedness. Take this quote from the report, for example: “While a few workshop participants felt the greatest priority was to prepare for events that were likely to happen within the next five years, most felt it was wise to prepare for likely events within the next two decades. Many felt it was not appropriate to prepare for climate events that are expected to have significant impacts for the UK over a longer timeframe (i.e. more than 20 years) as they felt many factors could change within this time period e.g. understanding of the risk and ability to respond.”

All of which leads to something of a dilemma for politicians. It is perfectly rational for people to want to protect their property and community from flooding or drought (people seem to be more fatalistic about coastal erosion) but even then there is a reluctance to support protection measures for events which may only occur 20 years ahead. How much more difficult, then, for a government to convince the voting public that expensive mitigation measures intended to lessen potentially damaging impacts later this century should be taken now.

The concern about language makes a lot of sense in this context, but there will surely be a continuing debate between those who see climate change as an existential threat which must be tackled at all costs and those who would prefer to wait and see while taking sensible measures to protect communities from floods, drought or storms. I’ll leave you with the final paragraph from the Leeds paper which will doubtless help shape official messages:

From a climate policy perspective our findings suggest that those seeking to communicate the risks posed by climate change to the public should not limit their focus to the hot-weather-related events that may be implied by the phrase “global warming.” Highlighting other locally salient weather-related events, such as flooding, that are likely to increase in frequency as a consequence of climate change may serve to increase public engagement with the issues surrounding climate change mitigation and adaptation.

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