Urgent invite - Public perceptions of climate change in the immediate aftermath of major national flooding

Lead Research Organisation: Cardiff University
Department Name: Sch of Psychology


Public understanding of climate change is a topic of interest to many social scientists. In part, this is because people's views on climate change tend to influence their attitudes to national policy (e.g. reducing emissions) and personal actions (e.g. reducing one's own impact on the environment).

The proposed research considers the role of extreme weather as a critical influence on people's understanding of climate change. Although a number of studies have looked at how wider meteorological conditions (e.g. day-to-day temperature) can affect people's views on climate change, there is little research that examines the role of extraordinary or extreme weather events in affecting public opinion. We are interested in this topic because there is reason to believe that extreme weather events may have a particularly pronounced effect on people's attitudes. We also see this focus as relevant because climate change is itself predicted to lead to more frequent and severe extreme weather around the world, including increased incidence of floods across the UK.

Our research is designed to examine people's perceptions of climate change shortly after the occurrence of major national flooding in parts of the UK in early 2014. We propose carrying out a large survey across Great Britain through which we can measure people's views about the flooding and about climate change, and how these are connected.

The proposed survey will be different to previous studies in several ways. First, we aim to collect data not only nationally, but also to pay particularly close attention to areas that were directly affected by the 2014 flooding. This will enable us to compare affected regions with national data. For example, if people in flood-affected areas are more worried about climate change than the national sample, this might suggest that personal experience has had an effect on beliefs about climate change. Second, the proposed survey will look more closely at a number of psychological factors which have been identified as important in shaping people's views. These include the role of emotional responses (e.g. anger about the flooding), cognitive variables (e.g. what people believe are the underlying causes of the flooding), how 'distant' people feel from climate change as an issue, how much risk people perceive from climate change and flooding, and people's underlying values. Third, the survey is designed to be run close in time to the flooding events (which is why we are seeking 'urgent' funding).

Exploring these questions is important for theory in terms of our understanding of how beliefs about climate change are shaped. It is also important for developing strategies for engaging members of the public in addressing the causes of climate change, and for responding to climate impacts. We hope to contribute to the development of more effective climate science communication in ways that take account of the complex linkages between extreme weather and climate change.

The findings are expected to be of interest to a diverse range of stakeholders from the public, private and third sectors; representatives from these sectors will be engaged through an advisory panel (including providing advice on the design of the survey) and other activities to make the research findings widely available. We will launch a report of our findings in late Autumn 2014. In addition we will hold a specific workshop for those interested in communicating climate change, and write and disseminate a series of academic papers.

Planned Impact

The research will generate insights concerning whether, to what extent, and by which social and cognitive processes, the 2014 flooding is related to public perceptions of climate change. These findings will, in turn, provide an evidence base that can be used for developing strategies that engage various publics in climate adaptation and mitigation responses. We will also contribute to the current climate science communication debate regarding how to appropriately and effectively characterise complex linkages between extreme weather and climate change (Marshall, 2014; Lewis, 2014). A diverse range of identified users (see below) will benefit from a robust and theoretically informed dataset and research outcomes which can be used as the basis for policy-making and strategy development. The core dataset can also be utilised for tracking public perspectives in the future.

Research findings are expected to be of high public policy interest both in the UK and internationally. The following users groups have been identified as particularly relevant, in addition to the academic beneficiaries outlined elsewhere in the proposal: National policy actors (UK, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland) and advisers (e.g. teams in the Department for Energy and Climate Change, Defra, Welsh and Scottish Government, Government Office for Science); local policy actors (e.g. local councils in flood-affected areas, local government associations); other national level bodies (Met Office, Environment Agency, Natural Resources Wales, Public Health England); the private sector (e.g. National Farmers' Union, Association of British insurers, water utilities); third sector organisations (e.g. Climate Outreach Information Network, Green Alliance, National Trust); and the wider public (e.g. local interest and community groups).

Research findings will contribute to user engagement relating to climate change and extreme weather responses; provide an evidence base for policy, industry and the third sector; and aid the development of future policy and communication strategies. In the short-term the findings are expected to be particularly relevant for informing debate and discussion within and between user groups, for example around responses to the 2014 flooding events, and also for developing strategies for responding to future events. Long-term impact will be fostered through contributing to an evidence base that enhances effective public policy and services (e.g. by consideration and inclusion of public perspectives and responses); and by assisting future planning and adaptation to extreme weather events at national and local levels, as well as increasing resilience to future weather and climate impacts.

To ensure and maximise user engagement with the research, the applicants will engage in a number of dissemination activities. These activities will include multiple users and entail:

(a) An Advisory Panel consisting of representatives from the indicative user groups listed above;
(b) A major launch event of principal research findings, for representatives from policy, academia, third sector and public organisations, industry arenas and the general public; together with a press event organised via the Science Media Centre prior to the launch;
(c) Additional workshops, webinars, and knowledge exchange meetings with potential beneficiaries (e.g. communicators, policy-makers);
(d) Working papers available via the web, and conference papers at high-impact interdisciplinary conferences (domestic, European, international) attended not only by academics, but also third sector, policy and industry representatives;
(e) Reports of findings in high-impact academic and policy/industry publications.
Description Direct personal experience of climate-related impacts is one of the few ways in which the otherwise distant nature of climate change can become proximate and salient for people, with the potential for raising public engagement with personal actions and policy responses.

This project investigated the role of extreme weather in people's climate change perceptions, collecting nationally representative survey data across Britain (n=1,002) on responses to the UK winter flood events in 2013/14, together with a sample of individuals (n=995) who lived in 5 areas directly affected by the events.

Key finding of the work were as follows.

First, the survey results demonstrate that levels of belief in the occurrence of climate change and its anthropogenic component are again close to high levels last seen in 2005, while scepticism amongst the public has correspondingly receded. This is an important initial finding of the 'tracking' component of this research.

Second, it is often argued that in relation to other everyday worries and concerns, climate change is an insignificant issue for people. The study shows how other issues such as the economy, the NHS and immigration were indeed seen as the most important priorities today. However, when asked about the three most important issues to face the UK over the coming 20 years a substantial proportion of our respondents did mention climate change unprompted. The proportion doing so was greater than those referring to crime and education. We conclude that climate change does have significant issue importance for ordinary people, and that respondents also expected governments to take the lead in tackling climate change, with strong endorsement for the UK signing up to international agreements to achieve this.

Third, regarding the winter flooding of 2013/2014, the British public as a whole made various connections between these events and climate change. While other more immediate and obvious issues such as perceived insufficient investment in flood defences, river and coastal management, and floodplain development were most salient, a substantial proportion of people also cited climate change as a cause. Many also agreed that the 2013/2014 winter flooding was an indication that climate change is impacting us now, and a sign of further things to come. Put simply, the floods served as a strong 'focusing event' drawing widespread attention to climate change.

Fourth, we also investigated whether people drawn from the flood affected areas had different views. The results are clear here too, with these individuals exhibiting heightened concerns about the impacts of climate change both in general and in relation to their own vulnerability and that of their local area. A key finding was that amongst this group almost twice the proportion as found in the national sample answered unprompted, and at the very start of the survey before flooding was even mentioned, that climate change will be one of the top issues facing the UK in the next 20 years. In summary, the most directly affected respondents appeared to be experiencing a reduced 'psychological distance' of climate change. We also find, for the very first time, evidence suggesting that those who had directly experienced the flooding were more willing to undertake individual adaptation in another domain (heatwaves).

Reading across the evidence from both the national sample and those directly affected, our findings indicate that a significant association between the winter flooding of 2013/14 and climate change did indeed form in the British public mind both during and immediately after these events.

In a workshop held at the end of the project jointly with project partners Climate Outreach, and bringing together other academics and key UK environmental policymakers, we drew conclusions for future flooding and climate risk communications which have been prepared for published in a policy briefing (Communicating Flood Risks in a Changing Climate: 9 Principles for Promoting Public Engagement, Climate Outreach, Oxford, November 2015).
Exploitation Route The study findings make a significant contribution to the growing international academic debate about the key relationship between public engagement with climate change and the forms of severe weather event that the world will increasingly have to deal with in the future.

The survey also provides a further set of data points in an ongoing series of surveys tracking climate beliefs in the UK and therefore provides the foundation for further follow up longitudinal and other studies.

In methodological terms the study design used successfully here offers a novel methodology for starting to understand the direction of causality between extreme weather and climate attitudes in cross-sectional studies which show an association between the two.

The findings hold important implications for climate change communicators involved in UK government mitigation and adaptation policy (Department of Energy and Climate Change, Department of Food and Rural Affairs), in environmental protection (environment Agency, Natural resources Wales) and in the business (Water Companies) and third sectors (Green Alliance, National Flood Forum). The most striking findings from a communication perspective relate to the consistently high levels of agreement with statements about the increasing prevalence of flooding, the attribution of flooding to climate change, and a widespread belief that the country was not prepared for what occurred. Taken together, these form the core of a potentially powerful message for communicators - and suggest that developing a narrative on the need to tackle climate impacts more seriously may be an effective approach for prompting greater engagement with the issue. It is commonplace to hear politicians or campaigners refer to public opinion as a core justification for a policy or approach in many other domains - in effect, drawing on the power of social norms - and the current findings suggest that this may in turn also be a productive approach for engaging the public around climate impacts.

The study results also provide important guidance for the type of language and rhetoric that is likely to resonate with both flooded communities and the general population, ensuring that public engagement with climate impacts in the future is proportionate to the risks that they pose. If many ordinary people themselves are beginning to make these linkages, both scientists and policy makers should be more decisive in seeking to demonstrate how weather events serve as an example of the future risks posed by climate change to the UK and its citizens.
Sectors Energy,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice

URL http://psych.cf.ac.uk/understandingrisk/reports/URG%2015-01%20WinterFlooding.pdf
Description The study and its findings were launched and debated at a meeting held at the Royal Society in London on 29th January 2015. This meeting was attended by academics, representatives of government departments (DEFRA, GO-Science, DECC, Cabinet Office, Environment Agency, Natural Resources Wales), environmental NGOs (Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace), and flood stakeholder groups. A pre-meeting press launch at the Science Media Centre generated online stories about the findings on 29th January in BBC News, the Telegraph, Guardian, Western Morning News, and the Scotsman. As proposed in the grant application to ESRC our non-academic partners (Climate Outreach) and the project team subsequently held a 1 day workshop at Oxford University in June 2015 to bring together 27 key stakeholders, academics and consultants from across the UK working on the issue of the 2013/14 winter flooding (including, as networking, those working on other ESRC-funded investments related to these particular flood events). This workshop led to the publication in November 2015 by Climate Outreach of a workshop report intended as a resource for practitioners summarising key lessons learned for communicating flood risk: 'Communicating Flood Risks in a Changing Climate: 9 Principles for Promoting Public Engagement' (http://climateoutreach.org/resources/communicating-flood-risks-in-a-changing-climate/). In the space of only 7 months (November 15 to May 2016) the Oxford workshop report was downloaded over 900 times, and a webinar held in November 2015 by the Tyndall Centre to discuss the findings of the report has received over 300 viewings. To date we know that the project and its findings has been influential in informing policy at government level (Defra flood risk management team), within the NGO community (used by Greenpeace for their flooding campaign after storm Desmond), by community groups seeking to communicate flood risk to local people (e.g. Climate Outreach used the findings when subsequently invited to work with communities in Cumbria following the 2015 winter flooding events), and the professional institutions (at an Institution of Civil Engineers workshop). The findings have also been discussed with North American academics, the environmental philanthropic community, and US/Canadian climate communication specialist organisations at a meeting organised by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in October 2015. The project has provided a platform for a follow on grant under the UKRI/NERC Climate Resilience Programme (2019-2020). Comparative data from both the current and new awards was used at a launch of a major report on climate risk perceptions at the Royal Society, London, 3 March 2020. Major additional media coverage of the findings and change between 2014-2019 was obtained.
First Year Of Impact 2014
Sector Energy,Environment,Leisure Activities, including Sports, Recreation and Tourism
Impact Types Societal

Description Evidence given to BEIS roundtable with Nick Hurd (Minister)
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Gave evidence to a government review
Impact Pidgeon attended a roundtable review meeting for Nick Hurd (BEIS Minister responsible for UK climate policy) in February 2017 to brief him on ourt RCUK work on climate change public engagement and energy system change.
Description Member of DEFRA Social Sciences sub-group for its Science Advisory Council
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
Impact Since 2016 Pidgeon is member of the DEFRA Social Sciences sub-group for DEFRA Science Advisory Council. Various advice given on sustainability, climate change and energy policy.
Description Centre for Climate Change Transformations (C3T)
Amount £4,903,413 (GBP)
Funding ID ES/S012257/1 
Organisation Economic and Social Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 05/2019 
End 04/2024
Description Understanding UK Perceptions of Climate Risk and Resilience (RESILRISK)
Amount £212,954 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/S016449/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2019 
End 01/2020