Hurricanes Irma and Harvey were unprecedented in many ways.
But of greatest interest to us, as people who have been fascinated by climate change communication, was that for the first time we heard climate scientists in the media making a confident (albeit hedged) connection between an extreme weather event and climate change.
Recent breakthroughs in modelling have enabled scientists to attribute the role of climate change in an extreme weather event quickly and accurately. But this raises an important question: are people in Florida, Texas, the wider US and the Caribbean going to make that connection, or accept it when made by others? In short, will storms like Harvey and Irma increase public concern about climate change and generate increased demands for collective action?
Those who are already actively engaged – including activists and climate scientists – tend to assume that extreme weather events lead to increased public concern. After all, this is the point where the rubber hits the road, where the models and the graphs become tangible and real. Of course people can deny something which is theoretical and placed in the future, but how, it is often argued, can people deny the evidence in front of their own eyes?
Indeed there is evidence from the UK that people who have experienced flooding are not only more concerned about climate change, but also more likely to report that they have become more concerned about climate change. However this study didn’t look at the interplay with political ideology, and the wider sciences of cognitive and social psychology suggest that the relationship between experience and belief is never straightforward and is determined by a complex interplay of innate biases, cultural interpretation and social identity.
When the same authors looked at whether people interpreted cold weather as evidence for or against climate change they found political ideology was the main determining factor. What is becoming increasingly evident is that if people are strongly invested in an attitude, they will actively defend their position. Bizarrely, when confronted with counter evidence, people may even become reinforced in their views.
A research paper by Robert Brulle at Drexel University, published earlier this year, could find no conclusive evidence that extreme weather events shifted opinion. It concludes that “political ideology exercises a dominant influence on the perception of climate change and far eclipses the influence of weather events”. In other words, your views on climate change are predetermined by your political identity which, across the English-speaking world, is extremely polarised on this issue.
If you are a left-leaning, liberal environmentalist then extreme weather events will be a confirmation of your existing views. But how do people who do not accept climate change respond to such events?
The primary response appears to be to remove the question altogether, by suppressing all conversation about climate change. Earlier this week a perplexed Guardian reporter found that residents in Florida had no interest in making any connection with climate change. He quoted a local real estate lawyer surveying the damage saying, “I don’t think climate change is such a big deal.”
In 2013, one of us (George Marshall), conducted extensive interviews in the US in areas affected by extreme weather events for his book – entitled Don’t Even Think About It: Why our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. He visited Bastrop, which had suffered the most extreme and expensive wildfires in Texan history and communities on the New Jersey seashore which had recently been devastated by Hurricane Sandy.
In neither location could he find anyone who could recall having a conversation about the connection between climate change and the extreme weather events. In Democrat New Jersey, people were more inclined to accept the scientific reality of climate change and the possibility that it might be associated with the hurricane. However, the dominant narrative concerned the strength of the community, the mutual support at a time of hardship, and the positive story of renewal and reconstruction. People had no desire to indulge in any narrative that might be socially divisive or to consider a worsening climate, and hoped that it really was a once in 100 years event.
In our work around flooding in the UK, it appears that on average it is only after experiencing a third flooding incident that people are prepared to take action. This is in many ways completely understandable: if your life has been turned upside down physically and emotionally, you want everything to return to ‘normal’ rather than accept that this is likely to happen to you and your family again. Clearly however, waiting for everyone to experience three extreme weather events before they catch on isn’t an option.
This does not mean climate communications should avoid talking about extreme weather events. Clearly these events provide an unusual opportunity to discuss the future risks and impacts of climate change. The question is, how can we do it effectively and navigate this difficult and emotionally charged space? If we talk too soon after an event, we can be accused of exploiting people suffering to bolster our issue (an accusation that recurs repeatedly in the US when people try to discuss gun control after a mass shooting). And if we talk too late, people have already moved on and recovered.
Research finds that some people even come to believe that they are now invulnerable to future impacts, particularly when such incidents are framed as once in a 100 or 200 years event, as the UK’s Environment Agency did until recently.
What is needed is a careful and considered approach to discussing the connection between events such as Hurricane Irma and climate change. Following the 2013/14 floods in the UK, Climate Outreach ran workshops in communities who’d experienced flooding to explore these issues. We followed this with a project led by the Understanding Risk group at Cardiff University, bringing together a diverse cross-section of experts.
Out of this came a set of nine principles of best-practice public engagement for communicating flood risk in a changing climate. A key lesson from this work is that, in order to create a shift in attitudes and a stronger call for action on climate change, appropriate conversations have to begin before the weather events, seeding the discussion that can then occur between peers in relation to the unfolding impacts.
Increasingly people are joining the dots between extreme weather events and climate change but the critical need remains to enable discussions that actively involve all groups, especially those outside the liberal green networks. Doing so isn’t straightforward – it requires consideration, time and resources, underpinned by a keen awareness that political polarisation can swamp even the evidence before our very own eyes.
George Marshall is co-founder and director of projects and Jamie Clarke is executive director at Climate Outreach.