UK newspapers have consistently featured one story over the last 10 weeks: flooding. While scientists say climate change will increase the chance of flooding, our analysis shows there was relatively little scientific discussion of that risk until an intervention by the Met Office this weekend.
Since the UK was first hit by storms late last year, flooding has barely been out of the papers. We found 3,064 articles about the floods in the UK’s major national newspapers over a two month period from the start of December until today.
Of these, 206 – or 7 per cent – mentioned climate change, suggesting it has been a fringe part of the flooding story up until now.
Coverage over the past two months, by week. Source: Factiva archive, analysis by Carbon Brief – see methodological note at the bottom.
Yesterday climate change moved briefly to the centre of the news agenda, as the Met Office’s chief scientist told journalists that “all the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change“. But a day later – as in the weeks before – the media’s focus returned to political aspects of the story.
Coverage over the past month, by day. Source: Factiva archive, analysis by Carbon Brief – see methodological note at the bottom.
The flooding story’s narrative shifted over the two month period: from focusing on local destruction, to a brief fixation with dredging, via a political argument over who was responsible for flood preparedness – topics which may not provide much scope for wider scientific context.
Our analysis shows that when climate change was discussed, it was generally a secondary aspect of the story.
How climate change is talked about
When climate change did come into the story, it was likely to be discussed through a political lens, rather than a scientific one. References to climate change fell under three broad narratives:
– The government’s flooding policy is not prepared for the impact of climate change
Many stories pointed out that the government was cutting the resources available to deal with flooding, just as the storms began to hit. The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ admission that flood spending had fallen in recent years, contrary to earlier assertions, featured prominently.
A number of papers commented on the Environment Agency’s plans to cut jobs due to budgetary constraints – first covered by environmental news and analysis service, the ENDS Report. There were also a number of stories discussing the shortcomings of the government’s new flood insurance scheme, Flood Re.
Many of the stories were based around comments from campaigners and academics accusing the government of underestimating the increased risk of flooding due to climate change when drawing up its plans. Here, climate change was talked about as a factor the government was not properly considering.
– The prime minister is at odds with his environment secretary
About four weeks into the news cycle, the prime minister, David Cameron, told MPs he suspected the floods were linked to climate change. His comments led to a small spike in climate change mentions, though journalists’ focus largely remained on the political aspects of the story.
That’s mainly because Cameron’s statement put the prime minister at odds with the minister in charge of the flood response, Owen Paterson, who has previously expressed scepticism over the seriousness of climate change. The prime minister’s comments reignited the debate over whether Paterson was up to the job, which had been stoked by comments from Labour’s shadow environment minister, Maria Eagle, a few days earlier.
Moreover, The Guardian, Independent, Times, Daily Telegraph, and Daily Mail pointed out that Cameron’s statement was likely to “infuriate” many of his party’s members, who have been critical of the government’s climate change policies.
In such stories, climate change was discussed principally because of what it suggested about the unity (or otherwise) of the Conservative party.
– Climate change is going to make flooding worse
There was some scientific discussion in the papers of the link between flooding and climate change before this weekend – but not much.
As the story progressed and it became apparent that the floods were not going to be a single event, some articles pointed out that scientists predicted the worst is yet to come.
Specifically, the Independent told its readers that “scientists agree that global warming will increase the frequency and intensity of floods as a result of rising sea levels and an increasing number of storms”, while the Guardian said centuries of flood protection measures were already “being put into reverse” by climate change, with the problems likely to worsen.
Papers which have typically taken a more skeptical views of climate science made similar statements.
Notably, the Daily Telegraph used the flooding as the frame for a discussion of the latest findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It claimed the science suggested “winter deluges may become the norm”, based on the latest IPCC report.
The Daily Mail reported that while “scientists say no extreme weather event can be entirely blamed on the changing climate … the impact of greenhouse gases on the planet makes extreme weather – such as floods and droughts – more common”. Such evidence “should neither be exaggerated nor ignored”, the Times said.
This weekend, the news narrative briefly shifted to one where climate change became the main story.
The catalyst was the launch of a new Met Office report into extreme weather events. In a carefully-timed intervention, the Met Office’s chief scientist, Dame Julia Slingo, said that while there was “no definitive answer” to what caused the storms and flooding, “all the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change”.
She told the BBC that “[t]here is an increasing body of evidence that shows that extreme daily rainfall rates are becoming more intense” and that “[i]t is worth emphasising that there is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly heavy rain events”.
Her comments led to a number of headlines making a link between climate change and the floods in no uncertain terms:
While scientific discussion of climate change had largely been peripheral until this weekend, the UK’s official weather forecaster’s intervention provided a hook to bring the issue front-and-centre of the flooding coverage.
However, within 24 hours, the media were back to covering what appears to be increasingly acrimonious infighting between cabinet ministers and civil servants, as flood warnings spread to the Thames.
Our analysis suggests climate change generally had a low level of visibility in the flooding coverage – suggesting the wider scientific context is not prominent in newspaper coverage.
This may not be that surprising. For those affected, the floods are a very immediate disaster, and we wouldn’t necessarily expect stories focusing on present damages and danger to focus on the wider scientific context. Other scientific issues, like discussion of land use changes, have also been secondary topics in the flooding coverage.
It may be that when the floodwaters recede there will be a more thorough reflection on the issue. Or, as the news cycle moves on, it may just disappear again until next year.
Flooding and climate change
That doesn’t automatically mean more heavy rainfall everywhere because complex weather patterns govern the amount, timing and distribution of rainfall. Nonetheless, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects a combination of factors will mean more extreme rainfall for the UK as temperatures continue to rise. Such heavy rainfall, combined with building on floodplains and paving over surfaces increases flood risk.
Update – 12th February – This post has been very popular on social media today and so it is worth pointing out that the last day the sample of articles covers is the 10th February.
This week flooding is obviously still a story, the news agenda has moved on yet again, and we are seeing more a bit more discussion of climate change in relation to the floods. At the moment, we’re planning to update the analysis after the weekend, to see if we can see a shift in coverage – Ed.
We searched the news database Factiva for the terms “flood” and “flooding” in newspaper articles between 1st December 2013 and 10th February 2014. We also conducted a boolean search for the terms “floods AND climate change” for the same period.
The newspapers included in the search were The Times, Sunday Times, Guardian, Observer, Independent, Independent on Sunday, Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, Sun, Daily Mirror, Sunday Mirror, Daily Express, and the Sunday Express.