Analysis: How climate change features in newspaper coverage of the UK’s floods
- 10 Feb 2014, 14:15
- Mat Hope
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
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
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
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,
A number of papers commented on the Environment Agency's plans
cut jobs due to
budgetary constraints - first covered by environmental news and
the ENDS Report. There were also a number of stories discussing
shortcomings of the government's new flood insurance scheme,
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
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
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.
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
- Climate change is going to make flooding
There was some scientific discussion in the papers of the link
between flooding and climate change before this weekend - but not
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
Papers which have typically taken a more skeptical views of
climate science made similar statements.
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
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
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
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
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.
Stay up to day with our analysis - get our daily briefing and follow
Flooding and climate change
Scientists say that rising
temperatures mean the atmosphere can hold more
moisture, which means rain falls in heavier bursts.
That doesn't automatically mean more heavy rainfall
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
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