It’s nearly a year since the storms that led to flooding across much of the UK.
Over the last decade, the UK has experienced a range of extreme weather events: heatwaves, droughts, big freezes, as well as storms and floods. Scientists have linked some of these with climate change, and the IPCC concludes places like the UK will experience some extreme weather events like heatwaves and floods more often as a result of climate change.
Some, like former diplomat Sir Crispin Tickell, have suggested that extreme weather events will be the only thing that prompts meaningful action on climate.
But when the UK next suffers more flooding, will it make any difference to the public debate about climate change?
To test the idea, I undertook a research project looking at published opinion polls, newspaper archives and records of parliamentary debates, from 2006 to early 2014, to see the impact UK extreme weather events have on how climate change gets talked about in public, the media, and parliament.
High-water mark of public concern
In terms of public opinion, last year’s floods coincided with a leap in concern about the environment, according to regular YouGov polls measuring which issues people consider the most important.
Following months of sustained flooding, in February 2014 the proportion of people naming the environment as one of the top three issues facing the country jumped from around 7 per cent to 23 per cent. That put it at about the same level as health and welfare. It’s hard to see any explanation for this other than the floods.
One crucial limitation of this measure is that it doesn’t show whether the public were concerned about the environment in general, or climate change in particular, although another poll at the time found 47% thought the floods were climate-related. It also doesn’t measure underlying attitudes, which might change over longer periods.
However, with questions that are asked consistently and regularly, the YouGov poll and a similar Ipsos MORI poll allow us to compare the impact of last year’s floods with responses to other extreme weather events, and see which have attracted the most public concern.
Looking at 13 extreme weather events occurring in the UK since 2006, none prompted a comparable increase in public concern about the environment. In fact, none were associated with any increase above 3 points, which is around the margin of error.
The difference in response to last winter’s flooding, compared with previous events, may be because this type of polling was less frequent before 2010. But it also suggests that last winter was unusual in the impact it had on people’s views about the importance of the environment as a current issue facing the UK.
Media and political: discussions of climate change
Public concern is just one part of the debate. I also looked at mentions of climate change in UK national newspapers, and found that on several occasions since 2006 extreme weather events have led to an increase in media discussion of the issue.
During storms and floods in July 2007, March 2008 and November 2012 (but not following other weather events), media mentions of climate change increased significantly, in each case by around two-thirds.
It’s striking that while media mentions of climate change increased during last winter’s floods, the increase wasn’t significant, despite the shifts in public concern.
If you remember the amount of media coverage the floods received, this might seem unlikely. Yet this echoes previous Carbon Brief research, which found that only 15% of articles about the floods mentioned climate change. So media coverage of the floods may have driven the increase in public concern about the environment. But since there were relatively few media mentions of climate change, it may be that the change in public opinion did not reflect increased concern about the climate.
Flooding also appears to have an impact on parliamentary debate. Most extreme weather events have prompted no discussion in parliament, or occasionally a brief reference to the event in connection with climate change. The exception, though, is flooding, which has prompted discussion of climate change in parliament each time there has been extensive flooding since 2006.
It’s interesting to look in more detail at the content of those parliamentary discussions. In most cases, ministers didn’t explicitly link the event with climate change. David Cameron in 2014 and former Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman in 2012 are unusual in having done so. When parliament has discussed what it should do about flooding, the focus has been on the immediate clean-up and improving defences, rather than cutting carbon emissions.
So since 2006, flooding has had more impact than other weather events on the climate debate among the media and politicians. But public worries about the environment increased measurably only once, after last year’s flooding. And the political response has tended to focus on local impacts, rather than on cutting emissions.
What else changes the debate?
Of course extreme weather events aren’t the only thing that might affect the climate debate. I also looked at the response to the publication of major IPCC reports, to the annual UN climate conferences, and to public protests about climate change.
In most cases the IPCC reports and UN conferences led to large increases in media mentions of the climate, and to parliamentary debates about climate change. Those parliamentary discussions involved ministers from a wide range of departments, and, in contrast to discussions about the weather events, discussed emissions reductions.
But in no cases did these reports or conferences lead to immediate increases in the proportion of the public identifying the environment as a top issue, and didn’t register significantly in media and parliamentary discussions of climate change. According to my research, environmental protests didn’t register with any of the groups in the measures I used, although they may have shaped debate and opinion in ways that this analysis doesn’t capture.
What was different last year?
On the surface then, the findings suggest that while large-scale flooding usually has an impact on the climate debate amongst media and politicians, in most cases it hasn’t had much influence on public belief that the environment is a top priority facing the country. IPCC reports and climate conferences have been more consistent triggers for media coverage and political debate.
Last winter’s flooding was an exception to this, though. It’s not clear from my research why the public response to these floods was different, nor can we tell whether the increase in the proportion identifying the environment as a priority reflected a growth in concern about climate change. Yet, we can at least conclude that floods do have the potential to influence national attitudes.
On top of this, while the study suggested that the media and public don’t always respond to individual events in similar ways in the short term, there is a strong correlation between their attitudes to climate change over the longer term. When media coverage of climate change increases or decreases over a sustained period, it appears that public concern generally does the same thing (see graph).
So while public opinion did not change after most previous floods, the increases in media coverage of climate change may have had some relationship with public opinion in the longer term. This isn’t to say that either causes the other: simply that they cannot be seen as entirely separate.
The experience of past extreme weather events suggests that any future floods might lead to more political and media discussions of climate change, yet it isn’t inevitable that these would have a measurable impact on public views of the climate, at least in the short term.
But the polls also suggest that the public are receptive to seeing such extreme weather events in the context of climate change, and that when the events are at their peak, they can see the environment as one of the top issues facing the country.
The findings here are based on research for my MSc dissertation. Please get in contact for the full version, which sets out the methodology and other findings.