Science blog

10 June 2014

Communicating Extreme Weather: Beyond Science

Climate scientist and NERC Policy Intern, Adam Levy, explores the communication of extreme weather in advance of our upcoming TalkScience event on 17th June (doors open 6pm).

In spite of the immense threat posed by global warming, its impacts often seem too distant and abstract to motivate us to action.  In contrast, extreme weather events – from droughts to hurricanes – are incredibly tangible, wreaking havoc on communities around the world.  As discussed previously, climate scientists are now beginning to establish the effect that manmade climate change is having on extreme weather patterns today.  We are quickly finding out, however, that communicating this scientific understanding presents challenges of its own.


This winter, the United Kingdom was hit by the most extreme rainfall observed in Southern England since records began almost 250 years ago.  The flooding that resulted caused huge damage to infrastructure and homes, the costs of which could exceed £1 billion.  As the rain continued to pour, one question in particular was being discussed in every sphere: What was the role of climate change in this devastation?

Frustratingly, examining the effect of climate change on a particular extreme weather event can take several months, and so at the time there were no clear-cut answers.  It is well established, though, that hotter air holds more moisture, and there is good evidence to suggest that this will lead to increases in the intensity of extreme rainfall.  While this could not be seen as the cause of the storms, it does point towards an influence from climate change on the strength of the storms.  This is precisely what the Met Office’s Chief Scientist, Professor Julia Slingo, was referring to when she commented that: ‘while there is no definitive answer… all the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change’.

This measured statement seems to strike the right balance – while emphasising that our fundamental scientific understanding would make a link likely, it acknowledges the lack of conclusive evidence on the role of climate change in this particular event.  Many of the responses to it, however, were not quite so balanced.  Newspapers with a history of climate change denialism (such as the Spectator and the Mail on Sunday) were quick to oversimplify Professor Slingo’s comments in order to present a false conflict between her and others at the Met Office.  Nigel Lawson – chair of the Global Warming Policy Foundation – expressed this position particularly concisely and acerbically: ‘You'll see the Met Office's own report denies it.  It is just this Julia Slingo woman, who made this absurd statement’.

Misrepresentation of Professor Slingo’s statement, however, was not limited to climate change deniers.  Professor Nicholas Stern – a leading climate change economist – cited the storms as a ‘clear sign that we are already experiencing the impacts of climate change’.  This statement implies an unambiguous causal link between climate change and the storms, going beyond what scientific understanding at the time was able to tell us.

These misrepresentations of Professor Slingo’s comment – both by climate change proponents and deniers – are deeply concerning.  What’s more, they are symptomatic of the way climate change is discussed more widely.  So why does this take place in discussions of climate science, and how can it be avoided?

It is tempting to argue that scientists simply need to communicate the science more clearly, and inaccurate reporting will dissipate.  While it may be true that some misrepresentations are indeed caused by misunderstandings, this neglects other crucial factors that influence interpretations of climate change.  After all, climate change is not just a scientific issue; it is a political and social issue.

The actions required to tackle climate change are often presented in a way that appeals to those with left of centre political beliefs, while conversely alienating those on the right.  As a result, left of centre individuals are more predisposed to accept the statements of climate scientists than right of centre individuals.  Inevitably, then, some will exaggerate scientific statements, while others will dismiss them out of hand.  Worse still, a recent study has shown that amongst those who already believe or deny climate change, higher scientific literacy in fact only serves to empower people to defend their positions more boldly.  This deeply challenges the conviction held by many – including Professor Slingo – who feel that better scientific communication is the key to progress.

Shutterstock_99706340Brisbane River Flood January 2011 Aerial View Milton Homes

What hope is there, then, to avoid these misrepresentations?  First and foremost, climate change communicators must acknowledge that communicating the science is only a starting point.  We must take account of the varied political and social lenses through which different individuals engage with the debate.  Crucially, we must find mechanisms for communicating both the impacts and the mitigation of climate change that are engaging to those with right of centre politics.  After all – while the debate rages on – the world keeps getting warmer.


25th TalkScience Event - Extreme Weather: Climate Change in Action

To explore scientific and communication perspectives on this issue, come along to the British Library on the evening of 17th June and join James Randerson (Assistant National News Editor, The Guardian), with Professor Stephen Belcher (Head of the Met Office Hadley Centre), Laura Sandys MP (Conservative Environment Network) and George Marshall (Founder of Climate Outreach & Information Network).

More information and tickets available here.


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