Flood Experience Increases Acceptance of and Action on Climate Change

How would Noah of Biblical fame feel about climate change if he were around today? Would he see floods as an act of God or humans? New research from the United Kingdom suggests the latter.

Researchers from the University of Nottingham and Cardiff University surveyed 1822 Britons for a study published in Nature Climate Change this week. They asked subjects about their acceptance of climate change and their willingness to act.

The difference between the control group and the treatment group was that the latter had direct experience with floods. Of course climate change does not cause all floods. In the paper, the researchers state: “Climate change itself is not directly observable by individuals, it being a reference to average climate conditions over a long period of time rather than that observed on a daily or seasonal basis.”

But people do relate to extreme weather events. They serve as both markers in time (growing up in Boston, I can still remember reading about the tornado in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1995) and, as the research suggests, a way of shaping our perception of the world. These extreme events are likely to become more frequent as part of the effects of climate change. So are more people likely to accept the reality of climate change?

Acts of Human Cause Human Actions

According to the findings, in short, yes. People exposed to floods were significantly more likely to accept the science of climate change.

What’s more, those people were also more likely to think that individual actions to reduce emissions can make a difference. Perhaps most significantly, they were also more likely to take action to reduce their own carbon footprint no matter how certain they were about the science of climate change.

The idea that people will act if they believe they can make a difference might not surprise you if you’ve watched the news recently. In an accompanying essay Elke Weber of the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions notes recent actions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are driven in part by the belief that individual actors can overwhelm a system.

This is the first study that links climate change, individuals and significant weather events, though. The most important finding shows that uncertainty isn’t a barrier to action. In an accompanying Weber also writes:

“Uncertainty about the existence of climate change — or at least about whether it is man-made and hence controllable — is one of the main arguments made by climate change sceptics against spending money to reduce emissions. Thus it is interesting that, for members of the British public, their motivation to reduce energy use does not seem to be related to their certainty that climate change is happening. Rather, it appears to be strongly influenced by whether they think their behaviour will be effective.” (Emphasis added)

The major downside of the study’s results is that it seems to take extreme events to get people in this state of mind. Of course nobody wants more weather disasters as a means to get people to support emissions reductions.

That means the onus falls on climate change communicators and organizations to reframe the issue to show that individual actions do matter and inspire actions before extreme events hit. Organizations like 350.org have already started to do this, using work days and art shows as a way to validate the benefits of individual actions. They do so by placing them in a larger global context. Using that context could have the same power as floods without the destructiveness. Perhaps they could be the next target for researchers.

Photo credit: gothicnexus/flickr, amneziak/flickr