Public understanding of climate change is a topic of interest to many social scientists. In part, this is because people's views on climate change tend to influence their attitudes to national policy (e.g. reducing emissions) and personal actions (e.g. reducing one's own impact on the environment).
The proposed research considers the role of extreme weather as a critical influence on people's understanding of climate change. Although a number of studies have looked at how wider meteorological conditions (e.g. day-to-day temperature) can affect people's views on climate change, there is little research that examines the role of extraordinary or extreme weather events in affecting public opinion. We are interested in this topic because there is reason to believe that extreme weather events may have a particularly pronounced effect on people's attitudes. We also see this focus as relevant because climate change is itself predicted to lead to more frequent and severe extreme weather around the world, including increased incidence of floods across the UK.
Our research is designed to examine people's perceptions of climate change shortly after the occurrence of major national flooding in parts of the UK in early 2014. We propose carrying out a large survey across Great Britain through which we can measure people's views about the flooding and about climate change, and how these are connected.
The proposed survey will be different to previous studies in several ways. First, we aim to collect data not only nationally, but also to pay particularly close attention to areas that were directly affected by the 2014 flooding. This will enable us to compare affected regions with national data. For example, if people in flood-affected areas are more worried about climate change than the national sample, this might suggest that personal experience has had an effect on beliefs about climate change. Second, the proposed survey will look more closely at a number of psychological factors which have been identified as important in shaping people's views. These include the role of emotional responses (e.g. anger about the flooding), cognitive variables (e.g. what people believe are the underlying causes of the flooding), how 'distant' people feel from climate change as an issue, how much risk people perceive from climate change and flooding, and people's underlying values. Third, the survey is designed to be run close in time to the flooding events.
Exploring these questions is important for theory in terms of our understanding of how beliefs about climate change are shaped. It is also important for developing strategies for engaging members of the public in addressing the causes of climate change, and for responding to climate impacts. We hope to contribute to the development of more effective climate science communication in ways that take account of the complex linkages between extreme weather and climate change.
The findings are expected to be of interest to a diverse range of stakeholders from the public, private and third sectors; representatives from these sectors will be engaged through an advisory panel (including providing advice on the design of the survey) and other activities to make the research findings widely available. We will launch a report of our findings in late Autumn 2014. In addition we will hold a specific workshop for those interested in communicating climate change, and write and disseminate a series of academic papers.