Public Perceptions of Climate Change and Extreme Weather
Climate scientists have long been forecasting global warming. Temperatures are increasing around the world, with heatwaves becoming more frequent and intense. Climate scientists use complex analyses to assess changes in climate and weather. However, those of us who are not climate experts often turn to our own experiences to judge the extent to which climate change is a concern.
Psychological studies have found that, when temperatures increase, public concerns about climate change intensify. Most of these psychological studies have been conducted in the US, where summers can get very hot. The question that arises, then, is what happens in countries with more temperate climates? Given the low temperatures they tend to experience, do residents of these countries worry about climate change?
In July 2012, I moved to the United Kingdom to take up a Leadership Chair in Behavioural Decision Making at Leeds University Business School. I had previously been living in Pittsburgh in the United States. From my very first day I found summers in Leeds to be remarkably refreshing, when compared to the oppressive heat of Pittsburgh. The maximum temperature in Pittsburgh was 27°C in July 2012, as compared to only 18°C in Leeds.
Many people in the UK, however, do not share my view of their weather. I have noticed that people in the UK and other Northern European countries often describe hot weather as ‘good weather’ – even when it gets uncomfortably hot. National surveys in the UK have even suggested that some residents hope that their summers will become warmer in the future. When I present this finding for audiences from countries with warmer climates, they look confused. Residents of Northern Europe and Canada, however, tend to nod in agreement.
Our research suggests that communications about climate change adaptation in the UK will be more effective if they address people’s perhaps overly positive feelings about heat.
DIFFERING PERCEPTIONS OF EXTREME WEATHER
In recent years I have been using national surveys to study public perceptions of weather and climate change with my colleagues in Leeds. We found that when evaluating their climate change concerns, people consider how the weather has changed over the course of their lifetimes. US residents’ concerns about climate change are mostly driven by their perceptions of changes in hot weather events, such as heat waves and hot summers. By contrast, UK residents’ concerns about climate change were more strongly driven by their perceptions of lifetime changes in wet weather events, such as heavy rainfall and flooding, than by their perceptions of lifetime changes in hot weather events. They also viewed the wet weather events a lot more negatively than the hot weather events.
We have found that UK residents’ positive feelings about heat may undermine their willingness to implement heat protection behaviours when it gets hot. Public health experts recommend that individuals should stay out of the midday sun, avoid exercising in the heat, drink more water and limit their alcohol intake during very hot weather. However, individuals who liked this type of weather were less willing to implement heat protection behaviours. Indeed, it appears that (mad dogs and) Englishmen do deliberately go out in the midday sun, against public health experts’ recommendations. Tourists travelling to Southern Europe from various Northern European countries also often seem to plan to stay in the sun on their holidays – much beyond the number of hours of sunbathing recommended by public health experts.
As climate change unfolds and UK summers become warmer, it is possible that more people may want to spend their holidays in the UK, thereby boosting the economy. The UK government’s climate change risk assessment report has identified this change in tourism as a potential positive climate change impact.
It is not all good news, however. There are negative potential climate change impacts from hot weather too. These include increased air pollution, increases in heat-related illnesses, increases in summer utility energy demands due to increased use of air conditioning, cities becoming ‘heat islands’ due to trapping heat, and overheated infrastructure. Climate change impacts from wet weather may include flooded homes, businesses and flooded infrastructure. Leeds, for example, was badly affected by flooding in December 2015.
PREPARING FOR CLIMATE CHANGE
Preparations for those climate change impacts may require individuals to implement personal actions (eg behaviour change, refurbishing one’s home) as well as to support government actions (eg changes to cities, infrastructure, and energy systems). We found that UK residents were less concerned about prioritising preparedness for hot weather events than for wet weather events – even if climate experts thought of both as having high priority.
Our research suggests that communications about climate change adaptation in the UK will be more effective if they address people’s perhaps overly positive feelings about heat. We have found that even those individuals who enjoy hot weather have had negative experiences with extreme heat, but positive experiences with heat tend to be easier to recall. Reminding them of their ‘forgotten’ negative experiences with hot weather (such as discomfort, headaches, sun burn, or heat stroke) can help their motivation to implement heat protection behaviours and adapt to climate change.
In any country, communications that aim to inform people’s decisions about preparing for climate change impacts will need to address the associated risks, the recommended preparedness actions, and the barriers to implementing them. However, those communicating these messages will also need to address people’s perceptions of climate change and weather. Such interventions will require collaborations between climate scientists and public health experts, as well as social scientists. At the University of Leeds, such collaborations are already occurring in the Priestley International Centre on Climate with researchers and professionals working together to deliver research that will underpin effective and timely climate solutions.
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Video: Rain or Shine? Understanding Public perceptions of Weather and Climate Risk
Research on public perceptions of heatwaves