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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What else changes the

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

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