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Drought, not deluge

Neil Gavin examines British press coverage of floods and climate change

“…in the current state of global warming alarmism, there is a tendency, notably in the media, to attribute any and every uncomfortable weather event to global warming, and to regard this as proof of the need to curb carbon dioxide emissions.”

So says Lord Lawson, former Chancellor and prominent sceptic. But like so many other sceptic claims, this one is also deeply dubious, according to research I and my colleagues have carried out at Liverpool University. We wanted to know how the press covers the complex connection between flooding and climate change.

We looked at flood-related coverage in the British press between 2001 and 2007, before focusing on high profile events like Boscastle in 2004, and Tewkesbury in 2007. The team hoped to shed light on the prominence of flood news in the press, and assess whether (and how) newspapers linked these weather events to global warming.

Complex link

As far as the science is concerned, the link is a complex one. Higher rainfall in some regions can, indeed, be expected from global warming. And the connection might be one means of bridging the gap between the scientific complexities of climate change, and something citizens can relate to: the weather. Indeed, some scientists, pressure groups and politicians seem to feel that extreme weather has the potential to give citizens a wake-up call.

However, few scientists would be tempted to suggest that a particular weather event, or flood, is the direct result of global warming, given substantial natural variation. Therefore, clear commentary from the press is necessary for people’s understanding of climate change. This is especially so given that, for many, there is still a degree of confusion about the issue.

Coverage: mainly dry

Our study suggests that, despite the weather being a perennial subject of conversation (and complaint) for many Brits, press coverage of floods is fairly meagre, and prominent only during big, but intermittent, flooding events. Perhaps more significantly, within the coverage of floods there were very few references to climate change or global warming. Where the connection was made, it tended to be in particular newspapers, like the Guardian and the Independent. Whatever else this is, it is scarcely ‘global warming alarmism’.

When we assessed big flooding event coverage, a similar picture emerged. But other important features came through.

Mixed results

It was clear that newspapers cannot be easily categorised as ‘sceptic’ or ‘orthodox’ about climate change, since some of the most rounded and well-informed commentary came from notionally sceptic papers – the Mail, Express and Telegraph. Nevertheless, there was a sceptical tinge to some reports, this being a further addition to the persistent, but scientifically unjustified, presence of contrarian commentary in the British media. However, on the whole, there was lots of fairly sound reporting, particularly in the broadsheets.

Accuracy needed

Finally, some newspapers – like the Independent – were a bit too keen to link the floods directly to global warming. Not only is this an obstacle to genuine public understanding, we argue that it can also backfire. For instance, if reporters too often portray flooding as a direct result of global warming, sceptics may be tempted to flag weather that seems at odds with climate change, as a sign that the whole idea is suspect. And example of this is ‘SNOW CHAOS – And they still claim it’s global warming’.2

The bottom line is that flooding news is an unlikely vehicle for raising public awareness of climate change, and that journalists (alongside environmental pressure groups, politicians and the occasional scientist) need to play with a straight bat. Otherwise, they may give unintended ammunition to climate change deniers, and slow the progress towards effective mitigation.

This article is a shortened version of NT Gavin and L Leonard-Milsom, with J Montgomery, (2011) ‘Climate Change, Flooding and the Media in British’, Public Understanding of Science 20(3) pp.422-38

1 N Lawson (2008) An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming, Duckworth Overlook

2Daily Express, 6 January 2010

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Dr Neil T. Gavin
Dr Neil T. Gavin is in the Department of Politics, Liverpool University
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