A Flood at Home More Motivational Than a Flood of Information

by |April 7, 2011

John Barker

Is it necessary for your house to be flooded for you to feel personally threatened by climate change? Maybe not – but according to a March behavior study, a soggy basement will probably make you more inclined to take action to mitigate climate change.

Despite the consensus within the scientific community that immediate action is critical to forestall the more severe impacts of climate change, individuals in developed nations have been slow to respond. The public has shown a reluctance to implement energy-saving technologies that would save money in the long run or make lifestyle changes that require personal sacrifice. Decision and behavior scientists attribute this disparity to the temporal and geographic distance people in western countries perceive from the consequences of climate change. The human psyche is much more responsive to immediate threats. Thus, a first-hand experience of the events consistent with the trends expected for climate change greatly affects risk-perception.

In the past 40-60 years, periods of intense precipitation have increased in frequency in the UK, causing floods that affected hundreds of thousands of people across diverse parts of the country. A February study has attributed anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions to increased probability of intense precipitation, and thus flood risk, in England and Wales. Although such a study is significant for the scholarly community, isolated scientific evidence is not enough to drive people to act. A personal experience can trigger a faster and stronger response than a flood of information.

The authors of the March behavior study assumed the link between human activity and increased flooding was sufficiently established in the mind of the British public by the media coverage of the events. After surveying a sample population in the UK, they used a sophisticated statistical method to determine the effect of a personal experience of flooding on people’s opinion of climate change and, furthermore, on people’s intentions towards energy consumption.

People who experienced flooding in their area became more concerned about climate change and less uncertain whether climate change was occurring. People affected by flooding also felt more confident that their actions, such as reducing energy use, would have an effect on climate change. A particularly interesting result was that the residents’ willingness to reduce energy use was not related to their certainty of whether or not climate change is happening.

Thus, climate change mitigation might be more effectively communicated as a risk-management option than as an obvious response to a predictable future, as Elke Weber, a Columbia University decision scientist, writes in her recent Nature article.

“The risk management frame is readily understandable.  Everyone faces catastrophic risks (from life-threatening diseases, automobile accidents, house fires, and even climate-related events), and everyone understands strategies for managing them.  One strategy is to reduce activities that might lead to catastrophe (e.g., controlling our diets, staying off icy roads, or for climate change, adopting energy-efficient and low-emissions technology),” Weber further explains.

But before climate change can be perceived as a risk, communicators need to establish its relationship with increased extreme weather events, which the authors of the study believed was done by the media regarding the floods. Communicators of climate change linking local, recent events to climate change need to walk a fine line, to avoid being scientifically inaccurate. It is an easy and temping liberty for the public to judge climate change by weather and seasonal events. A single extreme weather event cannot be linked to climate change, but the increased frequency and severity of these events can. Despite the uncertainties that people may harbor about climate change and its relation to human activity, they will still want to take mitigating measures if they sense a personal threat.

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[…] because personal experience plays a large role in risk-perception.  For example, people in the UK who experienced flooding became more concerned about climate change and less uncertain whether climate change was occurring. […]