picture - Adam Ramsay
The UK floods and storms of December 2013 and January 2014 were exceptional by any standards. In many parts of southern England January rainfall broke all monthly records and in some places being more than double the average.
One would think it natural enough for the news media to make the most of a connection with an issue that scientists had been predicting for nearly 20 years would bring increased storms and far more winter rainfall. They should have put climate change back at the centre of public discussion. But they did not. Until mid-February there was virtually no mention of climate change in the media. A survey in late January by the media analysis organisation Carbon Brief, found that 92% of mainstream news articles made no mention of climate change. This followed the same pattern of media silence found in the US around Hurricane Sandy and the 2012 heatwaves.
It was, in many ways, another socially generated and policed Climate Silence. When climate change was mentioned, coverage was tentative and almost embarrassed. BBC radio’s flagship Today Programme could not even bring itself to mention the words – the lead journalist, John Humphrys, brusquely demanding of a scientist that he say whether such extreme weather events might become more common in future “without going into all the debate about what might or might not be happening to the climate”.
In the place of climate change the media was - pardon the pun - awash with stories of personal loss, everyday heroes, bravery and community solidarity. Such compelling narratives are common around disasters and suppress the more complex and challenging narratives of climate change. As I reported last year after interviews with victims of Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey and wildfires in Texas, climate change is often considered too inappropriate and divisive to mention at all.
The hunt for enemies
However, what was especially noteworthy in the British coverage - and what, I fear, is a harbinger of how we may respond to climate change - was the rapid transition to angry narratives of enemies and blame.
Emotionally charged extreme weather events always tend to generate strong blame narratives - especially around government negligence (as happened around Hurricane Katrina), individual perpetrators (the hunt for the mythical arsonists who start wildfires) or, the failure of insurance companies to settle claims. The complex, multi-causal, unintentional issue of climate change feels incomplete without enemies and so, as I have commented before, it readily absorbs existing conflicts.
So it was no surprise, after a few weeks of stories about resilience and a ‘blitz spirit’, that the British media moved to angry language about blame expressed in moving stories about the struggle between individuals and bureaucracies.
The primary focus for that anger and abuse was the Environment Agency, a high profile public body tasked with the flood response. Week after week it was accused of greed, incompetence, indifference to suffering and corruption. The key hate figure became its director, Chris Smith. As the first senior British politician to be openly gay, the Daily Mail newspaper felt free to indulge in scarcely concealed homophobia with a fabricated story that he had squandered £639 ($1000) of taxpayer money on 'gay pride tea mugs' - enough, it whined, to buy more than 250 sandbags to protect flood victims’ homes.
But there was, surely, something more going on here. The Environment Agency is not a disaster relief organisation, like FEMA in the US. As its name suggests, its mission is to "protect the environment, and to promote sustainable development" and it is one of the lead agencies working on climate change. This includes running the UK Climate Impacts Programme, the scientific network that models the impacts of climate change on future extreme weather events. Nor is Chris Smith just any former politician - he is a former Shadow Environment Minister for the Labour Party and is, according to one conservative blog, 'climate change obsessed'.
Somehow, then, climate specialists had moved from being ignored when they warned of the link between climate change and flooding to being held personally to blame for it.
Anti-environmental resentment then extended to the “ecological zealots” who had prevented the dredging of rivers - epitomised in a high profile article by Christopher Booker, headed: ‘It's the deluded greens who've left my Somerset neighbours 10ft under water’.
Booker is especially interesting in this regard. Not only is he Britain's most outspoken and influential climate denier 'journalist' (I use the word with caveats), but he is also the author of 'Seven Basic Plots', an exhaustive study of the components of compelling narratives across the arts. Of all people, Booker entirely understands the construction of enemy narratives and uses them entirely knowingly.
Finally, the scientists speak
On February 9th, the UK Meteorological Office launched a major report detailing the relationship between global climate change and the winter weather. This was a major news ‘hook’ that should have opened up a wider and bolder discussion about climate change.
Although the news media duly reported it the following day, the report, with its cautious and dry scientific language, could not make itself heard above the more compelling and emotional narratives of blame. Whilst the scientists were required to frame their analysis in language about uncertainty and probability, these accusations were presented with an undue confidence as socially agreed facts.
The Daily Mail, a consistently (though not exclusively) climate sceptic newspaper reported the Met Office report and then, with remarkable dexterity, seamlessly merged it into the larger blame narrative by launching a petition to redirect foreign aid towards UK flood victims. The primary focus of the campaign was the £2.9 billion pledged by Britain to alleviate severe climate change impacts abroad.
So, once again, the target for anger became the people who communicated climate change and sought to address it. Smears operate at a level of emotional metaphor that defies logic or proof. What is important is not the demand - which makes little sense - but the inference. And that is clear: that, in some ill defined way, the people responsible for the suffering of flood victims were the self-interested do-gooders who had been warning about it all along.
Blaming the messenger is a common psychological response to anxiety and trauma. My real point, though, is larger than this: that, as climate change manifests itself, our responses are entirely unpredictable. Greater concern about the underlying causes is one response. But conflict and scapegoating are just as likely. And what really concerns me is that we may well adopt entirely aberrant responses without even fully realising what we are doing.
After the floods: communicating climate change around extreme weather’‘, is a new 20 page guide on the challenges of communicating climate change around extreme weather events.
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