Perceptions of Climate and Weather Risks in the UK

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Centre for Decision Research

Dr Andrea Taylor, Professor Wändi Bruine de Bruin and Professor Suraje Dessai are members of the Centre for Decision Research and the Sustainability Research Institute. Their research projects look at how we can more effectively communicate with the UK public about the risks posed by extreme weather and future climate change impacts. The research was funded by the UK’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs via Ricardo-AEA; and the Economic and Social Research Council.

Photograph of a man holding an umbrella

A number of flood warnings are still in place across the UK after Storm Desmond has wreaked havoc, causing thousands of people to evacuate their homes and leaving many more without power.

The UK climate Change Risk assessment predicts that the UK will experience an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, including rainfall and associated flooding, as well as hot, dry weather. To communicate effectively with the public about climate risks, we need to understand how these risks are currently perceived.

Our team looked at public perceptions of extreme weather amongst a national sample of 2,007 UK residents who were surveyed in January 2013, following a cold snap and a year of below average temperatures, and widely publicised flooding in Southwest England. It was our goal to answer the following questions:

  1. Do people in the UK believe that different types of weather have changed during their lifetime?
  2. Are UK residents’ perceptions of life-time changes in different types of weather related to their beliefs about climate change?

The survey revealed that UK residents tended to perceive heat waves and hot summers to have become less common during their lifetimes. Meanwhile flooding, periods of heavy rainfall, coastal erosions, and mild winters were perceived to have increased in frequency. 

Although perceived increases in hot-weather were found to be related to respondents concern about climate change, perceived changes in wet-weather events were found to be an even stronger predictor of concerns about climate change. 

These results highlight the importance of salient local weather-related events and experiences in the formation of beliefs about climate change. Our findings are in line with research in judgment and decision making, which suggests that heuristics (mental short-cuts to make quick and efficient decisions) play a role in the formation of people’s judgments of risk. Specifically, the availability heuristic – the way people rely on experiences that are quickly and easily remembered - predicts that people judge the seriousness of climate change by the ease with which perceived changes in noticeable weather come to mind. 

The findings of this research suggest that those seeking to communicate the risks posed by climate change to the public should not limit their focus to the hot-weather-related events that may be implied by the phrase “global warming.” Highlighting increases in other locally salient weather-related events may serve to increase public engagement with the issues surrounding climate change mitigation and adaptation. In the UK, people may be more concerned about flooding than about heat waves caused by climate change. 

You can read more about this research in the full article online.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect the views of Leeds University business school or the University of Leeds.