“We’ve always had spells of warm weather”: how 2018’s UK climate change communication fell short

How many “hottest ever” summers will it take for climate change scepticism to be dispelled for good? 

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It’s September now and the UK’s rain is back: soft, wet, and predictable. Yet just a few months ago, things were very different. Global temperature maps turned a fearsome blood-red, as heatwaves raged from London to Lapland.

The reality of climate change had become so inescapable, it seemed, that even the major press outlets acknowledged the arrival of a new normal. “Scorchers could go on for decades say boffins”, warned the Sun’s frontpage in late July. 

“It is human-induced climate change that has made such a situation as we’ve seen in 2018 more likely,” the Met Office’s Professor Peter Stott spelled out in the accompanying article.

Yet not everyone took Stott’s message on board. A poll conducted by Deltapoll, reported in the Sun on Sunday, suggested that most people thought the heatwave had “little or nothing to do with climate change”. 

The way the poll was phrased was flawed and leading, experts have explained to DeSmogUK. And its findings have been countered by another new poll, by Opinium for the Independent, which finds that 60 per cent of British adults think the heatwave was made “stronger or more likely” by climate change. But even then, both polls suggest there are substantial proportions of the population that still do not recognise the heatwave’s climate change link. Why? And how many more “hottest ever” summers will it take for climate change scepticism to be dispelled for good?

One issue could be the delay in the media articulating the connection – and its extent. 

The link wasn’t picked up in a substantial way by large sections of the press until the end of July. Just 15 per cent of 183 articles analysed from mainstream UK media outlets referenced climate change, according to analysis by Rosie Col for Medium on 27 July.

After this point, the coverage of the issue did become more widespread – perhaps thanks to the heatwave’s extended duration, the Environmental Audit Committee’s publication of its long-planned report on heatwaves, and the fact the Guardian and New Statesman had already been publishing on the subject for weeks.

The coverage may also have improved thanks to the publication, on 28 July, of an attribution report from researchers at the Environmental Change Institute (ECI) at Oxford University. Their measurements found that the probability of northern Europe’s 2018 heatwave to be roughly “more than two times higher today than if human activities had not altered the climate.”

Getting this kind of specific analysis out fast (even if qualified by warnings that the findings are still preliminary), can help improve discussion of the issues at the most opportune moments, explains Dr Fredericke Otto, deputy director of the Institute.

“We decided to publish the results at that particular date because so many people in the media mainly, but also from elsewhere, asked the question about the role of climate change. So we decided it would help the debate to provide quantitative, scientific evidence of what this role is, instead of only speaking about climate change and heat in general terms,” she told the New Statesman.

Providing such timely evidence is a central aim of the Environmental Change Institute, and a laudable one. But should the Met Office also prioritise getting such information out in a more timely manner  – especially considering the great sway it carries within the UK?

The Met Office does plan to publish its own climate change attribution study of the 2018 heatwave, later this year, says Professor Peter Stott. Its representatives have made numerous comments about the generalised connection, but until its study is released they are “not able to attribute this heatwave event completely to climate change, so we haven’t [yet] been in a position to bolster any link.”

The organisation has good reason for caution. Its scientific data plays a role in UN climate negotiations, and it is vital that its reputation for accuracy is protected by not rushing its analysis.

Plus, the Met Office’s scientists have also had their fingers badly burnt in the past for getting its predictions wrongIn this regard, journalists too must take some responsibility for the organisation’s “caginess” says Asher Minns, executive director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. For example, when the Met Office was widely ridiculed for predicting a “bbq summer” ahead of 2009's soggy and unsettled weather.

However, the risk of such a delay is that it creates room for climate-sceptic interpretations of the science. 

When I called up the Met Office’s press team in early July, for a comment on the heatwave’s causation, I received a super explanation of the mechanics of the jet-steam, plus recognition of the way that the background of generalised global warming “creates the potential for extreme weather events to become perhaps a little bit more regular, or more extreme.” Yet I was also told that the climate is “infinitely variable” and so “we’ve always had spells of warm weather, and some of those have been extreme throughout the climate record.” 

Comments about underlying cycles of weather are perfectly legitimate, and even a necessary caution against the Met Office being labelled “a propagandist for global warming alarmism” the next time it rains (as Rupert Darwell did inThe Spectator in 2013). But the order in which that information is expressed matters greatly.

When the notion of “naturally occurring cycles” was articulated by the Met Office’s own blog of 27 July, it was made very clear that global warming sets these natural cycles in a totally new context. Yet if this sense of departure from normality is not stressed, then concepts of cycles and continuity can play into the hands of those who wish to downplay climate change’s man-made cause.

The phrasing of the Deltapoll poll for the Sun on Sunday did exactly this. The premise that the 2018 heatwave had “little or nothing to do with climate change” was preceded by a statement that “weather goes in cycles and this was just another hot summer that comes around from time to time, like 1976” – showing just how easily the two ideas can elide.

In addition, the notion that we’ve always had cycles of heatwaves is also in itself “problematic”, says Professor David Ockwell from the University of Sussex. It can undermine the message that “average temperatures are now higher than anywhere in the fossil record – and that ecosystems have not evolved to cope with such high temperatures,” he explains.

So what can be done to dispel the myth of hot spells-as-normal? It is encouraging to see the BBC issue a new set of guidelines to journalists covering climate change, as reported by CarbonBrief. Another possible improvement could perhaps be a shift in the Met Office’s resources so that it can give greater priority to climate change attribution assessments (and speedy, confident communication).

This latter suggestion, however, is something that the government itself must approve: “As the UK’s national met service we will continue to look at the significance of the 2018 summer heatwave and we’ll be discussing the matter with government. Any decision about future research needs will be included within our dialogue with government once the attribution study has concluded,” said Professor Stott.

With the disturbing impacts of climate change already upon us, there should not still be confusion around this urgent subject. Scientists and journalists alike must do more to ensure that awareness of the climate threat shifts from “mixed” to “clear”.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.