Turning extreme weather events into teachable moments for climate action

Turning extreme weather events into teachable moments for climate action

Extreme event attribution, a scientific method that assesses how climate change influences the likelihood and intensity of extreme weather events, can be an effective climate change public engagement tool, University of Oxford researchers have found.

Amid extreme weather events such as freezing temperatures in Texas, drought across eastern Africa, and unprecedented bushfires in Australia, the question often arises: is it climate change? The answer is not as straightforward as a simple yes or no. Our alteration of the atmosphere is increasing the likelihood and intensity of several kinds of weather events, but it influences particular kinds of weather differently in different parts of the world, and not all are being made worse.  

Researchers are increasingly examining how the occurrence of extreme events might influence climate change attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours among the public. They have so far found mixed results: some studies find that weather events can bring attention to climate change and perhaps increase risk perceptions, while others find no effect. This may be associated with a psychological phenomenon known as motivated reasoning – we have a tendency to process incoming information in ways that reinforce our prior beliefs. So if you are already highly concerned about climate change, you are likely to view extreme events as further proof of a changing planet; if you are sceptical or not worried about the issue, you are more likely to consider extreme events as natural variability in weather patterns.

However, in a new study published in the journal Weather, Climate and Society, Oxford University researchers explored this question of public engagement with extreme weather events from a new perspective. Rather than measuring if members of the public already see a link between climate change and an extreme event, the authors tested to what extent communicating results of extreme event attribution (EEA) proves useful as a climate change communication tool. EEA is a burgeoning scientific method that causally links weather people experience with the often abstract concept of climate change by enabling scientists to assess how climate change may have altered the likelihood and intensity of a specific weather event. EEA analyses, conducted by groups such as the World Weather Attribution project, led by Oxford University’s Dr. Friederike Otto, generate findings that often receive significant media interest, such as ‘European heatwave made up to 100 times more likely due to climate change’ and ‘Climate change made Siberian heatwave 600 times more likely.’ By providing new evidence on the links between climate change and specific extreme events, these studies could play a key role in climate-related lawsuits, international loss and damage mechanisms, and climate adaptation planning. 

EEA has, so far, received less attention in terms of its potential public engagement and communication applications. The new research, led by DPhil student Joshua Ettinger, therefore utilised focus groups to explore how members of the public respond to EEA findings. The researchers found that EEA presents both opportunities and challenges for engaging the public about climate change. In terms of opportunities, offering a precise number quantifying a climate-weather relationship seems to be attention-grabbing and persuasive. Participants felt that result specificity (for example, that climate change made the 2019 UK summer heatwave ‘4 times more likely to have occurred’) provided a sense that the science was robust and grabbed more attention than statements that only said ‘climate change made the heatwave more likely’ without a specific number. 

The researchers were surprised by the level of interest participants expressed about the counterfactual component of EEA. The notion of counterfactuals is a comparably technical matter in which climate scientists work out how to construct climate model simulations of the world that is exact as we observe it today except for the influence of climate change – this is how scientists ultimately determine the influence of human-driven climate change on a weather event. A description of the counterfactual method seemed to stimulate participant imaginations, leading them to visualise alternative worlds and futures. One participant even compared it to the book The Little Prince in which the main character visits alternate planets. The results also provided further support for prior theories that the risks of climate change can seem abstract and psychologically distant, whereas extreme weather can feel much more tangible, visible, and straightforward to comprehend from a risk perception perspective. This is why extreme weather is sometimes referred to as a ‘teachable moment’ for climate change.

However, EEA also poses some communication challenges. Most crucially, focusing on the role of climate change in altering the meteorological component of an event could distract from other important dynamics of disasters – in particular, vulnerability, exposure, and disaster risk reduction. In other words, a large part of what ultimately determines the damage of weather events is how we plan for them. This is why some observers have urged against usage of the term ‘natural disaster’ as the word natural can mask the role of decision-making in reducing harm from extreme weather. Ettinger explained that this issue is not necessarily a fault inherent to EEA, as analyses usually do contain an assessment of the role of exposure and vulnerability. “It’s all about the narratives and stories we tell about extreme events. Communicators can describe how climate change affects the weather, but should also not neglect to note how preparations on the ground can make us more resilient to these events.” 

Based on their results, the researchers argue that EEA could be used as an effective communication tool to help inform dialogues among the public on how climate change relates to extreme weather events and why taking immediate action on climate change can make us safer now and into the future.