August 29, 2017, by Brigitte Nerlich

Hurricane Harvey: Some reflections on climate change communication

Hurricane Harvey has hit Houston and its aftermath is causing extreme flooding. This made me think…

I remember sitting in an airport lounge in 2005 somewhere watching Hurricane Katrina unfold on TV screens and beginning to think about climate change as a social issue. A year or so later I started to notice the spread of a new ‘carbon language’, that is to say, the use of what I called ‘carbon compounds’, such as ‘carbon footprint’, ‘carbon offsets’ etc. I thought that was an encouraging sign of a change in the social landscape of climate change.

Then came 2007 and an IPCC report that really seemed to make climate change public (with the help of some publicity from Al Gore and others). I started a research project on ‘carbon compounds’, followed by another on climate change as a complex social issue.

However, I had not anticipated how much of a social and political problem climate change would become (or how it would crystallize into one) after 2009 and climategate. The problems were no longer ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ (these are scientific givens); instead the problem was how societies and politicians dealt with these problems in a climate of increasing and entrenching political polarisation.

Handling climate change as a ‘scientific problem’ is complex and difficult, as scientific knowledge about climate change and especially its global and local impacts is complex. Handling climate change as a ‘social and political problem’ is also complex and difficult, as one has to cope with competing interests, most importantly navigating between dealing with climate change and/or dealing with economic issues and interests. In both cases ‘the status quo’ is at stake: on the one hand, the preservation of a relatively manageable planetary climate for all; on the other hand, the preservation of economic growth and financial prosperity for some. And never the twain shall meet. As an article in 2007 said (using a nice ‘carbon compound’ metaphor): “Lacking Carbon Fibre: Our spirits want to save the planet, but sometimes our flesh is weak.” (The Times, 23/04/07, p. 16)


In such a situation, climate change communication was and remains difficult, as demonstrated by the gradual dying of the carbon language and the hopes it had fuelled. However, over the last twelve years, since Hurricane Katrina, some things have changed – not so much because of changes in politics or successes in climate change communication, but mostly because of a change in planetary climate conditions and their impacts across the globe.

We now no longer have to start every climate change communication article with sentences like: “climate change is abstract, distant, invisible and disputed” (although some people still seem to feel obliged to reiterate that mantra, as, for example, the article from which I extracted that quote). We also no longer have to apologise every time we want to examine (and stress examininglinks between extreme weather events, their intensity and frequency, and climate change. But that too has not yet become routine; there is still a lot of ‘reticence‘.

Just like climate change, climate change communication too has for a long time been quite abstract, distant, invisible and disputed. Extreme weather events, from Hurricane Katrina, through Hurricane Sandy to Hurricane Harvey (and many many more), are beginning to change this. Such events might in fact be ‘solving’ quite a lot of climate change communication conundrums. The reason is that climate change is no longer abstract, distant and invisible. It is still disputed though.

When talking about climate change, one can now point to weather events or images of events here, there and everywhere. In the past, such images may have been more symbolic than real; now they are more real than symbolic; and for some people very real indeed.

The deluge of maps, visualisations, images, photos and videos that are currently making their way through my twitter stream with regard to Hurricane Harvey, the South Asia floods and so on are, in fact, quite heart-breaking.


Another issue which one may want to put to rest in the current ‘climate’ of climate change communication is the debate about alarmism and apocalyptic predictions. For years, ‘warmists’ (a pejorative term aimed at those people who model and predict the causes and effects of ‘global warming’) have ‘alarmed’ people with their sometimes urgent predictions about the potential and actual impacts of climate change, amongst them the likelihood of various types of extreme weather events, from heatwaves to hurricanes (IPCC 2011, 2013).

Such ‘alarmism’ is still hotly debated; and criticising so-called ‘warmists’ or ‘alarmists’, from James Hansen to Al Gore, is still popular. However, extreme weather events all over the world, not just Harvey, are beginning to make this anti-warmist, anti-alarmist stance more and more untenable.


In the past, knowledge about climate change and its impacts may have seemed abstruse, abstract and ‘academic’. Nowadays it no longer is, neither in rich countries, nor in poor ones. When I was thinking about this post, I read an article in The Guardian about climate change and Afghanistan. This paragraph should make people think: “Farmers say unanimously that temperatures have risen over the past decades. Rain is scarcer and more unpredictable. ‘People know about climate change even if they don’t call it that,’ says Fatima Akbari, the UNEP’s country assistant. ‘They know all about change in water and weather.’”

I think we are all becoming more alert to climate change and its impacts and will do so increasingly. This, in turn, has impacts on so-called climate change communication and the science of climate change communication – impacts that we haven’t really started to think about yet. Climate change communication should be shifting and is shifting from the abstract to the concrete, from the symbolic to the real, from the global to the local, from the future to the present, and from the invisible to the visible. Such changes in of climate change communication need to be studied just as much as changes in climate.

Image: I could not find any free-to-use images of the inundation; so I had to make do with a map (NOAA)


Posted in Climate ChangeClimate Politics