May 27, 2022, by Brigitte Nerlich
Extreme event/weather communication
Communication sciences span a large array of fields and issues. We have science communication, risk communication, crisis communication, health communication, and, of course climate change communication.
Over the last few years, it has become clear to me that when it comes to climate and weather, all these communication efforts converge and become part of what one might call ‘extreme event communication’ or ‘extreme weather communication’ or even ‘high impact weather communication’. In the following I’ll first talk a bit about my personal experience of extreme event communication and then about emerging tools for such communication.
(If you are wondering what the featured image is. It’s not an abstract painting. It’s a map of the flight paths over the Cerro Pelado fire in New Mexico on 15 May 2022. Tankers, or ‘super-scoopers’, are red, flying between the fire and Cochiti Lake; helicopters are purple, and spotters are blue. I loved the super-scoopers and when I saw them I sang a certain Abba song in my head)
Flood, fire and communication
When my home town in Germany was flooded in July last year, initial communication efforts, especially early warnings, were poor in the regions affected. In order to inform affected relatives about what was going on, especially those who don’t use the internet or were cut off from it, I consulted Twitter and Facebook, as well a large array of weather services including the German weather service. I then phoned information through (to those who had working phones).
In May this year, I opened Facebook again and I, of course, sat on Twitter, when relatives in New Mexico were threatened by wildfires and compared what I found with what they were told in briefings, operations updates and community meetings. In this case, my communication efforts were almost not needed as people were generally kept up to date with warnings and advice. However, it was consoling to me to have access to so much information, including detailed maps, tweets from fire fighters on the ground and from other fire experts interpreting data and maps etc.
When I observed the operations updates and community meetings in Los Alamos, I was impressed. I had the impression that the people talking really knew their stuff and conveyed what they knew quietly and calmly. But the (fire, health etc.) experts who briefed people were not only extremely knowledgeable, they also dealt with every question in a kind, considerate and respectful way. When a woman prefaced her question by saying: “I have a silly question”, Richard Nieto, Wildland Fire Management Officer, pointed out carefully that “No question is a silly question” (45.38 minutes in). He went on to say, even more importantly, that people should always ask experts questions, whatever they are, but more than that, they should also talk to their neighbours and friends, especially those who had lived through previous wildfires and had their own experiences and advice to impart.
What I saw there was that information, including regularly updated maps, was regarded as precious, that experts provided information and advice in a professional and kind way, that they engaged with the community as much as possible and fostered community engagement. Is that the core of ‘extreme event communication’? I’ll come back to this question at the end, after a foray into extreme event attribution communication.
Extreme events, climate change and attribution
In both the flood and fire events that I ‘witnessed’ from a distance, climate change was always the elephant in the room. It was rarely mentioned in the immediacy of dealing with the flood and the fire, but it was discussed in the background by those not directly affected.
As the German climate communication project Klimafakten pointed out on Twitter recently, whenever an extreme event happens, many people ask: “Ist das schon der #Klimawandel??” (Is this already climate change??) Asking and answering that question has become easier over the years and people asking and answering that question no longer feel they have to apologise for doing so. The field of extreme event attribution studies has begun to flourish and, as Klimafakten pointed out, there is now even a guide on how to talk about event attribution by Ben Clarke and Friederike Otto!! I would urge everybody to read it.
When the floods happened in Germany, I remember reading an article, where Otto, then still at Oxford, now at Imperial, was quoted as saying: “These floods have shown us that even developed countries are not safe from severe impacts of extreme weather that we have seen and known to get worse with climate change,” […] “This is an urgent global challenge and we need to step up to it. The science is clear and has been for years.” She has also just published an attribution study of the Indian heatwave which shows that climate change has made this extreme event 30 times more likely.
So, the science is clear, but what about the (science) communication? Are there global efforts to develop best practice guides for extreme weather or event communication, including attribution communication?
To my surprise, I found that there is quite a lot going on! At some point it might be good if somebody reviewed this emerging body of literature more systematically. Anyway, here are a few random resources on extreme event/weather communication.
For the UK we have actually a government guidance document called ‘Extreme Weather Communication Guidance’ which is worth a look!
There are also various articles dealing with the communication challenges pertaining to specific extremes (and I can only give some examples): flood communication, wildfire communication and hurricane communication, for example. Recently Saffron O’Neill and her team have looked at heatwave communication and on how how journalists can fall into the trap of using the wrong, ‘fun in the sun’, visualisation of such extreme events.
Extreme event attribution communication
Here one must mention again the recent publication by Clarke and Otto “Reporting extreme weather and climate change: a guide for journalists”, which is extremely useful. It is available in a multitude of languages.
There is also an article by the eminent climate change communicator Susan Joy Hassol and others entitled “(Un)Natural Disasters: Communicating Linkages Between Extreme Events and Climate Change” that is worth reading.
And here is a communication guide for Australians on how to communicate the links between extreme weather, of which Australians have had their fair share, and climate change. I bet there are many more…
Attribution communication and climate change communication
Friederike Otto and her team have also written about public engagement and extreme event attribution in the UK. They point out: “Communication challenges include adequately capturing nuances around extreme weather risks, vulnerability, adaptation, and disaster risk reduction; expressing scientific uncertainty without undermining accessibility of key findings; and difficulties interpreting mathematical aspects of EEA [extreme event attribution] results. On the basis of our findings, we provide recommendations to help address these challenges when communicating EEA results beyond the climate science community. We conclude that EEA can help catalyze important dialogues about the links between extreme weather and human-driven climate change.”
Another article, entitled “Evidence synthesis – Evaluating risk communication during extreme weather and climate change” comes to slightly different conclusions: “Based on the scoping review, risk communication efforts during short-term extreme weather events appear to be more effective than efforts to communicate risk around climate change. This distinction could highlight a unique opportunity for public health to adapt strategies commonly used for extreme weather to climate change.”
In 2014 the UK was hit by severe floods and the climate communication project ‘Climate Outreach’ published an important report entitled “After the floods: Communicating climate change around extreme weather”. They point to something that I also noticed when talking to people during extreme events: “people in affected areas may consider it inappropriate to talk about climate change at all, creating a deliberate silence around the topic, or be unable to reconcile the complex long term issue of climate change with the more compelling narratives of loss, recovery and blame.”
This does not mean that one can’t talk about climate change ‘after the floods’; indeed one should. One recommendation is important: “Communicators should validate the powerful narratives of resilience, community pride and mutual caring that often emerge during EWEs [extreme weather events]. They can build on these to create a broad-based discussion of long-term preparedness and adaptation.”
What then is the core of good extreme weather communication? In my view, the following are some important ingredients of such communication: accurate information from trusted sources, including maps (in a variety of formats, on various platforms, including social media), regularly updated information, regular briefings and community meetings with trusted leaders and experts, advice on escape routes and shelters, financial support etc., listening to community members and validating their experiences, encouraging community engagement and information/experience sharing, kindness, a lot of kindness… and leaving attribution communication for when the immediate danger is over, but don’t forget it.
Addition, 7 June 2022: I just found this article which is really worth reading:
Strauss, N., Painter, J., Ettinger, J., Doutreix, M. N., Wonneberger, A., & Walton, P. (2022). Reporting on the 2019 European heatwaves and climate change: Journalists’ attitudes, motivations and role perceptions. Journalism Practice, 16(2-3), 462-485.
The found, for example, “a relative lack of knowledge about EEA studies but a high level of importance assigned to writing about the link between the heatwaves and climate change”…
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