Misinformation Alert: Extreme Weather

Misinformation Alert: Extreme Weather
Credit: Met Office

In February 2022 England suffered 'the most severe and damaging storm ... since 2014'. Just five months later, the United Kingdom set a new temperature record at 40.3 degrees, measured in Coningsby in Lincolnshire. With another heatwave predicted in 2022, and extreme weather expected to become more common, we investigate what Persuadables are saying about it, and how we can join the conversation.

Included in this post:

  • What's going on? What's the volume of the conversation? What's being talked about?
  • Who is involved? Which audiences make up the conversation and what are they saying?
  • Suggestions for the next extreme weather event. How you can reach Persuadable audiences, and not just the converted?

What's going on?

What's the volume of climate conversation? What was being talked about?

July's heatwave generated much more climate chatter than Storm Eunice

The phrase "Storm Eunice" was more Googled in February than "heatwave" was in July. Meanwhile, there were about 25% fewer mentions of #stormeunice on Twitter than mentions of #heatwave during each event's key days, according to our analysis via Pulsar.

Popularity of search terms "Storm Eunice", "Heatwave" and "Temperature", past 12 months, United Kingdom. Source: Google Trends

Despite this, mentions of "climate" on Twitter were nearly 17x more during the three days of the heatwave than during the three days of storms. This correlates with polling data, where the number of people selecting 'the environment' as one of the most important issues facing the country shot up by 10% the week following the heatwave - a more pronounced increase than when the UK hosted COP26 - while the week of Storm Eunice saw no movement.

Percentage of Britons picking "The Environment" in their top 3 concerns. Source: YouGov

What was everyone talking about?

Perhaps because a heatwave is so tangible, there were conversations everywhere. Deniers were telling their readers and followers that "it's been this hot before" or even that we should be happy about the heatwave. Unusually, this disinformation was being actively debunked by Progressive Activists and even many media outlets. But away from all the noise, what were the people in the middle - our Persuadables - talking about?

Who is involved?

Which audiences make up the conversation and what are they saying?

Our Persuadables are taken from Climate Outreach's Britain Talks Climate segmentation. They're everyone who is not a Progressive Activist, or a Disengaged Traditionalist. That's 69% of the British population who are often not being engaged with traditional climate communications.

We were surprised by the volume of denial and dispassion on display from our Persuadables on Twitter and Facebook during the heatwave. People from seemingly all walks of life were unwilling to accept climate narratives during the hot weather. All of the below narratives were in direct response to suggestions that climate change is responsible for the heatwave.

"It's the same as 1976", or "It's been this hot in the UK before."

"Wildfires were caused by people not temperatures. "

"Other countries, such as Spain and Australia, have it worse and survive."

"It's temporary and the weather will be back to normal soon."

"1.5 degrees warmer sounds quite nice actually!"

Why might this be happening? Well, first of all the scientific terminology is not on our side. People don't automatically associate "global warming" with storms, floods or cold snaps, and many people don't understand that "1.5 degrees of warming" does not refer specifically to the weather. Added to this, days or even weeks of health warnings and red weather warnings ahead of the heatwave contributed to a feeling of exhaustion by the time it arrived. Attempts to remind people about climate change on social media were often met with an negative emotional response.

This does make sense from what we know of other misinformation narratives - if some people are worried that climate policies may take away our freedoms, are they trying to take away our enjoyment of summer too?

Suggestions for the next heatwave

How you can chime with Persuadables audiences and not just the converted?

Reframe: Try NOT to talk about the climate during a heatwave

While the extreme heat is probably a good way to mobilise your base, talking directly about it looks like it's off-putting for Persuadables in the moment.

Polls consistently showed an increase in climate change concern during and after the previous heatwave, so remind people about the links to climate afterwards. During the hottest period, try leading with some other narratives that worked really well with Persuadables:

  • Brits still love talking about the weather, so acknowledge the weather and give advice on how to stay safe. Use examples from other countries like Spain that regularly have hot weather, this can more subtly drive the point home that these events are irregular.
  • Talk about and thank local services and service workers that we have needed during this period of unusual heat and sunshine.
  • If you want to discuss the impacts of the extreme heat, messages of emotional support to those affected land better than just stating the risks and dangers.

Follow up with facts and information AFTER it's subsided

Facts and science will probably land better after the event. But if you want to lead with science, you will need something that makes the link between extreme weather and climate change, or naturally debunks misconceptions about the weather and its connection to climate. Stats such as this are really salient for example:

Experiment with long-form content like video, or interactive quizzes with human centred hooks such as "are summers the same as when you were a kid?" This interactive graph from the New York Times, or the example below from Nasa are great examples. But the real winner in making things salient and simple to understand is this article from the Daily Mail. You don't need to understand data to understand the parallels being drawn.

Nasa's data led approach to visualising our warming climate
The Daily Mail centres humans and good times, to suggest that extreme weather now is the same as in 1976

Going full Andrew Marr, and inoculating people by revealing the motivations behind people and outlets who are spreading disinformation is also recommended. A straight talking, believable tone of voice, that centres the needs of ordinary people and learns from culture wars, but directs blame onto those with power, can also be extremely effective.

Meanwhile, in terms of spokespeople, use an extreme weather event as an opportunity to platform emergency service workers and ordinary people whose lives or property were affected.

Further Reading:

Advertising Guide on Reframing: for actionable advice on using framing to create better climate communications
Advertising Guide on Paid Media: for a deeper dive into discussing what paid media is, why it matters, and how it can help you achieve your aims
We would love to hear from you! Please get in touch to kathryn@actclimatelabs.com if this guidance was useful or you would like further help to use these insights to supercharge your climate communications.