The psychology of flooding: An ESCR Better Lives Essay

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Niall McLoughlin is a PhD candidate in psychology and arts scholar at the University of Bath, as well as an associate with Climate Outreach. In this shortlisted essay from the ESRC Better Lives Writing Competition, in which PhD students who have received money from the ESRC write short essays about how their research leads too better lives, McLoughlin discusses the psychological catastrophe that accompanied the natural disaster of the 2015 Cumbrian floods and what that might teach us for addressing climate change.

I’m lucky enough to have grown up near the Lake District, a beautiful, wild and rugged part of the country. Spending weekends hiking with my family in the Cumbrian fells truly inspired me to study how people connect with the natural environment. But when I was embarking on my PhD, and trying to decide exactly what to focus on, nothing prepared me for what would happen in the winter of 2015.

Niall McLoughlin

Cumbria was completely devastated by a major flooding event – the kind we have never really seen before. A new national 24-hour rainfall record was set at one of the region’s rain gauges, and all the major rivers in the county exceeded their historic levels. The flow of water in the river Eden, for instance, was so great that it could have filled the Royal Albert Hall in less than a minute.

Thousands of homes were devastated across Cumbria and other northern counties.

Seeing this unfold, I was compelled to focus my PhD research around understanding people’s experiences of these sorts of events; to figure out what can be done from a perspective of psychology, where the focus is on personal perspectives.

How did flood victims make sense of what happened? In what ways did people cope? And what future did they see for their communities?

Carrying out interviews and surveys was eye-opening. What I found was that Cumbrians were experiencing an array of ‘psychological threats’ in the aftermath.

One interviewee explained that despite all the damage, the hardest part was throwing the teddy bear she’d had since she was a child into a skip; while another participant likened the experience to a ‘bereavement’. Flooding poses a threat to its victims’ sense of continuity, as individuals lose a part of their lives to the floodwaters.

The flooding also threatened people’s sense of belonging, posing complex dilemmas. One participant explained how the prospect of moving away and not belonging to her local community would be worse than being flooded again and again.

With so much at stake, it’s no wonder that the trauma of flooding can leave those affected with serious mental health issues.

But crucially, people also felt threatened by the way the authorities handled the situation and the way they had been engaged with. The flood victims explained how they felt they had no control over their situation, and needed to be able to stand on their own two feet in the face of future flooding. Psychologically speaking, the way communities were being engaged with was posing a threat to their sense of efficacy to take the actions they wanted. In other words, flood victims’ ability to cope was being jeopardised.

Scientists have already confirmed that climate change has started to re-shape flood events in the UK, and we know it’s going to get worse. We face a range of climate impacts on our shores, but flooding is expected to be the greatest risk.

It is therefore a pressing concern to figure out how to engage with the public appropriately around this issue. Understanding how people cope with flooding also holds clues for the ways that people will respond to other impacts of climate change, like coastal erosion, health risks from higher temperatures, and water shortages.

The Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, recently warned that not every home can be saved from climate impacts, and that some people will need to be relocated. In the coastal community of Fairbourne in Wales, for instance, plans are already being made to ‘decommission’ an entire village due to the threat of sea level rise.

However, public engagement with climate impacts gets little attention compared to efforts about reducing environmental footprints (like recycling, eating less meat, or using sustainable transport); and government funding for impacts-based engagement is currently insufficient for the challenges ahead.

My research is helping us to understand the real problems that people are facing on the frontlines of climate change, and unpicks the ways that engagement could be improved.

Whilst on placement at Climate Outreach, Europe’s leading climate change communications organisation, I have been involved in new research that brings together the recommendations of around 200 climate communication specialists. What we found was a clear mandate for nurturing efficacy and empowerment to respond to climate change, through engagement that puts dialogue and participation at its heart.

I’m now looking at ways to work with members of the public, to help people share their stories about flooding through participatory, creative engagement methods. By understanding the ways people experience and cope with the threat of living in communities on the frontlines of climate change, we can learn how to carry out public engagement more effectively; and through this, help people in these communities to have better lives.

Shortlisted and winning essays in the series:



  • Notes on a G-string | Rosie Cowan, Queen’s University Belfast
  • Better lives with better toilets | Ian Ross, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

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