Hartmut Wessler, Julia Lück, and Antal Wozniak
The annual United Nations Climate Change Conferences, officially called Conferences of the Parties (COPs), are the main drivers of media attention to climate change around the world. Even more so than the Rio and Rio+20 “Earth Summits” (1992 and 2012) and the meetings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the COPs offer multiple access points for the communicative engagement of all kinds of stakeholders. COPs convene up to 20,000 people in one place for two weeks, including national delegations, civil society and business representatives, scientific organizations, representatives from other international organizations, as well as journalists from around the world. While intergovernmental negotiation under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) constitutes the core of COP business, these multifunctional events also offer arenas for civil society mobilization, economic lobbying, as well as expert communication and knowledge transfer.
The media image of the COPs emerges as a product of distinct networks of coproduction constituted by journalists, professional communicators from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and national delegations. Production structures at the COPs are relatively globalized with uniform access rules for journalists from all over the world, a few transnational news agencies dominating distribution of both basic information and news visuals, and dense localized interaction between public relations (PR) professionals and journalists. Photo opportunities created by globally coordinated environmental NGOs meet the selection of journalists much better than the visual strategies pursued by delegation spokespeople. This gives NGOs the upper hand in the visual framing contest, whereas in textual framing NGOs are sidelined and national politicians clearly dominate media coverage. The globalized production environment leads to relatively similar patterns of basic news framing in national media coverage of the COPs that reflect overarching ways of approaching the topic: through a focus on problems and victims; a perspective on civil society demands and solutions; an emphasis on conflict in negotiations; or a focus on the benefits of clean energy production. News narratives, on the other hand, give journalists from different countries more leeway in adapting COP news to national audiences’ presumed interests and preoccupations.
Even after the adoption of a new global treaty at COP21 in Paris in 2015 that specifies emission reduction targets for all participating countries, the annual UN Climate Change Conferences are likely to remain in the media spotlight. Future research could look more systematically at the impact of global civil society and media in monitoring the national contributions to climate change mitigation introduced in the Paris Agreement and shoring up even more ambitious commitments needed to reach the goal of keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius as compared to pre-industrial levels.
Toby Bolsen and Matthew A. Shapiro
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. Please check back later for the full article.
Most of what people think about politics comes from information acquired via exposure to mass media. Media thus serve a vital role in democracy as a fundamental conduit of political information. Scholars study the factors that drive news coverage about political issues, including the rise of discourse on climate change and shifts in media coverage over time. Climate change first received sustained attention in the U.S. press in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As scientific consensus emerged on the issue, interest groups and other actors emerged who accentuated the inherent uncertainty of climate science as a way to cast doubt on the existence of scientific consensus. The politicization of climate science has resulted in uncertainty among the public about its existence, anxiety about the effects of a fundamental transformation of U.S. energy systems, and support for the status quo in terms of the use of traditional energy sources. Media coverage often magnified the voices of contrarian scientists and skeptics because journalistic norms provided equal space to all sides, a semblance of false balance in news coverage that has persisted through the mid 2000s. By this time, the U.S. public had fractured along partisan lines due to rhetoric employed to generate support by elites. Media fragmentation and the rise of partisan news outlets further contributed to polarization, especially given the tendency of individuals to seek political information about climate change from trusted and credible sources. More recently, new media has come to play an increasingly significant role in communicating information on climate change to the public. Ultimately, there is a need for knowledge-based journalism in communicating climate change and energy alternatives to all segments of the U.S. public, but doing this effectively requires engagement with a broader audience in the debate over how best to address climate change. “Honest brokers” must be referenced in the media as they are best equipped to discuss the issue with citizens of different political identities and cultural worldviews. The success of collective efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change requires not only scientific consensus but the ability to communicate the science in a way that generates greater consensus among the public.
Content analysis is one of the most frequently used methods in climate change communication research. Studies implementing content analysis investigate how climate change is presented in mass media or other communication content.
Quantitative content analysis develops a standardized codebook to code content systematically, which then allows for statistical analysis. Qualitative analysis relies on interpretative methods and a closer reading of the material, often using hermeneutic approaches and taking linguistic features of the text more into account than quantitative analysis. While quantitative analysis—particularly if conducted automatically—can comprise larger samples, qualitative analysis usually entails smaller samples, as it is more detailed. Different types of material—whether online content, campaign material, or climate change imagery—bring about different challenges when studied through content analysis that need to be considered when drawing samples of the material for content analysis. To evaluate the quality of a content analysis measures for reliability and validity are used.
Key themes in content analyses of climate change communication are the media’s attention to climate change and the different points of view on global warming as an issue being present in the media coverage. Challenges for content analysis as a method for assessing climate change communication arise from the lack of comparability of the various studies that exist. Multimodal approaches are developed to better adhere to both textual and visual content simultaneously in content analyses of climate change communication.
Scientific agreement on climate change has strengthened over the past few decades, with around 97% of publishing climate scientists agreeing that human activity is causing global warming. While scientific understanding has strengthened, a small but persistent proportion of the public actively opposes the mainstream scientific position. A number of factors contribute to this rejection of scientific evidence, with political ideology playing a key role. Conservative think tanks, supported with funding from vested interests, have been and continue to be a prolific source of misinformation about climate change. A major strategy by opponents of climate mitigation policies has been to cast doubt on the level of scientific agreement on climate change, contributing to the gap between public perception of scientific agreement and the 97% expert consensus. This “consensus gap” decreases public support for mitigation policies, demonstrating that misconceptions can have significant societal consequences. While scientists need to communicate the consensus, they also need to be aware of the fact that misinformation can interfere with the communication of accurate scientific information. As a consequence, neutralizing the influence of misinformation is necessary. Two approaches to neutralize misinformation involve refuting myths after they have been received by recipients (debunking) or preemptively inoculating people before they receive misinformation (prebunking). Research indicates preemptive refutation or “prebunking” is more effective than debunking in reducing the influence of misinformation. Guidelines to practically implement responses (both preemptive and reactive) can be found in educational research, cognitive psychology, and a branch of psychological research known as inoculation theory. Synthesizing these separate lines of research yields a coherent set of recommendations for educators and communicators. Clearly communicating scientific concepts, such as the scientific consensus, is important, but scientific explanations should be coupled with inoculating explanations of how that science can be distorted.
Objectivity and advocacy have been contentious topics within environmental journalism since the specialism was formed in the 1960s. Objectivity is a broad term, but has been commonly interpreted to mean the reporting of news in an impartial and unbiased way by finding and verifying facts, reporting facts accurately, separating facts from values, and giving two sides of an issue equal attention to make news reports balanced. Advocacy journalism, by contrast, presents news from a distinct point of view, a perspective that often aligns with a specific political ideology. It does not separate facts from values and is less concerned with presenting reports that are conventionally balanced. Environmental reporters have found it difficult to categorize their work as either objective or advocacy journalism, because studies show that many of them are sympathetic to environmental values even as they strive to be rigorously professional in their reporting. Journalists have struggled historically to apply the notion of balance to the reporting of climate change science, because even though the overwhelming majority of the world’s experts agree that human-driven climate change is real and will have major future impacts, a minority of scientists dispute this consensus. Reporters aimed to be fair by giving both viewpoints equal attention, a practice scholars have labeled false balance.
The reporting of climate change has changed over time, especially as the topic moved from the scientific domain to encompass also the political, social, legal, and economic realms. Objectivity and advocacy remain important guiding concepts for environmental journalism today, but they have been reconfigured in the digital era that has transformed climate change news. Objectivity in climate reporting can be viewed as going beyond the need to present both sides of an issue to the application in reports of a journalist’s trained judgment, where reporters use their training and knowledge to interpret evidence on a climate-related topic. Objectivity can also be viewed as a transparent method for finding, verifying, and communicating facts. Objectivity can also be seen as the synthesis and curation of multiple points of view. In a pluralistic media ecosystem, there are now multiple forms of advocacy journalism that present climate coverage from various points of view—various forms of climate coverage with a worldview. False balance had declined dramatically over time in mainstream reportorial sources, but it remains a pitfall for reporters to avoid in coverage of two climate change topics: the presentation of the many potential future impacts or risks and the coverage of different policy responses in a climate-challenged society.
Sander van der Linden
Individuals, both within and between different countries, vary substantially in the extent to which they view climate change as a risk. What could explain such variation in climate change risk perception around the world? Climate change is relatively unique as a risk in the sense that it is difficult for people to experience directly or even detect on a purely perceptual or sensory level. In fact, research across the social and behavioral sciences has shown that although people might correctly perceive some changes in long-term climate conditions, psychological factors are often much more influential in determining how the public perceives the risk of climate change. Indeed, decades of research has shown that cognitive, affective, social, and cultural factors all greatly influence the public’s perception of risk, and that these factors, in turn, often interact with each other in complex ways. Yet, although a wide variety of cognitive, experiential, socio-cultural and demographic characteristics have all proven to be relevant, are there certain factors that systematically stand out in explaining and predicting climate change risk perception around the world? And even if so, what do we mean, exactly, by the term “risk perception” and to what extent does the way in which risk perception is measured influence the outcome? Last but certainly not least, how important is public concern about climate change in determining people’s level of behavioral engagement and policy-support for the issue?
Nelya Koteyko and Dimitrinka Atanasova
Discourse analysis is an interdisciplinary field of inquiry that has been increasingly used by climate change communication scholars since the late 1990s. In its broadest sense, discourse analysis is the study of the social through analysis of language, including face-to-face talk, written media texts, and documents, as well as images and symbols. Studies in this field encompass a broad range of theories and analytic approaches for investigating meaning. Due to its focus on the sociocultural and political context in which text and talk occur, discourse analysis is pertinent to the concerns of climate change communication scholars as it has the potential to reveal the ideological dimensions of stakeholder beliefs and the dissemination of climate change-related information in the media. In contrast to studies under the rubric of frame analysis and survey-based analyses of public perceptions, this research places emphasis on the situated study of different stakeholders involved in climate change communication. Here attention is paid not only to the content being communicated (e.g., themes) but also to the linguistic forms and contexts that shape language and interaction. Both of these require an understanding of audiences’ cultural, political, and socioeconomic conditions. From the participatory perspective, discourse analysis can therefore illuminate the moral, ethical, and cultural dimensions of the climate change issue.
Kathryn E. Cooper and Erik C. Nisbet
As climate change becomes an increasingly serious problem, mass media are tasked with educating the public. Documentary films and television shows (also called “edutainment”) have been used for decades to communicate about the natural world so that the public may hopefully become informed about science in a simplified, easy-to-understand way. Although producers ostensibly create environmental documentaries in order to inform and/or advocate, theory development and empirical research is limited and insufficient in explaining how this genre influences audiences and why this genre may or may not be an effective means of science communication.
Environmental documentaries have the potential to deeply impact audiences because these films promote learning while viewers are entertained, because engagement with the documentary narrative (story) can overcome biases such as politically driven motivated reasoning (conforming new evidence to existing beliefs) and can leverage biases such as the tendency to rely on affect (emotions) when estimating risks. Documentary storytelling can also enhance learning by connecting the causes and consequences of climate change in a sequential narrative.
Climate change is a highly contentious political issue, which is reflected in the diversity of viewpoints found in climate change documentaries despite scientific consensus about the issue. While many of these films serve an educational purpose, others are geared toward advocacy. These advocacy programs aim to mobilize value-congruent audiences to engage in personal and collective action and/or to demand policy change. However, people prefer messages that align with their preexisting values, and so the belief disparity between climate change advocates and deniers grows with increasing media exposure as audiences with different beliefs watch and receive climate change messages in very different ways. Filmmakers and scientists must focus future efforts on creating visually engaging narratives within documentaries to promote both education and advocacy to diverse audiences.
Salil Benegal and Lyle Scruggs
How do economic conditions affect public opinion about climate change? Since the early days of the modern environmental movement, people have debated three main perspectives on how economic conditions impact environmental attitudes. The post-materialism perspective suggests that social and individual affluence leads to increasing concern and demands for action on climate change through long-run cultural change. A second view suggests that attitudes about climate change are shaped largely independently of economic conditions and reflect the emergence of a new environmental paradigm. A third view, associated with ecological modernization theory, suggests that attitudes about climate change are shaped in important ways by short-term economic factors, such as economic self-interest, and are likely to vary among citizens over time. While all of these perspectives have merit, we emphasize the impact of macroeconomic risk and business cycle fluctuations in shaping public attitudes toward climate change and more general aspects of environmental policy. Rising unemployment rates, for example, tend to be associated with declines in concern about environmental problems. This is a trend that is repeated across more than four decades and multiple recessions and recoveries dating back to the 1970s.
Although it is obviously a more recently recognized environmental problem, public attitudes about climate change are also affected considerably by short-run economic conditions. This fact can influence the possibilities for policy reform. Through a process of motivated reasoning, in which immediate concerns and preferences to address economic risk lead individuals to adjust other attitudes about the environment, public concerns about climate change have ebbed and flowed with the business cycle. Other economic factors—such as societal affluence, personal employment status, or income—have more limited effects on attitudes about climate change, at least in most developed countries.
The impact of economic risk on public attitudes about climate change has important implications for policy reform in democratic societies, because public support matters. While partisanship and ideology are frequently cited as explanations for fluctuating public opinion about climate change, macroeconomic risk offers a complementary explanation, which suggests that the framing and timing of environmental policy initiatives is as important as ideological acceptability. Positioning environmental actions or initiatives in better economic conditions, emphasizing immediate economic benefits, and countering unwarranted beliefs about personal costs, especially during challenging economic circumstances, should improve the prospects for efforts to address climate change.
Timothy A. Gibson
Over the past two decades, the global news industry has embarked upon a major project of economic, organizational, and technological restructuring. In organizational terms, successive waves of mergers and buyouts have yielded a global news landscape where most of the larger firms are owned by shareholders and run by executives whose singular focus is on rationalizing news production and improving profitability. Although in some cases, these shareholders and executives have used their authority to influence climate coverage directly, more often their goals are non-ideological: reducing labor costs and increasing revenues. At the same time, in a parallel development, the digital media revolution not only has spawned a host of new online competitors but also has cut deeply into the advertising revenue once enjoyed by traditional media firms.
Within legacy news organizations, these industrial and technological trends have converged to dramatically intensify the work pressures facing environmental journalists. For example, in an effort to reduce costs, many firms have reduced newsroom staff to a small core of multi-tasking reporters, supported by a wider web of part-time freelancers. In this process, the science and environment beat is often the first to go, with environmental specialists among the first to be reassigned or downsized (and pushed into freelance work). For all reporters, there is increased pressure to produce more stories in less time on multiple media platforms, a trend that, in turn, enhances the power of special interests to influence climate coverage through public relations and other external information subsidies.
Due to these converging industrial and technological trends, environmental reporters now work in a new media ecosystem that is complex, subject to contradictory pressures, and in many ways hostile to the production of high-quality climate news. When the environmental beat is cut, climate change often becomes the purview of general assignment reporters who lack experience and expertise. For their part, freelance specialists continue to cover climate news, but their ability to sustain this coverage over the long term is constrained by their part-time status. Finally, although niche climate blogs have provided welcome spaces for environmental journalists to produce in-depth coverage, these outlets usually reach only tiny audiences composed of the already-engaged.
In short, without significant action, the regrettable status quo of climate news—that is, an episodic sprinkling of climate coverage scattered across the media ecosystem—will continue indefinitely. Policy-makers should therefore restore long-term institutional and economic support for environmental journalists specializing in climate science and policy.