Ashley A. Anderson
Early research on the relationship between social media use and its relationship to climate change opinion, knowledge, and behavior suggests several positive impacts. Social media encourages greater knowledge of climate change, mobilization of climate change activists, space for discussing the issue with others, and online discussions that frame climate change as a negative for society. Social media, however, does provide space for framing climate change skeptically and activating those with a skeptical perspective of climate change. Further examination of the relationship between social media use and climate change perceptions is warranted.
For the general public, the news media are an important source of information about climate change. They have significant potential to influence public understanding and perceptions of the issue. Television news, because of its visual immediacy and authoritative presentation, is likely to be particularly influential. Numerous studies have shown that television news can affect public opinion directly and indirectly through processes such as agenda setting and framing. Moreover, even in a fragmented media environment largely dominated by online communication, television remains a prominent medium through which citizens follow news about science issues. Given this, scholars over the last several decades have endeavored to map the content of television news reporting on climate change and its effects on public opinion and knowledge. Results from this research suggest that journalists’ adherence to professional norms such as balance, novelty, dramatization, and personalization, along with economic pressures and sociopolitical influences, have produced inaccuracies and distortions in television news coverage of climate change. For example, content analyses have found that U.S. network television news stories tend to over-emphasize dramatic impacts and imagery, conflicts between political groups and personalities, and the uncertainty surrounding climate science and policy. At the same time, those skeptical of climate change have been able to exploit journalists’ norms of balance and objectivity to amplify their voices in television coverage of climate change. In particular, the increasingly opinionated 24-hour cable news networks have become a megaphone for ideological viewpoints on climate change. In the United States, a coordinated climate denial movement has used Fox News to effectively spread its message discrediting climate science. Coverage on Fox News is overwhelmingly dismissive of climate change and disparaging toward climate science and scientists. Coverage on CNN and MSNBC is more accepting of climate change; however, while MSNBC tends to vilify the conservative opposition to climate science and policy, and occasionally exaggerates the impacts of climate change, CNN sends more mixed signals. Survey and experimental analyses indicate that these trends in television news coverage of climate change have important effects on public opinion and may, in particular, fuel confusion and apathy among the general U.S. public and foster opinion extremity among strong partisans.
Maxwell Boykoff and Gesa Luedecke
During the past three decades, elite news media have become influential translators of climate change linking science, policy, and the citizenry. Historical trends in public discourse—shaped in significant part by elite media—demonstrate news media’s critical role in shaping public perception and the level of concern towards climate change. Media representations of climate change and global warming are embedded in social, cultural, political, and economic dimensions that influence individual-level processes such as everyday journalistic practices. Media have a strong influence on policy decision-making, attitudes, perspectives, intentions, and behavioral change, but those connections can be challenging to pinpoint; consequently, examinations of elite news coverage of climate change, particularly in recent decades, have sought to gain a stronger understanding of these complex and dynamic webs of interactions. In so doing, research has more effectively traced how media have taken on varied roles in the climate change debate, from watch dogs to lap dogs to guard dogs in the public sphere. Within these areas of research, psychological aspects of media influence have been relatively underemphasized. However, interdisciplinary and problem-focused research investigations of elite media coverage stand to advance considerations of public awareness, discourse, and engagement. Elite news media critically contribute to public discourse and policy priorities through their “mediating” and interpretative influences. Therefore, a review of examinations of these dynamics illuminate the bridging role of elite news coverage of climate change between formal science and policy, and everyday citizens in the public sphere.
Anthony Dudo, Jacob Copple, and Lucy Atkinson
Although there is an abundance of social scientific research focused on public opinion and climate change, there remains much to learn about how individuals come to understand, feel, and behave relative to this issue. Efforts to understand these processes are commonly directed toward media depictions, because media represent a primary conduit through which people encounter information about climate change. The majority of research in this area has focused on news media portrayals of climate change. News media depictions, however, represent only a part of the media landscape, and a relatively small but growing body of work has focused on examining portrayals of climate change in entertainment media (i.e., films, television programs, etc.) and their implications. This article provides a comprehensive overview of this area of research, summarizing what is currently known about portrayals of climate change in entertainment media, the individual-level effects of these portrayals, and areas ripe for future research. Our overview suggests that the extant work has centered primarily on a small subset of high-profile climate change films. Examination of the content of these films has been mostly rhetorical and has often presumed negative audience effects. Studies that specifically set out to explore possible effects have often unearthed evidence suggesting short-term contributions to viewers’ perceptions of climate change, specifically in terms of heightened awareness, concern, and motivation. Improving the breadth and depth of research in this area, we contend, can stem from more robust theorizing, analyses that focus on a more diverse menu of entertainment media and the interactions among them, and increasingly complex analytical efforts to capture long-term effects.
Over the last decade, scholars have devoted significant attention to making climate change communication more effective but less attention to ensuring that it is ethical. This neglect risks blurring the distinction between persuasion and manipulation, generating distrust among audiences, and obscuring the conceptual resources needed to guide communicators.
Three prevailing approaches to moral philosophy can illuminate various ethical considerations involved in communicating climate change. Consequentialism, which evaluates actions as morally right or wrong according to their consequences, is the implicit moral framework shared by many social scientists and policymakers interested in climate change. While consequentialism rightly emphasizes the consequences of communication, its exclusive focus on the effectiveness of communication tends to obscure other moral considerations, such as what communicators owe to audiences as a matter of duty or respect. Deontology better captures these duties and provides grounds for communicating in ways that respect the rights of citizens to deliberate and decide how to act. But because deontology tends to cast ethics as an abstract set of universalizable principles, it often downplays the virtues of character needed to motivate action and apply principles across a variety of contexts. Virtue ethics seeks to overcome the limits of both consequentialism and deontology by focusing on the virtues that individuals and communities need to flourish. While virtue ethics is often criticized for failing to provide a concrete blueprint for action, its conception of moral development and thick vocabulary of virtues and vices offer a robust set of practical and conceptual resources for guiding the actions, attitudes, and relationships that characterize climate change communication. Ultimately, all three approaches highlight moral considerations that should inform the ethics of communicating climate change.
Joseph P. Reser and Graham L. Bradley
There is a strong view among climate change researchers and communicators that the persuasive tactic of arousing fear in order to promote precautionary motivation and behavior is neither effective nor appropriate in the context of climate change communication and engagement. Yet the modest research evidence that exists with respect to the use of fear appeals in communicating climate change does not offer adequate empirical evidence—either for or against the efficacy of fear appeals in this context—nor would such evidence adequately address the issue of the appropriateness of fear appeals in climate change communication. Extensive research literatures addressing preparedness, prevention, and behavior change in the areas of public health, marketing, and risk communication generally nonetheless provide consistent empirical support for the qualified effectiveness of fear appeals in persuasive social influence communications and campaigns. It is also noteworthy that the language of climate change communication is typically that of “communication and engagement,” with little explicit reference to targeted social influence or behavior change, although this is clearly implied. Hence underlying and intertwined issues here are those of cogent arguments versus largely absent evidence, and effectiveness as distinct from appropriateness. These matters are enmeshed within the broader contours of the contested political, social, and environmental, issues status of climate change, which jostle for attention in a 24/7 media landscape of disturbing and frightening communications concerning the reality, nature, progression, and implications of global climate change. All of this is clearly a challenge for evaluation research attempting to examine the nature and effectiveness of fear appeals in the context of climate change communication, and for determining the appropriateness of designed fear appeals in climate change communications intended to both engage and influence individuals, communities, and “publics” with respect to the ongoing threat and risks of climate change. There is an urgent need to clearly and effectively communicate the full nature and implications of climate change, in the face of this profound risk and rapidly unfolding reality. All such communications are, inherently, frightening warning messages, quite apart from any intentional fear appeals. How then should we put these arguments, evidence, and challenges “on the table” in our considerations and recommendations for enhancing climate change communication—and addressing the daunting and existential implications of climate change?
Jill E. Hopke and Luis E. Hestres
Divestment is a socially responsible investing tactic to remove assets from a sector or industry based on moral objections to its business practices. It has historical roots in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. The early-21st-century fossil fuel divestment movement began with climate activist and 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben’s Rolling Stone article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” McKibben’s argument centers on three numbers. The first is 2°C, the international target for limiting global warming that was agreed upon at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 2009 Copenhagen conference of parties (COP). The second is 565 Gigatons, the estimated upper limit of carbon dioxide that the world population can put into the atmosphere and reasonably expect to stay below 2°C. The third number is 2,795 Gigatons, which is the amount of proven fossil fuel reserves. That the amount of proven reserves is five times that which is allowable within the 2°C limit forms the basis for calls to divest.
The aggregation of individual divestment campaigns constitutes a movement with shared goals. Divestment can also function as “tactic” to indirectly apply pressure to targets of a movement, such as in the case of the movement to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline in the United States. Since 2012, the fossil fuel divestment movement has been gaining traction, first in the United States and United Kingdom, with student-led organizing focused on pressuring universities to divest endowment assets on moral grounds.
In partnership with 350.org, The Guardian launched its Keep it in the Ground campaign in March 2015 at the behest of outgoing editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger. Within its first year, the digital campaign garnered support from more than a quarter-million online petitioners and won a “campaign of the year” award in the Press Gazette’s British Journalism Awards. Since the launch of The Guardian’s campaign, “keep it in the ground” has become a dominant frame used by fossil fuel divestment activists.
Divestment campaigns seek to stigmatize the fossil fuel industry. The rationale for divestment rests on the idea that fossil fuel companies are financially valued based on their resource reserves and will not be able to extract these reserves with a 2°C or lower climate target. Thus, their valuation will be reduced and the financial holdings become “stranded assets.” Critics of divestment have cited the costs and risks to institutional endowments that divestment would entail, arguing that to divest would go against their fiduciary responsibility. Critics have also argued that divesting from fossil fuel assets would have little or no impact on the industry. Some higher education institutions, including Princeton and Harvard, have objected to divestment as a politicization of their endowments. Divestment advocates have responded to this concern by pointing out that not divesting is not a politically neutral act—it is, in fact, choosing the side of fossil fuel corporations.
Mike S. Schäfer and Saffron O'Neill
Framing—selecting certain aspects of a given issue and making them more salient in communication in order to “frame” the issue in a specific way—is a key concept in the study of communication. At the same time, it has been used very differently in scholarship, leading some to declare it a “fractured paradigm,” or an idea whose usefulness has expired. In studies of climate change communication, frame analyses have been used numerous times and in various ways, from formal framing approaches (e.g., episodic vs. thematic framing) to topical frames (both generic and issue-specific). Using methodological approaches of frame analysis from content analysis over discourse analysis and qualitative studies to experimental research, this research has brought valuable insights into media portrayals of climate change in different countries and their effects on audiences—even though it still has limitations that should be remedied in future research.
Although future generations—starting with today’s youth—will bear the brunt of negative effects related to climate change, some research suggests that they have little concern about climate change nor much intention to take action to mitigate its impacts. One common explanation for this indifference and inaction is lack of scientific knowledge. It is often said that youth do not understand the science; therefore, they are not concerned. Indeed, in science educational research, numerous studies catalogue the many misunderstandings students have about climate science. However, this knowledge-deficit perspective is not particularly informative in charting a path forward for climate-change education. This path is important because climate science will be taught in more depth as states adopt the Next Generation Science Standards within the next few years. How do we go about creating the educational experiences that students need to be able to achieve climate-science literacy and feel as if they could take action? First, the literature base in communication, specifically about framing must be considered, to identify potentially more effective ways to craft personally relevant and empowering messages for students within their classrooms.
Debbie Hopkins and Ezra M. Markowitz
Despite scientific consensus on the anthropogenic causation of climate change, and ever-growing knowledge on the biophysical impacts of climate change, there is large variability in public perceptions of and belief in climate change. Public support for national and international climate policy has a strong positive association with certainty that climate change is occurring, human caused, serious, and solvable. Thus to achieve greater acceptance of national climate policy and international agreements, it is important to raise public belief in climate change and understandings of personal climate risk.
Public understandings of climate change and associated risk perceptions have received significant academic attention. This research has been conducted across a range of spatial scales, with particular attention on large-scale, nationally representative surveys to gain insights into country-scale perceptions of climate change. Generalizability of nationally representative surveys allows some degree of national comparison; however, the ability to conduct such comparisons has been limited by the availability of comparative data sets. Consequently, empirical insights have been geographically biased toward Europe and North America, with less understanding of public perceptions of climate change in other geographical settings including the Global South. Moreover, a focus on quantitative surveying techniques can overlook the more nuanced, culturally determined factors that contribute to the construction of climate change perceptions.
The physical and human geographies of climate change are diverse. This is due to the complex spatial dimensions of climate change and includes both the observed and anticipated geographical differentiation in risks, impacts, and vulnerabilities. While country location and national climate can impact upon how climate change is understood, so too will sociocultural factors such as national identity and culture(s). Studies have reported high variability in climate change perceptions, the result of a complex interplay between personal experiences of climate, social norms, and worldviews. Exploring the development of national-scale analyses and their findings over time, and the comparability of national data sets, may provide some insights into the factors that influence public perceptions of climate change and identify national-scale interventions and communications to raise risk perception and understanding of climate change.