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date: 20 October 2017

Communication on Climate Change and Energy Alternatives in the United States

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.