Climate Change Communication in Germany
Summary and Keywords
Climate change communication has a long history in Germany, where the so-called “climate catastrophe” has received widespread public attention from the 1980s onwards. The article reviews climate change communication and the respective research in the country over the last decades. First, it provides a socio-political history of climate change communication in Germany. It shows how scientists were successful in setting the issue on the public and policy agendas early on, how politicians and the media emphasized the climate change threat, how corporations abstained from interventions into the debate and how skeptical voices, as a result, remained marginalized. Second, the article reviews scholarship on climate change communication in Germany. It shows how research on the issue has expanded since the mid-2000s, highlights major strands and results, as well as open questions and ongoing debates.
Germany is an interesting case for scholars of climate change communication. While it is a highly developed country with a long tradition of fossil-fuel production and consumption (World Bank, 2012), it has remodeled itself into one of the pioneering nations in “climate protection [Klimaschutz]” in recent decades, pursuing ambitious goals for domestic emission reductions and being one of the drivers of European and international climate politics (cf. Böhler-Baedeker & Mersmann, 2013; Klein, 2012). Internationally, it is therefore often seen as a model case for the transition towards a low-carbon society (e.g., Engels et al., 2013, p. 1018).
Public communication and media coverage of climate change have been a factor in this transition, and accordingly, social scientists have analyzed their role in recent decades. The article reviews the development of climate change communication in Germany as well as the respective research, its major findings and shortcomings. After describing relevant background factors, it provides a socio-political history of climate change communication in Germany. It goes on to review scholarship on the issue, and concludes by highlighting open questions and ongoing debates.
The Case of Germany
Climate change communication in Germany and the development of scholarship analyzing it can best be understood if they are embedded in the respective societal context. With regards to climate change communication in Germany, three particularly relevant contextual factors can be identified:
First, structurally and culturally, conditions in Germany are conducive to open yet civil debates about collectively relevant issues such as climate change. On the one hand, this is due to Germany’s “political opportunity structures” (e.g., Kriesi, Koopmans, Duyvendak, & Giugni, 1992) or “discursive opportunity structures” (e.g., Ferree, Gamson, Gerhards, & Rucht, 2002), i.e., to the country’s consistent, but not necessarily formal or permanent features that influence the public participation opportunities of different stakeholders, such as the political elite’s responsiveness to societal demands or the number of institutional access points towards which such demands can be addressed (cf. Tarrow, 1994, p. 85). These opportunity structures are comparatively open in the country, which allows stakeholders with different viewpoints to state their positions publicly. They tend not to discriminate strongly along the political spectrum—between left and right, liberal and conservative positions—but have been shown to favor formal organizations over bottom-up, grassroots civil society groups with fewer resources or individual activists (Ferree, Gamson, Gerhards, & Rucht, 2002, pp. 61ff.; Gerhards & Schäfer, 2006, 2010).
This openness allows for controversial public and policy debates about issues where competing positions are represented by established organizational stakeholders—such as abortion (e.g., Ferree et al., 2002), stem cell research (e.g., Schäfer, 2007, 2009), or nuclear energy (e.g., Wolling & Arlt, 2014). That this was not the case for climate change, as we will see, is connected to the main political stakeholders in Germany accepting the consensus view among scientists diagnosing climate change as a problem in need of a political solution (Grundmann, 2007, p. 426), and to competing voices being excluded from political debate as of the early 1990s (Weingart et al., 2000, pp. 269ff.).
It also had to do, on the other hand, with the country’s “democratic-corporatist” media system (Hallin & Mancini, 2005), which favors consensus over contestation. Germany has a long tradition of independent mass media and a comparatively high broadsheet circulation, with both a strong regional diversification and a broad spectrum of national quality papers. Public service broadcasting plays a strong role along a diversified commercial broadcasting and print media sector, and both are comparatively autonomous from state intervention. A “detached watchdog” journalistic culture (Hanitzsch, 2011) dominates, characterized by neutral, information-based journalism with high professional standards (Hahn & Hermann, 2010, p. 196). The overall orientation of German journalists in covering policy debates is towards consensus rather than confrontation or conflict.
Second, while not being strongly affected by climate change’s direct effects, Germany is affected by the problem’s socioeconomic effects. Primary effects such as extreme weather events, rising sea levels, biodiversity loss, or health risks are comparatively minor in Germany (albeit of different relevance regionally, cf. Storch & Claussen, 2011). Accordingly, the “Climate Vulnerability Monitor” rates Germany’s vulnerability to such incidents as “low,” ranking the country as the 70th most vulnerable of the world in 2010, and projecting this rank to go down to 100th in 2030 (DARA & Climate Vulnerable Forum, 2012, pp. 99, 110).
In contrast, Germany is more affected by indirect, socioeconomic effects of climate change mitigation, adaptation, and changes in energy production and consumption. It is an Annex B-country to the Kyoto protocol and, as such, obligated to curb greenhouse gas emissions (Moellendorf, 2009). And even though the German economy’s carbon intensity is lower than that of Australia, France, Russia, the United States, or other countries, the country’s energy mix still heavily features fossil fuel energy sources (World Bank, 2012). Mitigation efforts, therefore, substantially affect Germany, leading the “Climate Vulnerabilty Monitor” to assess these socio-economic effects as “moderate” (DARA & Climate Vulnerable Forum, 2012, p. 99).
A third relevant contextual factor is Germany’s strong environmental legacy, the widespread belief in climate change, and its pronounced climate change politics. Germany is “a country in which pro-environmental attitudes are part of the cultural mainstream” (Engels, Hüther, Schäfer, & Held, 2013, p. 1019), and “[m]any Germans consider themselves environmentally conscious” (Hahn & Hermann, 2010, p. 199), a statement underlined by regular surveys of the Federal Environmental Agency (Umweltbundesamt, e.g., Kuckartz, 2000). Correspondingly, the political landscape exhibits a “saturation of green values” (Hahn & Hermann, 2010, p. 198), which also extends to climate change: “[A]ll major political parties represented in the national parliament relate in some positive way to environmental and climate protection goals” (Engels et al., 2013, p. 1019), and climate change has been a central topic of the country’s environmental movement (e.g., Roose, 2012, p. 92).
Climate change is widely regarded as a serious problem (Engels, Hüther, Schäfer, & Held, 2013; Eurobarometer, 2014), “a relatively broad domestic consensus exists that Germany should play a leading role in international climate negotiations, and that national measures, such as subsidies for technological innovations, are necessary” (Schäfer, Ivanova, & Schmidt, 2014, p. 156). Accordingly, the country has been a “frontrunner”1 in climate change politics (Böhler-Baedeker & Mersmann, 2013; cf. Hahn & Hermann, 2010). Apart from ratifying the Kyoto protocol, it has adopted ambitious aims for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (Klein, 2012, p. 2), invested in measures to further sustainable development, has strongly subsidized renewable energies, established a carbon trading scheme, and significantly regulated the automotive and energy industries (for an overview, see Böhler-Baedeker & Mersmann, 2013).
With a widespread belief in the existence and anthropogenity of climate change, a strong tradition of environmentalism, and an open yet consensus-oriented media system favoring organizational stakeholders over civil-society representatives, Germany has the makings for intense, but not overly controversial public debate and media coverage about climate change. As we will see, these conditions are mirrored in the development of climate change communication in the country: Scientists were successful in setting the issue on the public and policy agendas early on, framing climate change as a “climate catastrophe [Klimakatastrophe].” And while politicians and the media emphasized the threat climate change presented, potential opponents such as corporations abstained from interventions. Skeptical views, in turn, were not represented by established organizations and remained marginalized as a result. Media coverage presented climate change overwhelmingly as existent and man-made (Kaiser & Rhomberg, 2015), and public debate focused on policy options more than on the science of climate change (Ivanova, 2015).
The Socio-Political History of Climate Change Communication in Germany
The socio-political history of climate change communication in Germany has been well documented in a series of large-scale discourse analyses (Weingart, Engels, & Pansegrau, 2000, 2002, 2008).2 Drawing on media and document analysis as well as qualitative interviews (for a methodological documentation see Weingart, Engels, & Pansegrau, 2002, 2008), the authors analyze the interplay of scientists, political decision-makers, and the mass media in Germany from the 1970s to the mid-1990s. They distinguish three discursive phases and tentatively add a fourth one in the book’s second edition (Weingart et al., 2008, pp. 9ff.).3
Phase 1: Concerned Science, Cautious Politics, Scarce Media Attention (1975–1985)
In the 1970s, German climate science increasingly recognized the human influence on the climate system, which led to “a rising concern among many scientists” (Weingart et al., 2000, p. 266) that manifested itself in introductory and concluding sections of scientific publications, where researchers emphasized that climate change posed a problem. The “perception of climate change as something dangerous that must be avoided [was] established in the scientific discourse” (Weingart et al., 2000, p. 266), with scientists asking “how much [human] impact can be permitted before the balance of nature is seriously upset?” (geographer Wilfrid Bach quoted in Weingart et al., 2000, p. 267). Political regulation was already implicitly called for in many of these statements, yet not explicitly addressed to federal or regional authorities.
Consequently, it took several years until anthropogenic climate change appeared on the political horizon, in a parliamentary initiative aiming to “determine whether measurable negative impacts on the German territory were to be expected in the short term” (Weingart et al., 2000, p. 270). After no immediate risks were established, however, “there was no sense of urgency” (Weingart et al., 2000, p. 271) in German politics, and the recommendation was “to keep climatic developments under surveillance and to shift them [back] to the domain of scientific observation” (Weingart et al., 2000, p. 271), for example in the form of a national climate research program launched in 1984.
Media coverage about climate change was scarce in this phase. But when media focused on the issue, scientific warnings were often “taken seriously and translated into sensationalized scenarios” (Weingart et al., 2000, pp. 274f.) Examples include headlines like “Death in the Greenhouse [Tod im Treibhaus]” (Der Spiegel) and predictions of “the Arctic Ocean [being] devoid of ice by the middle of the next century” (Der Spiegel), or “a further rise of the sea level by 20 to 30 centimeters within the next 70 years” (FAZ; all quoted in Weingart et al., 2000, pp. 274f.)
Phase 2: Activist Science, Sensationalized Media Coverage, Responsive Politics (1986–1992)
In the second phase, a “dramatic warning by German physicists in 1986 immediately garnered public attention and turned the scientific hypothesis into a major political issue” (Weingart et al., 2000, p. 266). The starting point was an intense debate about the negative implications of anthropogenic climate change in the newsletter of the German Physical Society (DPG), where scientists urged that “the problem must be taken seriously: it threatens the earth’s population as a whole, and in the course of the coming century, it will threaten the generation of our children and grandchildren” (physicist Hermann Flohn quoted in Weingart et al., 2000, p. 268). The DPG’s “Working Group on Energy” repeatedly tried to publicize these concerns—partly because “the group’s members were concerned with the future of nuclear energy in Germany” and considered “the “CO2 problem” an important argument against coal as the primary fuel” (Weingart et al., 2000, p. 268). In 1986, it published a dramatically worded press release titled “Warning of an Impending Climate Catastrophe,” which called on political leaders to “drastically curb the emission of the so-called trace gases immediately and effectively” (Weingart et al., 2000, p. 268). The urgency of the message was bolstered by mentions of the polar ice caps melting, sea levels rising up to ten meters, and floods occurring in large parts of the Netherlands and Northern Germany.
Even though many scientists felt “uneasy” about such “overly dramatized” (Weingart et al., 2000, p. 268) claims, the press release received widespread media attention including an iconic “Spiegel” cover picturing the Cologne Cathedral under water (cf. Neverla & Schäfer, 2012a, p. 19), triggering a political debate and establishing the term “climate catastrophe” firmly in the public realm—a term that “enabled the media to focus their reporting—based on sensationalism, negativity, and unequivocal clearness—on one term and one reference point” (Weingart et al., 2000, p. 275).
In German politics, doubt about the existence of climate change was quickly marginalized afterwards. Early attempts by politicians to downplay the threat, by relying on the conclusions of more moderate climate scientists for example, were “virtually excluded from the political debate,” and soon, “the German Bundestag officially believed in the scientific hypotheses about climate change” (Weingart et al., 2000, p. 272). In 1987, it established an “Enquete Commission” (consisting of parliamentarians and experts) on “Precautions to Save the Earth’s Atmosphere.” The commission’s reports assessed the threat of climate change, and proposed a 30% emission reduction. Based on a (seemingly) broad scientific consensus, “the commission achieved closure of the scientific debate in a field that had become politicized in many ways, and it strengthened the perception of climate change as a future risk that necessitated serious consideration by politicians and that called for political action” (Weingart et al., 2000, p. 269).
Phase 3: Institutionalized Science, Routine Politics, Extensive Media Coverage (1991–1995)
In the third phase, in the first half of the 1990s, German climate science was institutionalized and diversified, and started to focus on policy-relevant questions (cf. Weingart et al., 2000, pp. 269f.). Two research institutes were founded to provide policy advice: the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment, and Energy in 1991, and the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in 1992. In addition, the interdisciplinary Scientific Advisory Council for Global Environmental Change (WBGU) was established to advise the federal government, the already existing Expert Panel for Questions on the Environment (SRU) took up the climate change issue, and the Bundestag’s Enquete Commission’s was extended to a second four-year period.
In German politics, “the very concept of ‘climate’ had undergone an important transformation” in this time, from a “natural phenomenon to which humankind was more or less passively exposed” to “a system with which humankind had actively interfered” and that “should be brought back into balance by purposeful human action” (Weingart et al., 2000, p. 272). Accordingly, “[i]n the short time between the UNCED in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, where the Framework Convention on Climate Change was signed, and the First Conference of the Parties in Berlin in 1995, the issue of climate change received the highest degree of political attention” (Weingart et al., 2000, p. 273) and a high amount of media coverage.
Public discussion in Germany, thus, turned away from the debate about the science of climate change—a debate that remained remarkably short in Germany compared to other countries—and moved towards the discussion about appropriate political solutions. The debate was particularly intense on whether “nuclear energy should be an integral part of the German climate protection policy” (Weingart et al., 2000, p. 273), and on the formulation of greenhouse gas reduction targets and measures, with an ambitious CO2 and energy tax proposal being rejected in the process. Over time, climate change also permeated “policy domains other than environmental policy,” such as “energy, transport, foreign affairs, development cooperation, and, to a certain degree, agriculture” (Weingart et al., 2000, p. 274).
Phase 4: Interdisciplinary Science, Transnational Politics, Rising Media Attention (after 1996)
After “the transformation of scientific findings into a social and political problem had already taken place” (Peters & Heinrichs, 2008, p. 15), the fourth phase was characterized by a diversification of science to also include the social sciences and humanities, by a transnationalization of climate change politics, and by a (further) rise in media attention.
During these years, political attention had already turned towards climate change risks specific to Germany as well as the existing options for action. A series of high profile events helped blend domestic political discussion into a larger, transnational political framework that focused on mitigation measures and energy questions. These events included the First Conference of the Parties (COP) to the UNFCCC 1995 in Berlin, the agreement on a process towards a binding emissions goal for developed nations, the finalization of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, its ratification in Germany in 2002, and since 2005, Germany’s participation in the “European Union Emissions Trading Scheme” (cf. Brunnengräber, 2012). While the 2-degree goal, aiming to limit global warming to two degrees above pre-industrial levels, found wide-spread support in Germany (Weingart et al., 2008, pp. 12f.), and mitigation measures continued to dominate the political debate, climate change adaptation also became an important domestic political topic (Weingart et al., 2008, pp. 11, 13). Scientists from the recently founded research institutions and advisory bodies were included as consultants in the political process, and additional organizational interfaces between science, politics, and the public were established, such as the German International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Coordination Office in Bonn, the Climate Service Center in Hamburg, or the North German Climate Office of the Helmholtz Society.
In addition, interdisciplinary research networks emerged around the issue of climate change. Some of them focused on regional adaptations to climate change, like the KLIMZUG network funded by the Federal Ministry of Science and Education, while others, like the Federal Cluster of Excellence “Climate System Analysis and Prediction” CliSAP at the University of Hamburg, concentrated on multi-disciplinary research on the climate system. Several of these networks included social scientists and, partly, scholars from the arts. Even though no large-scale funding programs for social scientific climate change research were established during that period, the country’s social sciences successfully positioned themselves as partners in many of these interdisciplinary endeavors.
Throughout this phase, media attention rose further (cf. Schmidt, Ivanova, & Schäfer, 2013; see Figure 1), driven particularly by political events both domestically and internationally, such as the COPs (cf. Schäfer et al., 2014). With domestic and international politicians as well as scientists being the main sources, media mostly framed climate change as anthropogenic and as a problem for which political solutions were to be sought. Among these, international mitigation efforts connected to the UNFCCC process were prominently discussed, usually in connection with their effects on domestic energy production. Unlike the media of the United States, the United Kingdom, or Australia, left and right news outlets in Germany did not differ strongly in their acceptance of climate change and in seeing the need for climate politics. Differences were larger, however, in terms of the specific measures that were presented as preferred, with left-leaning outlets being more in favor of subsidizing renewable energy and phasing out nuclear and fossil-based energy sources (cf. Arlt, 2013, p. 146ff.).
Research on Climate Change Communication in Germany
Research on climate change communication developed incrementally in Germany early on. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it was driven mainly by the professional interest of individual sociologists like Hans Peter Peters or Peter Weingart, or political scientists like Harald Heinrichs (e.g. Peters & Heinrichs, 2005; Weingart et al., 2000). Interest from communication scholars for climate change arose in the mid-2000s, when the issue became a prominent media topic, when Hamburg’s Federal Cluster of Excellence CliSAP established a research group on “Media Constructions of Climate Change” (Neverla & Schäfer, 2012b), and when the federally funded research network “Political Communication in the Online World” decided to use climate change as an example case for many of its projects (e.g. Maurer, 2011; Schmid-Petri, Adam, Schmucki, & Häussler, 2015). Accordingly, research on climate change communication in Germany is a relatively recent phenomenon, with most studies emerging from 2008 onwards and research attention rising since then (see Figure 1).
On the one hand, this research field still has a number of country-specific biases: First, it is strongly focused on news media coverage about climate change (for an overview, see Neverla & Schäfer, 2012a), which may be due to journalistic media still being of stronger relevance in Germany compared to many other countries, and, correspondingly, in a stronger focus of German communication scholars on these media in general. Analyses of online and social media communication about climate change in the German context are still rare (cf. Schäfer, 2012b) and have only emerged very recently (e.g., Lörcher & Taddicken, 2015). Secondly, the respective research mostly analyzes media content, paying less attention to both stakeholder communication about climate change (cf. Schlichting, 2012) and to uses and effects of climate change communication (cf. Maier & Taddicken, 2013). Also, even though opinion polls specific to climate change are provided regularly by the “Umweltbundesamt” and the European Union’s Eurobarometer surveys (while media and university-based surveys do not play a strong role), these data are rarely connected to media coverage.
On the other hand, however, research on climate change communication has risen strongly in the past 10 years in Germany and established a number of robust findings. These findings will be presented in this section —(roughly) organized along the process of public communication, focusing on stakeholder communication first, followed by studies on journalists, media presentations and content, and, eventually, media use and effects.
Research on Societal Stakeholders and Their Communication Efforts
Public climate change communication in Germany, as in other countries, is the result of agenda building and framing efforts from different societal stakeholders aiming to position themselves and their views in public debates (cf. Anderson, 2011, pp. 535f.). Research on stakeholder communication in Germany is scarce, however, and unbalanced in terms of the stakeholders that are focused on. While studies have documented various facets of public communication from scientists and scientific organizations, much less is known about communication from political organizations (for an overview, see Rhomberg, 2012), companies (for overviews, see Schlichting, 2012, 2013), or nongovernmental (NGOs) (for an overview, see Schmidt, 2012)—even though their public relations and outreach activities on climate change have increased significantly since the mid-2000s (see Figure 2).
Nevertheless, scholarship on stakeholder communication has established, firstly, the strong agenda building efforts by science, particularly in the early stages of the climate change debate when they were able to place the issue on the public and, subsequently, political agendas (cf. Rhomberg & Kaiser, 2015; Weingart, Engels, & Pansegrau, 2000, 2002). Since then, science has used its authority as an epistemic resource to publicly establish that climate change exists and has to be dealt with politically (Post, 2009, pp. 159ff.). This can be shown on the level of individual scientists: A survey of 1,130 German climate scientists from various disciplines established that a large majority of them are willing to talk about their research in public and to the media (Schäfer, Ivanova, Schlichting, & Schmidt, 2012, pp. 242f.). It also showed that they have a high number of media contacts, with almost 70% of them having talked to journalists about their work in the previous year (Ivanova, Schäfer, Schlichting, & Schmidt, 2013, pp. 638f.; Schäfer, Ivanova, Schlichting, & Schmidt, 2012, p. 239; see also Bray & Storch, 2007, pp. B46, 2010, p. 71).
A qualitative study of three research centers showed that their outreach activities also became more professionalized and frequent over the past 15 years. This included not only a rise in public relations and media messages, but also an increase in resources devoted to communication, the development of organizational communication strategies, and an involvement of communication experts in organizational decisions (Ebbing, 2012, pp. 73ff.). Apart from becoming more important, outreach activities have also diversified. While many are still addressed to journalists, individuals and organizations have started to communicate directly with stakeholders such as local or regional administrations as well as corporations, or with the public through blogs like the “KlimaLounge” or “Klimazwiebel,” via popular books (e.g. Rahmstorf & Schellnhuber, 2006; Stehr & Storch, 2009), YouTube videos (cf. Tereick, 2011), or graphic novels (Hamann, Zea-Schmidt, & Leinfelder, 2012).
Very little is known, in contrast, about the communicative efforts by political institutions in Germany. This might be because the widespread consensus about climate change makes it less necessary for political organizations to engage in federal campaigns on climate change or “climate protection”—not even the relatively strong German Green Party has engaged in major campaigns on the issue. It may also be due, however, to communication efforts being relegated to the local and regional level, where authorities have to inform constituents about specific measures (Heinrichs & Grunenberg, 2009, pp. 61ff.), or it may be due to communication being concentrated on the country’s “energy transition [Energiewende]”—an important transformational project that was driven both by the perceived risks of nuclear energy, and by concerns about climate change (Roose, 2012, pp. 89f.).
Corporations, in response to the socio-political conditions in the country, and unlike in Australia or the United States, have abstained from major interventions in the German debate and did not position themselves as climate change skeptics, nor did they oppose climate protection (Schlichting, 2012, pp. 56ff.). For example, “oil companies Shell and BP gave up their opposition to the Kyoto process in 1996. Both companies left the Global Climate Coalition, and BP’s chief executive is on record saying that ‘Of course the science of climate change is still unproved and provisional’ but ‘the evidence is strong enough to merit precautionary action’” (Grundmann, 2007, p. 424). The “dominant oil businesses are thus in line with European governments regarding climate change” (Grundmann, 2007, p. 424). Qualitative interviews with spokespersons of energy companies showed that, from the 1990s onwards, German enterprises have recognized the overwhelming societal acceptance of climate change being existent and a problem. Accordingly, they took the IPCC position as a “given” (Schlichting, 2012, pp. 60ff.), and adopted an “ecological modernization” frame, portraying themselves as pioneers looking for technological, and commercially exploitable, solutions for climate change (Schlichting & Schmidt, 2012).
For the German environmental movement and NGOs such as Greenpeace or the World Wildlife Fund, climate change has been a central topic since the mid-2000s (Roose, 2012, p. 92). They view climate change, in line with the scientific mainstream position, as occurring and anthropogenic, and as a serious problem that has to be dealt with politically and individually (Schlichting & Schmidt, 2012). In their communication, they do not see the necessity of building awareness for the issue in Germany, as it is already strong, and focus on solutions instead. Their main aim is to use public attention to pressure political decision-makers towards action within the UNFCCC framework and towards domestic regulation (Hopf, 2012).
In sum, scholarship on stakeholder communication in Germany, albeit containing many gaps, suggests a broad consensus: “[G]overnment, scientists, non-governmental organisations and fossil fuel interests are all agreed that climate change is real, anthropogenic and requires action” (Grundmann, 2007, p. 426), and that Germany should play a leading role in developing measures to reduce it. In turn, there is no discernible “climate denial machine” (Dunlap & McCright, 2011, p. 147), i.e. no strong communicative infrastructure supporting skeptical views (Grundmann, 2007, p. 427).
Research on “Climate Journalists”
Research on German journalists working on climate change has only emerged very recently (for an overview see Neverla & Trümper, 2012). It has shown that climate change is an important, “cross-cutting issue” (Neverla &Trümper, 2012, pp. 97ff.) at newspapers and magazines, dealt with across different desks and beats. A survey of 85 German print media journalists covering climate change and coastal protection found that the majority were not specialized on these issues, but worked for various desks: 66% for the “Science,” 64% for the “Politics,” 41% for the “Economy” and 41% for the “Miscellaneous” desks respectively (Peters & Heinrichs, 2005, p. 95). This corresponds to a larger, general survey of German journalists in which they ranked climate change, among other examples, as an issue that is usually treated across beats (Meier & Feldmeier, 2005, pp. 215f.).
These diverse angles, however, do not mean that climate skepticism is prevalent. Instead, German “climate journalists” strongly conform to the IPCC position (Brüggemann & Engesser, 2014). On average, they “fully” agree with statements on the existence and anthropogenity of climate change, on climate change being a problem, and on mitigation efforts being necessary (Brüggemann & Engesser, 2014, pp. 408ff.). In turn, they do not see climate skepticism as based on solid science or as an important viewpoint, and tend to cover them critically or not at all (Brüggemann & Engesser, 2014, pp. 411f.). More diversity is visible in the policy options journalists prefer. Depending on their desks, attitudes, and socio-demographics, some emphasize the industrialized countries’ primary responsibility for reducing emissions, while others stress technological solutions or limiting emissions from emerging economies (Engesser & Brüggemann, 2015).
Research on Media Presentations of Climate Change
Research on climate change communication in Germany has focused mostly on the content of media coverage, using methods from discourse analysis (Besio & Pronzini, 2010; Oels & Carvalho, 2012) over standardized content analysis (e.g. Kaiser & Rhomberg, 2015), to (semi)automated content analysis of large text corpora (Grundmann & Scott, 2014). Scholarship has established a number of relevant findings.
Media attention for climate change is considerable in Germany and has risen sharply since the mid-2000s. A comparative analysis of media attention for climate change in 27 countries including Germany, between 1996 and 2010, showed that German media devoted a large amount of coverage to the issue (Ivanova, Schmidt, & Schäfer, 2014; Schäfer, Ivanova, & Schmidt, 2011; Schmidt, Ivanova, & Schäfer, 2013). Compared to other countries, however, the amount of issue attention is below average, with 0.41% of German newspaper coverage devoted to the issue, compared to an average of 0.60% in all countries, or 0.71% in all Annex-B countries to the Kyoto protocol (Schmidt et al., 2013, p. 1241). The analysis also underlines that “the issue really took off after 2005” (Grundmann & Scott, 2014, p. 223), when issue attention increased to 0.90% of all articles between 2006 and 2009 (Schmidt et al., 2013, p. 1241). Additional time-series regression analyses showed that issue-attention was triggered by political events, particularly the Conferences of the Parties to the UNFCCC, by PR efforts of international and domestic NGOs, and by few, but selected extreme weather events such as the “flood of the century [Jahrhundertflut]” in 2002 (Schäfer et al., 2014).
Sources of media reports are mostly politicians and scientists. Scientists made up almost half of all sources until the mid-2000s, followed by political authorities and sources from federal or regional administrations (Peters & Heinrichs, 2005, pp. 47ff.). Since then, politicians were the dominant sources, with scientists following behind (Besio & Pronzini, 2010, pp. 290f.; Ivanova, 2015, pp. 241ff.). Political sources were particularly numerous during political events such as the COP summits; during the Bali and Copenhagen summits in 2007 and 2009, they made up almost two thirds of all sources in German media (Hahn & Hermann, 2010, p. 203).
The composition of these sources is also indicative of German climate change coverage being particularly transnational: Among political sources, a large number of representatives from the European Union, other international political organizations, and foreign countries are prevalent, and considerably more so than in countries like the United States, the Unitd Kingdom, Canada, or New Zealand (Ivanova, 2015, pp. 178f., 185f.). Furthermore, their share has risen over time, and particularly since the mid-2000s (Ivanova, 2015, p. 178), so that they now outnumber domestic politicians (Konieczny, 2014). Moreover, and in contrast to the U.S. media, they do not appear mainly as objects that are talked about, but as active, quoted and, thus, “empowered” participants in the German debate (Konieczny, 2014, pp. 185ff.; see also Schmidt & Schäfer, 2015).
Scholars also show a “strong NGO presence between 2006 and 2009” (Grundmann & Scott, 2014, p. 227; cf. Hahn & Hermann, 2010, p. 202). It is notable that the overall evaluation of all stakeholders in German media is positive, in line with the consensus-oriented media system in general, and the displayed trust in science in the coverage is particularly high (Peters & Heinrichs, 2008, pp. 29f.).
In its basic issue interpretation and evaluation, climate change coverage in Germany adopts an “anthropogenic climate change as a global problem” frame (Schäfer, 2015, p. 854): It “emphasizes the existence of anthropogenic climate change,” stresses “that these developments lead to more extreme weather, intensify resource shortages, and are ‘already harming people and ecosystems’,” and therefore “advocates various measures to fight it” (Schäfer, 2015, p. 854). Accordingly, studies have shown that “[b]y far the most frequently mentioned cause and effect relationship concerned anthropogenic CO2 emissions as the cause of the greenhouse effect.” (Peters & Heinrichs, 2008, p. 25). Uncertainties surrounding the existence of a global warming trend and the attribution of human responsibility have been emphasized less often over time, with journalists increasingly “producing unambiguity” in their coverage (Maurer, 2011, pp. 71f.).
In addition, climate change’s threatening implications are often emphasized, such as “extreme weather events (storms, drought, heavy rain), damage to the ecosystems, melting of the ice sheets and the shift in vegetation zones” (Peters & Heinrichs, 2008, p. 25). While coverage is mostly neutral and fact-based, particularly in the quality press, risks are more often “dramatized” than downplayed (Heinrichs & Grunenberg, 2009, p. 75; Peters & Heinrichs, 2005, p. 45), and scholars sometimes note “an alarming tone” (Peters & Heinrichs, 2005, pp. 44ff.; Peters & Heinrichs, 2008, pp. 15, 22).
Apart from the description of anthropogenic climate change and its (potential) impacts, “measures for coping with these risks represent an important topic,” both domestically and internationally (Peters & Heinrichs, 2008, pp. 27f.). Such measures feature more prominently in German media than in other countries (Ivanova, 2015, p. 220), are increasingly focused on over time (whereas mentions of the causes and characteristics of climate change decrease, Ivanova, 2015, pp. 233ff.), and are evaluated positively (Peters & Heinrichs, 2008, p. 28).
The visual framing of climate change in German media seems to underline the frame of “anthropogenic climate change as a global problem” further, even though analyses of climate change imagery are rare. They suggest that, similar to other countries (for overviews see Metag et al., 2016; O’Neill & Smith, 2014), visual climate change communication in German media is focused on a small number of dominant motifs. “Talking heads,” including representations of prominent individuals and politicians in particular, are most often used in print and online media to illustrate climate change (Rüegg, 2015, p. 60). Images of climate change impacts and threats, such as floods, draughts, or storms, are also among the five most common themes in German newspapers (Rüegg, 2015, p. 60; see also Grittmann, 2013, 2014), as are infographics presenting characteristics and developments of climate change (Rüegg, 2015, p. 60). In contrast, visualizations of causes, such as carbon-emitting power plants (Grittmann, 2012), or of options for societal or individual action—such as alternative energy or behavioral changes—are rarely used (Rüegg, 2015).
Accordingly, both textual and visual framing seem to converge in presenting climate change as an existent, anthropogenic, and serious problem (Wozniak, Lück, & Wessler, 2014). In contrast, a skeptical framing is rarely present. This “uncertain science” frame—which focuses on uncertainties “in climate science, impacts or solutions,” “question[s the] anthropogenic nature of climate change,” and argues that “[w]e cannot act, should not act, or will struggle to act” (O’Neill, Williams, Kurz, Wiersma, & Boykoff, 2015, p. 381)—is largely absent from German media, nor is it strongly represented in the country’s climate change communication elsewhere. Studies have shown “a very low visibility of sceptical [sic] voices” appearing in the media (Grundmann & Scott, 2014, p. 227). An analysis of print media coverage from 1988 to 2004, shows that the IPCC and advocates of mainstream climate policies strongly dominated German media coverage, much more so than in the United States (see Figure 4, Grundmann, 2007, pp. 419f.). In turn, climate skeptics are barely mentioned: “No German sceptical scientist was visible. Whenever reference was made in the German print media to sceptical scientists, they were from abroad” (Grundmann & Scott, 2014, p. 222).
Fittingly, a longitudinal analysis of German legacy and tabloid print media around COP 17 in Durban found that skeptical frames remained on a rather low level compared to other countries, and that in 50% of these occurrences, skeptical arguments were not endorsed or actively debunked (Kaiser & Rhomberg, 2015, pp. 11f.; see also Grundmann & Scott, 2014; Painter, 2011; Painter & Ashe, 2012). In line with these findings, “ClimateGate” was not as big an issue in Germany as in other countries—“From November 2009 to December 2010, there were 346 references in the French press, 799 in the German press, 2,214 in the U.K. press and 1,756 in the U.S. press” (Grundmann & Scott, 2014, p. 230). Moreover, in the German press, it was represented as unethical to hack emails, with the “strongest and most frequent collocations of these terms [being] Hacker, interne und Affaere, indicating that the release of the emails was seen as illegitimate” (Grundmann & Scott, 2014, p. 230).
Even though German online communication has hardly been analyzed yet, climate change skepticism does not seem to be widespread there, either: While skeptical positions exist in selected online discussion boards and user commentary, a comparative analysis of different “online arenas” found them to be minority positions throughout. Even on Germany’s most popular skeptic platform “EIKE,” climate change impacts were portrayed as being problematic, even though their anthropogeneity was questioned (Lörcher & Taddicken, 2015, pp. 273ff.).
Research on the Use and Effects of Climate Change Communication
Compared to analyses of climate change-related media content, the use and effects of this content have received considerably less attention among German scholars—even though content analyses often justify their relevance by implicitly or explicitly emphasizing audience effects (Taddicken, 2013). In addition, the respective scholarship is biased in several ways. Studies almost exclusively focus on information-oriented formats and not on entertainment (the only exception being a working paper by Reusswig et al., 2004); analyze individual-level effects and not institutional and societal (macro) effects; and concentrate on the general public and not on smaller, but potentially relevant (sub)audiences like scientists, politicians, or journalists. Moreover, they mostly employ cross-sectional survey data, while almost no experimental and longitudinal studies exist so far. Overall, scholarship paints “an unclear, incoherent, and sometimes contradictory picture” (Schäfer, 2015, p. 858) from which, however, several findings can be extracted:
First, surveys show that news media are important sources for information about climate change for the German public. Television and newspapers in particularly, but also online and social media are the most important sources for people’s information about climate change – significantly more so than, for example, family and friends (Schäfer, 2012a, p. 71).
Second, news media seem to be perceived as credible, trustworthy sources(cf. Neverla & Taddicken, 2012, p. 224). A representative survey of 3.000 Germans asked which source they would rely on if they provided contradicting information. 38% of respondents chose television, 15% the Internet, 14% newspapers, and 12% weeklies, with “family and friends” lagging behind considerably, at 8% (Schäfer, 2012a, p. 71). Similarly, media coverage on climate change and coastal protection was rated as generally trustworthy and adequate by a majority of 183 respondents to a survey in 2002 and 2003 (Peters & Heinrichs, 2005, pp. 154ff.).
Long-term agenda-setting and cultivation effects of media coverage on climate change, which have been shown for other countries (e.g., Sampei & Aoyagi-Usui, 2009), have not yet been analyzed in Germany. While experimental studies have shown that visual presentations of impacts such as extreme weather events evoke perceptions of salience among German audiences (Metag, Schäfer, & Kleinen-v. Königslöw, 2016; Metag et al., 2016), agenda-setting studies systematically comparing media and audience agendas do not exist. Also, the long-term rise of Germans’ awareness about climate change, its characteristics, causes, and effects, as well as its potential remedies—as documented in Eurobarometer data (e.g. Eurobarometer, 2011)—may well be caused by continuous and largely homogenous media coverage about the issue and, thus, be a cultivation effect (e.g., Signorelli & Morgan, 1990). But proof is lacking as, surprisingly, studies have not yet connected Eurobarometer survey data to media analyses for Germany.
The media effects that have been analyzed so far are mostly cognitive and behavioral ones. Under certain conditions, media use has been shown to increase individuals’ knowledge about climate change, both in terms of “factual information about the phenomenon itself—the extent and causes of climate change—as well as [in terms of] potential solutions and options for (individual) action” (Schäfer, 2015, p. 858). This has been well established for intentional, issue-specific media use, that is, for people who employ media specifically to inform themselves about climate change (Neverla & Taddicken, 2012; Taddicken, 2013). Cognitive effects are less clear, however, for routine media use, where people use media habitually, watch news regularly, etc. While Arlt et al. (Arlt, Hoppe, & Wolling, 2011) found cognitive effects of habitual media use, they were generally weak and varied between media. Regular users of public-service broadcasting were more knowledgeable about climate change, but regular newspaper readers knew less (Arlt et al., 2011, p. 57). In addition, Taddicken found no effects of unspecific media use (Taddicken, 2013, p. 46).
The state of scholarship on behavioral media effects is even less clear. Arlt and colleagues found media effects on climate-related behavior (Arlt et al., 2011, pp. 58f.). But they were measured in a survey as self-reported behavioral intentions instead of actual behavior, remained weak, and were only visible for some forms of behavior. While media use influenced respondents’ intentions to engage politically, no influence was shown for investment decisions or lifestyle changes. Taddicken (Taddicken, 2013, p. 46), in contrast, found no effects of unspecific or specific media use on respondents’ willingness to act against climate change.
Overall, media effects on climate change seem limited in Germany, mirroring the conclusion of Peters and Heinrichs who, after presenting newspaper articles to 183 residents of the German Northern coast and experimentally assessing their climate change-related attitudes, stated that the media’s “persuasive potential” on the issue remains low (Peters & Heinrichs, 2005, pp. 177, see also 153ff.). Individual respondents seemed to cross-check media coverage with pre-existing attitudes and preferences, and tended to integrate media content selectively into them instead of changing them (Peters & Heinrichs, 2005, p. 186).
A more recent study, importing a research design developed by Leiserowitz, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, Feinberg, & Howe, (2013) in the United States, has pointed towards a segmentation of the population in “Global Warming’s Five Germanys” (Metag, Füchslin, & Schäfer, 2015). It distinguished five population segments, with different attitudes towards the issue, that can be sorted along a continuum of alarm to greater ambivalence or doubt, and showed that these segments differ in their information and media use (Metag, Füchslin, & Schäfer, 2015, p. 10ff.): the “alarmed,” who are most concerned about climate change and inform themselves about it intensively and in various media; the “concerned activists,” who are similar to the “alarmed” except that they use online media more and take more action to fight climate change; the “cautious,” who are concerned about climate change but reluctant to do something about it; the “disengaged,” who are uninterested and, accordingly, merely come across the issue passively in media; and the “doubtful,” who doubt that climate change exists and do not inform themselves about it at all.
On the one hand, this segmentation underlines how widespread the belief in climate change is in Germany. Compared to similar studies in the U.S., Australia, and India, Germany has the largest portion of “alarmed” citizens and the smallest group of “doubtful” respondents. In addition, the “dismissive” segment, which in the United States and Australia most strongly believes that climate change is not occurring or not caused by humans, is nonexistent in Germany. On the other hand, the existence of the “Five Germany’s” points towards a need for nuanced analyses of media use and effects, as they may differ considerably between the population segments.
While most studies have concentrated on potential media effects on the general public, only few have analyzed elite audiences. While media effects on journalists or politicians have not yet been analyzed (with the exception of the above-mentioned “discourse analysis” by Weingart, Engels, & Pansegrau, 2000, 2002, 2008), a number of studies have focused on climate scientists. They have shown, for example, that German climate scientists observe media coverage about their research field (Post, 2009), and that they are mostly pleased with these encounters and with German media coverage about climate change in general (Peters & Heinrichs, 2005, p. 111; Schäfer, Ivanova, Schlichting, & Schmidt, 2012). In addition, studies have also hinted at an ongoing “medialization” of climate science, that is, at an adaptation of scientists to an (assumed) media logic (for an overview, see Schäfer, 2014). This is true, on the one hand, for their communication towards the media, in which many German climate scientists strategically consider which information to give out, and which not (Post, 2016). On the other hand, a medialization also seems to affect their scientific work: More than 80% of 1,130 surveyed German climate scientists indicated that they considered “possible media interest” at least to some degree “when making scientific decisions, such as considering research questions or publishing strategies,” even though only 16% saw media interest as “important” or “very important” (Ivanova, Schäfer, Schlichting, & Schmidt, 2013; cf. Schäfer, 2014).
Germany is a developed country with substantial fossil-fuel production and consumption—at the same time, it has transitioned comparatively far towards a low-carbon society. Therefore, it is an interesting case for social scientists interested in climate change communication.
Against this backdrop, it is surprising that research on climate change communication in Germany is a relatively young field, albeit one that has received significant attention in recent years. On the one hand, this research has established a number of robust findings. Many studies have used content or discourse analyses to reconstruct how German media present climate change, its causes, characteristics, and effects. They have shown, for example, how science set the issue on the public and policy agenda in the 1980s, how news media emphasized the threat it presented (e.g. Weingart et al., 2000), how corporations abstained from interventions into the debate (e.g. Schlichting, 2013), and how skeptical voices remained marginalized (e.g. Grundmann & Scott, 2014).
They have also demonstrated how climate change became an important media issue in the 2000s (Schmidt et al., 2013), how climate change coverage has moved away from the seemingly resolved scientific aspects and focused on the available policy and behavioral options (Ivanova, 2015), with politicians, scientists, and NGOs being the main sources (Peters & Heinrichs, 2005). And they made clear that the issue of climate change is strongly embedded in a broader, international perspective in Germany (Konieczny, 2014).
The respective scholarship still contains gaps, areas of insufficient knowledge, and contradictory findings. Future research should focus on a number of central shortcomings: First, they should broaden the media specter they analyze. Mostly, scholars have used print media that are readily available in online archives and comparatively easy to analyze (cf. Schäfer & Schlichting, 2014). But television is the Germans’ most important source for information about climate change, online and social media are quickly gaining importance (cf. Schäfer, 2012a), and some segments of the population get information about climate change mostly from fictional or entertainment programs (Metag et al., 2015). Scholarship should account for these media more in the future.
A second, connected shortcoming is the research field’s strong focus on the textual level. Media and online presentations contain multiple modalities, from regular over highlighted text to pictures, sound, and moving images. But little research has been devoted to modalities beyond text (see Grittmann, 2012, 2013 for studies of climate change imagery). In addition, hardly anything is known about their combination, with first studies on multimodal presentations of climate change developing only recently (Wozniak et al., 2014).
Third, more studies focusing on the preconditions and effects of climate change communication are necessary. On the one hand, analysis of stakeholder communications are rare so far, but would be valuable as they could connect the strategies and resources, as well as the failures of political and NGO communications to a German debate, which, in international comparison, lacks controversy and focuses strongly on the socioeconomic aspects of climate change. On the other hand, greater assessment is needed of the uses and effects of legacy media and online media portrayals of climate change, as ultimately, the potential impact of such portrayals serves as the justification for research on climate change communication. Particularly, long-term agenda setting and cultivation effects would benefit from further scrutiny, as main media effects may be found there, and existing survey datasets (like those from the Eurobarometer or the Umweltbundesamt) should be employed more for this purpose. Furthermore, effects on elite audiences are worth exploring more. While potential media effects of climate scientists have been analyzed in several studies (Ivanova et al., 2013; Post, 2016), the existence of such effects on politicians, corporate representatives, or journalists is still largely unclear.
It is also necessary to more effectively connect research on climate change communication to neighboring fields, most notably that of energy communication. After the German decisions to subsidize renewable energies and to phase out nuclear energy in the aftermath of the Fukushima incident—the so-called “Energiewende”—climate change and energy communication have merged further. Accordingly, the respective research fields, which are only loosely connected so far, should profit from increased cooperation (cf. Wolling & Arlt, 2014).
This could also address a final shortcoming of German scholarship analyzing climate change communication: its lack of policy impacts. Even though social scientists have been successful in integrating themselves in many interdisciplinary research endeavors, and even though social sciences from disciplines like economics, political science, or psychology have established themselves in political advisory boards, communication scholars have not yet become involved in such capacities, and, consequently, have not had a similar impact.
I am thankful to Heinz Bonfadelli, Hans Peter Peters, Julia Metag, Matthew Nisbet, Markus Rhomberg, Simone Rödder, Andreas Schmidt, and Christiane Textor for valuable comments on this paper. Furthermore, I would like to thank Ana Ivanova and Jan Murmann, who provided and prepared the data for Figure 2, and Reiner Grundmann, who provided the data for Figure 4.
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(1.) This quote, as well as others in this article, has been translated into English by the author.
(2.) Before 1990, the analysis described here only applies to the Federal Republic of Germany, i.e. Western Germany. The relevance of the issue and its treatment in the German Democratic Republic, i.e. Eastern Germany, is considerably less well documented (see Markham, 2008, p. 128ff.).
(3.) The authors distinguish slightly different phases for science, politics, and mass media in Germany, which are aggregated into coherent phases for this review.