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date: 24 February 2018

Climate Change Communication in Switzerland

Summary and Keywords

The contribution summarizes the topic of climate change communication in Switzerland. The development of the topic of “climate change” is described and located within the general area of environmental politics in Switzerland, based on the specifics of Switzerland as a small, federal state, and non-EU member with direct democratic political processes. Climate change communication then is analyzed based on the results of several content analyses, mostly of Swiss print media, which focus on intensity of coverage, topics, and media frames. In the last part, the perception of and attitudes towards environment and climate change are presented and compared to other countries, based on public opinion survey data.

Keywords: climate change, communication, media coverage, climate journalists, perceptions, attitudes, Switzerland


On the weekend before the start of the 2015 climate summit in Paris, Swiss newspaper’s headlines could not have been more diverse: “Climate Experts are Warning” (SDA 11/10/2015), “Climate Change as Opportunity for Swiss Economy” (SHZ 11/5/2015), “Without Illusions to the Climate Summit– More Technology Needed” (NZZ 11/28–29/2015), and “Actions instead of Words” (Coopzeitung 11/24/2015) or “Pope Demands Successful Climate Summit” (NZZ 11/27/2015). These headlines reflect underlying implicit frames that scholars have identified in news coverage of science and technology debates including a Pandora’s box of looming disaster, the economic prospects of action, and the need for technical progress or public accountability (Nisbet, 2009). As reflected by this intensive media attention, the issue of a changing climate is a sensitive and regularly covered topic by Swiss media, especially in the summer time, often visualized with melting glaciers in the alpine region of Switzerland. So it is not surprising that several proposals or actions have been introduced over the last few years on the policy level including a new CO2 law introduced in 2013 in the form of a fee on combustible materials. The law is intended to make climate protection more attractive.

This background of environmental and climate policy in Switzerland will be described below, followed by the content-analytic research and its results on the one the hand and public opinion surveys dealing with knowledge and attitudes of the Swiss population towards environment and climate change on the other hand.

Environment and Climate Change: Policy Background of Switzerland

Switzerland is a small country with a population of 8.2 million in the center of Europe, but it has so far resisted becoming a member of the European Union, partly because of its distinctive federal characteristics with highly independent regions and cantons. Its consensus-oriented political system is special, as well, insofar that Swiss citizens have far-reaching direct democratic rights: (a) to initiate and vote for or against so- called Popular Initiatives focusing on single issues (e.g., a moratorium on biotechnology in 2005), if they garner the signatures of 100,000 citizens, and (b) to vote for or against Compulsory or Optional Referendums, concerning constitutional amendments or regular legislation. These unique direct-democratic citizen rights are used quite frequently in Switzerland. In addition, the Swiss media system is special as well, and represents the democratic corporatist model in the typology of Hallin and Mancini (2004, p. 67). There are many newspapers, most of them regionalized, in the three different linguistic regions of the country, supplemented by a strong public broadcasting system in German-, French-, and Italian-speaking Switzerland. Most media studies focus only on the German part of Switzerland, where almost 75% of the population resides. Thus, many content analyses are based on the three most important prototypical supra-regional newspapers with editorial offices in Zurich: the elite paper Neue Zürcher Zeitung NZZ (118,000 readers), with a liberal-conservative editorial line, the high0quality paper Tages-Anzeiger TA (167,000 readers) with a slight tendency to the left, and the tabloid newspaper Blick (165,000 readers), the only popular paper for the entire German-speaking part of Switzerland. However, the highest circulation is that of the free newspaper 20 Minuten, aimed young commuters, with about 475,000 readers in the German-speakering part of Switzerland.

Similar to the other European countries, Switzerland underwent a rapid economic development in the 1960s, accompanied by an increase in consumerism and mobility that resulted in manifold environmental problems, such as water and air pollution or increased waste. Politicians initially reacted in the 1960s with technical problem solving strategies, e.g., by building sewage plants and municipal waste combustors or car catalyzers. This was followed in the 1970s by legislation as a problem solving strategy, e.g., in form of a ban on phosphate in cleaning agents (1986) or the CFC ban (1989) and efficiency regulations for buildings (e.g., thermal insulation). In the 1980s financial instruments in the negative form of taxes, e.g., local charges for sewage bags or a carbon dioxide fee on fossil fuels, were introduced starting in 2008, and in a positive way, e.g., in form of ecological bonuses by some enterprises. In addition, in the early nineties several public communication campaigns were implemented by the Federal Office of Environment BAFU as part of an educational strategy (BAFU, 2014). This included a media campaign to preserve clean air and an environmental campaign to reduce atmospheric ozone in the canton of Zurich in 1992. These governmental activities are supplemented with communicative efforts of public–private partnerships, e.g., by EnergieSchweiz which is promoting energy-saving behavior in households, and by “smart” driving.

Taken together, Switzerland was rather hesitant in the field of climate politics (Brönnimann et al., 2014). So far, the only explicit and active strategy has been the revised carbon law (CO2-Gesetz) since 2008 and in effect since 2013 (BAFU, 2014). At least, there is the explicit goal to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas (see the Federal Office for the Environment website) according to the Kyoto Protocol of 1997. But other more active measures, such as those aimed at enforcing the use of new “green” forms of energy, have been blocked by the conservative rightist party SVP together with the liberalist party FDP. With the active support of the Swiss Electricity Industry NS and the Petroleum Association, a public relations campaign was launched in 2007 with the slogan “Heating with oil: for more climate protection.” On the other hand, the Green party, with much less effective slogans like “the last parliamentary elections of fall 2015,” and NGOs like Greenpeace, WWF, or Pro Natura have tried to invigorate Swiss climate politics.

In Switzerland, a look back reveals that the broader issue of environmental protection became relevant in the public sphere and as well as in politics in the 1970s, triggered among other things by the publication of the report “The Limits to Growth” by the Club of Rome in 1972 and by the Stockholm Conference, the UN’s first environmental conference, held the same year. As a result, the Federal Office for Environmental Protection BUS was founded in 1971 by the Swiss Federal Council, after the protection of the environment was codified in the Federal Constitution (Art. 24, later Art. 74), based on the accepted plebiscite from June 6, 1971 and the Federal Environment Law USG was approved ten years later by the Swiss Parliament on October 7, 1983. In the meantime, in the mid-1970s Switzerland experienced heavy protests against a planned nuclear power plant in Kaiseraugst, but the culmination of the public ecological discourse was not reached until the mid-1980s, triggered by heavy public attention to so-called “forest death.” Waldsterben, as it is called in German, refers to observations by foresters that fir trees were losing needles. The phenomenon became a huge political issue both in the media and in the world of politics (Diggelmann, 1988; Eisner et al., 2003, pp. 152–182).

Environmental concern grew in 1986 with the nuclear catastrophe in Chernobyl and in the same year with the chemical catastrophe in Schweizerhalle, Basel. As described, the general topic of ecology and later issues like the hole in the ozone layer over the Arctic, clean air, and global climate change has received broad public attention since the mid 1980s, not least by the increasing protest activities of non-governmental organizations like Greenpeace, active in Switzerland since 1984, or the scientific reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change IPCC, established in 1988, which stimulated international conferences like the Earth Summit in Rio 1992 and culminated in the Kyoto Protocol 1997.

Development of Communication Research dealing with Climate Change

These focused events and developments in the area of environment protection stimulated parallel social science research, as well in sociology, social psychology, and communication science. The first empirical studies started slowly at the beginning of the 1980s. This research was carried out by three small Departments of Communication, primarily at the University of Zurich (Saxer et al., 1986; Diggelmann, 1988), but also at the Geographical Department of the University of Berne (Rey, 1995) and the Departments of Geography and Sociology of the ETH Zurich (Zierhofer, 1998; Eisner, Graf, & Moser, 2003; Baldinini et al., 2004). In addition, program 33, an early research program of the (Swiss) National Science Foundation studied “Climate Change and Nature Catastrophes” but mostly from an environmental science perspective. Nevertheless, there is one qualitative study that dealt with climate change and risk discourse focusing on the willingness of people living in an Alpine region of Switzerland to take climate-related environmental actions (Dürrenberger & Jaeger, 1992; Jaeger et al., 1993).

These studies were based mostly on standardized content analyses of the coverage of issues like nuclear energy or the forest decline by the Swiss press. Later content analyses, mostly carried out in the form of master’s theses at the Institute of Communication and Media Research at the University of Zurich, focused on media coverage of issues like sustainability (Müller & Strausack, 2004), the depletion of the ozone layer (Tappeiner, 2004) or climate change (Ehrensperger, 2008; Eberhard, 2009; Frese & Bühler, 2012; Oehl, 2015; Rüegg, 2015). To sum up, the research dealing with climate change communication in Switzerland is still modest and heterogeneous, but focused on media content analyses.

In addition to the above-mentioned content analyses of coverage (mostly in the press) of the issues of environment and climate change, there are several academic studies based on standardized surveys dealing with the perception, knowledge, and attitudes towards climate change and ecological risks by Swiss citizens (Preisendörfer & Franzen, 1996; Diekmann & Meyer, 2007; Tobler, Visschers, & Siegrist, 2012) and applied surveys (Lauko, 1993; Gallup International, 2008; GfS, 2009; Credit Suisse, 2014) as well. These studies have been recently complemented by a comparative survey of climate journalists (Brüggemann & Engesser, 2014). In the following sections, the research questions and results of these diverse empirical studies dealing with environment and climate change in Switzerland (Bonfadelli, 2010) are reviewed and summarized.

Environment and Climate Change as Issues of the Public Sphere

Still one of the most comprehensive empirical studies, dealing with the public debates on the issue of environmental risks, was carried out by Eisner, Graf, and Moser (2003) and funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation. Even if the topic of climate change was only treated in an implicit way, the relevance of the study is still high, because it focuses on the environment as a social problem from a constructivist sociological perspective. One of its premises is that social problems do not exist in an “objective” way but have to be recognized, defined, and constructed by society (Blumer, 1971; Hilgartner & Bosk, 1988). This means that diverse societal actors serve as problem promotors and opponents of action, including scientific experts and journalists, each of whom applies and communicates by way of interpretive frames (Entman, 1993). This creates a public arena where arguments for or against the problem, its causes, consequences, and proposed strategies for solutions are exchanged in a struggle over meaning.

The Eisner et al. (2003) study is of particular relevance from a communication perspective, because it is based on empirical analyses of standardized indicators of (a) public (protest) events, (b) media coverage, (c) parliamentary activities, and (d) perceptions by the public of the comprehensively defined controversial issue “environment” including topics like genetic engineering, nuclear energy, traffic problems, air pollution, and climate change, waste and recycling, water protection, and the protection of environment and resources. Similar to most media studies, the content analysis is based on the articles from the three most important newspapers in the German-speaking part of Switzerland: the tabloid Blick, the quality broadsheet Tages-Anzeiger, and the elite paper NZZ. Data were collected and analyzed longitudinally for the period 1958–1998.

Corresponding to other standardized quantitative longitudinal studies of news coverage assessing the development of the issue attention cycle for climate change and environmental issues (Downs, 1972; Newig, 2004; Brossard, Shanahan, & McComas, 2012), news attention first appeared in the latency phase during the 1960s, but remained on a very low level until a significant increase occurred in 1973/74 as a result of the then heavily discussed energy shortage in the wake of the so-called “petroleum shock.” A second, even more dramatic increase in the form of an escalation phase began in 1983/84 and continued until 1987 in the context of the wide media publicity of the forest decline issue and the topic of air pollution, climaxing in the mid-1980s. After this culmination phase, press coverage of environmental issues declined steadily in the form of a normalization phase until 1998, the end of the period under observation. This decline is interpreted as the result of an institutionalization of the environmental issue in the policy area.

A second important result of the study is based on the interplay between the three public arenas analyzed. It seems to be that the strongly intensified protest activities by NGOs (in Switzerland namely Greenpeace and WWF) at the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s triggered a corresponding media echo that evoked an increasing consciousness for the environment on the part of Swiss citizens and resulted with a certain time lag in parliamentary activities in the mid-1980s. But interestingly, there was a steady decrease of the importance of the environmental issue in all three arenas during the 1990s.

Although climate change as a narrowly defined single issue is not at the center, Eisner’s et al. (2003) longitudinal study marks an important starting point for climate communication research in Switzerland, identifying four different phases in the rise and decline of the ecological discourse (Eisner, Graf, & Moser, 2003, p. 46). The study explicitly linked the agenda-building potential of the media to the policy area and their agenda-setting function for citizens, though without clear causal links.

Climate Change as a Topic in the Swiss (Print) Media

Whereas the sociological study by Eisner, Graf, and Moser (2003) summarized above analyzed climate change as one of many other environmental topics, Table 1 displays the main features of the three most important standardized content analyses, described below, that have a focus on climate change. The direct comparison between them involves certain problems, because the computerized selection of articles from databanks was done with different search terms, the selection of articles has been reduced in part, e.g., by excluding letters to the editor or short news items, and the investigated time span varies.

In an early content analysis of 23 Swiss medium to smaller newspapers, analyzed in the year of 1988 without remarkable environmental events, Rey (1995) found that the total editorial space devoted to environmental issues, narrowly defined as having to deal with environment as endangered resource, amounted to five percent. Sensitivity to the environment as a topic was greater in newspapers from the German-speaking part of Switzerland than those from the French and Italian language regions. In consonance, studies based on surveys reveal that people living in the German-speaking part of Switzerland are more sensitized towards ecology and sustainability than those in the French and Italian parts of Switzerland.

Table 1 Standardized Content Analyses Focusing Climate Change Coverage by Swiss German Newspapers


Tappeiner (2004)

Ehrensperger (2008)

Eberhard (2009)

Research Questions

Coverage of Ozone vs. Climate Change

Coverage of Climate Coverage: Personalization & Dramatization

Development of Coverage of Climate Topic

Time Period



1990, 1995, 2001, 2007


NZZ, Tages-Anzeiger, Blick

NZZ, Tages-Anzeiger, Blick

NZZ, Tages-Anzeiger

Number of Climate Articles

N=924, 44 per newspaper per year

N=1,616 ➔ 343 coded articles, 67 per newspaper per year

N=1,100 ➔ 267 coded, 67 per newspaper per year


Problem, Solutions, Arguments, Threat, Metaphors

Thematic Context, Personalization, Dramatization, etc.

Thematic Context, Actors, Personalization, Frames


Steadily increase of coverage with jump 1999/2000; uncertainty of science

No strong increase until 2006/2007; medium level of personalization & dramatization

Contexts: 41% science, 36% politics, 10% economy. Actors: 50% politics, 15% business, 13% science

In his study, Tappeiner (2004) compared media coverage of the issue of ozone destruction with that of climate change in the three above-mentioned newspapers—Blick, Tages-Anzeiger, and NZZ—based on a standardized content analysis. The media resonance for the ozone issue was highest in 1987/88, whereas media coverage of the topic “climate change” increased continuously from 1996 until 1999, when it doubled until the end of the observation period in 2001. In addition, the thematic spectrum of the coverage was quite different as well. Whereas the anthropogenic causes have been mentioned explicitly in 77% of the ozone articles, this was the case in only 45% of the climate articles, and then mostly in hypothetical form, suggesting scientific uncertainty. Furthermore, motorized traffic or heating as most important sources for the increase of carbon dioxide were mentioned seldom in the climate reporting, whereas CFCs (FCKW in German) from aerosol cans have been named in the 1980s in the ozone articles, together with references to calls for boycotts by NGOs. But emotionalizing elements were seldom used in the context of either issue. To sum up, positively rated political solutions were mentioned quite regularly (45%) for both issues, whereas positively rated economic solutions were mentioned in only about 15% of the articles. Consonant to the definite conclusion of Major and Atwood (2004), it can be said that environmental stories in the Swiss press “define problems, not solutions.”

The standardized content analysis that is the subject of Ehrensperger’s (2008) licentiate thesis deals with climate coverage in the same three most important newspapers in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, namely Blick, Tages-Anzeiger and NZZ. For the time period 2000–2007, the study identified 1,616 articles, dealing with climate that is 67 climate articles per newspaper per year, thus significantly more than in the Tappeiner study. One reason could be, that in the time period 2000–2007 studied two IPCC reports were published (2001, 2007), eight UN climate conferences took place (e.g., in Bali in 2006 and in Nairobi in 2007), and Switzerland joined the Kyoto Protocol in 2003. So it is not surprising that the content analysis detected a sharp increase in the attention cycle for the climate topic from 2006 to 2007: At the end of 2006, Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth triggered a strong public echo, and in 2007 he was honored with the Peace Nobel Prize. Moreover, the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report was published after an international conference in Paris.

Besides analyzing the presence of the topic “climate change” in the Swiss press, the study focused on a detailed analysis of a subset of the articles (N=343) on tendencies of personalization and dramatization, based on a constructivist perspective. The results reveal that the coverage of the climate issue is thematically located mainly in the context of politics (40%) and science (32%), but not in the economy (11%). Accordingly, almost half of the articles were triggered by political events and about a third by scientific events like the publication of the IPCC report. Consonant is the result that about 50% of the actors belong to the political system, 13% to the economy, and 13% to science. But tendencies of a personalized coverage of the climate topic could only by detected on a medium level, and dramatized climate stories could be identified only on a low level. Not surprisingly, the tabloid paper Blick focused on the consequences of climate change especially for Switzerland (35%), most frequently using an emotionalized and dramatized reporting style, but, significantly, that publication devoted the fewest articles to topic.

The third content analysis summarized in Table 1 from Eberhard (2009) studied media coverage by the press for a longer time period of almost 20 years by focusing on four periods (1990, 1995, 2001, 2007), but analyzing media coverage only in the two broadsheet newspapers NZZ and Tages-Anzeiger. This is done on the theoretical basis of the media framing approach (Entman, 1993).

In line with with the results of Ehrensperger (2008), media resonance of the climate topic amounts to 67 climate articles per newspaper per year, due to the fact that only the two broadsheet papers with higher media resonance have been analyzed and that the five time periods selected in this study were either before and after the publication of an IPCC Reports. As a consequence, 41% of the articles were published in the context of science, but only 13% of the actors were form the realm of science in comparison to 50% from the realm of politics.

The frame analysis was done according to the frame elements identified by Entman (1993): Causes of the climate problem were identified and mentioned explicitly in only 35% of the articles, namely traffic and greenhouse gases; but humans as responsible originators were named in only 21% of the articles. Not surprisingly, in 33% of the articles the rising temperature as a consequence of the climate change problem was mentioned, besides consequences for nature (19%), humans (11%), the economy (8%), and natural catastrophes (7%). Moral evaluations have been identified in 39% of the articles, 57% of them in a negative way, and only 26% of the articles mentioned proposed treatments, most frequently a reduction of greenhouse gases, as well as using alternative sustainable energy sources and political measures.

In a further step of data compilation, seven factors were identified on the basis of a factor analysis of 24 coded dimensions, and seven empirically identified frames resulted from the cluster analysis: (1) political arena and politicians and NGOs responsible for climate protection often on the international level (27%), (2) damage in the form of negative consequences of climate change (21%), (3) scientific controversy with articles postulating climate change as a scientifically supported phenomenon, but skeptical articles as well (14%), (4) solutions proposed and new solutions to be searched for (9%), (5) accountability in the form of appeals for measures, and (6) the economy as affected by climate change in negative ways, but in positive ways as well, e.g. as opportunities for new sustainable technologies (7%).

Frese & Bühler (2012) analyzed the framing of climate change as well, but with a set of theoretically based frames similar to those of Semetko and Falkenburg (2000). The study compared coverage of climate change between different countries (Switzerland, Germany, UK, US, India), and selected only longer articles by journalists of the editorial staff. Therefore, the sample of the Swiss papers (NZZ, Tages-Anzeiger) was quite small (N=50). The results show that the two most often used frames in the climate discourse have been the conflict/strategic frame and the risk/disaster frame, with 22% each. Therefore, climate change was positioned in the global political discourse, on the one hand, and has been demonstrated by its catastrophic consequences for nature, on the other hand.

Climate Change Communication in SwitzerlandClick to view larger

Figure 1 Coverage of Climate Change by Newspapers in Switzerland, US, Great Britain

Note: Trends from 1988–2007; number of articles per year, additive for three newspapers in Switzerland (own data), six newspapers for the US (weighted for three newspapers) and three for UK (Boykoff, 2007; Bonfadelli, 2010, p. 262).

Figure 1 presents the development of media coverage of climate change in the three above-mentioned Swiss newspapers between 1988 and 2006 in comparison with an similar analysis by Boykoff (2007) for newspapers in the US and Great Britain. As the figure illustrates, media coverage of climate change in Switzerland lies between the values for the US and UK. Similar to the development of media coverage in the US, there was an initial increase at the beginning of 2000, followed by another, even larger increase in the US after 2004. Switzerland followed in 2006/07, with a delay of about two years. To sum up, it can be stated, that media coverage was triggered by and still is mirroring events in the science area, such as reports from the IPCC, from one angle, and in the area of politics environmental and climate conferences by the UN or protest events by NGOs, from another angle.

Offering a comparative perspective, in her dissertation, which focuses on a political science perspective on climate change policy making, Oehls (2015) compared climate change coverage in twelve newspapers in six countries (Canada, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland (Tages-Anzeiger, NZZ), and USA) between 1995/98 and 2010, looking for convergence of content in dependence countries and type of media systems by Hallin and Mancini (2004). Oehls (2015, p. 54) surprisingly concludes that newspapers sharing a common country does not matter for convergence, but having the same type of media system does (Oehls, 2015, p. 54). But it has to be remarked that only the print media was analyzed and that the study involved one conservative paper and one more leftist paper in each country, each newspaper presumably having a very different editorial line concerning climate policies.

And last but not least, Rüegg (2015) in her content analysis studied how climate change was visualized in nine newspapers in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland in the year 2013. Interestingly, in only about 10% of the picture captions was climate change mentioned explicitly. Marked differences could be identified in the topics of the pictures between the newspapers as well as between the countries. Besides pictures of people (about 20% of the pictures), causes (12%) and consequences (17%) of climate change were visualized, e.g., the melting glaciers in Switzerland and Austria, droughts, or polar bears as affected animals. Other pictures concerned landscapes, weather, animals, or visualizations (e.g., info-graphics).

Swiss Journalists and Climate Change

Having discussed how Swiss media coverage developed in the 1980s, we will now turn our attention to the rather sparse empirical evidence on the role of Swiss journalists in the climate change coverage. In the last representative survey of Swiss journalists from 2008 (N=3,772) 4.5% of the journalists, employed in a department of a print or broadcast medium with specialized departments (N=2,860), are working in the science, environment and/or health departments. Parallel to Tappeiner’s (2004) content analysis, several science journalists responsible for climate articles in the press and broadcast have been interviewed (Baldinini et al., 2004). The perceived media functions, cited by the interviewed journalists, cover a broad spectrum, from the provision of neutral information about climate change to active enhancement of environmental consciousness by mass media. The treatment of climate skeptic actors varies between journalists as well: On the one hand, all information should be given to the public in an objective and balanced way, but on the other hand, arguments are mentioned for limiting the space devoted to climate change skepticism. Futhermore, there is the question of whether it is even possible to explain the complex scientific background involved with climate change to the lay public and how much it should be simplified. Scientific information visualized, e.g., with spectacular photographs of the ozone hole in the 1980s, and packed in personalized narrative stories are seen by some journalists as a good vehicle to stimulate attention and interest.

Engesser and Brüggemann (2015) have mapped the minds of climate journalists from five different countries in their online survey, including 12 Swiss journalists from leading print and online media outlets. They identified five cognitive frames, varying between attributing the responsibility for climate change to (1) industrial countries’ economic policies, (2) sustainability by blaming consumerist culture and the capitalist system, (3) expressing technological optimism, and (4) the responsibility of emerging economies. The sustainability frame produced the largest differences, being the strongest in India and the weakest in UK; Switzerland is in between but with a tendency in direction of blaming the consumerist culture. The picture is completely different for the frame “responsibility of emerging economies”: Here journalists from the US and the UK blame the responsibility for climate change on the emerging economies and vice versa. Interestingly, technological optimism is most strongly expressed by the Swiss journalists. Overall, Brüggemann and Engesser (2014, p. 399) conclude that science journalists dealing regularly with climate change form an “interpretative community sharing the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change.” Based on the same sample that Engesser and Brüggemann (2015) used in their study, an MA Thesis by Fetahu (2015) focuses on the Twitter activities by climate journalists, eight of them from Switzerland. The results demonstrate that climate journalists use Twitter primarily for professional purposes. Thus, private, emotional, and judgmental comments are rare. Their professional role as neutral information providers dominates on Twitter as well, and Swiss journalists were present in all of the three clusters identified, namely (a) in the role of journalist as loyal to their profession by providing links to external websites, (b) as interactive private user, producing tweets mostly for private purposes, and (c) as interested self-promotors, namely for policy and economical topics by providing links mostly to their own web content.

Public Opinion towards Environment and Climate Change

In this section, results of surveys will be presented carried out in Switzerland and dealing with environmental concern in general and more specific worries about climate change. The underlying premise is that people as media users obtain knowledge about the environment and thus are influenced by mass media. The reason is that environment and climate change are unobtrusive topics not easily observable by people in a direct way (e.g., air pollution or long-term increase in temperature).

In Switzerland, various surveys have been conducted dealing mostly with environmental concerns on the one hand and attitudes to the issue of environment protection on the part of the general public on the other. But the data are quite heterogeneous due to the different questions asked and the varying points of time at which the surveys were undertaken. Besides applied research, only a few surveys exist that have been conceptualized from a more theoretical perspective (e.g., Diekmann & Meyer, 2007).

For quite a long time the Credit Suisse bank has sponsored an annual survey called the “Worries Barometer” (Sorgenbarometer in German), carried out by the research institute GfS. Based on representative samples for the whole of Switzerland, with about a thousand Swiss people with voting rights (age 18 and older), people are asked in personal interviews to list the five most important problems Switzerland is facing and need to be solved. For longitudinal analysis, this initial open question is followed by a similar second question, based on a set of problems printed on cards. A trend analysis demonstrates that over the long term, problems like unemployment, health (the cost of insurance), age (retirement security), and immigration dominate the political agenda in Switzerland with values ranging between 35% und 50%. Environmental and climate concerns started in 2000 on a high level, mentioned by 25% of the interviewee, but decreased slowly to a low of 7% in 2006, followed by a jump again to 25% in 2007, obviously mirroring the heavy media echo of the IPCC Report published earlier that year. Between 2008 and 2014 there was again a slight decreasing tendency from 20% in 2008 to 16% in 2013 and 2014 (Credit Suisse, 2014). In comparison, in the Eurobarometer (2011) survey a similar proportion of 20% considered “climate change” to be the single most serious problem facing the world, followed by “poverty, hunger, and lack of drinking water” in second place with 28%. The results of the various surveys are summarized in Table 2.

Table 2 Swiss Surveys Dealing with Environmental Consciousness and Climate Change







  • - “Environment and Climate Concerns” mentioned as one of five most important problems facing Switzerland






Gallup International


  • - “How much do you personally worry about climate change?”:➔ worry a great deal or a fair amount

55% CH

60% US



  • - Climate change as single most important problem facing the world

  • - Climate change as very serious problem

  • - Climate change as very serious problem

20% EU


64% EU


68% EU

Univox Survey


  • - Strong/very strong interest for “environment and ecology”


GfS Environment Survey


  • - Environmental consciousness above the average for Swiss general public

  • - Climate change very strong danger for humans and environment

  • - Personally strongly affected by climate change













  • - Behavior changed strongly because of climate change “State should do more to protect changing climate” ➔ more




  • - Acceptance of “If we continue to act as we have so far, we are heading towards an environmental catastrophe”

  • - Threat of climate warming for man and environment: very and strong






Note: The question wording is displayed in the middle column. However, this changed somewhat from year to year.

The survey institute Gallup was questioning American people in annual surveys as well, but more explicitly: “How much you personally worry about climate change?” The results show slight ups and downs, with a top in 2000, where 72% worried a great deal or a fair amount, but—similarly to Switzerland—with a slight decrease to 51% in 2005, followed by another increase to a high of 65% in 2007/2008, followed by another decrease to 51% in 2011 (Newport, 2012). And in 2007, Gallup realized an international comparative survey, asking people in many countries the same question, based on sample sizes of about 1,000 people: “Please tell me whether you agree or disagree with the following statements: ‘Global warming is having a serious impact now in the area where I live’.” The data (Gallup,2008) show that public perception of the impact of climate change varies between different countries with a mean of 66% (strongly and slightly agree) and means on a slight lower level, e.g., in the US (60%), Germany (58%), UK (57%), and Switzerland (55%), but with higher concerns expressed in southern countries like Spain (83%), Italy (77%), Portugal (74%), and France (73%). Interpreted from the other side, climate skepticism in the form of denying that global warming has a serious impact is supported by 40% of the interviewees in the US, by 27% in Western Europe, by 41% in Germany, and 38% in Switzerland.

Contrary to the Gallup poll, where no significant differences in climate concern have been found across demographic groups (sex, age, education), Bonfadelli (2009) observed social differences in Switzerland concerning interest for environment in a representative Univox Survey in 2009, based on 718 personal interviews. In the total sample, 59% mentioned a strong or even very strong interest for “environment and ecology as topic and reports in the media”—the third highest interest after “health” and “local and regional matters.” Whereas no differences between men and women could be found, older people aged 65 and higher mentioned stronger interest in environment and ecology (65%) than younger people 18–39 years old (57%), and especially there was a strong correlation between interest and education: low (48%), mid-level (59%), and higher education (65%). Moreover, found significant partial correlations have been found between newspaper reading and interest in environment and ecology, even after controlling for gender, age, and education, but not for television viewing.

In addition, by Diekmann and Meyer’s (2007) “Environment Survey 2007” is more detailed and theory-based. This representative telephone survey included 3,369 people aged 18 and more. Its results are partly comparable to an earlier study from 1994. The affective component indicates that in 2007 66% accept the statement “If we continue to act as we have so far, we are heading towards an environmental catastrophe,” and even 82% perceive a very strong or strong threat for humans and the environment from the greenhouse effect and climate warming. This level is quite similar to the result of the Eurobarometer (2011), where 68% considered “climate change” to be a very serious problem. On the cognitive level, 59% think that “the major part of the Swiss population is acting in a way that is not very environment conscious.” But four schoolbook-like knowledge questions dealing with the magnitude of ozone, the effects of carbon dioxide, and causes of the greenhouse effect show that the bulk of the Swiss population has only superficial environmental knowledge. On the conative/behavioral level, a similar proportion of 62% supports the criticism that “politicians still do much too little to protect the environment.” To summarize, about two thirds of the Swiss population manifests a strong environmental consciousness. Diekmann and Meyer (2007, p. 285) conclude that the affective component of the environmental consciousness seemed to remain quite stable since 1994, but attitudes towards a stronger environmental behavior such as the acceptance of financial restrictions in favor of environmental protection seem to have strengthened. In an earlier report, the survey institute IHA (Lauko, 1993) stated, based on seven representative Swiss surveys, that the share of environmentally conscious Swiss people rose from 48% in 1986 to 57% in 1992. Women and educated individuals have a stronger environmental commitment than men and less educated individuals. Diekmann and Meyer (2007, p. 299) summarize their data on the cognitive, affective, and conative level in a path-analytical model: Environmental knowledge affects environmental behavior (0.08**) as well as the support for environmental policy (0.08**) in a modest way. But environmental consciousness influences environmental behavior (0.21**) and support for environmental policy (0.32**) even more; and it is dependent of or influenced by the degree of environmental pollution (0.14**) operationalized among other dimensions by an urban domicile or children in the household. Unfortunately, the authors of the Environment Survey 2007 did not take into account the influences of media coverage on perceptions of the climate change by use of media.

In contrast to the summarized results from standardized surveys or the sociological perspective of Diekmann and Meyer (2007), an early study by Stoll-Kleemann, O’Riordan, and Jaeger (2001) studied patterns of psychologically based reactions to discuss consequences of climate change based on 14 focus groups with six to eight randomly selected individuals from the German-speaking part of Switzerland. Confronted with the necessity of changing their material comfort and high energy lifestyles on the behavioral level, members of the focus groups reacted to the created dissonance in their minds with a number of “socio-psychological denial mechanisms”: (a) interpretation of “lifestyle” as unwillingness to give up customary comfort habits, (b) “tragedy of the commons” as evaluating any costs to oneself as greater than the benefits to others, (c) “managerial fix” interpretation as rejecting the seriousness of the climate problem by stressing that it can and will be solved by technological innovations and regulatory means, and (d) “governance distrust” attitude expressed as a lack of faith in the capacity of government to deliver its side of the bargain over climate change mitigation (ibid., p. 112). These four interpretive ego-defense frames were closely interlinked and function as perceived barriers to action by denial of personal responsibility and emphasizing personal powerlessness. Later a Swedish study by Olausson (2009) used focus groups in a similar but more explicit way to analyze the important role of new media in shaping the understanding of climate change, based on social representation theory. It emphasizes the collective dimensions of people’s everyday cognitions of the world, and asks questions such as how scientific knowledge about climate change, communicated by mass media, is remolded and transformed into social representations.


Compared with other countries in Europe such as Germany or with the United States (Schmidt et al., 2013; Schäfer, 2015), there are only a few studies in Switzerland dealing with the issue of “climate communication” from a social science perspective in general and even less from the perspective of communication research. Nevertheless, several content analyses have studied the coverage of environmental issues in general and climate as a specific issue, complemented partly by interviews with science journalists. It can be summarized—often in a way similar to studies from the US and UK (Boykoff, 2007) or Germany (Schäfer & Schichting, 2014; Schmidt et al., 2013)—that at least in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, the press covers environmental issues and the topic of climate change on similar criteria of event selection, namely influenced by current issues and prominent actors in the field of science like the IPCC, and the United Nations in the political sphere. Although the content analyses summarized above are based primarily on reporting in print media, the Swiss public broadcasting service SRF is a very important source of information about climate change as well. In 2015, based on an analysis of the Swiss Media Database (SMD), “climate change” was a topic almost every second day on the homepage of SRF and the climate summit in Paris alone stimulated 38 contributions.

These international and as well local actors like industry on the one hand and NGOs on the other hand in opposition or in favor to the climate problem try to use the media as platform and loudspeaker to disseminate their interpretations by strategically framing the issue in their interest to dominate the public discourse (Bonfadelli, 2010, p. 268ff.; Nisbet, 2009; Moser, 2010). As a consequence, the general issue cycles of the climate topic can be observed in Switzerland that are quite similar to other countries, such as Germany, although the topics and frames of climate coverage differ between countries and media types as well. And concerning importance of media for environmental and climate consciousness, strategic framing and agenda-building by stakeholders to influence media coverage one the one hand, and use of media by citizens on the other hand seem even more important in Switzerland as compared to other countries, because of its direct democratic possibilities.

While until now no Swiss studies tried to link media coverage of climate change with problem awareness by Swiss citizens Arlt, Hoppe, and Wolling (2011) empirically tested an integrated model, using data from a Germany-wide representative survey. Their findings show that media usage does have a certain influence on awareness of climate problems and on related behavioral intentions. And in an earlier secondary analysis of a Eurobarometer Survey, based on 15 member states of the European Union in 1999, Schulz (2003) also analyzed the influence of media usage on self-assessed knowledge and environmental consciousness. His results also showed significant positive correlations especially between topic-specific print media use and environmental awareness and knowledge. Since the media system, media coverage, and population structure in Germany are quite similar to those in Switzerland, I would suggest that media coverage of climate change in Switzerland too will influence the Swiss public’s problem awareness and knowledge.


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