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Climate Change Communication in Denmark

Summary and Keywords

Climate-change communication in Denmark was initially related to a broader environmental agenda and to discussions surrounding U.N. charters on sustainability, reflecting a traditional strong Scandinavian commitment to U.N. institutions. Although climate-change communication has since developed into an independent field among academics and environmentalists, some of the earlier links to questions of sustainability and development have been preserved.

Consequently, climate-change communication has been studied in a variety of public arenas in addition to the media system. These venues include parliamentary debates, regional discussions of renewable energy systems, cultural and artistic representations, as well as commercial and strategic discourses on green technologies—the latter representing an important Danish export market. Thus, climate-change communication is studied in several academic disciplines involving both quantitative and qualitative research strategies.

Media representations of climate change comprise the largest area of research on climate-change communication and have been investigated by media, communication, and journalism studies. Climate-change reporting is marked by substantial public consensus concerning the scientific evidence of climate change and the moral obligations of the industrialized world. It reflects a Scandinavian culture based on political corporatism in both the political system and the media system, which under normal circumstances results in a moderate rather than polarized public debate. Outright climate-change denial has consequently been marginal, although the controversies generated by Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, on how to prioritize climate change in relation to other global problems, can be regarded as the Danish equivalent to climate skepticism.

Another characteristic of Danish climate change communication is the imprint left by the failure of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference (COP15), which was experienced as particularly traumatic in the host country. Like most countries, Denmark experienced a sharp decline in climate change coverage in the aftermath of COP15. However, whereas other countries have slowly picked up the intensity of media reporting following COP15, a similar increase has not materialized in Denmark, illustrating how a failed climate (and media) event can have lasting effects on a nation’s climate change communication.

Keywords: climate change communication, environmental communication, media system, Denmark, Scandinavia

Climate-change communication in Denmark has become a stable part of both the political agenda and the media agenda. It reflects historically high public concerns with environmental matters including climate change. Furthermore, it reflects a distinct political culture and a media system specific to Scandinavian countries. While Danish climate-change communication follows important transnational patterns in terms of context, extension, and orientation (itself an outcome of the globalized nature of climate change), it is also marked by specific conditions and unique events that, to some extent, set Denmark apart from its neighbors and from international tendencies.

This article begins with an outline of the origins and the trajectories of climate-change communication in Denmark. Important contextual factors are considered next, including democratic corporatism as the foundation of both the Danish political system and the nation’s media system. The major section of the article identifies the different arenas of Danish climate-change communication that aim to offer a broad and comprehensive picture of how climate change communication circulates in Danish culture and society. An account of two events with a considerable impact on Danish climate-change communication follows: The first is the controversy surrounding Bjørn Lomborg, the author of The Skeptical Environmentalist (2001), who became an important figure in early climate change communication. The other event is the spectacular failure of Copenhagen Climate Change Conference (COP15) in 2009, which had a traumatic effect on climate change politics and communication in the host country.

Changing Climate: Adjusting the Environmental Agenda

Initially, climate-change communication in Denmark emerged from a broader environmental agenda. By the late 1960s the deterioration of the natural environment was increasingly perceived as a major social problem, although some researchers have traced public concerns about nature conservation and pollution back to the beginning of the 20th century (B. Jensen, 1996). Thus, according to some scholars, questions of climatic change have appeared in Danish media for more than 30 years, dating back to the 1972 United Nations (UN) Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm (O. Danielsen, 2015a). Although this early conference did not specifically mention climate change, it touched on issues that later moved to the fore in the climate change debate (Giddens, 2009; Hulme, 2009), including human impact on the natural environment, questions pertaining to energy resources, and the relation between environment and development (UNEP, 1972).

The first sporadic media references to climate change surfaced in the 1970s and early 1980s. At this point, climate change concerned two entirely different scenarios, namely the prospect of a new ice age and the potential effects of greenhouse gases. From the early 1980s, during the nuclear arms race at the end of the Cold War, these concerns were further mixed with the more dystopian scenario of a nuclear winter that would be the likely outcome of an armed conflict between the nuclear powers (O. Danielsen, 2015a, pp. 61–62).

Inearly climate change communication, experts and scientists were the primary sources who introduced and discussed climate change in articles and op-eds. Only by the mid 1980s did the balance change when journalists began to produce the majority of climate change reporting (O. Danielsen, 2015a, pp. 62, 78). This change coincided with another development. As climate change gradually became absorbed by the UN system, first in 1987 with the report “Our Common Future” and later in 1992 with the establishment of UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), climate change coverage became more politicized. Scientific questions on whether and how the climate was changing increasingly gave way to questions of how to respond to climate change. Thus, from the late 1980s and early 1990s, climate change reporting became part of a broader political sphere that superseded a scientific agenda.

A longitudinal perspective on climate change communication in the Danish press is presented in Figure 1. It shows the development in frequency of news items mentioning climate change or global warming since 1990. The figure is based on a sample of five national newspapers, which have been registered in the same database since 1990. Together, these five newspapers account for approximately 60% of the circulation of national dailies (StatBank_Denmark, 2016).

Climate Change Communication in DenmarkClick to view larger

Figure 1. News attention to climate change in five Danish newspapers, 1990 to 2015. Note: The five newspapers searched include Berlingske Tidende, Politiken, WeekendAvisen, BT, and Ekstrabladet. The database Infomedia was searched using the key terms global* DNEAR1 opvarmning OR klimaforandring* OR klimaændring*.

The figure shows that climate change communication in Denmark tends to follow an international pattern (Schäfer, Ivanova, & Schmidt, 2011), peaking in relation to international trigger events such as UNFCCCs Assessment Reports (2001, 2007) the decision of the Bali Road Map (2007) and COP 15 (2009). Based on slightly different data, in terms of search terms and number of items, some researchers (O. Danielsen, 2015a, pp. 192–193) have argued that this development corresponds to Anthony Downs’ Issue Attention Cycle (Downs, 1972). Accordingly, early scientific discoveries prior to 1990 can be considered a “pre-problem stage” while “the alarmed discovery stage” coincides with the establishment of UNFCCC in 1992 and the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. The “realizing the cost stage” ran from the 1997 to COP15 in 2009 and was followed by a rather sharp “decline of public interest stage” and a possible “post-problem stage.”

However, other research has questioned the applicability of the Downs model due to both theoretical considerations and inconclusive empirical evidence (Eskjær, 2014). Given that 2009 represents a peak in media attention to climate change, the decline and post-problem stages are still yielding more media attention than the alarmed discovery stage and parts of the peak stage. This finding may indicate that so-called mega problems or wicked problems (Hulme, 2009, pp. 333–334) like climate change, do not necessarily follow patterns of previously propose models of media attention. This line of research suggests that media institutional mechanisms, such as self-regulation of news selection, and tendencies of “mediatization” also condition climate change communication.

A review of previous Scandinavian research suggests an alternative longitudinal model in which environmental news, including questions of climate change, follow a broader pattern of rising and waning media attention across decades since the 1960s as well as a general tendency away from critical environmental journalism toward popular environmental news reporting (Ørsten, 2006).

Systemic Contexts of Climate Change Communication

To explain the development of news attention illustrated in Figure 1, a number of contextual factors should be taken into consideration. Danish climate change communication is influenced by different systemic contexts; among them, the political system and the media system are the most important. However, climate change communication is not restricted to these two institutional realms but has been produced and studied in a diversity of knowledge fields, which are considered in the final part of this section.

The Political System

To a large extent, Danish responses to climate change offer a fine illustration of what has been called democratic corporatism. This term refers to the political systems of small North European states that are based on: “an ideology of social partnership (. . .) [a] centralized system of interest groups; and voluntary and informal coordination of conflicting objectives” (Katzenstein, 1985, p. 32). Historically, democratic corporatism is the outcome of national experiences of economic and political crises of the 1930s and 1940s, which called for comprehensive and consorted solutions from all sectors of society based on corporative and democratic approaches. The relative success of this model has led to a high degree of economic flexibility and political stability, which is reflected in Denmark’s high ranking concerning social stability and human development (UNDP, 2015; FFP, 2015).

A good example of the ideology of democratic corporatism is the Danish Society for Nature Conservation. Formed in 1911, it was given statutory status in matters concerning conservation in an act from 1937. Since then, this voluntary organization has had an official mandate to propose conservation projects, although the authorities make the final decisions. It illustrates a partnership between citizens and authorities, which also typically involve representatives of, for example, agricultural interests. In terms of climate change, 66% of Danish municipalities have signed an agreement with the Society for Nature Conservation committing to an annual reduction in the municipalities’ own carbon dioxide emissions. This example represents a more recent form of political corporatism (Hoff & Strobel, 2013, p. 6).

Due to corporatist inclinations, political parties frequently absorb social problems addressed by single-issue movements including environmental matters. Climate change is no exception and has consequently become part of the democratic corporative culture of “low-voltage politics” (Katzenstein, 1985, p. 32). Accordingly, political differences are rarely about the scientific foundations of climate change but mostly concern detailed policy adjustments such as the pace of mitigation and adaptation processes (Almlund, 2012). Thus, across the political board, there has been a long-held recognition that climate change is happening, that it is human-made, and that the developed world has a historical obligation to help the developing world adapting to global climate change.

This political consensus is also reflected in public climate change communication. Although it has been influenced by the media’s appetite for drama and the widespread use of conflict as a generic frame (Lyby, 2015), climate change communication is frequently rather “instrumental,” focusing on technical solutions, political compromises, business models, and behavioral change to address and tackle climate change (Jørgensen, Johansen, & Kabel, 2010a; Almlund & Danielsen, 2016).

The Media System

Katzenstein’s analysis of “dominant political forms” in the Western world constitutes the backbone of Hallin and Mancini’s comparative theory of Western media systems (Hallin & Mancini, 2004). The model applies Katzenstein’s terminology by labeling North European media a democratic-corporatist media system. The variables that constitute and distinguish media systems also have important bearings for climate change communication in Denmark (Eskjær, 2013b). Here the following variables are considered: (a) development of the press, (b) journalistic professionalism, and (c) political parallelism between media and political parties.

Newspapers and magazines in Scandinavia have historically enjoyed high print circulation numbers and have proven somewhat resilient in a changing mediascape, although less so in Denmark than the other Scandinavian countries. Thus, the press in Denmark is considered at the top of the journalistic “food chain” in terms of both its agenda-setting function and investigative qualities (Lund, 2001). This is also true for climate-change communication, which is generally more visible in the written press compared to other news platforms (Eskjær, 2015). It may reflect the fact that climate news is a relatively complicated type of news that often deals with technical issues and inherent uncertainties, which is better suited for press articles than the shorter news updates found in radio and television. Moreover, the press has maintained its role as the main communicative space for public debate, resulting in a considerable number of op-eds by experts, politicians, NGOs, and interest groups. However, this emphasis on the written press also reflects a somewhat unacknowledged bias in research on climate-change communication, which tends to investigate text-based data rather than audio–visual data, often due to practical concerns in the data-gathering process.

The Danish press is characterized by a high degree of journalistic professionalism resulting in a significant level of codified behavior, formalized education, and institutionalized values. Climate change has traditionally been part of the environmental beat. Due to its sometime technical nature, environmental and climate news items have accordingly been covered by rather specialized journalists, in some cases even by the same journalists, for decades. This occurrence has resulted in a relatively stable network of environmental journalists and their different sources. For some environmental NGOs, access to such a network is regarded as a valuable resource in times of increasing mediatization, where media attention is considered a benchmark for political influence and potential donor mobilization (Eskjær, 2016).

Despite a high level of professionalism, scientific inaccuracy nevertheless creeps into Danish climate-change journalism. A study covering 1999–2009 found that almost half the articles quoting the journals Science or Nature contained elements of inaccuracy even though the errors were predominantly of a minor or unintended character, leading to the conclusion that “Danish high-quality newspapers were moderately inaccurate in quoting climate science” (Vestergaard, 2011, p. 5).

Strict political parallelism no longer exists in the Danish press, although ideological differences are both evident and manifest. However, in general, ordinary climate-change reporting clearly distinguishes news from views. Ideological differences are mostly to be found in editorials, op-eds, and in news selection. Some studies have found different discursive orientations toward climate change in right-leaning and left-leaning newspapers (O. Danielsen, 2015a, p. 312ff., 2015b), while other findings suggest that ideological variations can be detected mainly in relation to the somewhat marginalized position of climate skepticism (Jørgensen, Johansen, & Kabel, 2010b, p. 16; Eskjær, 2014, p. 166).

Knowledge Fields

Most data and studies regarding climate change communication have been produced within academia. Not surprisingly, media, communication, and journalism studies have shown most interest in the field. However, important contributions have also emerged from crisis communication, anthropology studies, literary studies, cultural studies, and arctic studies. Methodologically speaking, there seems to be a preponderance of content analysis in journalism and media studies, although content analyses are frequently combined with more qualitative observations and research strategies. As qualitative methods tend to dominate other, mainly humanistic, research fields dealing with environmental communication, however, the overall impression of Danish climate communication research is one of methodological pluralism.

Given a relatively strong Danish tradition for reception studies, it is surprising that this method, with a few recent exceptions (K. B. Jensen, forthcoming), has been largely absent from Danish research on climate communication. It may, however, reflect a strong affinity with science communication, which traditionally has been more concerned with public participation in science rather than traditional reception studies. Based on Danish data, a handful of scholars have investigated the “participatory turn” in public engagement with climate change, pointing out how participatory processes frequently involve tensions of inclusion/exclusion and top-down/bottom-up communication (Phillips, 2012; Horsbøl & Lassen, 2012; Horsbøl, 2015).

Nonacademic fields have also produced valuable knowledge about climate-change communication. One example is the Danish association of professional communication and information workers (DKF, 2016). As an increasing number of public institutions and private companies are engaged in climate-related activities, organizational communication on these matters are rising as well. The association has organized workshops and conferences as well as published a considerable number of articles on the strategic communication of climate change.

A particular source of Danish climate-change communication is Infomedia, a private provider of media Intelligence (Infomedia, 2016). Owned by Denmark’s two largest publishing houses, it covers all news media and news programs in the country. It consequently provides vital data on climate-change communication across media platforms and news media. Many companies as well as all Danish universities subscribe to this service, and several findings reported in the present article draw on data from this database. Moreover, the database covers a rather substantive time scale. Registration for some of the most important newspapers goes back to 1990, allowing longitudinal studies of public communication regarding climate change and the environment.

Arenas of Climate Change Communication

Given the political context mentioned above, as well as the increasing evidence of global warming, discussions about and awareness of climate change have gradually entered most areas of society. While the media comprise the most important arena of public climate change communication, global warming has been publicly debated in parliament, public hearings, and in relation to Danish business opportunities. Climate change has furthermore been thematized in the arts and in literature, offering a more imaginative approach to climate change. Finally, climate change communication takes place at both local and transcultural levels.

In Denmark, the transcultural them has been represented by the impact of global warming in the artic region. As part of the Kingdom of Denmark, Greenland features frequently in Danish climate change communication, primarily to illustrate the existence of global climate change and the adverse effects it can have on wildlife and sea level. At the same time, Greenland represents a complex and sensitive case. It is a constant reminder of the nation’s colonial past while at the same time heavily exploited by shifting Danish governments to mobilize the international community in the fight against climate change. Greenland, however, also illustrates the complexities of global climate change, as Greenland and continental Denmark have different views on the political and economic perspectives of future climate change.

To distinguish between these different areas of climate change communication, the following section differentiates between four arenas; the media arena, the hard arenas (politics, science and business), the geographical arenas, and the cultural arena.

The Media Arena

Longitudinal and cross-sectional studies of Danish climate change news paint a relatively coherent picture of how climate change is covered by the Danish press. First, it shows that climate change is by far the most dominant topic within environmental and risk communication both in terms of frequency, length of articles, and number of quoted sources per article (Ørsten, 2006, p. 31; Roslyng & Eskjær, 2015).

Over the years, a number of studies (Almlund & Danielsen, 2016; Eskjær, 2009, 2013b, 2014, 2015) have tracked the thematic distribution of climate change articles in national daily newspapers. It points to a consistent pattern with limited variations on a yearly basis. Unsurprisingly, climate change is mainly reported in relation to politics (40%–50%), followed by economy (10%–20%) and science/technology (10%–20%). Climate change is also frequently mentioned in relation to culture (10%), although it varies considerably depending on sample periods. Thus, during high-profile climate-change conference events like COP15, climate change tends to be subject to considerable cultural attention and activity (e.g., public artworks, installations, and exhibitions). Studies that have coded for health and human-interest stories found these variables to be rather marginal in relation to climate change (1%–3%).

The same studies have found a relative consistent pattern in distribution among news genres. Climate change is rarely front-page news (0–3%) but is mostly featured in ordinary articles (50%–60%). The number of news paragraphs varies significantly among genres (5%–25%), which is a token of both editorial priorities and different layout strategies. More significantly, climate change is subject to substantial public debate (9%–35% of op-eds) as well as occasional editorials (0%–3%).

Journalistic studies have focused on whether climate change reporting is dominated by technical and negative news or is subject to different modalities of journalism, including constructive approaches to news reporting (Jørgensen et al., 2010b). A combined content analysis and interview investigation found that from 1997 to 2005, environmental news progressed from an earlier epoch of critical environmental news toward a more popular vision of nature and environment (Ørsten, 2006). However, the extent to which this general transformation also influenced climate change reporting remained somewhat elusive. Interviewed news editors held the opinion that climate change was generally too complicated and technical, although that appeared not to influence the editorial attention or frequency of climate change articles.

Other cross-sectional studies have argued that climate change journalism is marked by routine journalism that rarely consults expert sources (O. Danielsen, 2009). In a similar manner, a study of news coverage during COP15 found that the media missed an opportunity to engage with the scientific, political, or economic experts that were present in Copenhagen during this conference. The same study also found that, in general, media coverage of COP15 was rather serious, rarely resorted to tabloidization, and was marked by a high degree of professionalism. In turn, few news stories presented climate change in a positive or constructive manner or focused on personal responses and solutions to climate change (Jørgensen et al., 2010b).

However, studies based on broader sampling strategies indicate that when climate change reporting is not confined to trigger events like COP15, questions of technical solutions and administrative responses are actually quite central to Danish climate change communication (Eskjær, 2014). Some findings even suggest that the general disillusionment following COP15 drove climate change news toward less political, more solution-based reporting focusing on local and individual answers to climate change mitigation (Almlund & Danielsen, 2016).

Political, Science, and Business Arenas

Climate change communication in the press is predominantly drawing on information from three areas: politics, business, and science/technology. This division corresponds with the dominant sources used in most climate change reporting. Although figures vary slightly depending on whether sampling has been done prior to, during, or after COP15, and depending on media platform (e.g., newspapers or television), the pattern of news sources is consistent. Figures from newspaper sources in 2012–2013 indicate that domestic political sources dominated (35%), followed by international politics and IGOs (20%), science experts (20%), business sources (10%), NGOs (5%), and other media sources (5%) (Eskjær, 2015). These figures almost duplicate the thematic distribution of climate change news confirming the picture that politics dominate press reports on climate change.

One study looked exclusively at political actors and how the political system communicates about climate change. Rather than consulting media reports, the study sampled parliamentary debates and conducted interviews with spokespersons from political parties (Almlund, 2012). A great deal of consensus among Danish political parties regarding the anthropogenic nature of climate change was revealed in the need for mitigation and adaptation and a commitment to climate aid for the developing world. Political disagreements mostly centered on the means rather than the goals of climate-change politics, particularly regarding the priorities of mitigation and adaptation. Interestingly, the level of consensus was most evident in parliamentary debates, whereas differences were more forthright in interviews regarding the negotiation strategies of the political parties. These findings largely confirm the proposition that Danish climate-change communication is influenced by the mechanisms of democratic corporatism.

Probing further into the political arena, domestic politics dominate the media’s climate-change coverage. Figures vary between factor 1:3 and 1:2 in favor of domestic news compared to foreign news (Eskjær, 2013b, 2015). They demonstrate that climate change has become part of a national political agenda, which most political actors refer to either as a major topic or as part of a broader political program. In short, climate change has become a topic that nobody can afford to ignore, or it has proven to be a useful means to sharpen and distinguish political profiles. At the same, climate change has been “mainstreamed,” that is to say, integrated into ordinary policy and planning processes at both local and national levels of public administration. Consequently, climate change is frequently featured in ordinary news concerning the implementation of both national and local policies regarding, for example, road constructions, urban planning, environmental zoning etc.

Several studies have related Danish climate-change communication to different environmental discourses, drawing on both political and more cultural typologies (e.g., Dryzek, 2005). Historical accounts have found that early climate change reporting was characterized by a great variety of environmental discourses both within and among newspapers of different political orientation (O. Danielsen, 2015a, pp. 61–78). Other studies have indicated that problem-solving discourses and the sustainability discourse dominated press reports prior to COP15 when the international community was seeking a replacement of the Kyoto Protocol (Eskjær, 2014). Likewise, investigations of local climate change communication indicate that discourses on green growth and ecological modernization tend to dominate local media coverage of climate change as local concerns frequently centers on how energy firms can mitigate carbon dioxide consumption and comply with, or take advantage of, a transition to renewables (Lassen, Horsbøl, Bonnen, & Pedersen, 2011).

Whereas cross-sectional studies typically focus on the general pattern of climate-change sources and discourses surrounding the formal political system (Infomedia, 2014), case studies have investigated alternative discourses associated with climate-change activism. One study found that a climate-change action aimed at shutting down a coal power plant a few months before COP15 sought to raise questions associated with more radical environmental discourses (A. Danielsen, 2012). However, the study also found that the activists’ critiques never became “politically challenging” due to the media’s focus on activism as a spectacle rather than a political manifestation. Not only did the media fail to engage with the critique raised by the activist; The power plant also succeeded in renouncing any conflicts of interest by employing a strategy of “post politics” that reduced questions of mitigation to high-tech energy solutions. As the media buys into this type of post-political green tolerance, it effectively blocks any challenges to the underlying growth ideology.

While a few studies have demonstrated that economy and business sources constitute important components in climate-change reporting (Infomedia, 2014, p. 11; Jørgensen et al., 2010b), business publications are frequently excluded from samples of climate-change communication. Apart from the risk of biased samples that underreport business-related climate communication; such research has also underestimated the diversity of the press’ climate change coverage.

Studies of samples taken from a Danish business daily [Børsen] have revealed noteworthy patterns. A Danish equivalent to The Financial Times, it is one of the oldest newspapers in the country, with circulation that surpasses tabloid papers. These findings show that it brings as many articles on climate change as quality newspapers, and far more articles than tabloids. The frequency of op-ed pieces in Børsen, however, is significantly lower than in other quality papers and is closer to, although still higher than, tabloids. Moreover, whereas conservative papers occasionally publish articles and editorials in relation to a climate-skeptical stance, skeptical discourses are almost absent in the business paper, which in contrast appears more aligned with the sustainability discourse or notions of ecological modernization (Eskjær, 2014, 2015; Almlund & Danielsen, 2016).

This situation may reflect a particularly Danish context. Apart from having few energy-heavy industries, Denmark is poor in natural resources and was particularly affected by the energy crises in the 1970s. This resulted in a gradual transition toward energy efficiency and a focus on renewables that generated several profitable industries such as wind energy. Thus, the acceptance of the climate change discourse in the Danish business paper illustrates that Danish industries, rather than questioning the reality of climate change, tend to consider climate change as an opportunity to export energy solutions or increase productivity through energy reduction.

How deep this commitment to climate change mitigation runs is difficult to gauge. The sustainability discourse has been easily appropriated by the corporate world (Dryzek, 2005), and an analysis of corporate communication among international firms operating in Denmark reveals conflicting signals (Frandsen & Johansen, 2011). Based on a neo-institutional approach, the study finds that while car companies accept corporate responsibility in relation to climate change and the environment, this responsibility has yet to be institutionalized at the core of the companies’ identity management. Taken together, these studies nevertheless indicate that business communication comprises an important part of Danish climate-change communication and contributes to the discursive diversity surrounding questions of global warming.

Geographical Arenas

Given the small and centralized nature of Danish society, most studies on climate change communication have employed a traditional nation state perspective. There are, however, exemptions as some research projects have looked at the local level, while other studies have placed Danish climate-change communication in a broader transnational or transcultural perspective.

The international climate-change regime requires governments to provide national mitigation goals and adaptation plans, which often attract considerable public attention. Yet the actual implementation of climate-change goals mostly takes place locally, and it is primarily on a community level that citizens may actually engage with climate-change policies. Furthermore, the international community has repeatedly failed to reach global agreements; consequently, there has been a shift toward local and urban contributions to climate change mitigation. Some researchers even suggest that we are witnessing a “municipal climate revolution” (Hoff & Strobel, 2013).

Even so, research on local climate communication has largely been neglected despite constituting an important source in the public understanding of climate change (Horsbøl, 2013). As reported by a Danish media firm, local media actually provides considerable press coverage on questions of mitigation and green energy transition, particularly in areas where energy production plays an important role in the local economy (Infomedia, 2014).

To better understand communicative interrelations at a local level, a series of studies have investigated mitigation projects in the northern part of Denmark, focusing on local media coverage as well as efforts of citizen participation in local climate-change communication. The investigations show that attempts at addressing and engaging citizens in mitigation efforts at the community level often follow a top-down approach to public engagement. Thus, the function of citizen participation is regularly to generate public support and feedback to projects already designed by the municipality. Moreover, these efforts of climate change mobilization on a local level frequently employ a “localized” discourse of ecological modernization in which green technology is “presented as a growth opportunity for local jobs and businesses” (Lassen et al., 2011, p. 424; Horsbøl, 2013, 2015).

In general, the adverse effects of climate change in Denmark are predicted to be rather limited compared to more climate vulnerable countries. However, in other parts of Denmark, which include the Faroe Islands and Greenland, climate change is having a more dramatic impact. As climate change is predicted to have drastic influence on the arctic, Greenland has received considerable national and international media attention as a spectacular and concrete example of climate change processes. Immediately prior to COP15, Danish climate change negotiators frequently invited important stakeholders to Greenland to showcase the speed of global warming and to gather international support for a global climate-change treaty.

Responding to this new media attention, a couple of studies have critically examined the discursive constructions of the arctic region in relation to climate change. Premised on the notion of “articism” as a parallel to Said’s “orientalism,” it is argued that the artic frequently serves as a projection of Western/Danish/colonial imaginations about the arctic wilderness that play into a larger climate-change discourse (Bjørst, 2014). By deconstructing the various meanings of, for example, the polar bear as a global symbol of climate change, these studies have exposed fundamental conflicts between Western preoccupations and Greenlandic aspirations. From Greenlandic perspectives, international intentions of saving the arctic from global warming easily smack not only of well-meaning but also neocolonial ambitions that will only complicate the economic development (and independence) of the Greenlandic society, although the adverse effects of climate change on Greenland’s nature and traditions remain a cause for local concern.

Whereas these studies have looked at how a particular geographical area contributes to climate change communication, another analytical strategy has been to offer a comparative perspective on Danish climate-change communication (Eskjær, 2013b). This approach reveals that compared with, for example, the Anglo-American press, climate-change skepticism has had a rather limited influence in Denmark, although climate change in general receives considerable media attention there compared to other countries. As noted, Danish climate-change coverage is dominated by domestic news, suggesting that climate change is considered a political responsibility at the national level and not only a distant domain of international politics. Compared to climate change reporting in regions that primarily covers international climate negotiations (e.g., the Middle East), the focus on a domestic agenda carries the potential of rendering climate change relevant to a local readership, although a disproportionate focus on mitigation efforts may risk overshadowing the challenges of adaptation processes in the developing world.

Finally, Danish climate-change communication is, comparatively speaking, relatively politicized. It reflects a Scandinavian tradition that considers the media part of the political process rather than “above politics” (Hallin & Mancini, 2004). Thus, climate change attracts a fair amount of public debate where different stakeholders frequently contest official climate change policies or suggest alternative climate-change strategies. Overall, this line of research points toward regional and interregional differences in climate-change reporting that places Danish climate-change communication squarely within the conventions of a democratic-corporatist media system.

Cultural Arenas

In the Danish press, climate change is far from restricted to political news; it also frequently appears in cultural sections and lifestyle programs (Jørgensen et al., 2010a; Eskjær, 2013b). Apart from book, art, and film reviews about global warming, climate change is frequently mentioned in a less specific manner, indicating that climate change has become a new common trope that can be activated in various discourses about the present or serve as a more general symbol of looming catastrophes, human hubris, or environmental deterioration.

This cultural thematization of climate change is also taking place outside the press, and a number of studies have investigated artistic articulations regarding manmade climate change. These themes include analyses of international artworks addressing questions of ecology, sustainability, and energy consumption. Ecological art, it is argued, represents a particular communicative modality that allows the viewer to transcend the oppositions and categories of modernity such as human/nature or air and light, which often hides precludes an understanding of the consequences and complex relations that govern human actions in relation to nature and climate (Witzke & Schick, 2014).

Other studies have focused on popular culture, particularly the so-called Cli-fi genre, proposing that contemporary film and literature offer imaginative supplements to climate science and climate politics (Andersen, 2014c; Eskjær, 2013a). Apart from being a mirror image that reflects social anxieties, fictive representations provide visions and fantasies about a future world changed by global warming and ecological disasters. Already a thriving genre, Cli-fi represents a particular popular imagination that range from visions of social breakdown to a “hermeneutics of suspicion” that considers climate change a hoax, to even more abstract visions of life forms adapting to a changing environment (Andersen, 2014a, 2014b). These visions function as cognitive schemes that guide an understanding of potential consequences and human responses to climate change. In this manner, Cli-fi presents literary experiments that combine scientific projections with existential scenarios in a world rendered more or less uninhabitable by ecological crises.

These studies are not restricted to Danish art and literature; they also encompass international artworks. Nevertheless, these studies indicate some of the scope and diversity of Danish research on climate-change communication. While climate change has traditionally been studied in relation to political communication, it is by now an expanding research field that covers different social arenas and encompasses several academic disciplines.

Mediated Climate Events

National climate-change communication often follows internationally recognizable patterns and trends in terms of quantity and thematic developments. Occasionally, however, particular phenomena emerge that change the shape and path of a nation’s climate change communication. In the case of Denmark, two such incidents have had a lasting effect on the climate change debate. The first is comprised of the controversies surrounding the environmental sceptic Bjørn Lomborg. The other is the legacy of COP15, which took place in Copenhagen in 2009.

Not only did these two incidents contribute to defining Danish climate-change communication, they were also, to some extent, products of the media. Although neither can be regarded as a media event in any strict sense (i.e., that would imply that they were pseudo-events created primarily to generate media attention (Dayan & Katz, 1992)), they nevertheless represent climate-change phenomena that have been widely shaped and formed by media representations.

The Lomborg Controversy

The controversy surrounding the Danish social scientist Bjørn Lomborg was, from the very beginning, a media-driven phenomenon. In 1998, a Danish daily published four articles by Lomborg aimed at challenging the conventional views of the state of the Earth in relation to development, natural resources, biodiversity, and climate change. Those four articles propelled Lomborg to fame and shaped the course of his further career. Lomborg has given his own account of these events:

I contacted one of the leading Danish newspapers, the center-left Guardian-like Politiken, and suggested to them that I write some articles about our understanding of various environmental problems. The outcome was four articles that gave rise to one of the biggest Danish debates, spreading to all newspapers, and covering well over 400 articles, commentaries and critiques.

(Lomborg, 2001, p. xix)

Initially, climate change constituted a minor part of Lomborg’s revisionist project. Of the four op-eds, only the last is about climate change; it is authored not by Lomborg but also by one of his students (Larsen, 1998). In the book that emerged from the op-eds (Lomborg, 1998a), translated into English as The Skeptical Environmentalist (Lomborg, 2001), roughly one-fifth of the book deals with climate change. Later, however, Lomborg became increasingly associated with the climate change debate and how to find “smart” solutions to global warming (Lomborg, 2007), although he returned to a broader development agenda, illustrated by the cooperation between Copenhagen Consensus Centre and BRAC (the world’s largest NGO) in Bangladesh (Economist, 2016).

From the very beginning, the core of Lomborg’s approach has been a rather undisguised positivist belief in our ability to scientifically calculate the most rational response to climate change, or any other social problem for that matter. Thus, Lomborg has never been an unconditional climate change denialist, although anti-enviromentalists were quick to embrace his project. In The Skeptical Environmentalist, Lomborg states that “Global warming, though its size and future projections are rather unrealistically pessimistic, is almost certainly taking place” (2001, p. 4). Lomborg’s strategy has mainly been to attack solutions to climate change (e.g., the Kyoto Protocol) and to criticize scientific climate change scenarios of being too pessimistic. Hence, there are two basic tenets in Lomborg’s writings on climate change, although there has been a movement from the former to the latter. First, existing predictions of climate change are wrong, flawed, or exaggerated. Second, current climate-change policies are inefficient, unnecessarily costly, or both.

As indicated by Lomborg, the four editorials and his subsequent book created quite a stir in the Danish (and international) debate, with a substantial number of highly critical and emotional responses, especially from environmentalists and NGOs. Later, Lomborg blamed top politicians of deliberately refraining from criticizing and engaging with his position, which he interpreted as an unacknowledged recognition of the soundness of his arguments (Lomborg & Larsen, 1999b). However, a number of scientists were less convinced of Lomborg’s methods, and they published a book (Schroll, Mellemfolkeligt Samvirke, & Økologiske Råd, 1999), partly translated into English (Ege Jørgensen, Lind Christiansen, & Økologiske Råd, 2002) that was intended to refute his arguments by documenting what they perceived as dubious use of data and unincorporated variables. Within three weeks of the publication, Lomborg and his students produced a 185-page-long counterattack refuting the critique (Lomborg & Larsen, 1999a) and illustrating the productivity of Lomborg and his teams.

The publication of these books received moderate media attention, compared to Lomborg’s first op-eds. However, the controversies surrounding his appointment as head of a new Institute for Environmental Assessment (2002) and the charges against Lomborg of scientific dishonesty (2002), which were later criticized and overruled by the Ministry of Education (2003), once again generated huge media attention. Since 1998, Bjørn Lomborg has been mentioned in no fewer than 4,900 articles in Danish national dailies (source: Infomedia), a rather clear indication of the influence Lomborg has had on the Danish environmental and climate change debate.

After the debate surrounding the accusations of scientific dishonesty, Lomborg seems to have attracted just as much attention outside Denmark. That can be partly explained by the fact that Lomborg has “gone global” and has made his “Copenhagen Consensus Centre” an international think tank. Established in Denmark in 2006 during a right-wing government, it lost its government funding in 2012 when a social-democrat–led government took office. As a consequence, Lomborg relocated the center to the United States and later received an invitation to move it to Australia, although the invitation was eventually withdrawn (Knott, 2015). Moreover, with the exception of his first book, Lomborg’s major publications have mostly been in English, thus becoming part of a global, or at least Anglo-Saxon, rather than a national, debate.

Another difference in Danish and international receptions is that outside Denmark Lomborg largely became regarded as a climate-skeptical scientist, whereas in a Danish context he quickly became associated with the domestic political agenda. His appointment as director of the Environmental Assessment Institute by the then-center-right government in 2002, and the same governments’ support for Lomborg’s Copenhagen Consensus Centre (2006), made it evident that Lomborg’s interventions should be regarded as much as ideologically driven climate-change policy as controversial climate-change science. Although the debate about Lomborg’s calculations and use of data has continued, Lomborg has become a political rather than scientific contentious figure in Denmark. This viewpoint is reflected in the Ministerial verdict concerning scientific dishonesty, which concluded that it is doubtful whether Lomborg’s work can be formally accused of scientific dishonesty given its debate-provoking rather than scientific nature (MVTU, 2003).

Nevertheless, it can certainly be argued that the Lomborg controversy has influenced and highlighted certain aspects of the Danish climate-change debate. First, it illustrates some paradoxical features of Danish media. On one hand, there is a certain degree of consensus, perhaps even conformity, in a democratic-corporatist media system like that of the Danish. On the other hand, there is also an underlying element of anti-authoritarianism and a will to challenge preconceived ideas, perhaps even provoke (e.g., as taken to the extreme in the so-called Cartoon Crisis in 2005).

The emotional responses to Lomborg’s first publications indicate that he touched on almost sacrosanct ideas and perceptions of the state of the environment, which nobody deemed necessary to question. Thus, Lomborg managed to polarize a somewhat dry and overtly scientific public debate on global warming. At the same time, the editorial decision to publish not just one, but four op-eds by an entirely unknown scientist was unprecedented and appears to have been taken by the editor in chief despite objections from lower-ranking editors (O. Danielsen, 2015a, p. 161). Thus, it appears that these publications resulted from a decision aimed at challenging and provoking Politiken’s own readers, who are traditionally considered pro-environment, among others.

On a different level, Lomborg’s cost-benefit approach reinforced tendencies already at place in most public debates, including climate change discussions, namely a fundamental concern with rationalization of public spending. Such an approach was hardly surprising in a country with one of the highest tax rates per capita and in an era of economic austerity. The cost-benefit approach further augmented tendencies to politicize climate change and focused on priorities and solutions to climate change, whether manmade or not.

Notably, one of Lomborg’s main lines of critique has been directed toward the very media that Lomborg himself has skillfully used to promote his views and publications. In Lomborg’s first articles, he asks why we are misled to believe the world is in such a bad state—rephrased as the litany in The Skeptical Environmentalist (2001, pp. 3–33). Lomborg’s answer is surprisingly conventional. He says it can be explained by tendencies in the scientific field of exaggerating claims to receive research funds and by the media’s alarmism and focus on negative news (Lomborg, 1998b). Later, Lomborg expanded his view of the media in an op-ed called “The media reality” (Lomborg, 1998d) and devoted an entire chapter in The Skeptical Environmentalist to: “Why (. . .) we hear so much bad news” (2001, pp. 34–43). In both cases, the analysis rested on the assumption that “the media systematically present us with a lopsided version of reality” (ibid., p. 39).

From a news sociology perspective, the focus on negativity is almost a truism that easily overshadows a number of additional factors. First, negative news resonates with cultural fascinations with apocalyptic (Hulme, 2010) and end-of-the-world narratives (Wagar, 1982). Moreover, alternative news values such as actuality or composition would also have to be taken into consideration. This also includes the media’s widespread preference for quantifications (Luhmann, 1996, pp. 59–60), such as the number of endangered species or the rise in sea level, which was central to much of Lomborg’s early critique (Lomborg, 1998c; Larsen, 1998; Lomborg, 2001). In fact, much of the media’s attention to Lomborg can be attributed to this fetishism of quantification, as Lomborg’s line of argument primarily builds on refuting existing data or presenting alternative calculations.

Finally, the focus on media negativity is only half of the story. Empirical studies have questioned allegations of unambiguous alarmism, pointing out how Danish news media are increasingly preferring positive news regarding the environment (Ørsten, 2006). Likewise, environmental NGOs relate how they struggle to generate journalistic interests for negative stories on climate change and the environment (Eskjær, 2016).

Overall, the paradoxical conclusion is that irrespective of Lomborg’s own skeptical perception of climate change, his very media presence has contributed substantially to keeping climate change on the Danish media agenda, whether in relation to his critique of current climate-change policies, in relation to charges of scientific dishonesty, or in connection with his political appointments to various public institutions and think tanks.

COP15: Coping with Failure

In 2009, COP15 took place in Copenhagen, Denmark. Intended as the conclusion of the Bali Road Map, COP15 was supposed to reach a new agreement that would replace the Kyoto Protocol, which would expire in 2012. The expectations for COP15 were extremely high. Initially, the aim was a legally binding agreement. However, during the negotiations leading up to the summit, it became clear that only a politically binding agreement could be reached, and even that turned out to be almost futile.

COP15 received overwhelming media attention in Denmark, even by international standards (Eide & Kunelius, 2010, pp. 20–21). Rarely has one event generated so much coverage, not only in the news but also across all media formats and programs (Jørgensen et al., 2010a). In a classical example of domestication, the Danish government hosted COP15, aiming to improve the international image of Denmark, which had become somewhat tainted following the Cartoon Crisis in 2005. In terms of media coverage, COP15 provided almost endless news about the preparation, execution, and aftermath of the summit including stories about the scores of world leaders, CEOs, and celebrities that came to Copenhagen for the conference.

In the end, COP15 was perceived as a complete failure. There was a sense of chaos at the end of the summit, and no replacement to the Kyoto Protocol had been agreed upon, although the so-called Copenhagen Agreement was later ratified at COP16 (UNFCCC, 2009). COP15 made it evident that so-called “big bang” solutions, in which world leaders are supposed to hammer out a politically binding agreement, was not the way forward in international climate-change negotiations. To most observers, the failure of COP15 was a serious setback, and it would take another six years before the international community reached a global agreement with the Paris agreement at COP21.

Because the Danish government had lobbied extensively to host COP15, the failure of the summit had a particularly traumatic effect on Danish climate-change communication. Danish media were quick to portray COP15 as “Brokenhagen” rather than “Hopenhagen,” as “Flop-COP” instead of “TOP-COP,” etc. (Eskjær, 2014). The perceived ineptness of the Danish government—and the prime minister in particular—were the subject of subsequent news stories as well as a book publication that exposed secret agendas and inter-ministerial infighting within the Danish presidential administration during COP15 (Meilstrup, 2010).

Like most other countries (Schäfer et al., 2011), Denmark saw a dramatic decline in climate-change reporting after COP15 (see Figure 1). Even before COP15, there were media warnings of a possible climate “fatigue,” indicating that the media themselves were expecting some sort of institutional self-adjustment. Although Figure 1 indicates renewed media attention to climate change, Danish media coverage remained remarkably low following COP15, and unlike in other countries, this coverage picked up only slightly in preparation for COP21 (Infomedia, 2014), suggesting that the specter of COP15 is still haunting Danish climate change communication.

The failure of COP15 resulted in the call for a different journalistic approach to covering climate-change summits (Jørgensen et al., 2010a). The expectation that the international community can produce a sort of once-and-for-all solution to most climate change concerns is premised on a false and naïve notion of “global governance.” Rather than framing a climate-change summit as either a success or a failure, journalists need a better understanding of the nature of UN negotiations and how climate change dialogues reflect an evolving world order in which global risks generate new transnational agents and alliances. In this light, traditional notions of failure or success would have to be radically transformed to adequately cover future climate summits (Jørgensen et al., 2010b, p. 18).

The impact of COP15 on Danish climate-change communication extends beyond the media arena. While the failure of COP15 may have dramatically changed the subsequent pattern of climate-change reporting, COP15 was also the immediate occasion for several research projects on climate-change communication. Thus, quite a few of the studies cited in this article arose more or less directly from data gathered in conjunction with COP15, whether in terms of media coverage (Jørgensen et al., 2010a, 2010b), citizen consultation (Phillips, 2012), or public artwork (Bjørst, 2014). In fact, climate communication research has declined since COP15, especially outside media and journalism studies. This trend indicates that global climate events like COP15 not only trigger media coverage but also national research agendas.


Climate-change communication in Denmark has been subject to a considerable number of empirical studies from a variety of methodological and theoretical perspectives. However, these studies also indicate that climate-change communication is an evolving research field consisting of mostly separate and uncoordinated research initiatives, among which many have been organized in conjunction with occasional research grants and research networks. Thus, unlike in other countries, no major coordinating institutional centers for research have materialized, and climate-change communication in Denmark awaits a more permanent institutional anchoring.

Nevertheless, sufficient evidence suggests that climate change has become a stabile fixture on the media agenda, reflecting both media and extra-media conditions such as journalistic norms and values, political commitment, and economic interests. Within the last two decades, climate change has become the dominant topic of Danish environmental communication and, to a large extent, risk communication. This trend has generated a new sense of urgency regarding the environmental debate, and it has also highlighted the complex and globalized nature of the ecological crises. Furthermore, this field has introduced new problems and dilemmas such as questions of “loss and damage” and the relations between adaptation, development, and the environment. However, the question of how the focus on and dynamics of climate change have changed the wider field of environmental communication have not yet been adequately studied.


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