Climate Change Communication in Belgium
Summary and Keywords
Climate change communication in Belgium takes place in a socio-economic context characterized by an economic surplus and an ecological deficit. This implies that in the short term the benefits of the structures and behaviors that sustain carbon capitalism and cause climate change are larger and more tangible than the consequences of global warming, which are exported to more vulnerable places with less adaptive capacity. Nevertheless, with regard to physical consequences, climate change communication in Belgium also takes place in a context in which heavy thunderstorms and rainfalls, as well as floods, have increased significantly. In general however, Belgians have the means to distance themselves from climate change’s existing impacts. In other words, climate change communication (and public engagement) takes place in a context in which climate change serves primarily as a cultural idea to be acted upon rather than particular geophysical changes, such as weather disruptions.
Belgium is characterized primarily by a consensual, technocratic policy environment, in which debate is limited to a relatively limited spectrum of views and in which citizens are targeted primarily according to the (information) deficit model. However, increasingly initiatives are being taken from a social marketing or public participation approach. In the case of civil society, there is a rich tradition of social movements communicating and campaigning about climate change. These campaigns have primarily focused on individual behavior change and more recently also on collective forms of behavior change such as transition initiatives or collaborative/confrontational strategies of political action. Media research has revealed how the United Nations climate process sets both the agenda and the terms of the debate in Belgian newspapers. Only in the case of an alternative news site were different discourses found that approached climate change communication in terms of a genuine debate about the direction climate policy is taking. Finally, while Belgian citizens clearly acknowledge the urgency of the matter and the need for action, many feel powerless, because of a social, spatial, and temporal distance towards the issue or because it is perceived as a threat to their identity or routines.
“The floods have nothing to do with climate change.”
— Luc Debontridder, Royal Meteorological Institute of Belgium.1
“Due to global warming the likelihood of heavy rain showers increases. Be prepared for new floods in the summer time.”
— Nicole Van Lipzig, Professor in Geography at the Catholic University of Leuven.2
In late 2016, parts of Belgium suffered from unprecedented floods. It has become the new normal that such events are used to either assert or to question the link with anthropogenic climate change. This framing contest underscores the difficulty of finding a balance with regard to communicating climate change accurately and/or effectively. This article focuses on how Belgian scientists, policymakers, activists, and journalists deal with this tension. In offering a social and academic history of climate change communication (CCC), this article examines how climate change is (and has been) communicated in Belgium and with what implications in the country and beyond.
What is the context in which climate change communication takes place in Belgium? How is the issue communicated by policymakers? What role does civil society play? How do media represent climate change? What have been the major events, debates, forms of engagement, and public outreach initiatives during the last 25 years? How have Belgian citizens responded to these communication and engagement efforts? And how have Belgian researchers approached these? What are the main factors driving research? What are the major debates among scholars in this country?
The article is structured in five sections. The first section sketches the geographical and socio-economic context in which climate change communication takes places. The following two sections cover communication and public engagement activities by policymakers and civil society, respectively. They examine how both social actors have framed the issue, touching upon points of consensus and contention, and how they attempted to engage the public. The fourth section focuses upon mediated public discourse, and newspapers in particular. It discusses the largest media events from 2000 up to the signing of the Paris Agreement in December, 2015. It also reveals the different discourses about climate change governance and examines the space for debate between those discourses. The fifth section focuses on the implications of climate change communication activity with regard to public engagement in Belgium. This article concludes by discussing the factors driving and dividing research in Belgium. It identifies a reoccurring tension between two schools of climate change communication research and public engagement initiatives about what accurate and effective climate change communication entails. Finally, some policy recommendations are put forward to help close this gap, and suggestions are provided suggestions for further climate change communication research in Belgium.
What Is the Relevance of Climate Change to Belgium?
The example of the floods in the introduction illustrates how our experience of climate change is the result of both a communication and material process. The heavy rainfalls that caused the floods (material process) were only given meaning through representations in newspapers, television broadcasts, radio bulletins, conversations, and so forth (communication processes). The same material process was represented as either normal or exceptional, as either anthropogenic or not. Each of these representations can have different political effects, which can subsequently mitigate the drivers of climate change or increase the country’s adaptive capacity to extreme rainfall. This example shows how representations (communication process) and reality (material process) are mutually constitutive. Therefore, this section will briefly address the material processes that influence the communication process. It will focus on the physical consequences of climate change in Belgium (the geographical context) and the contribution of Belgium to the problem (the socio-economic context). This makes a contextual analysis possible from the perspective of climate justice, namely the unequal distribution of burdens and benefits (Moernaut, Mast, & Pepermans, forthcoming). First, we will focus on the physical consequences of climate change in Belgium (the geographical context).
Belgium has a maritime temperate climate with significant precipitation in all seasons (Peel, Finlayson, & McMahon, 2007). Two recent reports summarize and synthesize the most recent knowledge about impacts of climate change in Belgium (Brouyaux et al., 2015; MIRA, 2015). In terms of temperature, the report shows that: (i) the annual average temperature in Brussels as of 2015 was 2.4°C higher than in the preindustrial period; (ii) the 20 warmest years took place in the last 21 years; and (iii) heat waves are on the rise, while the number of frost days is on the decline. Temperatures could increase up to 7.2°C by 2100 compared to 1950–1970 levels, according to the most pessimistic scenarios.3 People living in urban regions (the large majority of Belgians) are especially likely to suffer from increases in temperature, because temperatures in cities are already often a few degrees warmer with peaks to 8°C, compared to nonurban zones. Precipitation is becoming more seasonal and abrupt with an increase in heavy thunderstorms and intense rains in summertime. Sea levels have already risen and are expected to rise further with another 60–90 cm by 2100 (or 2 m according to the most pessimistic forecast). The number of problematic floods has increased significantly and is expected to do so in the future. The densely populated and low-lying coastal region (which already lies beneath sea level) is threatened by floods, erosion, and salinization. Nevertheless, compared to the rest of the world, Belgium is one of the least vulnerable countries (Maplecroft, 2016; University of Notre Dame Environmental Change Institute, 2014; Standards & Poor, 2014).
If we look at the socio-economic context, the data of the Global Carbon Atlas (2016) show that Belgians have contributed relatively more to climate change than the average person. In terms of actual, global emissions, Belgium is currently responsible for 0.28% of global greenhouse gas emissions. However, Belgium is only a small country (30,528 km²) with a medium-sized population (11.3 million). Therefore, it is more interesting to compare per capita emissions. According to the most recent figures, Belgians are globally ranked 35th in terms of per capita carbon production, 11th in terms of per capita carbon consumption, and 4th in terms of historic carbon consumption.
Belgium is a wealthy country, as it is ranked 18th in terms of GDP per capita (World Bank, 2014). Although the extraction of coal has been phased out, (imported) fossil fuels have always been the lifeblood of the Belgian economy. After the United Kingdom, Belgium was the first country to industrialize through coal-fueled steam power. After the Second World War, Belgium became a wealthy, open, export-oriented, service-based economy. It has an energy-intensive industry with a large petrochemical sector, intensive agricultural production, and extensive transport infrastructure. Thanks to its large seaports, it has also become an international transport hub in the globalized economy. Transport has even become the biggest emitting sector and is the only sector that has encountered a significant growth of greenhouse gas emissions during the past 20 years (Dienst Klimaatverandering, 2016). In 2014, fossil fuels still satisfied 72.5% of Belgium’s energy demand, while nuclear energy produced 16.5%, waste and biomass incineration was responsible for 6.8%, and wind and solar energy together accounted for only 1.7% of the country’s energy consumption (International Energy Agency, 2016).
In sum, this contextual analysis from the perspective of climate justice reveals that Belgium is a country that combines an economic surplus with an ecological deficit. This implies that in the short term the benefits of the structures and behaviors that sustain carbon capitalism and cause climate change are larger and more tangible than the consequences of global warming, which are exported to more vulnerable places with less adaptive capacity. It is unlikely that this will change in the near future. Furthermore, most Belgians have the means and resources to distance themselves from the immediate impacts of weather disruptions. As a consequence, one can argue that the cultural function of climate change as an idea that is imagined and acted upon has more tangible consequences in the everyday lives of Belgians than the physical changes in weather patterns (see Hulme, 2015). This is crucial to understand the communication of and public engagement with climate change in Belgium, which will be addressed in the following sections.
Climate Change Communication and Public Engagement Efforts by Policymakers
This section starts with a brief overview of how international climate policy has shaped climate change communication in Belgium. It continues with an overview of points of contention and consensus within Belgian climate politics and ends with an analysis of public engagement efforts by policymakers. This section will show that Belgium is characterized primarily by a consensual, technocratic policy environment, in which debate is narrowed down to limited perimeters and citizens are engaged according to the (information) deficit model, although things have been moving more towards deliberation and participation recently.
Belgium’s memberships of the UNFCCC (the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) and the European Union have shaped climate change communication to a large extent. Furthermore, as a federal, consensual democracy, which is characterized by a decision-making structure in which power is shared by many actors, it involves and takes into account as broad a range of opinions as possible, as opposed to systems where minority opinions can potentially be ignored by vote-winning majorities (Lijphart, 1999). These two factors have resulted in a broad social consensus amongst most political party elites, government administrations, business leaders, NGOs, journalists, and academics about what Sarewitz (2011) calls “the plan”: climate science (i.e., the IPCC) demands that climate change be addressed by an international climate policy framework (i.e., the UN Convention framework process), which focuses on the reduction of greenhouse gasses while remaining within the boundaries of the global market economy. This plan is not up for legitimate public debate in Belgium.
Nevertheless, important political disagreement still exists about: (i) the choice of technologies and policy instruments, (ii) the importance of North–South and intergenerational equity, (iii) the distribution of costs and benefits, and (iv) the urgency of timing and implementation. First, regarding the choice of technology, nuclear energy (which accounts for more than half of Belgium’s electricity production) has been an important source of disagreement during the last 15 years. A second issue revolves around the importance of equity within Belgium and towards people in the South. Regarding the global South, development aid organizations in particular have criticized the lack of government aid for funding mitigation and adaptation efforts in the South. A third important source of conflict exists within and between Belgian governments regarding the distribution of international climate policy responsibilities and the costs of the energy transition towards renewable energy sources.. Furthermore, these disagreements are often articulated in communitarian (Flemish versus Francophone people), technocratic (rational versus irrational actors and demands), or ethical (responsible contributors versus irresponsible obstructers), rather than political terms (a struggle between different political views on climate policy and/or alternative ideas about socio-technical and socio-economic progress) (Kenis & Lievens, 2015; Pepermans, 2015).
Organized denial campaigns and criticism of climate science and policy by political elites, industry, and citizens are rare and increasingly marginal in Belgium, especially when compared to the situation in the United States, Australia, or the United Kingdom (e.g., Dunlap & McCright, 2011). There is a loose group of bloggers, politicians, and scientists that recently gathered in the network Open Klimaat (Open Climate),4 which regularly posts articles on the small conservative news website De Bron (The Source). In addition, libertarian and authoritarian–rightwing political parties5 occasionally use climate skepticism to further differentiate themselves from the (European) establishment. However, except for the occasional op-eds or interviews, mainstream news media hardly pay any attention to these voices for their reporting on climate change. As a result, they are confined to conservative and libertarian websites.
In accordance with an international trend, the local level (city governments and mayors) is increasingly put forward as the ideal policy level to tackle climate change, for having more incentives to fix problems on one hand, while being less divided along ideological lines on the other (Barber, 2017; Jones & Demeyere, 2009). In that respect, many major Belgian cities (but also provinces) have put forward the aim of becoming “climate neutral,” or having a zero carbon footprint, by a particular date in the future. However, this has been criticized by academics. For instance, a case study of the local city government of Ghent has shown how the possibility for alternative conceptions of what a climate-neutral city entails was restricted in advance (Van Poeck, Goeminne, & Vandenabeele, 2017). As a consequence, public involvement was reduced to a top-down, technocratic transfer of information in the pursuit of behavior change. Another case study, this time with regard to the small university city of Leuven (Kenis & Lievens, 2016), also showed how the city government and main stakeholders defined climate neutrality in technical, consensual, positive, and managerial terms, thereby reframing sustainability goals into city marketing objectives with the aim of attracting new economic investments.
Public engagement initiatives by policymakers in Belgium can be characterized as either technocratic information deficit, social marketing, or public participation approaches (see also Carvalho & Peterson, 2012; Pepermans & Maeseele, 2016). Policymakers generally have been found to conceive public engagement as an apolitical act of “awareness-raising, education and training of citizens” (Dries, 2013). This is typical for the information deficit approach. Governments have collaborated with scientific institutes, civil society, and private actors through websites (e.g., klimaat.be), awareness campaigns (e.g., thick jumper day), behavior change campaigns (e.g., climate neighborhoods), the organization of exhibitions (e.g., SOS Planet) and brochures and education material (e.g., The Climate, That’s Us). In this approach, the relationship between the state and its citizens is constructed in vertical terms. The state positions itself as the source of scientific knowledge to be disseminated to the individual citizen, who is constructed as a passive recipient who needs to be informed about the physical causes and consequences of climate change and how they can change their individual lifestyle and become climate-friendly.
Since 2014, a network of politicians and civil servants in all government levels has turned its attention to social marketing approaches instead (for an elaborate overview of the Belgian situation see Van Humbeeck et al., 2015). Inspired by the works about nudging and choice-architecture of Thaler and Sunstein (2008) and the Behavioral Insights Team in the U.K. (The Behavioral Insights Team, 2017), this network argues that climate and energy policy has been driven by the incorrect assumption that people are individual utility maximizers. However, human behavior is rarely conscious, selfish, individual, and calculating. Therefore, the traditional economic and communicative policy instruments are not always effective means to steer behavior. Therefore, instead of changing attitudes by providing information, their aim is to change behaviors directly. Through experiments with simplification, gamification, good defaults, the power of social norms and networks, commitment pledges, or strategic framing, these policymakers attempt to a push or nudge people (un)consciously in a preferred direction (e.g., eating less meat, saving energy, or cycling), without actually banning or subsidizing behaviors. However, the use of such behavioral insights in (climate & energy) policy is still in its early and small-scale phase, compared to other countries.
A rare example of the third approach is the citizen consultation initiative on energy policy. In October 2016 the Flemish regional government invited citizens to contribute ideas for its long-term energy vision. People could propose and ideas for the long-term planning on the renewable energy transition. A group of 70 citizens were eventually invited to the Flemish Parliament to work on concrete policy proposals after proposing, selecting, prioritizingm and discussing various ideas. This led to 24 concrete policy ideas to contribute to the energy transition which were eventually presented to the Flemish minister of Energy. Citizens will also be invited to discuss and amend the draft version of the national climate and energy plan between the federal and regional governments that is expected at the end of 2017.
Various Belgian academics (Kenis & Mathijs, 2012; Pepermans & Maeseele, 2014, 2016; Van Poeck et al., 2017) have criticized these three approaches to public engagement for making abstraction of fundamental debates about the root societal causes of climate change, as well as the different strategies for change and possible alternatives to the current (market-oriented) direction that climate policy is taking. The emphasis on the deficit model in particular has been criticized as an ineffective form of climate change communication (Bartiaux, 2008), as it is based on the long-held, but now outmoded, paradigm of consumers’ rationality and its corresponding policy tools, that is, the supply of information or price incentives.
Climate Change Communication by Civil Society
Climate change communication by civil society has been the topic of a few critical studies about how climate change is used in mainstream environmental campaigns (Kenis & Mathijs, 2012), in the Transition movement (Kenis & Mathijs, 2014a), in the Climate Justice movement (Kenis & Lievens, 2014), and the Sing for the Climate campaign (Pepermans & Maeseele, 2014). These studies highlight a tension within the climate movement between a depoliticizing, mainstreaming approach, which has the benefit of reaching a larger audience, but risks to be co-opted by the structures it tries to change. This approach focuses on achieving cross-party consensus, individual behavior changes, and partnerships between businesses, NGOs, and governments, and win-win solutions. On the other hand, there is also a more confrontational, politicizing approach, which challenges Belgium’s (market-led) economic development model and protests against what it perceives as unsustainable policies and corporations. This approach, however, is at risk of being dismissed as marginal or too radical.
Both the Francophone and Dutch-speaking environmental, North–South, socio-cultural, women’s, and workers’ movements have organized themselves in three platforms: the “Climate Coalition,” “The Platform for Climate Justice,” and “Transition Network.” These put forward common demands for climate policy, provide a forum for learning and dialogue, and mobilize Belgian citizens for climate action. Such collaboration between diverse organizations is rare in the Belgian context. Nevertheless, three different approaches to communicating climate change and involving the public remain.
For a long time, the dominant approach amongst NGOs was to convince, persuade, or nudge citizens to make individual behavior changes. Climate change was represented as a consequence of the sum of individual decisions and choices. Therefore, besides lobbying politicians or corporations to make more climate-friendly choices, environmental NGOs mainly invested time in public communication that urged people to eat less meat (e.g., “Days without meat”), make their home more energy-efficient (e.g., “Climate Neighborhoods”), take the bike to work (e.g., “I Kyoto”), make them more aware of their energy use (e.g., “Earth Hour”), and so forth.
During the last years, we have seen the increase of more collective forms of ecological citizenship, instead of individual behavior changes. Citizens are engaged through community gardens, energy cooperatives, local farmers’ markets, food teams, repair cafés, local currencies, tool libraries, and so forth (for a recent overview of such citizens’ initiatives, see Holemans, 2016). In response to climate change and the idea of peak oil, these transition initiatives attempt to relocalize the economy and revitalize local communities through bottom-up social change. In their communication, the emphasis is put on being positive, avoiding political conflict, and collaborating with local councils and businesses (Kenis & Mathijs, 2014a).
A third approach to climate change communication and public engagement, on the other hand, involves the mobilization of citizens to support or contest (climate) policies through collective political action. This approach can take either a more collaborative or confrontational strategy. A collaborative, consensual strategy was found in the “The Big Ask,” “The Big Ask Again: Dance for the Climate,” and “Sing for the Climate” campaigns. These three initiatives were organized by (members of) the Climate Coalition and film director and national climate celebrity Nic Balthazar. The first edition in 2008 gathered 6,000 people, and the second edition in Ostend mobilized 12,000 people, each time to take part in a video clip, which would be used to pressure politicians to take action. In the run-up to the 2012 climate summit in Doha, almost 400,000 people across Flanders “gave their voice to the climate” in the Sing for the Climate campaign (Pepermans & Maeseele, 2014). It became the biggest environmental campaign in Belgian history. Filmed fragments of the various campaign events were edited into a video clip, which was presented to the Belgian federal parliament. The video of the song was also shown during the closing general assembly of COP 18 in Doha. The official discourse was that these marches and (video) campaign demanded a climate law that would set binding targets to reduce greenhouse gases by more than 80% by 2050.
A recent grass-roots initiative called Climate Express6 takes a more confrontational stance against governments, corporations, and even (carbon) capitalism (Eggermont, 2015). It frames climate change as a social and political, rather than purely environmental, issue. It mobilized citizens to protest and take part in direct action during the climate summits of Warsaw (COP 19 in 2013) and Paris (COP 21 in 2015). However, due to the terror attacks in Paris in November 2015, all official public demonstrations were cancelled. Therefore, Climate Express organized a march and sit-in in Ostend which gathered around 14,000 people in December. In 2017, it focuses on organizing and mobilizing Belgian activists for the protests surrounding the 23rd climate summit in Bonn.
In 2014 “De Klimaatzaak7” (The Climate Case), led by a group of lawyers, activists, artists, scientists, and media personalities has summoned Belgium’s federal and three regional governments to court for failing to decide on and comply with policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. On May 4, 2017, more than 30,000 had already registered as coplaintiffs in the case against the Belgian state, which is still ongoing. Just like the Climate Express, De Klimaatzaak takes a clear confrontational stance against the Belgian state, but it uses more technocratic language and hardly focuses on equity and social justice.
Media Representations of Climate Change
News media, and television in particular, are the most important source of climate change communication for most people (Dienst Klimaatverandering, 2013), but the role of media in the Belgian climate change debate remains underresearched. Early research into media production (Mormont & Dasnoy, 1995) showed how journalistic logics, scientists’ perceptions of media, and the strength of environmental pressure groups led to different patterns of media representation in Belgium, Germany, and France. After that pioneering study, Belgian media research was absent for 20 years, until two longitudinal, comparative research projects were set up to analyze media representations of climate change in Flemish newspapers (Pepermans, 2015; Moernaut et al., forthcoming). Both research projects share a focus on the role of ideology and hegemony, and how particular discursive strategies are used to reveal or conceal ideological preferences or assumptions (see also Maeseele & Pepermans, 2017). This section discusses the largest media events from 2000 up to COP 21 in 2015, reveals the different discourses about climate change governance and examines the space for debate within those discourses. It shows that the United Nations climate process sets the agenda and the terms of the debate in (print) media. A certain degree of ideological diversity exists between and within newspapers, but there is hardly any space for debate over different potential directions for climate policy.
Figure 1 shows how media attention has fluctuated in the last two decades, depending on several factors, like the existence of links to current affairs, such as international climate summits, the publication of reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), exhibitions of Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, and other key events. It graphs the monthly news attention to climate change in Flanders’ leading elite newspapers: De Morgen and De Standaard. The first clear peak in the reporting took place in November and December 2000 during COP 6 in The Hague, when governments failed to reach a consensus about the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol. The second peak took place a few months later during the reprise of this summit in Bonn in July 2001. Between these moments, attention to climate change remained relatively high, because of the release of the four partial reports of the Third Assessment Report of the IPC, and the United States’s withdrawal from the Kyoto protocol. Thereafter, media attention remained very low until the end of 2006.
The Belgian release of Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth, an unusually warm fall and winter, together with the climate summit in Nairobi kick-started a “climate hype” of unprecedented media coverage and political attention. Politicians from all political parties attended a screening of the documentary, organized by Margaretha Guidone. She is a housewife who briefly became a climate celebrity and the center of media attention when federal environment minister Tobback took her along to the climate summit and awarded his speech time to her at the General Assembly of COP 12 in Nairobi.
This peak in media attention continued throughout 2007, following the release of the four parts of the Fourth IPCC Assessment, the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Peace to Al Gore and the IPCC and COP 13 in Bali. Climate change even became a major topic in the federal election of 2007. After that, coverage decreased again for a while, only to increase to its highest peak ever at the end of 2009, for COP 15 in Copenhagen. The outcome of the summit failed to live up to the inflated expectations of the media, and media attention went into a downward spiral after that, only to peak, albeit to a lesser extent, during the annual climate summits in Cancun, Durban, Doha, Warsaw, and Lima. Attention surged again in 2013–2014, following the release of the Fifth IPCC Assessment Reports, COP 19 in Warsaw, the European Unions’ 2030 Energy Strategy, and the September 2014 climate summit in New York, which aimed to catalyze action for the 2015 climate summit in Paris. This led to a new peak in media attention for climate change.
Although contemporary Flemish media are no longer politically affiliated, ideology still matters in the framing of climate change and related policy options (Pepermans, 2015; Moernaut et al., forthcoming). A longitudinal, comparative critical discourse analysis of the coverage of United Nations climate summits and reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change revealed that mainstream newspapers close down the space for ideological disagreement about the direction of climate policy (Pepermans, 2015). Another research project confirms this analysis of Flemish newspapers, using a multimodal qualitative framing analysis to examine both visual and verbal discourse about climate change (injustice) in a corpus of Flemish news articles (Moernaut et al., forthcoming). The dominant, anthropocentric “subframes” foreground climate change as an external threat that requires efficient solutions by Western governments to protect the helpless victims of climate change in developing countries. By doing so, Moernaut et al. argue that climate journalists end up largely reinforcing the anthropocentric ideology and Western development model which causes climate injustice.
Climate change coverage on the alternative news site DeWereldMorgen was characterized by discourses/subframes) that address and challenge the ruling political–economic model of neoliberal globalization, anthropocentric ideology, and the unequal attribution of global wealth for how it influences the direction of both climate policy and climate change in general (Pepermans, 2015; Moernaut et al., forthcoming). By doing so, these discourses/subframes help to repoliticize climate change. However, the impact of this outlet is so limited that it is unable to generate widespread debate.
The differences between the various discourses/subframes found in Belgian mainstream and alternative news media can be linked to differences in journalistic practices (Pepermans & Maeseele, 2017). Journalists of DeWereldMorgen focus on patterns, root causes, and underlying values, rather than on novelty or exceptional events. Furthermore, an impartial and detached style of reporting is explicitly denounced in favor of an open, honest, and reflexive choice of news-making based on clear, subjective stance in the debate.
Climate Change and Belgian Citizens
This subsection focuses on the effects of climate change communication-related activity on public engagement with climate change in Belgium. How do Belgians think, feel, and act about climate change? Which social barriers have been found to impede public engagement with climate change? Studies show a broad consensus about the seriousness of the issue and the need for personal and political action. However, at the same time many perceive climate change to be socially, spatially, and temporally distant, a threat to their ideology, group identity, and routines, and see themselves as lacking important knowledge to act. Together, these elements contribute to a general feeling of powerlessness.
The Health and Environment department of the Federal Government has commissioned three studies of public opinion (Dienst Klimaatverandering, 2005, 2009, 2013), which surveyed the population about their knowledge, emotions, and personal behavior with regards to climate change. According to the latest survey in 2013, 80% of Belgians are concerned about climate change. Climate skepticism remains relatively limited. Only 12% view it as a purely natural process and 7% claim that there is no climate change occurring at all. Most people have taken climate-friendly actions at the personal level and support political action. The European Commission also commissioned six special Eurobarometer surveys about climate change between 2009 and 2015, which largely confirm these assessments.
Recent market research segmented the Belgian population into four profiles of engagement (IVOX, 2015). According to this study, the largest group (39%) consisted of concerned consumers who think climate change is an important issue and are willing to take personal action. In comparison, 30% are characterized as reluctant and have doubts about climate change. They acknowledge that something is happening, but they don’t know what it is and are unwilling to undertake personal action. Another 21% of the population are skeptical about anthropogenic climate change, reject personal or political action, and believe that technological progress can solve most problems. The activists make up the other 10% of the population. They believe that global warming is a very pressing, serious issue. They call for drastic political and personal change to stop climate change and refute technological fixes to climate change.
These and other studies have also identified several barriers for public engagement with climate change, which cause people to become reluctant or skeptical about climate change and related actions to address it. These are: distance, lack of knowledge, identity and world views, powerlessness, and unsustainable social structures and routines. A first barrier is climate change’s spatial and temporal distance. The majority of Belgians think that climate change does not threaten their daily lives (Dienst Klimaatverandering, 2013). Socio-economic issues, such as the rising cost of living, unemployment, or pensions were found to have more personal relevance for Belgians than climate change, the environment, and energy (European Commission, 2015).
Lack of knowledge about the drivers, seriousness, and urgency of climate change is another important barrier. Belgian students were found to lack a sufficient understanding about the causes and consequences of climate change (Oproep voor een democratische school, 2015). They underestimate, or lack knowledge about, the environmental impacts of their lifestyle choices. For example, according to the latest national climate survey only a minority of people acknowledges that meat consumption is a driver of climate change (Dienst Klimaatverandering, 2013). Even environmentally concerned citizens lack knowledge about the structural drivers of climate change, alternative options, and strategies for change (Kenis & Mathijs, 2012).
Identity and worldviews shape how people think, feel and act about climate change. As in most other countries, there exists an ideological divide in climate change perceptions amongst the Belgian public, albeit to a lesser extent than in the United States, the United Kingdom, or Denmark (Van Hiel & Kossowka, 2007; McCright, Dunlap, & Marquart-Pyatt, 2015). Citizens with conservative, individualist, and authoritarian world views are less likely to believe that anthropogenic climate change is occurring, perceive climate change to be a serious problem, express a personal willingness to pay to take action, and support policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Powerlessness and disbelief in the efficacy of individual or collective action against climate change also alienates people from the issue (Kenis & Mathijs, 2012). This powerlessness is twofold (Pepermans, 2015, p. 168). On the one hand, citizens feel unable to influence politicians and corporations. On the other hand, they perceive governments and corporations to be incapable of addressing climate change. They feel that governments and citizens have the largest responsibility, but refuse or fail to act accordingly. This leads to a self-fulfilling prisoners’ dilemma in which corporations, governments, and the public shift the responsibility for action to one another (Dienst Klimaatverandering, 2013). Recent research found that a large majority of Belgian youngsters see climate change as the symbol that proves their pessimistic world view and disbelief in the possibility of political and collective progress (Elchardus, 2015).
Unsustainable social structures and routines also disengage people (Bartiaux, 2008; Jones & Demeyere, 2009). If information about climate change or sustainable behavior collides with daily practices and communication, than it is easier for someone to ignore or deny the “inconvenient truths” of climate change than to change its habits.
Effective climate change communication takes all these social barriers into account and helps to remove them. However, a lot of CCC activity by governments and NGOs only focuses on the lack of knowledge. In the conclusion, we come back to how the gap between CCC activity and research can be closed.
A common thread running through the different subsections concerns a division within the different social sectors, and within science in particular, about what accurate and effective climate change communication means and entails. In general, two approaches can be distinguished (for a more elaborate discussion, see Pepermans & Maeseele, 2016). On the one hand, there is the dominant approach, which aims to mainstream and depoliticize climate change in order to decrease disagreement and build widespread consent for climate action. It sees people mainly as consumers who need to be better informed. On the other hand, there is the approach which attempts to (re)politicize the climate change debate. It aims to make contingency, conflict, inequality, ideology and power visible in order to make space for the massive political mobilization and social struggle necessary for achieving a socially just policy. It sees people as democratic citizens who should take part in societal debate. However, the influence of the latter remains marginal in both research and initiatives.
There are two possible explanations for this. Research funding is the first one. Studies funded directly by the government are oriented more to measurable outcomes and practical solutions. Such goals fit the first approach better. For example, the policy solution-oriented studies commissioned by the Flemish government to evaluate the governments’ framing of climate change adaptation (e.g., Crabbé, 2011) or sustainability policy (e.g., Happaerts, 2014). A second explanation can be found in the strength of the dominant climate consensus inside and outside academia. The strength of this consensus was illustrated by the release of the book The Myth of the Green Economy by Anneleen Kenis and Matthias Lievens in November 2012 (Kenis & Lievens, 2012; translated and adapted into English in 2015). This book had the explicit intention to open up the climate change debate in Flanders over the root societal causes, alternatives, and strategies for change. Written by two critical scholars, it explicitly named the cases, people, and practices that were deemed problematic about the emerging green economy project and discourse, such as: emissions trading, the greenwashing of polluting practices, partnerships between environmental NGOs and multinational corporations and the shifting of responsibility onto the individual consumer. Apart from positive reactions, there were also quite some critical responses from people who had spent the previous years building a consensus around the need for a transition to a green economy. They criticized the book for undermining the transition towards a green economy, unnecessarily sowing discord within the environmental movement, questioning the few things that had been done to stop climate change, and alienating the public even further from the green cause. Nevertheless, the book became a relative bestseller and its ideas have resonated with grassroots activists (Eggermont, 2015).
Finally, climate change communication in Belgium is an underresearched field of study and occupies a marginal amount of time and resources devoted to climate change by Belgian researchers. We are left with many questions which offer possibilities and avenues for further research that systematically and longitudinally investigates how climate change communication is produced, circulated, debated, received, and acted upon, especially in understudied (e.g., francophone, entertainment, or television media) or “new” media outlets (e.g., Twitter).
Even more important would be establishing a platform or forum to convene discussions and collaborations among climate change communicators and scholars. This could help close the gap between climate change communication initiatives and academic research, and also allow more dialogue between the different approaches. Using insights from the social sciences and from existing best practices, such a collaboration could identify strategies to improve environmental communication more generally, and to engage more people as active participants in decisions and social change. The government should also support and encourage media platforms and investigative journalists to cover climate change and contribute to the societal debate about it. Lastly, schools and universities have an important role to play in encouraging critical reflection about the root causes of climate change and potential alternatives.
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(3.) The most pessimistic scenario is by no means the median scenario, but also not the least unlikely. Current trends in emissions and temperature follow the most pessimistic scenarios.
(4.) On its website it describes itself as a forum “for a reasonable and civilized climate debate.”
(5.) This includes Vlaams Belang, Lijst Dedecker and Parti Populaire, which take up four of the 150 seats in the Federal Chamber of Representatives.