Climate Change Communication in Ireland
Summary and Keywords
Climate change communication research in Ireland has only recently emerged as a distinct field of inquiry. Research to date reveals the marginalization of climate change in the mainstream media, which is further amplified by its segregation from closely related topics of major public concern in Ireland such as extreme weather events, flooding, energy resources, or economic recovery. Content analyses of media coverage from the late 1990s until today show the coexistence of different narratives, with ecological modernization emerging as an increasingly dominant discourse that is supported by powerful actors in Irish society.
In contrast, more radical and alternative perspectives on the subject of climate change, including those associated with class-centered and growth-sceptic views of society and economic development, remain largely absent. Efforts to date by key public figures, environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs), and environmentalists to promote a more nuanced and citizen-centered climate change debate have concentrated on both traditional and nontraditional news outlets in an attempt to reach diverse audiences. Conventional media such as the national broadcaster RTÉ or the broadsheet newspaper The Irish Times nevertheless continue to fundamentally shape public debate in Ireland, making their future involvement in nuanced and balanced climate change debates central to any effort to shift thinking, policy, and action.
Research on climate change communication in the Republic of Ireland1 is still in its infancy, with a very limited number of studies published to date. Most inquiries focus on print media coverage of climate change topics, drawing mostly on quantitative data generated through multi-layered keyword searches. This is frequently complemented by some form of narrative analysis to identify dominant discourses. However, more in-depth qualitative analyses of types of metaphor and meaning surrounding climate change debates in the media remain the exception.
This article reviews and analyzes research on climate change communication undertaken in Ireland. Combining insights and data from existing studies with the authors’ own inquiries in the field, the article provides a detailed and nuanced description of how the Irish media portray climate change, along with some of the social, cultural, and political influences that have shaped dominant depictions of climate change.
While climate change communication can come from multiple sources such as political advocacy, state-sponsored campaigns, or everyday conversations, this review focuses on its communication in the Irish media. Following a background section, this article reviews key studies of climate change communication in Ireland, with a view to identifying both commonalities and unique elements regarding the picture these studies paint of mainstream media coverage. The paper then offers a discussion of the underlying forces of media influence that have shaped how climate change is portrayed today. The final section identifies key strengths and weaknesses of existing research to point toward future research possibilities.
Up until the 2000s, climate change did not receive much attention in Ireland in terms of media coverage. Even today, Irish media coverage of climate change remains low compared to other European countries. Based on his ongoing research project on climate change reporting in Ireland, which commenced in 2014, Robbins (2015) observes:
In 2007, European coverage of climate change was almost three times that of coverage in Ireland, at 138.2 stories versus 47.5 per title per month. In the late-2009, early-2010 period, European coverage had dipped to twice that of Ireland. Since then, the gap has widened again.
Interestingly, the limited nature of climate change coverage appears to resemble both more recent and longstanding trends in science communication in Ireland that have been well documented in the literature (Lehmkuhl et al., 2012; Horgan, O’Connor, & Sheehan, 2007; Sterne & Trench, 1994). For example, as far back as 1994, Sterne and Trench observed a serious “blind spot” in media coverage relating to science and technology.
More recently, Lehmkuhl et al.’s (2012) systematic comparison of 11 European countries revealed that science programming on television in Ireland was dominated by “popularisation programmes,” that is, informative documentaries on scientific subjects, including major milestones in the history of (Western) science. In contrast, science news broadcasts concerning current events were notably absent from the media landscape in Ireland. In addition, science coverage in Ireland focuses mostly on discoveries in the natural sciences, technology, and engineering, while insights from the social sciences and humanities receive much less attention (Fox, 2014).
Some of these “blind spots” can be related to the nature of the Irish media landscape, which remains dominated by a small number of conventional media outlets including the national public services broadcaster RTÉ2 and the broadsheets The Irish Times, Irish Independent, and The Examiner. RTÉ in particular continues to strongly influence public debate around key political, economic, social, and environmental issues. It does so through a range of different formats, including documentaries, talk shows, and current affairs programs.
Interestingly, there is also a discernible influence of British newspapers, including The Irish Sun, Irish Daily Star, The Guardian, and The Sunday Times. Diverse local newspapers and freesheets such as The Connacht Tribune or The Galway Advertiser complement national-level outlets. Finally, radio continues to play a major role in shaping public debate in Ireland, especially phone-in and drive time shows such as Liveline and The Last Word.
Media coverage in Ireland more generally, and environmental and climate change material in particular, frequently remain focused on local and national issues. For example, coverage of the 2009 and 2014 flood events frequently focused on local impacts and concerns, with limited attention being given to global causes of flooding such as climate change, increases in extreme weather events, and rising sea levels (see Devitt & O’Neill, 2016). This partly reflects Ireland’s electoral and political system, which favors brokerage and constituency-oriented politics (O’Leary, 2011), given that national representatives are frequently voted in on the basis of their performance in relation to local issues.
Citizen involvement in the production and dissemination of news remains limited in the context of conventional media. However, letters pages in national broadsheets and local freesheets do tend to function as major outlets for members of the public who wish to express alternative views and opinions (albeit these are subject to editorial control). Sterne and Trench’s observation that newspapers such as The Irish Times “compensate for their lack of newsroom acumen by giving space to the issue on their letters pages” (1994, p. 18) continues to have some currency, especially with regard to climate change debates.
Climate Change and Ireland: Contributing Factors, Debates, and Policy Responses
Understanding the policy context also yields important insights into the emergent relationship between climate change and Irish society, which is useful for examining current variants of climate change communication. As with many environmental policy issues, major impulses to deal with the issue of climate change came from outside Ireland, most notably through European Union (EU) policy initiatives and international environmental networks and campaigns (Connaughton, 2014; Flynn, 2007). The Irish state, as a member of the EU, has signed the Kyoto Protocol and is part of the second commitment period from 2013 until 2020, which continues with a smaller number of countries than the first period (Harvey, 2013). It is also part of the separate 2015 Paris agreement, which set the goal of limiting global temperature rises to below 2°C above preindustrial levels while recognizing the need to pursue staying within an increase of 1.5°C (Goldenberg, Vidal, Taylor, Vaughan, & Harvey, 2015).
Of more significance for Irish policy over the years, however, has been its involvement in EU agreements. An EU-wide emissions trading scheme (ETS) means certain industries have to trade in market-priced carbon allowances, each equating to a ton of CO2 emissions (EPA, 2013). In the non-ETS sectors as part of EU-wide reduction goals, the Irish government is committed to meeting greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions of 20% below 2005 levels by 2020 (EPA, 2016).
Ireland is also pursuing the 2020 target of increasing renewable energy share of final energy consumption to 16% as part of EU renewable energy targets (DCENR, 2015). These targets are binding, and failure to meet them will result in large EU fines. Importantly, they have serious implications for residential, transport, agricultural, public service, commercial, and non-ETS industrial sectors. Ireland also adopted the EU’s 2030 targets, which will involve an EU-wide reduction in GHGs by 40% compared to 1990 levels.
While Ireland’s national emissions are comparatively small if considered on a global scale, Ireland’s per capita rates for emissions of equivalent carbon dioxide (CO2e)3 have been ranked second highest in the EU (CSO, 2012, p. 20; EEA, 2010, p. 29). Agriculture has a massive impact on this figure. The addition of greenhouse gases caused by agriculture (especially methane and nitrous oxide) moved Ireland from 9th position in the EU for per capita carbon emissions (only) to 2nd for 2009 (CSO, 2012, pp. 20–21).
Ireland’s agricultural emissions are proportionally the highest from this sector in the EU (Melia, 2016). Given the strong emphasis in Irish agricultural policy on increasing meat production, these emissions are likely to increase in the future. For example, Ireland’s current strategy document Food Harvest 2020: A Vision for Irish Agri-Food and Fisheries commits to growing the value of the beef sector by 20% by 2020. The establishment of a Beef 2020 Activation Group, which in 2011 produced a report entitled Growing the Beef Sector, confirmed this pro-growth agenda and reflected the unbroken political influence of the agricultural lobby on Irish politics (see Gibbons, 2016b).
In addition, throughout the “Celtic Tiger” economic boom (1995–2007), private transport and household energy consumption far exceeded the EU average (O’Leary, Howley, & Ó Gallachóir, 2008). With the sudden end of the Celtic Tiger in 2008, an overall decline in energy use and CO2 emissions occurred (Howley, Dennehy, Ó Gallachóir, & Holland, 2012). However, Ireland is currently experiencing renewed economic growth, and politicians are claiming that Ireland will not meet its 2020 EU targets (McGee, 2015).
Regarding national-level policy efforts to tackle climate change, Ireland joined others such as the Nordic countries in implementing a carbon tax (Howley et al., 2012).
Additionally, Ireland has coupled vehicle registration tax (VRT) to CO2 car emissions (Revenue, 2011). The 2007–2011 coalition government, which involved the Green Party/Comhaontas Glas, also embraced elements of the international green economy discourse, which explicitly links solutions to environmental problems to job creation and economic recovery (Davies & Mullin, 2011; DJEI, 2012). As a result, media coverage concerning specific “green” issues such as the expansion of the renewable energy and e-mobility sectors in Ireland or the benefits of organic agriculture and sustainable urban planning increased somewhat, reflecting efforts by Green Party ministers (of state) Eamon Ryan, John Gormley, Trevor Sargent, and Ciaran Cuffe to raise public awareness of their respective ministerial portfolios, albeit sometimes with limited success (Bolleyer, 2010).
However, following the financial crash in 2008 and subsequent economic recession, many environmental issues, including climate change, became once again relegated to the margins of public debate. The 2011–2016 Fine Gael/Labour coalition government, while initially espousing “green” solutions to aid Ireland’s economic recovery (DJEI, 2012), were highly resistant toward meeting EU 2020 agricultural emission targets and pushed for the sector to be treated as a “special case.” The formation of a Fine Gael minority government in May 2016 coincided with the breakup of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government4 and the subsequent establishment of a Department of Communications, Climate Change and Natural Resources. This suggests that increased attention is given to climate change and natural resources while other environmental issues are relegated to the bottom of the political agenda.
In 2014 some initial signs of economic recovery became apparent, leading to cautiously optimistic predictions regarding Ireland’s fiscal and budgetary stability and future economic performance, with little or no consideration for possible social and environmental impacts of such a recovery. At the same time, there has been a spate of extreme weather events such as storms and flooding over the last decade, and their enormous cost implications have drawn into focus Ireland’s vulnerability to the threat of climate change. Media coverage and public attention regarding climate change nevertheless remain at relatively low levels when compared to other topics (Robbins, 2015). Moreover, coverage of environmental issues directly related to climate change such as major flooding events in Ireland in 2009 and 2014 points toward divergences between public views and policy responses (Devitt & O’Neill, 2016).
Research on Climate Change Communication in Ireland
Overview and Methodologies Used
Before dealing with how climate change is communicated, we provide a brief description of the research we draw on in this area. Research on climate change communication is still in its infancy in Ireland, although it has picked up pace since 2013. Of the review that follows, two of the five studies are part of international projects that required a survey of Irish print media climate change reporting to supplement cross-national comparative research of variations in national responses to climate change (Wagner & Payne, 2015)5 and newspaper attention (Schmidt, Ivanova, & Schäfer, 2013). A third project, headed by an environmental sociologist, emerged from an ad hoc group of academics based in Ireland (Mullally, 2016). A fourth piece of empirical work—on the national public broadcaster—was headed by a doctoral student as part of a report carried out on behalf of the Audience Council of Ireland’s national broadcaster RTÉ. The research emerged as part of a broader investigation and dialogue among the public and other stakeholders of how the broadcaster engages with significant public issues (Cullinane & Watson, 2014).
As far as we can tell, funding for research on climate change communication in Ireland has been largely limited to international sources such as the U.S. National Science Foundation. However, a recently initiated domestic project on Climate Change in Irish Media (CCIM) has received funding from the Irish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). While national funding for social-scientific and interdisciplinary research on environmental issues, including climate change communication, remains modest in comparison to financial support for climate change research in the natural sciences and engineering, CCIM appears to indicate a growing commitment to the former type of research. It is important to note that our analysis did not include a CCIM project that commenced in 2014 and has yet to be completed. However, throughout the article we refer to some of its preliminary findings that have been published in The Irish Times (Robbins, 2015).6
Apart from Cullinane and Watson (2014), the studies reviewed in this section deal only with print media. In that sense they reproduce an existing imbalance in climate change communication research that can be observed in many different places (Schäfer & Schlichting, 2014). The studies, despite differences, share common research objectives of exploring media coverage and thematic framing. While lacking direct comparability due to different time frames or qualifying criteria for the themes, the shared focus of these studies is still broadly suggestive of how climate change communication exists in Irish media.
Being the dailies with the highest print and online readership (JNRS, 2014/2015), it is not surprising that three of the surveys analyzing Irish print media examined the broadsheets Irish Independent and The Irish Times (McNally, 2015; Mullally, 2016; Wagner & Payne, 2015). The Irish Times is the only newspaper dealt with in Schmidt et al.’s international comparative study of national newspaper coverage of climate change (2013, p. 7). Other broadsheets, while not as widely analyzed, are also featured, such as the Sunday Business Post (Wagner & Payne, 2015) and the Irish Examiner (Mullally, 2016).
McNally’s (2015) extensive survey, covering the widest selection of broadsheets, includes both these papers and the now defunct Sunday Tribune, along with the Sunday Independent (sister paper to the Irish Independent). It is also the only study to feature tabloid newspapers (Irish Daily Mail, Mirror, and Sunday Mirror). All other surveys exhibit a clear bias in favor of broadsheet journalism. Another obvious bias is toward the national media. While seemingly not a major part of Mullally, Damery, Lenihan, Milner, and O’Connor’s (2013) analysis, their study is the only one to reflect upon local and regional paper coverage.
Criteria for article selection also varied. Schmidt et al. (2013) use a complex search string that incorporates mentions of climate changing (e.g., cooling or warming) and phrases synonymous with climate change. Others involve keyword searches of newspaper databases and RTÉ’s digital print news archive using the public records search tool LexisNexis (Cullinane & Watson, 2014; Wagner & Payne, 2015; Mullally, 2016). All surveys (print and TV) deal directly with “climate change” in the media, with the exception of McNally’s (2015) work, which is more concerned with the communication of low-carbon transition.
All surveys featured longitudinal assessment of the absolute numbers and occurrence of articles (Cullinane & Watson, 2014; McNally, 2015; Mullally, 2016) or proportional occurrence of newspaper article totals (Schmidt et al., 2013; Wagner & Payne, 2015). Regarding the time period covered, evidence of media coverage collected across the five studies ranges from 1997 to 2013.
The five studies considered reveal key trends, including a steady rise in coverage since 1997 (Schmidt et al., 2013; Wagner & Payne, 2015) and a dramatic post-crash drop from 2009 until recently (Cullinane & Watson, 2014; McNally, 2015; Mullally, 2016; Wagner & Payne, 2015). Interestingly, The Irish Times has a track record of providing the most coverage, which is perhaps why its coverage plummets the most after 2009, although still maintaining its position of highest reportage (McNally, 2015; Mullally, 2016; Wagner & Payne, 2015). For example, it has repeatedly published editorials in support of climate change mitigation measures, with five editorials supporting a carbon tax during the first failed political attempts to introduce it (Coghlan, 2007).
Another key trend captured is that coverage appears to be largely driven by events (Mullally, 2016; Wagner & Payne, 2015). Wagner and Payne (2015) clearly show the role of major events such as the release of IPCC reports, international summits, and conventions on media attention peaks (Figure 1).The occurrence of such peaks in coverage associated with major climate change–related events is also confirmed by many non-Irish studies (Hulme, 2009a; Schäfer et al., 2013).
All the studies except Schmidt et al. (2013) also deploy narrative analysis techniques to take a more in-depth look at the content (Mullally, 2016) or frames and their thematic development (Cullinane & Watson, 2014; McNally, 2015; Wagner & Payne, 2015). Again, findings appear to reinforce each other across different studies, particularly regarding the narrow media framing of climate change and decarbonization (Cullinane & Watson, 2014; McNally, 2015; Wagner & Payne, 2015). As Wagner and Payne (2015) and McNally (2015) argue, mainstream Irish media largely present what Hulme (2009b) refers to as a reformist approach7 to climate change. This position deals with climate change within the prevailing institutional and economic system, as opposed to advocating a “radical transformativism,” which promotes large-scale changes as a consequence of conceiving of climate change as a product of that system (Fox, 2014).
According to Wagner and Payne (2015), broadsheet newspapers primarily frame climate change as an economic or policymaking challenge, drawing on the mostly optimistic discourse of ecological modernization. They view this dominant discourse as one which recognizes the structural nature of climate change but believes that existing social, political, and economic institutions are capable of internalizing the requisite response to it. This perspective rests upon the idea that businesses can and will respond to environmental policies, spurring technological innovation and economic efficiency and improving both the environment and the economy as a result.
While McNally (2015) does not explicitly refer to ecological modernization, coverage of carbon transition themes discussed in her study include strong hints of it, such as a strong focus on policy management, targets, and regulations. She also critiques the prevalence of uncritical support for top-down policy management and unproblematic representations of sustainability and technological innovation that marginalize viable transition alternatives. With regard to the latter, she finds an almost total absence of radical thematic framing that aims toward post-carbon societal transformation. Discussions of the social incorporating personal and collective responsibility, moral obligations, and consumption practices are limited to some articles contained within McNally’s environmental concern theme, which represents 20% of her overall sample of articles.
Cullinane and Watson’s (2014) report on non-print media analyzes RTÉ’s “flagship” daily television news and semi-weekly current affairs programs, Six One News and Primetime, over a period of 2 and 3 years, respectively. Unlike the other studies, this report did not only look at content referring explicitly to “climate change” or “carbon” but also examined RTÉ’s reporting on topics closely related to climate change.
Similar to the studies covered above, Cullinane and Watson (2014) observe that climate change reporting and debate are tightly corralled and that the problem is very much marginalized by the public broadcaster. Of the stories they identified as “conceivably containing a climate change dimension,” just over 10% of the 285 Six One (n = 30) and almost 25% of the 31 Primetime stories (n = 8) did so. Climate change was also mostly referred to in passing in the 8 Primetime stories rather than being central to the reports. This trend toward marginalization is confirmed by their comparison of three RTÉ news sources with other outlets over a period of 16 months (January 1, 2012 to April 30, 2013), which revealed how RTÉ did not cover 30 major national and international climate change stories.8
The list of thematic categories where mentions of climate change were absent from Six One included international extreme weather events and agricultural stories that dealt with how changing weather patterns were impacting negatively on farming. Only 3 of 62 national weather event stories, 3 out of 45 energy-related items, and 1 of 14 relevant items on conservation, sustainability, and animals made reference to climate change.
In the case of Primetime, a show that is generally made up of a documentary or investigation piece followed by a studio discussion, climate change coverage was mostly embedded within narrow conflict frames dealing with resource disputes such as in stories titled “Rural Concern over Plans for Wind Farms” or “No Resolution to Offaly9 power line dispute.” Consequentially, Cullinane and Watson (2014) observe a general disconnect and isolation of climate change by the broadcaster from the multiple potential systemic effects of the encroaching environmental disaster.
Cullinane and Watson’s (2014) study also deviates from the others by examining the spatial focus of the public broadcaster’s flagship programs. They find that Six One predominantly covers climate change through an international lens, which is over triple that of their national references to it. In terms of the study’s thematic categorization under national and international politics, they discovered that Six One only thematizes climate change as “an international political issue during and after major conferences or reports, and is quickly dropped until the next one … [and] that over the period studied, climate change is almost never presented as a national political issue in Ireland” (Cullinane & Watson, 2014, p. 16).
In contrast, the local is all but absent from RTÉ’s climate change communication, mirroring the centrality of international summits and reports in Wagner and Payne’s (2015) study of print media. Yet other reports find largely top-down technocratic framings (McNally, 2015; Wagner & Payne, 2015), pointing toward the dominance of delocalized pictures of climate change that are potentially alienating to the general public. Interestingly, the only research to have incorporated a quantitative look at 13 regional or local print media titles shows that coverage is minuscule in comparison, which possibly contributes to a lack of identity of climate change as a local issue (Mullally, 2016).
Climate Change Storylines in the Irish Media
While previous subsections dealt largely with media analyses based on quantitative keyword searches, qualitative work on climate change communication also deserves some mention. Mullally’s (2016) recent narrative analysis explicitly focuses on emergent narratives that construct myths around the issue of climate change and the kind of legitimation for social action that these stories provide. In other words, his study does not evaluate how narratives deviate from “reality” but considers how particular storylines of climate change feature repeatedly across diverse articles and newspapers and how social groups imbue them with significance. Unlike the other studies covered above, Mullally’s approach uncovers the role of metaphors and discursive strategies and ascribes a prominent role to storytelling in the media representation of climate change.
Drawing on articles from the years 2008–2012, Mullally (2016) reveals competing narratives that incorporate traces of three structuring metaphors: somnium, soma, and somnambulism. Put simply, somnium features a moment of transcendence where collectively humanity can rise above challenges and is recognizable in statements that declare “something needs to be done now!” The expression “why won’t we change” connects to soma and relates to variety of societal mechanisms that produce inertia, which resists collective action. Finally, somnambulism is the metaphor of sleepwalking whereby institutions and citizens collectively avoid confronting the scale of social transformation required for transition into sustainability. This perceived failure to confront the severity of the issue is often accompanied by calls that amount to needing “to wake up.”
Mullally (2016) finds that somnium and soma are more prevalent in media narratives on climate change in Ireland than somnambulism and identifies five competing storylines: (1) common future, (2) feed the world, (3) back to reality, (4) contrarian denial, and (5) a public and establishment that won’t wake up to the seriousness of the problem. Interestingly, his approach uncovers a major narrative that draws strongly on the somnium metaphor by addressing “our common future” and how collectively we need to take action.
This storyline features references to the pope’s “human family” and how it needs to respect the planet as “our common home.” There are appeals to the “judgement of God and history” such as by the Irish Green Party which in 2008 describes the Kyoto Protocol coming into effect as “a historic moment for the world.” The narrative also includes “a global ethics of responsibility,” exemplified by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s warning in 2008 against “looking inward rather than toward a shared future.”
Another key narrative that emerged in Irish media in 2008 that has since gained considerable momentum concerns the idea of “feeding the world,” which is inscribed with a counternarrative of salvation that adapts the language of sustainability for Irish agriculture. Instead of a sectoral threat of reducing the national herd to meet emissions targets, the narrative argues the “special case” of Irish agriculture with its supposedly more sustainable grass-fed beef being part of the solution to world hunger and sustainability rather than part of the climate change problem. This narrative is heavy with both the transcendent collective metaphor in “feed the world” (somnium) and the resistance to change that would lower agricultural emissions (soma).
A third narrative of “back to reality” is concentrated around political failure and the politicization of science. Being a response to the inertia and obstacles of failed summits and government reluctance to tackle the problem of climate change, it discusses “why can’t we change,” resorting to desperate rationalization, authorization, and moral evaluation strategies, including explaining failure, drawing on the words of science reports, and admonishing the inaction of wealthy countries. It appears heavy with pessimism.
In the remaining two narratives, Mullally identifies attempts to delegitimize action on climate change and an inability or lack of desire to wake up to the problem. The former features “an appeal to realism, but couched in a critique of climate science and politics as an article of faith rather than rationality.” In this narrative, “climategate” makes an appearance and belief in climate change is likened to a religion—quite a common approach among “contrarians” (Lefsrud & Meyer, 2012). Somnambulism is most apparent in the final narrative that speaks of heads buried in the sand, the need to wake up, and how events such as climategate provide people convenient excuses for not facing the problem. Mullally discovers a striking number of religious metaphors on all sides of the debate, including in references to climate science, which contrasts with the comparatively minor role of religious figures in climate change debates.
As evident from Mullaly’s analysis, climate change is also communicated in the media as an emergent series of stories which are tied to particular interests and objectives of the storytellers, who, largely in pursuance of some (non)response to the conundrum, partake in and/or utilize and adapt an already-existing plot. The following section maps some of the historical and contextual influences on climate change media coverage in Ireland to date that have been identified in the literature and in our own research. It will return to the role of narratives and thematic framing to discuss the forces at work in shaping them.
Influences on Climate Change Media Coverage
Trigger Events and Concerns Specific to Ireland
All studies reviewed for this article attempt to identify influences on climate change coverage in Ireland. International summits and reports exert a major influence on the extent and content of coverage (Cullinane & Watson, 2014), with events driving the development of particular narratives (Mullally, 2016). For example, Mullally et al. (2013) attribute the subsuming of green economy and climate change discourses within a narrative of economic recovery to the collapse of the myth of the Celtic Tiger—essentially new myths had to be created to support the continuation of the ideology of economic growth. McNally (2015) points to the economic crash as being pivotal in transforming the level of recurrence of certain themes such as the post-crash elevation of the green growth agenda. In addition, she finds that the share of post-crash articles that presented carbon transition through the prism of environmental destruction was reduced from second most common framing to fourth. Overall, many studies have pointed toward the global economic crisis in 2008 as an explanation for the dramatic drop in climate change media coverage in Ireland (and elsewhere) from 2009 onward (Nacu-Schmidt et al., 2016; Schmidt et al., 2013).
Economic factors concerning the media have also been held responsible. Citing other authors (Boykoff & Yulsman, 2013; Hansen, 2011), Schmidt et al. (2013) also identify drastic cuts in resources allocated to the investigation and reporting of environmental topics as a possible reason for the post-2009 drop in media attention. Similarly, Cullinane and Watson (2014) suggest that a large fall in RTÉ’s online coverage of climate change might be attributable to the broadcaster’s environmental correspondent not being reappointed in 2011 due to funding shortages.
Political events are also likely to influence climate change coverage in fundamental ways, although it is often difficult to specify their exact impact. For example, the decline in legitimacy and power experienced by the Green Party following its electoral demise in the 2011 general election also diminished its previously central role in framing climate change as a regulatory issue (Wagner & Payne, 2015). Similarly, the close political connection between Fine Gael, one of the two large centrist parties in Ireland, and large farming businesses has been said to have influenced climate change communication and policy, in particular regarding emissions from agriculture (Gibbons, 2016b).
Finally, national-level societal conditions also play a part in shaping climate change discourse in Ireland (Schmidt, Ivanova, & Schäfer, 2013). According to Mullally (2016), dominant climate change narratives in Ireland structurally resemble climate change communication elsewhere; however, their content is often particular to Ireland. A case in point is the unfolding of the “salvation and sustainable agriculture” narrative, which portrays moves to curtail GHG emissions as the destruction of a traditional way of life associated with rural Ireland. This critique of mitigation measures as anti-farmer and anti-rural is subsequently turned into a solution for world hunger and climate change that receives legitimacy from some scientific research (Mullally, 2016).
In sum, the severe drop in climate change media coverage in Ireland (and elsewhere) after 2008–2009 can be attributed to a combination of interrelated structural and historical factors rather than any single event. In fact, we argue that a detailed and nuanced understanding of the recent transformation of Irish society, including in relation to (environmental) politics, and its relationship to broader social and cultural hierarchies that exist both within and outside the media is crucial to explaining variations in media coverage regarding climate change and other environmental issues (Fox, 2014).
Hierarchies of Newsworthiness and Frame
As French sociologist Bourdieu has noted, social and cultural hierarchies are heavily influenced by how the dominant perceive and define reality and how they spread such perceptions through their control of education and the means of knowledge dissemination. The resilience of their representation of the world rests in it not being purely imaginary but also complementary to existing objective structures (Bourdieu et al., 1994, p. 14). The perseverance of gender myths, for example, is aided by both anatomical differences and the long history of gender-specific roles under patriarchy. Therefore, it is possible to connect existing hierarchies of newsworthiness and thematization, along with the main voices and networks present within Irish media discussion of climate change, to existing structures of state expertise, authority, and legitimacy.
We suggest that these structures have emerged within and are supported by Ireland’s liberalized growth and competition state agenda (Fox, 2014). Considering how Ireland’s economic policy responds to the demands of neoliberal globalization, Kirby and Murphy (2011) label the Irish state a “competition state” that shifts statist capital toward global market competitiveness and away from social cohesion and welfare. Importantly, however, these shifts in how the Irish state spends its money have had, and continue to have, far-reaching consequences for the communication of climate change in Ireland.
Interestingly, liberalized growth agendas have had their share of ups and downs in Ireland. Since the late 1950s Irish governments have heavily sought to increase employment and growth through encouraging foreign direct investment (FDI) (Leonard & O’Kane, 2008, p. 27). Generous tax incentives and grants led to increased FDI and rapid economic success in the 1960s, but the massive debts incurred from giving billions to foreign industries added to the depression of the 1980s (O’Connor, 2010).
Significant economic growth and employment creation associated with the Celtic Tiger years (1995–2007) were initially supported by increased FDI through policies aimed at lowering employer costs through infrastructural investments, low corporation tax, and reduced personal taxation (O’Connor, 2010). However, when exports and inward FDI declined, the rest of the boom was mostly a debt-fueled property bubble with eventual disastrous effects for the economy (Kirby, 2010).
Since the crash, much policy has centered again on FDI competitiveness, but agricultural exports have additionally become a heavily emphasized part of the plan toward recovery (Department of Finance, 2010, pp. 29, 47–48). It is these concerns with growth that tend to dominate policy (O’Connor, 2010) and how Irish societal power relations are shaped (Fox, 2014), with both direct and indirect consequences for climate change policy and communication. For example, John Gibbons’s (2016b) article “Meat Is Madness: Why It Leads to Global Warming and Obesity” argued for a drastic reduction in meat consumption as a way to cut Ireland’s carbon footprint, attributing the lack of action to date to a “fear of backlash, principally from powerful interest groups, and in few countries is this more apparent than Ireland, where food policy is shaped primarily by the agri-industrial lobby.”
With regard to the hierarchies within the media, it is evident that different media outlets attribute diverse levels of newsworthiness to climate change. While proportionally The Irish Times has ranked comparatively high in the international comparison, other broadsheets have ranked much lower. Tabloid attention has been relatively minor, at least regarding discussion on carbon transition, where it has greatly disapproved of the carbon tax (McNally, 2015). Climate change media coverage has also been demonstrably low in local newspapers and in the national broadcaster’s main media outlets.
These variations can be partially attributed to how journalistic practices shape news, a factor that has not really been addressed by existing climate communication studies to date but that is apparent in them. The media invest their own meaning into climate change via their reporting practices and cultural leanings, for example, through overreliance on readily available and ostensibly credible “official sources” (Wilkins & Patterson, 1990). The practice of “balanced reporting,” that is, the equal distribution of airtime between those who accept the existence of human-induced climate change and those who dismiss it, suggests that there is no consensus and that the evidence of both sides is equally matched (McCright & Dunlap, 2010). A complaint lodged in January 2016 by the Irish environmental NGO An Taisce regarding the continued pursuit of “false balance” and not reflecting the scientific consensus around climate change during RTÉ’s prime time program How Much Will Climate Change Cost Ireland? illustrates this.10 An observable dependency on a very narrow range of “expert voices” who argue either for or against the existence of anthropogenic climate change complements this. Interestingly, the latter has tended to be recruited from outside of Ireland, for example, the reappearance of the United Kingdom’s Lord Monckton on Matt Cooper’s Today FM radio show (Gibbons, 2014a).
Mainstream media reporting in Ireland (and other countries) is also heavily segmented. Broadsheets often come sectioned into national, world, business, sport, or lifestyle—possibly an epistemic legacy of the same separation of disciplines in education and the specialization of expertise in Irish university-level education (Fox, 2014). This also coincides with a tendency to favor national and international stories at the expense of the local. Such artificial distinctions might support why climate change is so often located in “world” (e.g., RTÉ, 2014) or environment sections (e.g., McDonald, 2015), thus contributing to framing and isolating them as such. RTÉ’s most successful sustainability venture Eco Eye, while obtaining a large audience share (Gibbons, 2014b), remains discretely a niche “environmental” program separated from their more eminent current affairs programs. Moreover, Cullinane and Watson (2014) observe the separation of climate change from cognate areas such as energy and weather.
This lack of a systemic representation of climate change possibly contributed to the drastic and sudden marginalization of climate change communication by media coverage of the economic crisis (Wagner & Payne, 2015). Generally the media does not connect the environment with the big issues of the day despite the possible contribution of diminishing resources such as fish and agricultural products or the rise in extreme weather events to the international financial crisis (Pearce, 2013). Similarly, the impact of efforts to deal with climate change on possibilities for future growth and recovery are rarely covered (Anderson, 2012; Elliott, 2015).
However, whether treated primarily as a global and/or an environmental issue, climate change has been largely omitted from intersectional media discussion. For example, broadsheet reporting on Barak Obama’s first 100 days in office examined the American president’s performance on a wide range of issues, but the vast majority of stories overlooked climate change (Harnden, 2009; Spillius, 2009; Usborne, 2009). More recently, coverage of the 2016 general election in Ireland provided by both the national broadcaster RTÉ and its competitor TV3 almost completely ignored climate change. It did make it onto the final moments of the last of the three leaders’ debates on RTÉ (Gibbons, 2016a), although solely in relation to the agricultural sector. Separately, print media, in contrast to many other countries, reports on climate change in a manner that is largely unaffected by the contrarian position and often as something to be responded to (Wagner & Payne, 2015). However, climate change’s absence from related news items, along with low visibility in many media outlets, is suggestive of a lack of prioritization that would befit its potential relevance to the lives of Ireland’s citizens and the future of their descendants.
The lack of media stances that properly analyze the role of economic expansion in climate change is indicative of the strength of the growth-centric hierarchy. The ecological modernization that characterizes media framing of the response, while potentially conflictual, is often presented as mutually beneficial for competitiveness (Wagner & Payne, 2015). Climate change’s emergence from the current system of growth-based development, in the least, justifies the addition of a counternarrative for “an alternative modernity” that advocates a different, non-market vision of prosperity (Beck, 2010, p. 626). However, narratives that challenge the current growth-oriented economic system remain scarce in the mainstream media, despite the increasingly critical positions on the relationship of growth to climate change mitigation by establishment-type figures and organizations generally favored by the media such as PricewaterhouseCoopers, a former U.K. climate science advisor Kevin Anderson, and even Lord Nicholas Stern, one of the chief architects of the economics of climate change, who has revised his more lenient growth-mitigation position to one that is much more in conflict with maintaining economic growth.11
Irish mainstream print media have only really featured alternative degrowth narratives since the high-profile publication of Naomi Klein’s 2014 radical social change text This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. An Irish Times interview with her in October 2014 mentions how climate change mitigation requires redistribution of wealth, investment in the public sphere, and building infrastructure for the next economy. It also mentions her criticism of market-based solutions that seek to maintain the current system of inequality (Freyne, 2014). Similarly, McNally’s (2015) in-depth analysis of Irish newspaper coverage identifies only five articles that meet her criteria for radical framing of transitions to low carbon. The degrowth narrative where it is voiced by Irish academics or environmentalists has primarily been limited to marginal publications such as the largely leftist magazine Village (Murphy & Kirby, 2013; Nix, 2012).
Mainstream Irish media are often critical of government, even sometimes in a manner that inadvertently challenges growth policy such as in the crisis of homelessness. However, largely it maintains many classifications, discourses, and objectives of the competition state. The evaluation of newsworthiness and the adoption of frames can mirror, and contribute to, broader societal hierarchies sustained by the state in its focus on growth, particularly through FDI. These hierarchies are visible in and supplemented by state developments in low corporation tax, education being weighted toward the provision of an educated workforce and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) over citizenship and environment, the preponderance of state funding going to agencies such as the Industrial Development Authority (IDA) rather than toward anti-poverty and environmental groups (Kirby & Murphy, 2011, p. 28). Persistent anti-unionism in most international companies, which have the lowest levels of union density of all sectors, also continues to be tolerated by the Irish state (Allen, 2010, p. 28).
How the state ranks the environment within this model of growth is also shown by its appointments to director general of the EPA. The previous EPA head was formerly an assistant director with responsibility for environmental policy at the Irish Business and Employers Confederation. Her subsequent replacement hailed from the incineration company Indaver (Kelly, 2012). The latter appointee has displayed a laissez-faire attitude to punishing businesses in breach of environmental restrictions (Kelly, 2012). The media rarely offers serious challenge to these hierarchical sublimations and subjugations and instead often serves to reproduce them. A case in point is the media furor that followed the voices of multinational executives being raised over the state of Irish graduates (Bielenberg, 2010; Flynn, 2010; RTÉ, 2010), despite the matter having being clearly identified earlier by others (Faller, 2010; Flynn, 2009).
Other dominant framings and media absences find their self-reinforcing reflection in a history of depressed class politics, covered over by the classlessness of “the rising tide lifts all boats”12 rhetoric that has dominated much of economic policy (Fox, 2014, pp. 126–131). The absence of the local also echoes the delegitimized position of the local as represented by the weakness of local authorities (Fox, 2014, pp. 129–131). The point being made is that such affinities likely encourage media and government adherence to top-down, largely supply-sided, delocalized and classless, technological and growth-dominated representations of climate change mitigation (Fox, 2014). Further hierarchical compatibility is again demonstrated in the next section through the prominence granted establishment voices in the media’s communication of climate change.
The Influential Voices of Climate Change Communication
The role of voices and organizations in the shaping of media coverage is also suggestive of internal hierarchies with regard to the legitimacy of go-to experts, news data sources, and issue-stakeholders. Moreover, their presence in news stories is indicative of broader societal hierarchies, as these are the personages and agencies powerful enough to gain media access and help construct important issues. Wagner and Payne (2015) examined which interest groups dominated and shaped discussion by linking organizations to clusters of normative statements about climate change. In their sample of 517 articles, they identified 250 normative statements made by 135 organizations, thereby revealing the large role of interest groups in framing the response.
Political party, business, research, NGOs, and government groups were found to play a significant part in shaping climate change as a mitigation problem to be dealt with through some variant of ecological modernization, reinforcing the latter’s dominance in the framing of climate change. Additionally, most of the organizations accepted climate change as a real global problem that requires Ireland to adopt mitigation measures. The few organizations who disagreed with this position and the existence of climate change were nearly all non-Irish, notably the U.S. Republican Party and the Australian government. The authors link the failure of the contrarian position to gain the backing of Irish groups with economic and institutional power to the scarcity of contrarians in Irish media. Similarly, consumer behavior rarely featured in organizations’ statements (Wagner & Payne, 2015) probably adding to the weak media discussion of the important part played by demand and consumption.
The category of media contributor further helps shape the discourses around climate change, lending the weight of their status and prestige to certain positions. The absence of business groups from statements concerning regulatory control of climate-related activities and their contrasting presence among positive statements about incentives such as emissions trading and economic opportunities tends to enhance the sense of workability of incentives over regulations due to their prestige in the competition state society. This credibility is possibly further strengthened by government, political parties, and business groups accounting for 80% of positive incentives statements (Wagner & Payne, 2015).
Mullally’s (2016) “our common future” narrative shows how the presence of religious and world leaders influence the debate. Speakers used to addressing global audiences—for example, the Pope and former and current UN players Mary Robinson and Ban Ki Moon—appear to make ample use of a “common future” narrative, at least as a rhetorical device geared toward appealing to global solidarity. It is possible that the recent rise in media presence of high-profile figures like Pope Francis and Naomi Klein might strengthen and possibly radicalize the shape of this “common future” narrative in the years to come (Agnew, 2015).
However, Mullally’s (2016) principal protagonists are scientists, politicians, and media commentators. McNally (2015) also identifies politicians as main voices in 71 articles drawn from her overall sample (n = 347). Added to them are the voices of elite business, while civil society and environmental groups are the least quoted. This confirms the marginalization of particular themes and, arguably, according to McNally (2015), limits the potential for the public to expand their carbon literacy and engage with efforts toward a low-carbon transition.
In their effort to map the voices that dominate arenas that are of clear relevance to climate change, Cullinane and Watson (2014) describe how in four segments on a major oil find off the Cork coast there was no mention of climate change, with seven out of the eight people whose opinions were accessed hailing from the oil and business community.13 The entirety of the studio discussions and reporting narrowed the story to the potential economic benefits and the mechanics of oil extraction. This example appears to be a striking illustration of how the dominant configuration of societal objective relations manifests itself in the media’s treatment of climate change, thereby devaluing the issue while continuously amplifying the need for competitive growth (Cullinane & Watson, 2014).
This pro-business and pro-growth media bias, along with the media’s preference for neoliberal discourse, is evident in the Irish media’s favorite go-to expert being the mainstream economist who outnumbers media references to most, if not all, other academics (Fox, 2014, p. 139). Few economists, however, discuss climate change and so possibly contribute to a lowering of its status as well as its further isolation from dominant issues.
That is changing slightly, but in a manner that appears to further extend the dominance of economic arguments into the realm of environmental debate and policy. The appointment of the economist John FitzGerald to the chair of the new Expert Advisory Council on Climate Change makes him more likely to broach the topic of climate change during his frequent media appearances. However, his contributions so far have further reinforced the top-down, technocentric, reformist position rather than challenge it (FitzGerald, 2016).
Conclusion: State of the Art and Future Research
Research into climate change communication in Ireland has only recently emerged as a new field of inquiry. However, work carried out to date has revealed four key trends. First, there is a general lack of attention in the media regarding the issue of climate change. Coverage is at best patchy and continues to be largely confined to a small number of broadsheets. Similarly, TV coverage of climate change issues remains scarce. Second, there is a strong tendency to segregate climate change from closely related areas such as energy generation or flooding, resulting in highly fragmented coverage of socio-environmental issues that are inseparably intertwined. Third, the dominant framing of the issue is particularly narrow, with little room for discussing the participation of the public, radical alternatives, and local contexts. Finally, there is almost no discussion of the role of culture and socio-cultural conditions of the everyday in addressing the challenges of climate change, an omission that is mirrored in many other environmental debates (Edmondson & Rau, 2008).
Despite significant advancements in research over the past three to five years, serious limitations remain regarding the focus and methodology of climate change communication studies. The selection of sources appears to be particularly critical in this context. As outlined in this article, existing studies exhibit a clear broadsheet and print-media bias. This is particularly problematic given the continued significance of radio in Ireland, including popular phone-in shows. Also there are currently no data available on social media and other online sources. Similarly, the exclusion of tabloids, university and special interest papers (e.g., Irish Farmers Journal), local newspapers and freesheets from climate change communication research to date results in a large part of the Irish media landscape remaining underexplored.
This constitutes a particularly serious knowledge gap given the widespread and geographically varied distribution of these papers (e.g., the weekly circulation of 96,400 copies of freesheets by The Advertiser Newspaper Group covering households in Galway City and County Athlone and parts of the midlands and County Mayo) and the popularity of Irish Farmers Journal in rural parts of Ireland (Aughey & Oakland, 2013, p. 316). Finally, some weaknesses arise from an overemphasis on national-level coverage in much climate change communication research involving the Irish case. This leaves significant gaps concerning both international and global media coverage and local-level debate. The latter appears to be particularly significant given the strong emphasis in Irish politics and civil society on local-level issues.
Regarding data analysis, the field of climate change communication research in Ireland appears to be diversifying rather rapidly. Multi-method designs that combine qualitative and quantitative techniques have dominated so far, which clearly reflects longstanding trends in empirical social research in Ireland toward qualitative and multi-method studies, with quantitative work remaining the exception. Regarding approaches to media analysis deployed to date, there appears to be a strong focus on qualitative content analysis. While clearly informative, these approaches overlook the higher prestige and public profile of some media outlets, journalists and commentators over others. The impact of a climate change news item is bound to be affected by whether it carries the aforementioned status of multinational executives or economists or by its appearance in the front page or national news section as opposed to environment or world sections.
Based on the findings presented in this article, we argue that future research needs to pay more attention to issues concerning status and legitimacy. In acknowledging the diversity of power to frame issues and lend authority to one’s words, researchers must also scrutinize how mainstream media both mirror and challenge broader societal power relations such as those embedded in the country’s state institutions. For a fuller picture, this requires the inclusion of audience receptivity, recognizing how the influence and value of prestige and symbolic power varies according to the elective affinities of the audience (Bourdieu, 1984, p. 241).
This more nuanced picture of climate change communication might furthermore benefit from understanding how the path of communication must undergo processes of reinterpretation through conversational practices and norms and existing frames drawn from the routines and regularities of their everyday world (Fox, 2014; Norgaard, 2011).While not suggesting that researchers personally hold the view, implicitly many existing studies project a rather deterministic impression of media coverage by ignoring or downplaying the audience.
Research to date has also overlooked the significant media performance and reputation of key public figures such as climate scientist and IPCC contributor John Sweeney and popular TV presenter Duncan Stewart, which have resulted in above-average public and media attention for their calls for climate action. Similarly, recent articles by John Gibbons in traditional media outlets such as The Irish Times and Village magazine, or his regular contributions to the ThinkorSwim.ie blog, have drawn attention to the complexity and potential political explosiveness of climate change adaptation and mitigation efforts in Ireland, including the need to take on powerful political actors such as the agricultural lobby (Gibbons, 2016b). These efforts deserve much greater research attention than has hitherto been the case.
Strong and sustained efforts to bring about genuine climate change debate in Ireland have been also made by key members of Ireland’s environmentalist community, including ENGOs such as Friends of the Earth Ireland and the Irish Green Party/Comhaontas Glas. The nature and trajectory of climate change communication during the latter’s involvement in the 2007–2011 coalition government as well as following the party’s subsequent elimination from Irish national politics until 2016 is worthy of further research.14 Here we propose that future work could focus on the role of key public intellectuals and politicians in placing and keeping climate change on the political agenda.
Greater attention to issues of class and social inequality is urgently needed as part of future inquiries into climate change communication and receptivity in Ireland. Class-related emissions, while having been identified in other countries as highly unequal and therefore clearly relevant (Foster, 2013; Gough et al., 2012; Monbiot, 2009), are a neglected aspect of the climate change debate in Ireland (Fox, 2014). In fact, a very narrow, exclusionary view of class appears to be a typical feature of the Irish media landscape. For example, Moffat (2010) points to an emergent cultural shift accompanying the Celtic Tiger, which increasingly portrayed Ireland as a middle-class society. In this he finds the Irish media complicit in projecting middle-class experiences as the norm, thereby sidestepping the issue of structural social exclusion. He cites their preoccupation with university enrollment issues despite the majority of the overall population not entering third level education (Moffat, 2010, p. 242).
The dominant Irish treatment of climate change repeats this symbolic pattern through bearing no recognition of the conspicuous emissions of the wealthiest. There is a general absence of class-based statistics on emission rates, with state agencies opting instead for the more decontextualizing per capita averages or national figures. With the existence of such a bias, further research needs to document how the lack of a class narrative is framing the discussion.
Overall, existing inquiries into climate change debates in Ireland reveal the narrowness of the media portrayal and demonstrate how this severely limits opportunities for the general public to engage with this important issue. For McNally (2015) this narrowness is a key obstacle to developing public literacy on transitioning to a low-carbon society and to facilitating engagement by promoting informed judgment and decision-making on the range of activities involved, which are not only economic and technical but also social. For a more accurate portrayal of the interrelatedness of the problem, the media must address climate change’s systemic nature. There is an essential democratic need to openly deliberate on vital alternatives, expand the use of less alienating local and justice-based discourses, and enable public discussion of the country’s morals and values regarding climate change. Future research, too, must evaluate the possibilities for such an outcome, while remaining attentive to the nuanced relations of power that underpin climate change communication in Ireland.
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(1.) Henceforth Ireland.
(2.) Raidió Teilifís Éireann.
(3.) This measure includes other major greenhouse gases, along with CO2, and captures “the concentration of carbon dioxide that would cause the same amount of radiative forcing as a given mixture of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases” (IPCC, 2007, p. 372).
(4.) Since writing this and after extensive pressure by environmental groups the department has been renamed: Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment.
(5.) The Compon.org project.
(6.) See http://fujomedia.eu/project/climate-change-reporting-in-ireland/ for details regarding CCIM.
(7.) According to Hulme (2009b), market environmentalism, ecological modernization, and environmental populism represent three climate change mitigation strategies that do not threaten the prevailing neoliberal political economy.
(8.) These included (1) international political events such as the talks in Bonn, (2) international reports on climate change including an IPCC report on managing risks from climate change being linked to extreme weather events, (3) national politics featuring the highly significant publication of climate change bill draft heads, and (4) national reports such as a government report on meeting the climate change challenge.
(11.) Stern revised his target GDP reductions for dealing with climate change from 1% to 2% due to the faster-than-anticipated advance of climate change (Jowit & Wintour, 2013). PriceWaterhouseCoopers put the cost on 50% global carbon emissions reduction by 2050 at 3% of GDP. These figures of 2 to 3% would put emissions reduction in serious conflict with economic growth (Jackson, 2009, p. 84). Climate scientist Anderson (2012) has stated that global post-peak emission reductions of 10 to 20% per annum are needed to stay at 2°C (p. 26). This is greatly at odds with maintaining any form of economic growth.
(13.) Included in this group were two oil company CEOs, a stockbroker, and a president of Cork Chamber of Commerce.