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date: 26 April 2017

Climate Change Communication in Spain

Summary and Keywords

It is not easy to determine the precise moment when climate change became a public communication issue in Spain. Among early references, the national newspaper El País published a story titled “World climate is going to change,” on November 17, 1976, and the term “global warming,” imported from the United States, appeared frequently in the media, from 1988 onward. However, academic research about communication of this important issue is relatively recent. A seminar held in 2005 warned that there were “no specific studies on the way the Spanish citizenry is facing the climate change threat” (II Seminario de Comunicación, Educación y Participación frente al Cambio Climático, Lekaroz, Navarra). This seminar precipitated the first study on public perception of climate change in Spain. According to more recent research, 90.1% of Spanish citizens are aware that climate change is happening, whereas only 4.6% are not. Historical records indicate that awareness has grown consistently in the early 21st century, with awareness levels that are similar to those of other countries. However, although there exists a strong consensus within the scientific community on the existence and the anthropogenic origin of climate change, polls indicate that only a small part of the Spanish population (39.0%) is aware of this agreement; a figure that is similar to that of other countries, such as the United States. In addition, two thirds of the Spanish population (64.4%) believe that climate change is mainly a consequence of human activities; a higher percentage than in other countries, like the United States. This ambivalent picture is not surprising, considering climate change is a marginal topic for mainstream Spanish media. According to a study conducted in 2005 and 2011, only 0.2% of all stories in the main national newspapers and 0.19% of national TV news focused on climate change, a lower percentage than in other countries. Media coverage of this issue has fluctuated since the 1990s, depending on several factors, like the existence of links to current affairs (such as international climate summits), notable report publications (from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), and public engagement efforts (such as the Al Gore film An Inconvenient Truth). As far as the quality of the coverage is concerned, research shows similar trends to those detected internationally, including politicization, superficiality, and catastrophism. However, compared to other countries, there is a lower representation of skeptic viewpoints in the Spanish media that may be related to a weaker public visibility of skeptic think tanks and personalities.

Academic interest in climate change communication has risen since 2010. Only four publications (books or articles) were released from 2001 to 2005, whereas more than 30 appeared in the period 2011–2015. Research has primarily focused on public perception and media coverage of climate change and has been conducted mainly by four universities (Universidad Complutense, Universidad de Málaga, Universidad de Santiago de Compostela, and Universidad de Navarra). Communication actions related to climate change have been carried out by several nongovernmental organizations, often as part of international events and campaigns. In the early 21st century, national and regional public institutions have conducted several campaigns to communicate and raise climate change awareness, producing several exhibitions and publications, mainly on climate change mitigation.

Several forums have suggested that the current weaknesses could benefit from a closer relationship among the media and scientific institutions. This could contribute to provide more credible information on the reality of climate change, as well as the options for mitigation and adaptation. Future research could also address climate change coverage in online media and social networks, as well as reception studies, currently underrepresented in academic studies conducted in the country.

Keywords: Climate change, media coverage, social perception, voices, framing, education, campaigns


Like other countries in the Mediterranean area, Spain is very susceptible to climate change. Some effects have already been confirmed, such as increasing temperatures (Brunet et al., 2006), rising sea levels (Losada et al., 2014), shrinking habitats for some species (Araújo et al., 2011), and changes in species behavior (García-Mozo, Mestre, & Galán, 2011). In addition, climate change has affected some economic activities such as winemaking (Zamora Marín, 2007), which is of great importance to the country.

But in spite of these effects, climate change seems to be of relatively little interest to Spaniards. As explained in the next section of this article, surveys on climate change perception indicate that most Spanish citizens believe in climate change, but that it is not one of their main concerns. It is also a secondary issue in the media, as explained in this article.

Academic interest in communication on climate change has increased in the last few years, as is corroborated by the data on publications on the subject: between 2001 and 2005 there were only four papers published on climate change, while during the period 2011 to 2015, over 30 appeared.

Policies Regarding Climate Change

The political action regarding climate change carried out in Spain has followed the European Union directives. As in other Southern European countries, in Spain there has been some concern about the costs imposed by EU environmental legislation (Lofsted & Collier, 2014).

At a national level the main organization is the Oficina Española de Cambio Climático (Spanish Office for Climate Change), created in 2001, as part of the Ministerio de Medio Ambiente (Ministry for the Environment), although there are other organizations at local and regional.

In 1998, Spain ratified the protocol that had been adopted in Kyoto a year before, which came into force in 2005. Since then, the government has, through plans at a national level, regulated the rights to the emission of greenhouse gases as assigned to the country. On signing the Kyoto Protocol, Spain committed itself to reducing its annual emissions, between 2008 and 2012, by 15% of those of the years 1990 to 1995. The emissions increased until 2007, when the tendency changed, mainly due to the grave economic crisis the country was undergoing. Thus, Spain participated in the decisive summit in Paris in 2015 having fulfilled its commitments. Between 2013 and 2014, the measurements show that there was a slight increase in emissions, which could endanger the implementation of the agreements reached (State Secretariat for the Environment, 2016).

In 2006, the National Climate Change Adaptation Plan was established, following similar patterns to those of other European countries (Swart et al., 2009). The plan is based on four fundamental points: (i) impact assessment, (ii) integration of the adaptation to the laws and regulations, (iii) mobilization of key sectors, and (iv) creation of a system and indicators of impacts and adaptation. This plan includes a chapter dedicated to “Communication, Training and Awareness-Raising,” activities which are considered social tools “of great importance […] to obtain effective results” (Oficina Española de Cambio Climático, 2006, p. 48). This plan has led to the provision of some information and links on the Environment Ministry website, mainly about mitigation, but “no comprehensive climate change adaptation communication strategy appears to have been developed” (Swart et al., 2009).

Educational Actions and Communication Campaigns

The action programs on climate change developed by the local, regional, and national governments have included varied education, awareness, and communication programs. As Heras Hernández(2015b) states, in some cases campaigns intended for primary or secondary school students have been set up. For example, in Andalusia the program Kioto Educa has been developed, and in Galicia, one called Climántica, both of which include training actions for teachers, didactic proposals, and diverse educational material.

Additionally, some university courses have been produced on different issues related with climate change, and programs for the training of public administration staff, focusing on the adaptation to climate change. In 2016, the news agency EFE and the NGO World Wildlife Fund (WWF) announced the First Fellowship in Journalism of Climate Change.

Some public institutions have created training networks. The Red Española de Ciudades por el Clima brings together municipalities that represent over 60% of the Spanish population. Its objective is to coordinate actions between the local governments in working towards effective adaptation and mitigation.

In 2004, the Centro Nacional de Educación Ambiental and the Oficina Española de Cambio Climático created the network called “Responses to climate change from communication and education,” which groups together technicians from the public administration and private organizations. Its objective is to exchange information and experience in order to promote collaboration on the subject of activities related with mitigating climate change, in addition to promoting renewable energy and sustainable mobility.

According to Heras Hernández(2015b, p. 6), “these initiatives, although useful, are merely timid steps forward when compared with the magnitude of the change required,” as, “generally speaking, students and workers nowadays learn about energy and climate in a similar way to those who learned decades ago.”

Outstanding among the communication and awareness campaigns is the one launched by the European Union entitled “You control climate change,” which suggests citizen actions grouped into four categories, planned as calls for action to promote a cultural change: “Turn down. Switch off. Recycle. Walk.”

Some NGOs have also produced campaigns for communication and awareness. Greenpeace Spain has set up several initiatives promoted by this organization at the international level, such as the campaign “Stop climate change” or “Anonymous heroes for the climate.” Other exceptional communication campaigns have been “1 million for the climate,” promoted by over 60 Spanish institutions and corporations; “Witnesses to the climate,” by the WWF; “Cero CO2” (Ecology and Development Foundation); and “Better by bike” (Coordinator for the Defense of the Bike), to mention but a few of the most important.

Finally, some international campaigns have been greatly echoed in Spain. For example, the Global Climate March, which took place on the occasion of the Paris climate summit (COP21) in 2015, received notable support from various Spanish organizations and the thousands of citizens who took part in the demonstrations.

The Perception of Climate Change in Spanish Society

Before any specific studies were begun in Spain on the social representation of climate change in Spanish society, some data from surveys such as those carried out by the Center for Sociological Research (CIS)1 or the BBVA Foundation2 were available. In the international context, the so-called Eurobarometer survey3 or the Gallup polls,4 amongst others, have contributed information on the issue. In this section, we shall give some significant data on these surveys, but, above all, we will focus on the series of opinion polls carried out by the pedagogy and environmental education research group at the University of Santiago de Compostela in 2008 (Meira, Arto, & Montero, 2009), 2010 (Meira, Arto, Heras Hernández, & Montero, 2011), and 2012 (Meira et al., 2013).

An important percentage of the Spanish population already had some idea of the threat of climate change in the 1990s. Thirty nine percentage of Spaniards surveyed for the Eurobarometer 1992 and 40% for the Eurobarometer 1995 believed that “global pollution, with the progressive disappearance of the rainforests, the destruction of the ozone layer, the greenhouse effect” were a serious threat to the environment (Meira, 2009, pp. 18–19). However, 2007 can be pointed out as a key year for citizen perception of climate change (Picó, 2013). According to a survey by The Gallup Organization (2007), promoted by the European Commission, Spanish people were the most concerned about climate change—70%, as compared to an average 50% in the 25 EU countries. In the national area, the Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas (CIS) noted that 82.9% of Spaniards believed in climate change, compared to the 5.7% who thought there was no proof that it was occurring (CIS, 2007, Study no. 2682). On the other hand, the BBVA foundation (2008) found that 83% of those surveyed agreed with the statement: “Global warming is a process caused by human activity.”

On the basis of these studies, many of which were mentioned in the book by Pablo Meira, “Comunicar el cambio climático. Escenario social y líneas de actuación” (Communicate climate change: Social scenario and lines of action, 2009), the research group at the University of Santiago de Compostela prepared the surveys which they began to use in March 2008. Between then and 2012, a linear follow-up was carried out of the perception of climate change in Spanish society. The questionnaire used was designed ad hoc and, in its final version, consisted of 50 questions and 229 items that explored the five dimensions listed in Table 1.

The results show that climate change is recognized as a reality by the majority: in 2012, nine of every 10 people surveyed (90.1%) believed that “climate change is happening,” compared to 4.6% who did not think so. However, belief in climate change underwent a significant setback in 2012, as the figure for those who did not believe that climate change was happening rose to 8.5%. Moreover, as Meira points out (2013, p. 66), in contrast with the United States or some countries in northern Europe, “Spanish society hardly ever explains its representations of climate change due to variables such as ideology or religious beliefs.” However, this researcher stated that the socio-demographic profile of the marginal collective of deniers was made up “mainly, of elderly people, with a low level of education, low income and major structural difficulties for accessing information” Meira (2013, p. 86). On the other hand, the 2008 study showed a higher level of environmental concern among females, young people, university graduates, and people living in the inland part of the country.

Table 1. Perception of climate change in Spanish society.






CC is happening



CC is not happening



It is mainly or exclusively due to human causes




A medium or high degree of scientific agreement is perceived




Position of CC on list of global problems




Sources of information









Confidence and scientists




Habits and attitudes

Saving energy to pollute less




Use of car to get to work




Perception of the responsibility of industry and the solutions



Source: authors’ own based on data extracted from Meira et al. (2009, 2011, 2013).

Regarding the identification of the causes of the problem, 64.4% of the people surveyed in 2012 believe that climate change is caused “mainly” or “exclusively” by human causes, while 8.4% stated that it was due “principally” or “exclusively” to natural causes. Another 22.2% held an intermediate position, as they chose to attribute climate change “as much to natural causes as human ones.” These figures show that the percentages of people thinking that climate change is mainly a consequence of human activities is higher in Spain than in other countries, like the United States (Pew Research Center, 2013).

Comparing the results obtained in 2010 and 2012, the answers are found to be quite stable, although we can see a slight drop in the intermediate positions in favor of the extremes: “supposedly due to natural causes” rises from 2.6% to 3.2%, and “exclusively due to human causes” goes from 20.6% to 26.5% (Heras Hernández, 2015b). Although the majority recognizes the human causes of climate change, some Spaniards entertain certain erroneous beliefs. Perhaps the most important of these is the belief that climate change is due to the hole in the ozone layer, as was believed by 71.1% of Spaniards in 2012. This connection has been made by popular culture regardless of science (Meira, 2015).

The percentage of the population who perceived a high level of agreement in the scientific community rose significantly, going from 30.8% in 2010 to 39% in 2012. But there was also a three percentage point rise amongst those who saw “little” or “no” agreement among the scientific community (from 36% in 2010 to 39% in 2012). According to Meira (2013, p. 71):

This fact is particularly significant, given that, despite greater agreement with scientific reality, there is a continuing difference of opinion between the belief in climate change, expressed by the majority of Spaniards, and the perception by almost a third of the population of a notable level of disagreement at the heart of the scientific immunity.

Another contradictory issue refers to the relevance Spaniards gave to climate change. This issue does not occupy a high position in the list of citizens’ concerns and, indeed, its relevance diminished in the early 21st century. Spanish people gave priority to the economic crisis and other problems stemming from it, such as unemployment. “The contrast is clear: more knowledge, more belief, and more confidence in the scientific diagnosis, but less relevance and a lower perception of potential threat” (Meira, 2013, p. 86).

In the area of information, in 2012 over half the people interviewed (65.8%) believed they were “little” or “not at all” informed about climate change in general. The study of the sources of information used by Spaniards revealed that in 2010 and 2012 the most frequently used media were television, publicity campaigns, and newspapers. The Internet did not stand out in the 2008 opinion polls as a source of information, but its use has been rising in the ranking of most frequently consulted media. However, the evolution of the polls showed a drop in the frequency in which information on climate change was accessed, as well as in the frequency with which it was mentioned in conversation among Spaniards, facts that Meira (2013, p. 79) interpreted as follows:

The factors that best explain this drop in interest are, as have already been mentioned, the overshadowing of any other threat by the experience of the economic crisis; the relegation of climate change in public policies, again because of the impact of the crisis and because of the access to power of groups in which skepticism and denial predominate5, […]; and, additionally, due to the withdrawal of climate change from the media agenda, particularly in the mass media. This lack of interest is also due to the total or relative failure of the latest international conferences of the UN system in its attempt to come to a more ambitious and effective agreement to substitute the Kyoto protocol.

In the area of habits and attitudes, most Spaniards considered that “cutting costs” was their main reason for reducing their energy consumption (81.6% in 2012), as compared to 13.8% who said they did so to reduce pollution. The number of those who associated energy-saving care of the environment has dropped in each set of surveys. Nevertheless, there were improvements in other behaviors; for example, a reduction was detected in the use of cars to go to work.

Ultimately, Spaniards are aware of the reality of climate change, but do not feel a particular need to fight it.

Heras Hernández (2008, 2015a, 2015b; Heras Hernández, Zamanillo, Pazos, Vásquez, & García, 2010) has applied the contributions of Meira’s team on the social representation of climate change to the field of communication and education. Although Heras Hernández indicates that in the Spanish context climate change is not the object of great controversy—due to the low impact of ultraliberal ideology and to climate denial—he does warn about the following challenges (Heras Hernández, 2015a, pp. 24–25):

  • We must avoid people dropping their eyes to climate change. They must not choose “not wanting to know.”

  • We must prevent self-defensive responses because, paradoxically, climate change communications that frightens or blames, or presents the struggle against climate change as a threat to well-being, may provoke counter-productive reactions rather than being an opportunity to reduce risks.

  • We must contribute to greater understanding of the phenomenon. Studies of opinion polls have detected the existence of misunderstandings or erroneous ideas that complicate a proper assessment of climate change.

  • We must help to construct a social desire for change. In order to do so, communication must stop according citizens a passive role.

A Historical Approach to the Communication on Climate Change in Spain


The researcher Rogelio Fernández-Reyes (2010a, 2010b) looked into the earliest coverage of climate change in Spain. His findings led him to place the first news item on this issue in 1900. In that year, the popular science journal Alrededor del mundo published an article signed by A. Vela, which included a table with statistics on temperatures in the 10 previous years. The article showed a warmer decade and assumed that science would explain the causes of this increase in the temperatures (A. Vela, 1900, quoted by Fernández Sánchez, 2001, pp. 413–414).

However, it was not until the 1960s that global warming began to have a more important presence in the Spanish press. In 1975, after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco, the newspaper El País was born. In 1976, this newspaper published two articles which announced changes in the climate: “La Tierra se calienta” (Benito R. Mallol, August 8, 1976) and “El clima mundial va a cambiar” (A. García Pérez, October 17, 1976). The former mentions the “report presented by the WMO (World Metrological Organization), which foresaw a considerable increase in the temperatures of the lower atmosphere in the following century.” The source for the second news article was the International Council of Scientific Unions (Fernández-Reyes, 2010a). In 19886, the year in which the World Metrological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), only four news items referred to climate change in the newspaper with the highest circulation in Spain, “which highlights an enormous difference in the media coverage of this phenomenon compared to that of the United States due to the different socio-political, economic and journalistic contexts of the two countries” (Arcila-Calderón, Mercado, Piñuel-Raigada, & Suárez-Sucre, 2015, p. 74).

After these first news items, coverage on the environment grew in importance in 1992 due to the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janeiro, also called the Earth Summit. The studies that go back to that year are those of Fernández-Reyes (2010a, 2010b). The media chosen were the two newspapers with the highest circulation, El País and El Mundo; a digital newspaper, Libertad Digital; and a specialized quarterly journal called El Ecologista.

From the data extracted, Fernández-Reyes (2010a, 2010b) considers that coverage in Spain began 10 years after the United States or the United Kingdom and places this breakthrough at around 1997. On the other hand, Mercado (2012), in his study on the coverage of climate change in El País, also indicates that until 1995, the number of references to the subject found is not high, only 96. In December of that year, the IPPC Second Assessment Report was published in Rome and confirmed the human impact on global warming and laid the foundations for the signing of the Kyoto protocol.

Principal Milestones in Communication on Climate Change in Spain

It is a well-known fact that the coverage of environment matters, when referring to climate change, fluctuates depending on the values of journalistic newsworthiness. (Díaz Nosty, 2009). In Spain there have been three longitudinal studies on press coverage that have used the year 2000 as a starting point. These studies point out some specific dates and certain events as milestones in communication on climate change. However, there are some differences in their results. Beginning with the first study published, we find the coverage analysis between 2000 and 2010 carried out by Lopera and Moreno (2014). In contrast with later works, this only selects news stories referring to climate change science, excluding those with a political, social, or any other kind of approach, and also leaving out opinion pieces. It is a 363-item sample from the newspapers El País, El Mundo, ABC, Expansión (an economic and business newspaper), and Levante (a regional daily newspaper), which were selected at random from among 1,810 units of analysis. According to the authors, during the period selected there were three central moments in the cycle model of attention to environmental problems detected by Downs (1972):

The first phase ran from 2000 to 2004 and was characterized by small but gradually increasing levels of attention to climate science. In the second phase, from 2005 to 2007, there was an unprecedented explosion of interest in the topic in Spain. This three-year informative climax marked a turning point, from which interest decreased through the end of the decade.

(Lopera & Moreno, 2014, p. 6)

The next study analyzed monitors all news items on climate change in the newspapers El País, El Mundo, and La Vanguardia, from 2000 to 2013, and specifies the following stages in coverage of the subject (Fernández-Reyes, 2015)7:

a) a first series of events with initial scant coverage until 2006; b) a second ebullient phase, in 2007; c) a descending phase, with ups and downs, from 2008 until 2013, with one important episode which attracted unusual coverage: the Copenhagen summit towards the end of 2009; and d) and new rising phase from the end of 2013 which lasted during 2014 and 2015.

Finally, a recent publication includes the evolution of media coverage on climate change in El País, El Mundo, and ABC from 2000 to 2014 (Domínguez, Lafita, & Mateu, 2016, p. 2):

An evolution can be observed, with an increase from the 111 pieces published in the three newspapers in 2000 to the 3,691 published in 2007, the year with the most extensive coverage. From that point, the number of articles declines until 2013 with 631 articles, with a slight recovery in 2014, with 833 published articles.

What’s more, Fernández-Reyes, Piñuel Raigada, and Vicente-Mariño (2015) have indicated that the searches for information on climate change on the Internet coincide to a great extent with the relevant events and with the data on the coverage in the Spanish media. “We can draw a considerable parallel between the trends in journalistic attention in the most important newspapers of reference and public attention, reflected in searches on Google.”

The data from Lopera and Moreno (2014), Fernández-Reyes (2015), and Domínguez et al. (2016) confirm some similarities in the coverage of climate change in Spain and that of other Western countries (Brossard et al., 2004; Schmidt, Ivanova, & Schäfer, 2013), since it is subject to international events such as the climate summits or the publication of the IPCC reports (e.g., León, 2014; Fernández-Reyes, Piñuel Raigada, & Vicente-Mariño, 2015). But in addition, there are some circumstances that are particularly relevant in the Spanish context. Hereafter, we shall focus on some outstanding events.

2003 Heat Wave

In the months of July and August of 2003 there were three heat waves, one per month, the last one being the most intense. Nevertheless, no significant increase in the coverage of climate change linked to this extreme weather phenomenon was noted. Fernández-Reyes (2012) analyzed the information published in Diario de Sevilla during the most severe phase of this heat wave. This work detected only a few voices that linked the extreme heat with climate change during these weeks in August. According to the author, the biophysical reality was far from being recognized in the media, as the heat wave was not associated with the real effects on the mortality rate (the Ministry of health admitted 141 deaths, but the National Epidemiology Center calculated that the number was 6,500). Also in his analysis on the coverage of the mortality rate during this heat wave, Pardo (2012) suggested that the media should open a space for self-reflection and consider giving more emphasis to the uncertainty of a future for human beings than the scientific uncertainty.

The Al Gore Effect

In Madrid, in February 2007, former U.S. vice president Al Gore inaugurated the I Encuentro sobre energía, municipio y calentamiento global. His visit to Spain took place after his documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, had premiered, in the same month in which the contribution of the First Working Group was presented in Paris for the Fourth IPCC Report. As all these circumstances occurred simultaneously, the coverage of climate change in Spain increased considerably (Lopera & Moreno, 2014; Fernández-Reyes, 2015; Domínguez et al., 2016). Support for the coverage did not stop there, as in June 2007 it was announced that Gore was to be awarded the Spanish Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation, and the award ceremony of this prize—in October 2007—coincided with the Nobel Committee’s announcement that he and the IPCC were to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Finally, Al Gore received the Nobel on December 10, 2007 in Oslo. During that month the climate summit in Bali received extensive exposure in the news.

Other events on the Spanish scene in 2007 were the presentation of other Spanish reports; the creation of a Commission for the Coordination of Climate Change Policies between Spain’s Central Administration and Autonomous Communities, and national plans to reduce emissions. But the greatest media commotion happened in October with declarations by the then leader of the opposition, Mariano Rajoy, from the conservative party (Partido Popular), downplaying the importance of climate change by quoting from his cousin, a physics professor (Ferlini & Crúz-Mena, 2008). These statements led to an onslaught of attacks from both the political and ecological areas, and even now echo in some news items.8

Returning to what we have called “the Al Gore effect,” several studies hypothesize that it explains the coverage of climate change in Spain. Mercado (2012, p. 444), in his follow-up on articles on climate change in the newspaper El País, points out that “not even in 2009 with the hopes created by the Copenhagen Summit has there been more information on climate change: 819 stories compared to 545.” Reig and Alcaide (2007) analyzed the relationship of Al Gore with the publication of climate change news in El País, El Mundo, and ABC (the three Spanish newspapers with the highest circulation) and in the business newspapers Expansión and the Gaceta de los Negocios. They made a comparison of the first three months of 2006 and 2007, and found that coverage of climate change had multiplied in 2007 (Table 2).

Table 2. Coverage of climate change in the first three months of 2006 and 2007.



TOTAL 2006


TOTAL 2007


El País













El Mundo







































La Gaceta de los negocios

















Source: authors’ own, with data from Reig and Alcaide (2007).

These authors consider that Al Gore had succumbed to the journalistic temptation of apocalypse in order to amplify his voice and increase his popularity. Moreover, given that in the year 2007 the three main Spanish newspapers had launched their supplements on the environment, they indicate that, “It is perhaps due to the Al Gore effect …” (Reig & Alcaide, 2007, p. 324). Finally, there were some who stated that, “the real news was that a former U.S. vice president had become an apostle of the climate change and sustainability cause” (Díaz Nosty, 2009, p. 2).

The Copenhagen Summit

This UN summit, held in 2009, led to an upturn in the information on climate change in Spain, after it had been falling since 2007. This summit (COP15) was preceded by the Climategate scandal, which did not receive as much attention in the Spanish media as in the English-speaking world. However, this climate summit produced great media expectation. Mercado (2012) explains that the presence of the U.S. President Barack Obama, with a more committed attitude to climate change, increased interest in the event, which was covered by the main Spanish newspapers and some television channels. Moreover, the Spanish newspaper with the greatest readership, El País, took an unprecedented step. Together with 56 newspapers from 45 countries, they published a common lead article calling for action in Copenhagen. The El País editorial was entitled “Confronting a grave emergency.”

After the Copenhagen summit, the media interest in these events dropped summit by summit. The Spanish press published almost four times as many references to COP15 than to the following one, the Cancún summit (COP16). In addition, COP16 had double the number of references as the following ones, which were held in Durban, Doha, and Warsaw, probably because the Latin American leaders, who were present in Cancún, are featured more often in the Spanish press (de Rueda, 2014).

The Economic Crisis

Much of the research on communication on climate change in Spain has been carried out during the economic crisis, which commenced in 2008. For this reason, the consequences of the crisis in the coverage of the subject can be found in the analyses of different works.

Picó (2013, 2014) underlines how the effects of the crisis, typically the drop in revenue from advertising, led many editorial departments to dispense with specialized journalists. The nature supplements of the newspapers El Mundo (Natura) and El País (Tierra) stopped being published in 2009 and 2012, respectively. In addition, there was an increase in the publication of agency news. The television channels from the autonomous regions also saw their revenue drop, and they eliminated programs on the environment from their program listings. Thus, “the incidence of the economic crisis on environment journalism caused a notable reduction in contents on climate change and the environment in general” (Picó, 2013, p. 183). The economic crisis also coincided with the business model of the press due to the effect of digital journalism.

The works carried out by the Research Group at the University of Navarra and the Complutense University corroborate the previous statements with quantitative analyses. The first group evaluated the weight of the information items on climate change with reference to all of the information published in two periods (before the economic crisis, 2005–2006, and after, 2011); this was done both for press and television. According to this study only 0.2% of all the stories in the main national newspapers and 0.19% of national TV news focused on climate change. If we compare the two periods, we find that in 2005–2006 there were more items than in 2011; in the latter year there were 14% fewer items in the press and 44% fewer on television (León, 2013, 2014). The work concluded that climate change was “a marginal issue for the Spanish media” (León, 2014, p. 16). Other studies have shown that, compared to other countries, Spain is below the average in terms of climate change coverage (Schmidt, Ivanova, & Schäfer, 2013).

The Complutense University group analyzed the television coverage of the climate change summits in Cancún (2010) and Durban (2011). Regarding the number of items, the study “highlights as important the difference between the number of news items transmitted in all Spanish news bulletins, which in the case of Cancún were 169, while in the case of Durban the number was only 140,” 17.16% fewer news items (Águila Coghlan, 2013, p. 153). Gaitán and Piñuel (2013) added that 80% of the news items were offered on public television channels. These authors analyzed the discourse on climate change during that period and concluded that the economic crisis had had more effect on the selection of sources, due to the conditions of production, than on the selection of subject matter. This implied a decline in the quality of the discourse, in which prominence was given almost solely to politicians. In order to explain the scarcity of news items on climate change on Spanish television channels, we can add the observation by Díaz Nosty (2009), who believes that the practices of the major audiovisual media, more inclined to spectacle and sensationalism, have distorted and devalued the importance of climate change, apart from having exhausted the audience’s interest.

Parratt (2009, p. 129) was also aware of other reasons for poor coverage on climate change, in addition to the economic crisis. The most relevant aspects are:

excessive relevance given to conflictive and catastrophic events, technical complexity when communicating environmental problems in simpler terms, a generalized perception that makes climate change sound like a foreign problem whose solution has nothing to do with the individual taking action, climate change’s deficient presence in Spain’s media and governmental attitude, in which is placed the power to actively involve media in their answers to environmental decay.

The Latest IPPC Reports

Two works confirm that the Fifth IPPC Report, published in 2013–2014, did not receive as much media attention as might be expected. Fernández-Reyes et al. (2015) note a drop of 59.58% in coverage in the main newspapers compared to the Fourth IPPC Report, in 2007. Domínguez et al. (2016) chose to analyze the editorials and opinion articles in El País, El Mundo, and ABC from the years in which the last two IPPC reports were published. They found 285 editorials and opinion pieces in 2007 and only 91 in 2014. Although the problem of climate change was increasing, the Spanish media were less interested.

The Paris Summit

This summit, held in 2015, was taken to be a success as an agreement was arrived at regarding the reduction of the emission of greenhouse gases and replaced the 1997 Kyoto agreement. Although there are not yet any publications on the subject for Spain, the data on coverage indicates a major upturn.

To summarize, coverage of climate change in Spain is variable and depends on relevant international developments, although it is affected by internal circumstances like the economic crisis.

Characteristics of Climate Change Communication in Spain

Above and beyond the quantity of information available to people, it is important to evaluate its quality. Some experts have criticized the quality of the information on climate change offered by the Spanish media. For example, de Castro Maqueda (2010) considers that it is poor communication, riddled with generalist messages that do not offer the public clear ideas on how to act on the subject of climate change.

Other authors have suggested some possible reasons for the low quality of information, such as the lack of knowledge on the part of Spanish environment journalists, which “hinders them from giving specialized treatment to the information” (Gaitán Moya, Piñuel Raigada, & Lozano Ascencio, 2015, p. 30).

Actually, most of the journalists who cover environmental concerns in Spain are not specialists: only 22% cover this subject exclusively, as can be seen in a recent survey (De Lara González, 2013b, p. 147). The same study reveals that only 11% of the journalists surveyed consider that the information on climate change offered by the Spanish media is “good” or “very good” (p. 153).

To continue, some characteristics of the news coverage are given together with analysis of data taken from the diverse studies which have been carried out.


The theory of framing is a recurring topic in academic research into climate change communication. Its importance as a study to stems from the fact that it offers “an analytical framework to unpack socially constructed schemas that give meaning to issues or events by presenting a ‘central organizing idea’” (Nisbet, Hart, Myers, & Ellithorpe, 2013, p. 767) and permits the audiences to interpret the significance of this issue, its causes, and possible solutions.

Taking the concept of frame in a broad sense, we find numerous studies on this subject carried out in Spain over the last few years. According to Francisco Heras Hernández (2008), the information published by the media in this country presents four dominant “biases”: industrialist, geophysical, geographical, and technological. The technological bias has strengthened the quality of information, as it has allowed for relatively frequent information on the importance of renewable energies as a means of mitigation. In contrast, other biases have resulted in information that has not always been accurate enough.

However, this statement by Heras Hernández must be taken in the context of the results of other research. The study mentioned above, carried out by the Science Communication Research Group of the University of Navarra offers an interesting perspective on the subject. On the one hand, the audience does indeed see the information as “distant.” This is what a young student in a focus groups says: “In my mind’s eye, I see a television presenter saying: ‘climate change has happened because the poles have melted and, right now, I don’t know how much less ice there is in the Antarctic’. But really, this is all very distant from me” (León, 2014, p. 19).

Conversely, in another section of the same study, a survey among scientists reveals that the majority of the specialists polled (57%) consider that climate change is actually presented with enough immediacy to the average citizen. This perception is supported by the analysis of the content carried out as part of the study, the results of which indicate that there is a balance between the distant and local elements in the press and television news (Noguera, 2013, p. 59).

In contrast, the results of other works have pointed out the remoteness of the approaches. A research piece on the editorial articles published in four major European newspapers—El País, Le Monde, The Guardian, and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung—reveals that in El País, Spain is the focus of only 23.9% of the lead articles on climate change, while the United States is the subject of 29.6% (Quesada Pérez, Blanco Castilla, & Teruel Rodríguez, 2015).

Other studies offer interesting perspectives on more specific aspects or media. Blanco Castilla, Quesada Pérez, and Teruel Rodríguez made an analysis of the contents of the lead articles on climate change published by three of the most important Spanish newspapers available all over the country—El País, El Mundo, and La Vanguardia. They concluded that the dominant framings are of a political nature, particularly criticism of the governments’ attitudes—27% in El Mundo and 19% in El País and La Vanguardia (Blanco Castilla, Quesada Pérez, & Teruel Rodríguez, 2013, p. 431).

The research group on dialectical mediation in social communication from the Complutense University analyzed television coverage of climate change, in an attempt to find the differences between the international climate summits and the periods between the summits, in the news bulletins on national, regional, and local channels. Their conclusions indicate different framings. During the summits (Cancún, 2010; Durban, 2011) what dominates is “controversial discourse,” with coverage focusing fundamentally on the negotiations and the controversy involved in them. This discourse is presented from two points of view, usually one from the politicians and another from the activists, which expose controversies in the political action regarding climate change (Teso Alonso, Piñuel Raigada, & Pacheco Rueda, 2013).

On the other hand, in the periods between the summits what predominates is what the authors call “thesis discourse,” the aim of which is to offer information on how to handle catastrophes or to advance towards sustainability (Piñuel Raigada, Gaitán Moya, & Lozano Ascencio, 2012, p. 6). Using the same empirical study as a basis, Águila Coghlan (2013) concludes that in the television news on the Cancún and Durban summits what predominates is the frame which the author defines as “about disasters, dangers, and fears.” For Lozano (2013, p. 132), the “scientific” and “social” frames predominate (28.1%), followed by the “political” frame (24.6%) and the “technical” one (15.2%).

In short, the studies point out that the Spanish media tend to communicate about climate change by framing it as a political issue, focusing on confrontation with a relative balance between the local and global approaches. It must be noted, however, that there are important differences between the media, genres (e.g., news stories, documentaries, interviews, etc.), and specific aspects on which the coverage focuses.


Another of the most widely studied aspects of this phenomenon is that of the sources of information used when dealing with climate change. The results of this research seemed to confirm the statement by Boykoff (2009, p. 117), when he said, “Mass-media coverage of climate change is not simply a random amalgam of newspaper articles and television segments; rather, it is a social relationship between scientists, policy actors and the public that is mediated by such news packages.” In other words, there is a clash between political, economic, and cultural interests which provokes controversy that can be seen in the way information is given (Díaz Nosty, 2009).

The study on climate change coverage in the press and on television carried out by the University of Navarra group offers relevant data on this matter (De Lara González, 2013b). Firstly, the paucity of the sources used to construct news articles: On average, only 1.3 sources are used per news item in the printed press, and an average of only 1.1 sources on television. This fact is interpreted by the authors of the study as a sign of low journalistic quality and should be analyzed in the light of environmental journalism in Spain. The same study includes a survey of Spanish journalists who cover environmental issues in the press, radio, television, and the Internet. When asked about the reasons for the paucity of sources, 42% responded that it was due to “not enough time” to produce the work. Other reasons mentioned were a “lack of resources” (20%) and a “shortage of appropriate available sources” (19%).

The lack of time available leads the media to give a very important role to press releases. A study on environmental coverage in the press in the Navarra region indicates that 82% of the news items published were based on press releases (González & Portilla, 2014, p. 146).

Regarding the identity of the sources, the study finds a clear preponderance of politicians (30%) (both in the press and on television), followed by scientists (26%–16%) and NGOs (7%–16%). This prevalence of political sources is related to the fact that most of the news is published during the climate summits, in which the negotiations carried out by politicians are of great importance. Little mention is made of the general public (León, 2014, p. 24).

The same study indicates that the presence of deniers or skeptics is relatively rare, as they make up only 5% of the sources used in the press articles and 12% in television news (De Lara González, 2013a, p. 83). Other studies ratify this conclusion and show that the weight of denialism in the Spanish media is less than that of other countries, particularly the United Status. For example, a comparative study on how the information in the third and fourth IPCC (2001 and 2007, respectively) reports was given in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, El Mundo, and El País, analyzed the word choice and grammatical constructions that suggest doubt on the science of climate change and concluded that the Spanish newspapers offered more context and gave more suitable information on the uncertainties and, in short, presented the climate science in a fairer and more precise way than the North American ones (Bailey, Giangola, & Boykoff, 2013, 2014).

The fact that the presence of denialism in the Spanish media is less than in other countries has to do with Spanish public’s perception of the issue, as has been commented on in Section 2. But although the relevance of denialism is relatively unimportant, its presence varies depending on the ideology of the media, thus ratifying the conclusions reached in other countries (e.g., in the UK; Carvalho & Burgess, 2005). Research into the editorial articles published by three of the above-mentioned Spanish newspapers—El País, El Mundo, and La Vanguardia—between 1977 and 2011, concludes that the three newspapers have maintained different editorial lines with reference to climate change. In the case of El País—politically aligned to the center-left, it rarely questions the veracity of climate change, as 71.8% of its articles state that it is real. In contrast, in El Mundo, which is center-right, 50% of the editorials do not take a stance on the issue. Nor does La Vanguardia—also center-right—deny it, although there is a high percentage of articles (28%) that do not take a stand on whether climate change exists or not (Blanco Castilla, Quesada Pérez, & Rodríguez, 2013, p. 427). Fernández-Reyes (2010) comes to similar conclusions.

A study on the news coverage of the Copenhagen summit (2009) offers further data on the subject and indicates that the relevance given to the controversy on the existence or not of climate change was very different in El País and El Mundo. While the former minimized the controversy (on average, only one reference in all 20 articles), El Mundo treated it as highly important (one reference in every three articles) (León & Erviti, 2011, p. 52). According to the authors, “the journalistic norm of balance is used by El Mundo to justify an ambivalent position (p. 55),” following a pattern that had been previously identified in other countries (Boykoff & Boykoff, 2007).

A research piece focusing specifically on how the Spanish press covered the Al Gore campaign in 2007 also underlines the importance of ideology in the treatment of the information. The conservative press adopted a skeptical perspective which could be seen in different forms: “from timid editorials and critical opinion articles in the most popular newspapers like ABC, El Mundo and La Razón to fierce accusations and insults in the most brazen ones, like Libertad Digital” (Gozzer & Domínguez, 2011, p. 65).

Finally, a recent study has analyzed the evolution of the denialist approaches in the opinion articles in El País, El Mundo, and ABC in the last few years. The results indicate that, in 2007, denialism was present to a certain extent in the conservative press (El Mundo and ABC), but in 2014 it had disappeared from El Mundo and had very little presence in ABC (Domínguez et al., 2016).

In conclusion, the Spanish media have represented climate change fundamentally as a political issue, which results in a preponderance of political sources. Moreover, the editorial line of each medium is very relevant to the way in which climate change has been presented; thus, the more conservative media have accepted the denialist or sceptical approaches to a greater extent.

Other Characteristics

The experts have also analyzed the quality of the presentation of climate change in the Spanish media from other perspectives. Some of the most relevant conclusions are now given.

Regarding environmental coverage, in general, the journalists themselves point out a lack of context and superficiality as habitual gaps (Montero Sandoval, 2007; Larena, 2009). The above-mentioned study from the University of Navarra gives empirical corroboration to this viewpoint, as in general the news merely mentions the concept of climate change or global warming without giving any context or even short explanations of the meaning of the terminology. Generally speaking, it does not explain the relationship between the causes and effects of climate change either, and the reader is not offered the context needed to understand this relationship (Noguera, 2013).

In addition, Lopera and Moreno (2014) analyzed the information published in several national and regional newspapers between 2000 and 2010, from different perspectives. Among their conclusions, they pointed out that the newspapers studied gave particular emphasis to the consequences of climate change and paid very little attention to its causes and possible solutions.

Another indicator of the quality of the information on climate change is its scientific accuracy. Baquero and León (2013) studied the accurateness of the press and TV news in its two fundamental dimensions: precision and scientific relevance, which were assessed by a survey of a group of scientists. The results show very negative accuracy results from the specialists (Baquero & León, 2013, p. 133).

As in other countries, two of the faults pointed out in environmental communications in Spain are alarmism and sensationalism (León, 2007). The scientists polled in the Baquero and León (2013) study mainly thought that the information on climate change offered by the Spanish media was overly alarmist and sensationalist. However, the content analysis carried out in the same research project revealed that only 12.8% of the newspaper information and 17.8% of the television news was sensationalist (Noguera, 2013, p. 64).

Another relevant point is the visual imagery associated with climate change. Some images become symbols of a topic and are used to identify it. Climate changed has been framed and represented by various icon-like images (Doyle, 2011).

León and Erviti (2015) studied the images used to illustrate climate change in the news bulletins of television channels with national coverage. One of their main conclusions is that the lack of attractive, up-to-date images is partially responsible for making climate change a marginal matter on television. The images used are fundamentally archive material from outside sources. Recurrently, these are images of the consequences of climate change rather than of its causes. The most common motifs are melting ice, meetings of climate change summit participants, animals, protests, and smokestacks.

Research conducted in other European countries, the United States, and Australia has shown that perceptions of climate change visuals are largely consistent cross-culturally (O’Neill, Boykoff, Niemeyer, & Day, 2013; Metag, Schäfer, Füchslin, Barsuhn, & Kleinen-von Königslöw, 2016, p. 197). In addition, some of the most frequent images, like melting ice, do not promote long-term engagement with the issue, while other images, like “talking heads,” are ineffective in promoting engagement (O’Neill et al., 2013).

Final Thoughts

As in other European countries, the existence of climate change is generally acknowledged in Spain. Although most citizens are relatively concerned about this process, it is regarded as a remote phenomenon, with little effect on daily life, in contrast with economic problems, which are much more prominent among citizens’ preoccupations.

However, in the early 21st century, actions related to climate change communication increased significantly, and this was also a period of notable growth for academic research on this topic. Some longitudinal studies on climate change coverage are especially valuable. In addition, researchers have conducted several empirical works on television coverage of climate change, which is especially remarkable, considering that, in most countries, research on media representation of science has mainly focused on print media (Schäfer, 2012).

With respect to attention cycles for this topic and the characteristics of the coverage, climate change coverage in the Spanish media is relatively similar to that of other European countries. However, the volume of coverage seems to be smaller. In view of this marginality and its numerous weak points, several forums have formulated recommendations for improvement. To mention just a few, they go from the “Guía para periodistas sobre cambio climático y negociación internacional” (Guide to climate change and international negotiation for journalists)—coordinated by the environmental journalist from EFE news agency, Arturo Larena—to the statements presented at scientific conferences, such as those held in Seville in 2012 (Jornadas Internacionales de Medios de Comunicación y Cambio Climático), in Pamplona in 2013 (XXVIII Congreso Internacional de Comunicación), or in Bilbao in 2015 (Klimagune Workshop).

According to these forums, in Spain, climate change communication has mainly focused on effects, such as rising temperatures or catastrophic natural events (Fernández-Reyes, Teso, & Piñuel, 2013). However, “framing the challenge of climate change in catastrophes and risks, rather than in solutions, does not help bridge the gap between a social awareness and a willingness to act in the local area” (Klimagune Workshop 2015). Likewise, the Spanish media propose solutions for climate change in the technological and scientific field (through renewable energies and energy efficiency), but do not admit or deal with some climate change problems such as the over-exploitation of natural resources or support for biodiversity (Fernández-Reyes et al., 2013). In addition,

There is an objective problem in generating information that calls for the transformation of the social and economic model responsible for climate change. There are several reasons for this, including the need to question the current production, transport and consumption model that could be harmful to financial lobbies that can have a serious influence on the editorial lines of the mass media.

(Klimagune Workshop 2015)

Climate change is frequently framed as a political issue, and politicians are the most frequently quoted voices, leaving the scientific frame and scientific voices aside. When it comes to visualizing climate change, the media have problems accessing quality images, and they often use visual resources that represent climate change as a distant reality with little effect on daily life.

It is suggested that such weaknesses could be overcome through a closer relationship between the media and some scientific networks and research institutions that are currently working on climate change mitigation and adaptation, and such a closer relationship could provide some useful and credible information. This would help to disseminate quality contextual information that could contribute to a better understanding of the reality of climate change, as well as the options for adaptation and mitigation. This information should avoid alarmism and link climate change to everyday life. In short, it is a matter of laying the foundations for greater and better communication between scientists, the media, and society as the receptor of the information.

These recommendations provide some useful guidelines for future research. It would be especially important to carry out more studies on communication actions conducted from scientific institutions. This could help to increase and improve communication focused on adaptation to climate change, which is still scarce, not only in Spain but in most European countries (Swart et al., 2009).

Other focuses for future research could include climate change coverage in online media and social networks, still very rarely studied in Spain, in spite of its increasing relevance. In addition, more reception studies could be conducted, as they could contribute to a better understanding of how Spanish citizens perceive climate change information.

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(1.) The Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas (CIS) is an independent Spanish organization which is part of the Ministry for the Presidency. Its objective is the scientific study of Spanish society, usually by means of periodic surveys, on its own initiative or at the request of other organizations.

(2.) A foundation of the BBVA bank which focuses its activity on the promotion of research, on advanced training, and on the spread of scientific knowledge in society, with special attention to the analysis of emerging issues in five strategic areas: environment; biomedicine and health; economy and society; basic sciences and technology; and culture.

(3.) Since 1973 the European Commission has been responsible for studying public opinion in each of the member states. The Eurobarometer surveys analyze matters of great interest for European citizens such as, for example, the social and economic situation, expansion, health, culture, technology, environment, etc.

(4.) The Gallup Organization is an American research-based, global performance-management consulting company. Founded by George Gallup in 1935, the company became known for its public opinion polls conducted in several countries.

(5.) The author is referring to the coming to power of the Partido Popular in several autonomous regions, city councils, and the government of Spain, in the year 2011.

(6.) Various researchers have analyzed the important circumstances of the year 1988 in the English-speaking world, which led to the transition of climate change from the dominion of science to the spheres of political social and the media (Ungar, 1992; Trumbo, 1995, 1996; Sachsman, 2000; Hulme, 2009; Jaspal & Nerlich, 2012).

(7.) These data are included in the study coordinated by the Media and Climate Change Observatory of the University of Colorado.

(8.) Rajoy’s statements in 2007: “I know little of this, but my cousin I suppose he will know.” [Rajoy’s cousin is Dr. José Javier Brey Abalo, a prestigious scientist and Professor of physics at the University of Seville] And then he said [his cousin]: “I have brought here ten of the most important scientists in the world and none has guaranteed me the weather that will be tomorrow in Seville. How anyone can say what will happen in the world within 300 years?” In the months prior to the Paris climate summit, with Mariano Rajoy as president of the government, El Mundo (November 30, 2015) used this headline: Rajoy’s climate “change”: from his cousin’s denialism to the “greatest environmental challenge”; and La Vanguardia (October 28, 2015): Rajoy contradicts his cousin: “Climate change is a serious problem.”