The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science will be available via subscription on April 26. Visit About to learn more, meet the editorial board, or recommend to your librarian.

Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, CLIMATE SCIENCE ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2016. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 23 April 2018

Discourse Analysis in Climate Change Communication

Summary and Keywords

Discourse analysis is an interdisciplinary field of inquiry that has been increasingly used by climate change communication scholars since the late 1990s. In its broadest sense, discourse analysis is the study of the social through analysis of language, including face-to-face talk, written media texts, and documents, as well as images and symbols. Studies in this field encompass a broad range of theories and analytic approaches for investigating meaning. Due to its focus on the sociocultural and political context in which text and talk occur, discourse analysis is pertinent to the concerns of climate change communication scholars as it has the potential to reveal the ideological dimensions of stakeholder beliefs and the dissemination of climate change-related information in the media. In contrast to studies under the rubric of frame analysis and survey-based analyses of public perceptions, this research places emphasis on the situated study of different stakeholders involved in climate change communication. Here attention is paid not only to the content being communicated (e.g., themes) but also to the linguistic forms and contexts that shape language and interaction. Both of these require an understanding of audiences’ cultural, political, and socioeconomic conditions. From the participatory perspective, discourse analysis can therefore illuminate the moral, ethical, and cultural dimensions of the climate change issue.

Keywords: discourse analysis, critical discourse analysis, media representations


Since the 1990s, climate change has been attracting growing media attention (see e.g., Anderson, 2009). Social scientists have equally been investigating climate change communication in the media for many years and over that period, discourse analysis has been increasingly used in such research (Schäfer & Schlichting, 2014). The term discourse itself has been variously defined as “a shared meaning of a phenomenon” (Adger et al., 2001, p. 683), “a shared way of apprehending the world” (Dryzek, 2005, p. 8), an “ensemble of ideas, concepts and categories through which meaning is given to social and physical phenomena” (Hajer & Versteeg, 2005, p. 175) or a “standardised way that particular groups in society use language, images and other forms of representation” (Stibbe, 2015, p. 22). As Richardson (2007, p. 21) summarizes, “there are different—and sometimes radically different—accounts of what discourse is,” resulting in a range of overlapping and sometimes contrasting theorizations (Fairclough, 2003).

As an academic discipline discourse analysis consists of two main strands—“Foucauldian” discourse analysis, which pays less attention to language use and instead focuses on social theoretical issues, and “Critical Discourse Analysis” (CDA), which more closely examines the linguistic properties of texts (written materials or spoken conversations) (Fairclough, 2003). This said, both strands pay attention to language but also make attempts to go beyond strict linguistic analysis. In the context of climate change, one of the first examples of applying the Foucauldian approach is Hajer’s (1995) study of the deliberative features and democratic potential afforded by discourses surrounding the development of acid rain policy. Carvalho and Burgess (2005), who pay attention to the linguistic and rhetorical devices (e.g., metaphors) in news articles when identifying “circuits of climate change” associated with different framings of climate change risk, provide the earliest example of using CDA to study climate change discourse. Carvalho (2007, p. 227) also points out the similarities between CDA and the frame analysis approach (see Entman, 1993) that is widely used in the study of media content in general (see Bryant & Miron, 2004) and of climate change coverage in particular (see Nisbet, 2009). While CDA “shares with framing analysis an interest in the variable social construction of the world” it puts “a stronger emphasis on language and on the relation between discourse and particular social, political, and cultural contexts,” thus allowing for “a richer examination of the resource used in any type of text for producing meaning” (Carvalho, 2007, p. 227).

In its broadest sense, CDA considers how specific vocabulary and grammar choices made by different groups in society come together to tell particular stories about the world (Stibbe, 2015). Combining such linguistic methods with theories of power and ideology, CDA posits that stories conveyed through grammatical and lexical choices are not transparent reflections of reality, but rather ideologies or belief systems about how the world is or should be that compete to become the norm (Richardson, 2007). CDA’s chief contribution lies in exposing the hidden patterns of linguistic features that run across multiple texts repeatedly conveying the same ideology (Stibbe, 2015). Discourses are therefore seen as purposeful and directed “linguistic actions” (Wodak, 2008, p. 5) aimed at generating or replacing naturalized (that is, dominant or hegemonic) meanings.

CDA thus offers a systematic toolkit for examining how power and inequality are constructed in and through language (van Dijk, 1993). It is, however, an eclectic toolkit best described as a “research programme” with different theoretical and methodological strands (Wodak, 2009, p. 4). One such strand is the critical approach focusing on texts (e.g., news articles), discourse practices (e.g., processes of production and consumption of texts), and sociocultural practices (e.g., social and cultural practices that give rise to communicative events) (Chouliaraki & Fairclough, 1999). Another model is the discourse historical approach, which pays attention to texts, intertextuality (e.g., relations between texts) and the social, sociopolitical, and historical contexts in which discourses are embedded (Reisigl & Wodak, 2015). Finally, the socio-cognitive approach examines “mental representations and the processes of language users when they produce and comprehend discourse,” but also their relationship to societal structures “of domination and social inequality” (van Dijk, 2009, p. 64).

From this perspective, the framework of discourse analysis is essential for examining and drawing attention to climate change as a social and politically embedded phenomenon, closely intertwined with the ideological assumptions underlying our collective sense-making processes. The approach is becoming increasingly important as sociological studies have pointed out the risks behind the earlier media representations of climate change as a predominantly environmental or “natural” problem that calls for science-driven and evidence-based responses (Wright & Mann, 2013). Such representations lead to the view of climate change as “an impersonal, apolitical, and universal imaginary (. . .) projected and endorsed by science” and divorced from “subjective, situated and normative imaginations of human actors” (Jasanoff, 2010, p. 235).

The studies that are reviewed provide insightful analyses that highlight how scientific knowledge inevitably interacts with, and should be seen as embedded within, the economic, social, and political constituents of climate change discourses. These studies were sourced using Web of Science and Scopus searches with the terms “climate change” and “discourse analysis” (as exact phrases) in all available years. Discourse analysis had to be explicitly identified as the method of investigation. While the focus is on discourse analysis of media texts (e.g., newspaper articles, blog posts, readers’ comments), work that combines the analysis of media content with the study of other text types (e.g., policy, activist, and academic documents) is also discussed. The search results generated 107 journal articles in Web of Science and 106 in Scopus; after reading the abstracts, 12 were selected following the previously mentioned inclusion criteria, with the earliest among them appearing in 2000.

Communicating Climate Change through the Media: The Applications of Discourse Analysis

The techniques of discourse analysis offer an effective means of understanding how language is used to construct different ensembles of ideas, concepts, and categories through which meaning is assigned to the causes and consequences of (and sometimes solutions to) climate change in media representations. There are four main areas where the application of discourse analysis has proved revealing: in identifying discourses in a broad sense as socially, politically, and historically situated constellations of meaning; in revealing the strategies for constructing social actors and social identities; in examining the visual aspects of climate change representations; as well as in analyzing the form and function of linguistic constructs from a critical perspective. These four areas are discussed in more detail.

Identifying Discourses on Climate Change

At the most fundamental level, discourse analysis has helped reveal the different ways of representing climate change, which is crucial in assessing the means by which this phenomenon can be appreciated from different positions. As Burke and colleagues (2015) point out, the arguments put forward in relation to climate change adaptation and mitigation policies depend on worldviews, which are in turn linked to power relations. Different societal groups such as landowners and environmentalists may view the environment differently (as a means for survival or recreation, respectively) and collective action on climate change would depend on the outcome of competition between such discourses. Whichever discourse comes to predominate public understanding will also influence policy by “naturalizing certain ways of viewing and acting” on climate change (Hønneland, 2004, p. 76).

The media being a key arena on which discourses compete, Burke and colleagues (2015) use CDA to examine how the Franklin Press (the most widely read newspaper in Macon County, North Carolina) “discursively constructs the environment” (p. 186). Their analysis proceeds in two phases: the classification of news articles into thematic clusters and the subsequent analysis of each news article by identifying its main goal (e.g., reporting on a climate change–related policy), emotional tone (e.g., elaborating the threat of climate change), representation of people (e.g., as users or protectors; in collective or individualized terms), everyday life (e.g., the portrayal of the daily relationship between people and the environment), representation of the spatial and temporal scale of human intervention, politics (e.g., what policies are discussed and what are ignored), construction of why the environment is valuable, risks (types of risks discussed), and discussion of change (e.g., whether the environment is constructed as static or changing).

Burke and colleagues (2015) show how a predominant “outdoor life” discourse that constructs the environment as above all beautiful and humans as passively enjoying its beauty communicates a very specific understanding of nature—as being able to take care of itself. Such portrayal of people as mere observers and admirers of the beauty of nature prevents the elaboration of a human contribution to climate change and possible climate change mitigation activities (Burke, Welch-Devine, & Gustafson, 2015). Burke and colleagues (2015) also identify notable silences relating to power and special interests. The region has in recent years seen increasing settlements of sometimes rich(er) urban retirees longing for a peaceful life close to nature. These new settlers, who normally reside uphill and clear vegetation to build homes, increase the vulnerability to landslides of downslope residents, who tend to be local long-time dwellers. The authors note that the newspaper’s silence on these differential impacts obscures the inherent power relations and special interests that are involved.

Also looking at discourses but this time of climate change in relation to development, Doulton and Brown (2009) apply a “components” approach to discourse analysis drawing on the work of Dryzek (2005), who classifies discourses in terms of the “entities,” “assumptions about natural relationships,” “agents and their motives,” and “rhetorical devices” that characterize them. By specifying such discourse components, this approach aims to reduce the subjectivity of analysis. Modifying slightly Dryzek’s (2005) approach, Doulton and Brown (2009) scrutinize news articles published in British broadsheets such as the Daily Telegraph, the Times, the Guardian, and the Independent for surface descriptors, such as date of publication; entities—including the authority given to different sources; assumptions about natural relationships, for example, when and how the effects of climate change will occur; agents and their motives, for example, who is constructed as a hero and who as a villain; key metaphors and other rhetorical devices; and normative judgements as to what should be done and by whom.

Doulton and Brown (2009) identify a limited discussion of the agency of poor people from developing countries in dealing with the impacts of climate change and the overall construction of developing countries as defenseless victims needful of Western help. The voices of local people living in developing countries affected by climate change are also rarely heard—the only exception being the “disaster strikes” discourse drawing on powerful metaphors of war to construct climate change as a “weapon of mass destruction” and the developing world as the “frontline of global warming” (Doulton & Brown, 2009, p. 196). Here local people are given authority to show that climate change is already having devastating effects, but the worst impacts can still be avoided if the West takes urgent action. In this way, the poor are constructed as powerless victims, the West as a villain, and agency is assigned to rich Western governments. On this basis, British media can be said to discursively perpetuate power imbalances between developed and developing countries and to repeat views of “developing countries and the poor as hapless victims facing another set of disasters who can only be helped by the rich Western countries” (Doulton & Brown, 2009, p. 201).

Using “Foucauldian” discourse analysis, Shaw (2013) examines the discursive construction of what has in the 21st century become the de facto target of global climate change policy—the single dangerous limit to climate change of two degrees Celsius. This study extends beyond news media to include popular science books, advocacy texts, and semi-structured interviews with scientists in addition to British national newspapers available through the Nexis database. Paying attention to the sources used to back the two degrees limit, Shaw (2013) reveals how anonymous expertise is regularly called upon, especially in news reports, to legitimate claims of a two degrees limit to dangerous climate change. Examples include speaking of “a growing consensus among experts around two degrees” or presenting the two degrees limit as being “determined on the basis of science,” the opinion “of many scientists” or unnamed “experts.” This reliance on authoritative sources including anonymous experts and scientists and “a disembodied science” (Shaw, 2013, p. 569) is assessed against Foucault’s and Hajer’s definitions of the democratic qualities of discourse (see also Hajer, 1995). For Foucault, these qualities are determined by the forms of knowledge a discourse contains, while Hajer defines a deliberative and thus democratic discourse as one that is “inclusive, open and accountable” (Hajer & Versteeg, 2005, p. 176). The mainstream public discourse described by Shaw (2013) exhibits little of the deliberative qualities necessary for a discourse to be considered democratic, as it draws on one type of knowledge (scientific knowledge) and equates the two degrees limit with scientific fact.

Instead of identifying discourses per se, Weingart, Engels, and Pansegrau (2000) use discourse analysis techniques to trace the different phases that communication about climate change went through before it became an important issue on Germany’s political agenda. Scientific publications from Germany, minutes of the parliament, and reporting in the news magazine Der Spiegel and the newspapers Die Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Süddeutsche Zeitung are analyzed while paying attention to the addressees of the communication, the construction of credibility, and how climate change is established as an arena of political decision making. This analysis shows how climate change communication in the domain of science went through the phases of “anthropogenic impact” (climate change is unnatural), “politicisation” (enlisting climate change to support nuclear energy) and finally, “institutionalisation” (implementing mitigation policies in transport). In the area of politics, an initial phase of “scepticism” (which the authors define as low levels of attention to climate change) was followed by “future catastrophe” (climate change as a problem that cannot be addressed via routine politics) and ultimately, “routine political regulation” (climate change as a problem of normal political regulation). In the media, a phase of “low attention” permeated by the language of catastrophe was followed by a phase of “scepticism” toward this earlier position. The analysis reveals how the different discourses feed into each other through the processes of politicization and mediatization (Weingart, Engels, & Pansegrau, 2000).

As mentioned previously, the identification of different discourses has parallels with framing theory and analysis, especially with an approach labeled as a critical approach to researching media frames (see, e.g., Carragee & Roefs, 2004; Carvalho, 2007). This approach views frames in the media as the outcomes of journalists’ “discursive habit” to represent the world in one way instead of another by deploying “culturally constructed codes that function ideologically, as if they were the creations of nature” (Olausson, 2009, p. 423). Journalistic control of the construction of meaning through the use of such naturalized codes is, however, an act of power, and examining the relationship between hegemony and media frames should include the realm of media discourse where frames may appear as “transparent descriptions of reality, not as interpretations” (Carragee & Roefs, 2004, p. 223). Because the aim of CDA is to uncover the implicit values and origins of a seemingly neutral text and relate it to structures of dominance and power (Nohrstedt, 2007), the framework has been frequently drawn upon in studies of media representations of climate change from a critical perspective.

In one such example, Boykoff (2008) uses CDA techniques to complement his analysis of pre-defined climate change frames (frames derived from existing analyses) found in British tabloids. CDA tools are employed to illuminate “how the construction of certain discursive frames privileges (and marginalizes)” (Boykoff, 2008, p. 555). In other words, to show the contextual factors relevant to frames such as working-class identity and socioeconomic difference, both of which have bearing on individuals’ abilities to confront climate change. Specifically, this study finds that few news articles frame climate change as an issue of “justice and risk”—that is, by elaborating on the ethics surrounding differentiated vulnerability and ability to cope with climate change depending on class belonging and socioeconomic position. While such frames may better resonate with the tabloid readers, there is instead a prevalence of discourses “that do not confront existing power asymmetries and inequalities” (Boykoff, 2008, p. 559). Here CDA techniques build on frame analysis by exposing how the prevalence of certain frames over others in the news media may effectively mute unequal structural (e.g., socioeconomic) positions.

All of the previously mentioned studies highlight in unique ways the interrelationship between language, ideology, and power in climate change communication and media representations. They answer important questions like: Whose interests are served? Whose interests are neglected? What are the potential consequences? By revealing the constructed nature of stories about the environment, climate change, and development or the single dangerous limit to climate change of two degrees Celsius, these studies can help expose, question, and critique potentially discriminatory discourses.

The Study of Social Actors and Social Identities

Different social actors may promote different climate change representations, and discourse analysis can help reveal which social actors are given authority and how, whose versions of reality are included or excluded, foregrounded or backgrounded. In the earliest study using CDA to analyze media content, Carvalho and Burgess (2005) examine British broadsheets (the Guardian, the Independent, and the Times) to identify three distinct circuits or time-bound phases of climate change communication characterized by variable framings of climate change–associated risks. This research illuminates the central role played by top political figures in “discourse on ‘dangerous’ climate change” (Carvalho & Burgess, 2005, p. 1,457). Carvalho and Burgess (2005) show that politicians regularly help attach urgency to the risks from climate change and are assigned authority when making such statements. In reports of weather-related events including the autumn 2000 flooding and the 2003 heat wave in the United Kingdom, senior government politicians (John Prescott, the deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1997 to 2007 in particular) reinforce the causal links between such events and climate change—“‘action now essential’: Extreme events will be the norm–Prescott” (Carvalho & Burgess, 2005, p. 1,466). Elsewhere Sir John Houghton, former head of the Met Office, who famously compared climate change to “a weapon of mass destruction” is assigned credibility when described as one of the “warning voices (. . .) becoming clearer and more insistent” (Carvalho & Burgess, 2005, p. 1,467).

This study therefore shows how besides constructing stories about climate change as dangerous or not, (media) discourse also constructs social actors into particular roles (e.g., as “warning voices”) and statuses (e.g., of authority or disrepute). These roles and statuses, as Carvalho and Burgess (2005) elaborate, can be distinguished by paying attention to the overall meaning created in news reports in relation to specific actors and by looking at how a particular choice of words is repeatedly associated with a certain group of social actors (e.g., politicians and “warning voices”). In this way, discourse analysis techniques can help identify the discursive strategy (that is, legitimation or discrediting) of the speaker with regard to a specific actor.

Discourse analysis techniques have also been employed to study the construction of the preeminent authority on climate change—the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—in widely circulated Japanese newspapers (Asahi Shimbun, Yomiuri Shimbun, and Mainichi Shimbun) (Asayama & Ishii, 2014). Paying attention to linguistic choice of words and quotation of actors in news reports, Asayama and Ishii (2014) chart the evolution in the discursive construction of the IPCC from an “international political organization” to “a pure scientific organization” (p. 194). Similarly to Carvalho and Burgess (2005), Asayama and Ishii (2014) distinguish three phases of climate change communication: 1988–1990, 1991–1997, and 1998–2007. Pre-1990 news reports on IPCC activity predominantly quote political actors such as national delegates at IPCC meetings and describe the IPCC as an “intergovernmental conference” or an “international political organization” (p. 194). A “discursive shift of IPCC media coverage” (Asayama & Ishii, 2014, p. 195) that can be linked to the publication of the IPCC’s First Assessment Report is detected in 1991 when news reports begin to describe the IPCC as “a pure scientific organization” and an “international expert meeting” (p. 194) and start to highlight the advisory role of scientists. During the intermediate phase of 1991–1997, news reports further elaborate on the boundary between politics and science and increasingly place the IPCC in the scientific area by, for example, criticizing the “bureaucratic calculus” and “political bargaining that is not based on science” and IPCC advice (p. 195). This image of the IPCC as a “pure scientific organization” (p. 194) becomes the norm in the 1998–2007 phase when a news report draws an analogy between IPCC reports and the scientifically based diagnoses of doctors—“[o]ur earth received [such] a diagnosis from the doctor. It is the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change” (p. 197).

While these studies focus on news reports, with the transition of many media outlets online and the emergence of online-only news and current affairs media (e.g. Huffington Post, Slate), posting comments to news articles has become a popular form of user participation and with that, an important site for understanding how media representations of social actors are taken up in layperson discourse. Using CDA techniques to analyze readers’ comments to climate change–related news content published in the British Daily Mail, Jaspal, Nerlich, and Koteyko (2012) identify how specific social actors including climate change scientists and pro–climate change individuals are constructed within the broader climate change discourse. The main focus here is on isolating the discursive strategies employed by commentators to construct representations of social actors and on elaborating the performative functions of language use—the ways in which it can give rise to certain types of social action. Paying attention to particular forms of language (e.g., comparisons, metaphors) and patterns in language use, Jaspal, Nerlich, and Koteyko (2012, p. 383) identify a strategy of “denigration of climate scientists to contest hegemonic representations” of climate change (referring to the dominant view that climate change is exacerbated by human activity) and a strategy of “delegitimization of pro–climate change individuals by disassociation from science.” Discrediting scientists by invoking false research, lies, and special interests (e.g., financial gain), allows commentators to contest the social representations of climate change as occurring and human-made. Such delegitimization strategies rely on disassociation of pro–climate change individuals from science and allow the commentators to lend credibility to their own respective positions on climate change.

Discourse analysis has also been instrumental in studying the related concept of social identities or socio-cognitive representations held about a particular group of social actors, as social identities can be created, reinforced, or challenged in discourse. Farbotko (2005, p. 279), for example, investigates “the discursive negotiation of the identity” of the small island state of Tuvalu in the Australian Sydney Morning Herald. Paying attention to lexical choices, representations of Tuvalu and Tuvaluans, whose voices are heard, and what notable silences occur, Farbotko (2005) shows how Tuvaluans are constituted as “tragic victims,” leading to the marginalization of discourses of adaptation and “silencing alternative constructions of Tuvaluan identity that could emphasise resilience and resourcefulness” (p. 279). Farbotko (2005) demonstrates that news reports persistently represent Tuvalu as being “on the margin” and bound to experience “inevitable submersion due to the greenhouse effect” forcing its inhabitants to “seek refuge” (p. 284). Persistent lexical choices such as “drowning Tuvalu” and “a drowning (. . .) tiny nation that faces being submerged” (Farbotko, 2005, p. 284) contribute to an image of helplessness and establish climate change as a powerful force impossible to defeat. This construction of Tuvalu and its inhabitants as helpless victims is cemented by excluding the voices of Tuvaluans from news reports, which are also silent on the climate change adaptation efforts of Tuvaluans. The latter silence is especially problematic when viewed against the Tuvaluan government’s approach to adaptation as an essential component of responding to climate change (Farbotko, 2005). In the Sydney Morning Herald, however, Tuvalu has become “a place associated with a particular reality of vulnerability, a reality that if firmly entrenched becomes difficult to challenge because it appears ‘natural’ and thus hegemonic” (Farbotko, 2005, p. 288).

Overall, these studies serve as a reminder that texts can be constituted through choices not only of what topics to include or exclude, foreground or background, but also linguistic choices relating to the representation of institutional and “lay” actors. Discourse analysis helps reveal who is given authority and how, whose versions of reality are included or foregrounded and may thus contribute to the marginalization of other views or voices. From this perspective, discourse analysis techniques can reveal varied access to discourses and specifically what positions are afforded to actors. As the latter example relating to the absence of the voices of Tuvaluans from news reports shows, actors may feature as active—speaking for themselves—or passive—being spoken about.

Discourse Analysis and the Visual

While the previous sections deal with examples of applying discourse analysis to written text, the object of analysis need not be limited to verbal content, but may also include visual or verbal and visual material. This section therefore demonstrates how discourse analysis techniques can help understand how news article texts and news article visuals interact to construct climate change discourses. A rare example of this type of research is DiFrancesco and Young’s (2010) study of how climate change is, at the same time, visually and verbally communicated in the Canadian Globe and Mail and National Post. As DiFrancesco and Young (2010) write, the visual is “a critical but frequently under-estimated contributor to the “social and cultural life” of environmental issues” (p. 517). What is also rarely explored by researchers adopting discourse analytical frameworks to study climate change communication in the media is the visual-verbal overlap or, indeed, disjuncture and its implications. Although further examples of using other methodologies (notably, thematic analysis) to study the visual representation of climate change in news materials can be identified (see e.g., Smith & Joffe, 2009; Nerlich & Jaspal, 2014).

Using content analysis, DiFrancesco and Young (2010) commence by distinguishing themes in news article texts and accompanying photographs (examples of such themes include “political,” “polar bear,” “oil sands/refinery”). In a next step, selected image-language combinations are analyzed using “inter-textual discourse analysis,” which looks at “how messages and narratives may be mixed across different media” to construct events or issues (DiFrancesco & Young, 2010, p. 527). At this stage, DiFrancesco and Young (2010) compare the narratives that are verbally communicated (in headlines, captions, and body text) to the narratives that are communicated visually (via binary oppositions within images, facial expressions, use of lighting and color, body positioning, and the spatial centrality of key subjects). Studying an image-language combination reflecting the “political” theme, DiFrancesco and Young (2010) show how the body positioning of the depicted politician vis-à-vis journalists communicates a narrative of a “stand-offish, stone-walling or hiding something” villain confronted by investigating and interrogating journalists (p. 528). Yet, this conflict narrative is not present in the body of the accompanying news story text, which focuses on the benefits that Canada stands to reap if a national market for carbon emissions trading is established. Such cases of presenting “markedly ‘different words’ on the climate change issue” (DiFrancesco & Young, 2010, p. 531) may be the result of benign processes such as adding visuals post-facto but may still mislead the public even if unintentionally.

Overall, this study shows how fine-grained discourse analysis techniques can be employed to study news articles from a multimodal perspective as “sites of intense interaction between imagery and language, where both are packaged together with the intention (presumably) of presenting cogent narratives to audiences” (DiFrancesco & Young, 2010, p. 531).

Examining the Form and Function of Linguistic Constructs

Finally, CDA posits that attention to various stylistic and structural features of texts helps to shed light on how linguistic performances may be concealing or highlighting interests and power relationships. This key postulate of CDA is also increasingly apposite in the study of climate change discourses due to the processes of politicization and mediatization (Anderson, 2009). For this reason, discourse analysis is often recruited as a second-stage analytical framework complementary to content analysis—such as, for example, when attention is paid to frames and/or themes. Studies of news articles by Olausson (2009) and of letters to the editor by Young (2013) are prominent examples of how this has been implemented in practice. Other studies in this volume (see “Framing, Discourses, and Metaphors in Media Representations of Climate Change”) pay attention to the use of metaphors as part of various discursive strategies (see also Atanasova & Koteyko, 2015; Koteyko, 2015).

Olausson (2009) investigates how Swedish newspapers (Dagens Nyheter, Aftonbladet, and Nerikes Allehanda) attribute responsibility for collective action on climate change. Collective action responsibility attribution is assessed here using CDA to explore “the discursive construction of hegemonic meanings as common sense” (Olausson, 2009, p. 424). To unmask the “ideologically permeated and often obscured structures of power” (Wodak, de Cillia, Reisigl, & Liebhart, 1999, p. 8), news articles are analyzed while paying attention to the themes and topics that are given prominence, local coherence (e.g., how cause-and-effect claims are constructed), implicit information (what information is taken for granted), redundant information (any superfluous descriptions of events and issues), choice of quotations (and their sources), choice of words, and rhetoric (what rhetorical devices are used to convince the reader of the credibility of the presented information). Olausson (2009) identifies a certain reluctance on the part of the media to display scientific uncertainty that would undermine political calls for collective action, a reluctance that reveals media outlets’ responsiveness to the political settings within which they operate and shows media discourse and policy discourse as “deeply intertwined” (Olausson, 2009, p. 432).

Because letters to the editor are among newspapers’ most popular sections (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2002) and allow nonprofessional writers to comment on newsworthy topics (Nip, 2006), they are important to understanding how “non-standard arguments about climate change enter the mass media universe” and “earn a measure of legitimacy” (Young, 2013, p. 446). Young (2013) therefore focuses on letters to the editor discussing climate change and published in major English- and French-language Canadian newspapers (the Calgary Herald, the Globe and Mail, the National Post, the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, the Toronto Star, the Vancouver Sun, Le Devoir, and La Presse). Here content analysis is used as the primary method of investigation that identifies issue frames such as “justice/equity” and “economic growth.” CDA is subsequently applied on a sub-sample of items to tease out their argumentation strategies. Specifically, to show how and what broader social and cultural themes letters to the editor draw on to construct and present arguments about climate change (Young, 2013). Taking as an example a letter titled “Money Grab”, Young (2013) exposes the “popular conservative-skeptical narratives” (p. 452) its author draws on to criticize the Canadian government over CO2 targets. These include the argument that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant but a molecule essential to life and that solar activity is instead responsible for climate change—“CO2 (. . .) does not cause global warming. The sun does” (Young, 2013, p. 452). By exposing and classifying such argumentative strategies, Young (2013) demonstrates how letters to the editor might be important ways of perpetuating sceptic claims via print media.

Directions for Future Research

Over the last two decades, communication about climate science and policy has been profoundly influenced by the Internet. Brossard and Scheufele (2013), for example, maintain that science journalism and reliance of audiences on blogs and social media sources for information about scientific issues have an increasing impact on the relationship between the science community and the public, and require further in-depth analysis (Brossard & Scheufele, 2013). Blogs and microblogging, interactive reader comments, and a multitude of other online platforms have significantly expanded the research toolkit of scholars interested in studying the changing patterns in interpersonal and institutional communication on climate change (Koteyko, Nerlich, & Hellsten, 2015). Here the appeal of critical frameworks such as Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) is driven by the possibility to provide evaluation of power imbalances underlying Internet-based representations as well as assess the emancipatory or deliberative potential of online debates. A case in point with regard to the latter is Collins and Nerlich’s (2015) study of readers’ comments to news reports on climate change. Drawing on discourse analysis techniques, Collins and Nerlich (2015) show evidence of deliberation (defined as respecting and considering diverse views before arriving at an informed opinion) as readers engaged in dialogue and foregrounded well-reasoned argumentation over incivility. As online communication “comprises individual, organizational, and social issues” (Stahl & Brooke, 2008, p. 53), discourse analysis offers climate change communication scholars useful tools for understanding how digital media texts are created and transformed within specific social and cultural structures and relations. It is therefore regrettable that until recently discourse-based studies of climate change communication have continued to focus on print newspapers and documents (such as policies), without paying systematic attention to how climate change is discursively constructed in the digital media (for a systematic meta-analysis of climate change in the media, including what media types have attracted most attention see Schäfer & Schlichting, 2014).

A growth of critical Internet-based studies is desirable given that the new digital platforms have opened up at least two areas for researching the discursive constructions of climate science and policy.

First, the scholars who adopt the qualitative techniques of discourse analysis to examine climate change communication cannot overlook the vast, continuously increasing, quantities of text-based data generated by the digital media that share the attributes of both interpersonal and mass communication. Here mixed methods frameworks, such as those combining discourse analysis tools with corpus linguistic techniques (Mautner, 2015), offer a great potential to capture the breadth and depth of online debates on climate change (Koteyko, 2010). While corpus linguistic techniques, developed for the analysis of large electronically available text collections, can provide an overview of trends and patterns in climate change–related content, the combination with discourse analysis allows scholars to evaluate the context and influence of climate change representations and the role of different stakeholders from science, politics, and the economy in these online debates (Koteyko, 2015; Koteyko, Nerlich, & Hellsten, 2015).

Second, discourses in digital media are increasingly mixing language with moving and still images, hyperlinks, and sound to create meaning. In such multimodal environments the use of non-linguistic forms to communicate ideas may predominate, and the different modes are often combined to convey complex concepts and attitudes, calling for the adoption and development of new analytical frameworks that can accommodate this mixture of semiotic resources. Multimodal critical discourse analysis (MCDA) (Machin, 2013) is one such framework that holds promise for the study of online climate change communication. MCDA advocates sensitivity to the affordances that different semiotic resources have that may result in them being employed differentially to communicate certain meanings (Machin, 2013). Questions to be addressed with MCDA in relation to online media representations of climate change include: How (and why) are the different digital resources used to communicate ideas, attitudes, and identities in addition to or instead of linguistic forms? What do the semiotic resources “do” in relation to the ideological dimensions of conceptualizing the science and policy of climate change? What or who is deleted, excluded, added, or evaluated as the semiotic resources are shared, combined, and adapted on different online platforms? Such application of discourse analytic techniques would be particularly apposite in relation to the study of how news items are circulated and appropriated among different institutional websites, as well as in relation to the analysis of emerging online platforms for “contextual storytelling” of news and current affairs such as Fold (Albeanu, 2015). On these platforms news stories are accompanied by “context cards” based on background information curated from elsewhere on the Web. Considering how and why semiotic resources are selected and combined to constitute “context” in this case is important for assessing the sociocultural and political dimensions of these Web-based representations of climate change.

By sharing the objective of providing a critical inquiry into the avenues and contexts of Internet-based textual and multimodal contributions such future studies would make a valuable step toward developing discourse analysis research on climate change communication.

Suggested Readings

Carvalho, A. (2007). Ideological cultures and media discourses on scientific knowledge: Re-reading news on climate change. Public Understanding of Science, 16(2), 223–243.Find this resource:

Reisigl, M., & Wodak, R. E. (2015). The discourse-historical approach (DHA). In R. Wodak & M. Meyer (Eds.), Methods of critical discourse studies (3d ed., pp. 23–61). Introducing Qualitative Methods Series. London: SAGE. (The chapter in this new edition includes analysis of “discourses on climate change” based on the study of online news reporting.)Find this resource:


Adger, W.N., Benjaminsen, T. A., Brown, K., & Svarstad, H. (2001). Advancing a political ecology of global environmental discourses. Development and Change, 32(4), 681–715.Find this resource:

Albeanu, C. (2015). FOLD wants to take readers “in new directions” with context.

Anderson, A. (2009). Media, politics and climate change: Towards a new research agenda. Sociology Compass, 3(2), 166–182.Find this resource:

Asayama, S., & Ishii, A. (2014). Reconstruction of the boundary between climate science and politics: The IPCC in the Japanese mass media, 1988–2007. Public Understanding of Science, 23(2), 189–203.Find this resource:

Atanasova, D., & Koteyko, N. (2015). Metaphors in Guardian Online and Mail Online opinion-page content on climate change: War, religion, and politics. Environmental Communication.Find this resource:

Boykoff, M. T. (2008). The cultural politics of climate change discourse in UK tabloids. Political Geography, 27(5), 549–569.Find this resource:

Brossard, D., & Scheufele, D. A. (2013). Science, new media and the public. Science, 339(6115), 40–41.Find this resource:

Bryant, J., & Miron, D. (2004). Theory and research in mass communication. Journal of Communication, 54(4), 662–704.Find this resource:

Burke, B. J., Welch-Devine, M., & Gustafson, S. (2015). Nature talk in an Appalachian newspaper: What environmental discourse analysis reveals about efforts to address exurbanization and climate change. Human Organization, 74(1), 185–196.Find this resource:

Carragee, K., & Roefs, W. (2004). The neglect of power in recent framing research. Journal of Communication, 54(2), 214–233.Find this resource:

Carvalho, A., & Burgess, J. (2005). Cultural circuits of climate change in U.K. broadsheet newspapers, 1985–2003. Risk Analysis, 25(6), 1457–1469.Find this resource:

Chouliaraki, L., & Fairclough, N. (1999). Rethinking critical discourse analysis. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.Find this resource:

Collins, L., & Nerlich, B. (2015). Examining user comments for deliberative democracy: A corpus-driven analysis of the climate change debate online. Environmental Communication, 9(2), 189–207.Find this resource:

DiFrancesco, D. A., & Young, N. (2010). Seeing climate change: The visual construction of global warming in Canadian national print media. Cultural Geographies, 18(4), 517–536.Find this resource:

van Dijk, T. (1993). Principles of Critical Discourse Analysis. Discourse and Society, 4(2), 249–283.Find this resource:

van Dijk, T. A. (2009). Society and discourse: How social contexts influence text and talk. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

Doulton, H., & Brown, K. (2009). Ten years to prevent catastrophe? Discourses of climate change and international development in the UK press. Global Environmental Change, 19, 191–202.Find this resource:

Dryzek, J. S. (2005). The politics of the Earth: Environmental discourses. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Entman, R. M. (1993). Framing: Toward clarification of a fractured paradigm. Journal of Communication, 43(4), 51–58.Find this resource:

Fairclough, N. (2003). Analyzing discourse: Textual analysis for social research. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Fairclough, N. (2012). Critical discourse analysis. International Advances in Engineering and Technology, 7, 452–487.Find this resource:

Farbotko, C. (2005). Tuvalu and climate change: Constructions of environmental displacement in the “Sydney Morning Herald.” Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography, 87(4), 279–293.Find this resource:

Foucault, M. (1972). The archaeology of knowledge: And the discourse on language. New York: Pantheon Books.Find this resource:

Gee, J. P. (1999). An introduction to discourse analysis: Theory and method. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Hajer, M. A. (1995). The politics of environmental discourse: Ecological modernization and the policy process. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Hajer, M. A. (2006). Doing discourse analysis: Coalitions, practices, meaning. In M. van den Brink & T. Metze (Eds.), Words matter in policy and planning: Discourse theory and method in the social sciences (pp. 65–74). Utrecht, The Netherlands: Labor Grafimedia.Find this resource:

Hajer, M., & Versteeg, W. (2005). A decade of discourse analysis of environmental politics: Achievements, challenges, perspectives. Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning, 7(3), 175–184.Find this resource:

Hønneland, G. (2004). Fish discourse: Russia, Norway, and the Northeast arctic cod. Human Organization, 63(1), 68–77.Find this resource:

Jasanoff, S. (2010). A new climate for society. Theory, Culture & Society, 27(2–3), 233–253.Find this resource:

Jaspal, R., Nerlich, B., & Koteyko, N. (2012). Contesting science by appealing to its norms: Readers discuss climate science in the Daily Mail. Science Communication, 35(3), 383–410.Find this resource:

Koteyko, N. (2010). Mining the Internet for linguistic and social data: An analysis of “carbon compounds” in web feeds. Discourse & Society, 21(6), 655–674.Find this resource:

Koteyko, N. (2015). Corpus-assisted analysis of Internet-based discourses: From patterns to rhetoric. In J. Ridolfo & W. Hart-Davidson (Eds.), Rhetoric and digital humanities (pp. 184–198). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

Koteyko, N., Nerlich, B., & Hellsten, I. (2015). Editorial: Climate change communication & the Internet: Challenges and opportunities for research [Special issue]. Environmental Communication: Journal of Nature and Culture, 9(2), 149–152.Find this resource:

Machin, D. (2013). What is multimodal critical discourse studies? Critical Discourse Studies, 10(4), 347–355.Find this resource:

Mautner, G. (2015). Checks and balances: How corpus linguistics can contribute to CDA. In R. Wodak & M. Meyer (Eds.), Methods of critical discourse studies (3d ed., pp. 154–180). Introducing Qualitative Methods Series. London: SAGE.Find this resource:

Nerlich, B., & Jaspal, R. (2014). Images of extreme weather: Symbolising human responses to climate change. Science as Culture, 23(2), 253–276.Find this resource:

Nip, J. Y. M. (2006). Exploring the second phase of public journalism. Journalism Studies, 7(2), 212–236.Find this resource:

Nisbet, M. C. (2009). Communicating climate change: Why frames matter for public engagement. Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 51(2), 12–23.Find this resource:

Nohrstedt, S. A. (2007). Ideological horizons: Outline of a theory on hegemony in mediated news discourse. In B. Höijer (Ed.), Ideological horizons in media and citizen discourses: Theoretical and methodological approaches (pp. 11–31). Gothenburg, Sweden: Nordicom.Find this resource:

Olausson, U. (2009). Global warming—global responsibility? Media frames of collective action and scientific certainty. Public Understanding of Science, 18, 421–436.Find this resource:

Painter, J. (2013). Climate change in the media: Reporting risk and uncertainty. London: I. B. Tauris.Find this resource:

Richardson, J. E. (2007). Analysing newspapers: An approach from Critical Discourse Analysis. London: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Schäfer, M. S., & Schlichting, I. (2014). Media representations of climate change: A meta-analysis of the research field. Environmental Communication, 8(2), 142–160.Find this resource:

Shaw, C. (2013). Choosing a dangerous limit for climate change: Public representations of the decision making process. Global Environmental Change, 23, 563–571.Find this resource:

Smith, N. W., & Joffe, H. (2009). Climate change in the British press: The role of the visual. Journal of Risk Research, 12(5), 647–663.Find this resource:

Stahl, B. C., & Brooke, C. (2008). The contribution of critical IS research. Communications of the ACM, 51(3), 51–56.Find this resource:

Stibbe, A. (2015). Ideologies and discourse. In A. Stibbe (Ed.), Ecolinguistics: Language, ecology and the stories we live by (pp. 22–45). London: Routledge.Find this resource:

Wahl-Jorgensen, K. (2002). Understanding the conditions for public discourse: Four rules for selecting letters to the editor. Journalism Studies, 3(1), 69–81.Find this resource:

Weingart, P., Engels, A., & Pansegrau, P. (2000). Risks of communication: Discourses on climate change in science, politics, and the mass media. Public Understanding of Science, 9(3), 261–283.Find this resource:

Wodak, R. (2008). Discourse studies – Important concepts and terms. In R. Wodak & M. Krzyzanowski (Eds.), Qualitative discourse analysis in the social sciences (pp. 1–24). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.Find this resource:

Wodak, R. (2009). Critical discourse analysis: History, agenda, theory, and methodology. In R. Wodak & M. Meyer (Eds.), Methods for critical discourse analysis (2d ed., pp. 1–33). London: SAGE.Find this resource:

Wodak, R., de Cillia, R., Reisigl, M., & Liebhart, K. (1999). The discursive construction of national identity. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.Find this resource:

Wright, C., & Mann, M. (2013). Future imaginings and the battle over climate science: An interview with Michael Mann. Organization, 20(5), 748–756.Find this resource:

Young, N. (2013). Working the fringes: The role of letters to the editor in advancing non-standard media narratives about climate change. Public Understanding of Science, 22(4), 443–459.Find this resource: