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date: 25 February 2018

Ideology in Climate Change Communication

Summary and Keywords

The idea of climate change inspires and reinforces disagreements at all levels of society. Climate change’s integration into public life suggests that there is no evident way of framing and tackling the phenomenon. This brings forward important questions regarding the role of ideology in mediated public discourse on climate change. The existing research literature shows that five ideological filters need to be taken into account to understand the myriad ways in which ideology plays a role in the production, representation, and reception of climate change in (news and entertainment) media: (i) economic factors, (ii) journalistic norms, (iii) political context, (iv) ideological cultures, and (v) citizen decoding. Furthermore, two different interpretations of how ideology precisely serves as a filter of social reality underlie this literature: an interpretation of ideology as an independent variable, on the one hand, and as a constitutive practice, on the other. Moreover, these interpretations underlie a broader discussion in the social sciences on the relation between climate change and ideology and how scholars and activists should deal with it. By considering climate change as a post-ideological issue, a first perspective problematizes the politicization of climate change and calls for its depoliticization to foster consensus and public engagement. In response, a second perspective takes aim against the post-politicization and post-democratization of climate change (resulting from the adoption of the first perspective) for suppressing the role of ideology and, as a result, for stifling democratic debate and citizenship with regard to the climate issue. This latter perspective is in need of further exploration in future research, especially with regard to the concepts of ideological fault lines, ideological hegemony, and ideological strategies.

Keywords: climate change, media, ideology, hegemony, depoliticization, neoliberal capitalism


The standoffs between developing and developed nations at annual climate summits, partisan polarization in the United States, and examples of local resistance against the further extraction or financialization of fossil fuels appear to suggest that there is no self-evident way of framing the phenomenon of climate change, at least not in a sense that overrides competing values, interests, or worldviews and forges consensus on political action (see also Hulme, 2009). Seminal authors in media studies have argued that more needs to be done to achieve a more diverse and complex understanding of the role of ideology in climate reporting (Anderson, 2009, p. 173; Berglez & Olausson, 2014; Carvalho, 2007, p. 225). How does ideology influence the production, representation, and reception of mediated public discourse on climate change? How should scholars and public intellectuals understand and evaluate the role of ideology? This article sets out to answer these questions. The first section provides a review of the research literature on the role of ideology in the production, representation, and reception of climate change discourse in (news and entertainment) media, by distinguishing between five ideological filters. The second section discusses multiple interpretations of how ideology precisely serves as a filter of social reality and concludes by putting forward three concepts that call for further exploration in future research.

Ideology in Media Research on Climate Change

Both qualitative and quantitative content analyses in a variety of national contexts have paid attention to and drawn conclusions about the ideological nature of mediated public discourse on climate change. These studies can be categorized according to the contextual factor they focus on in explaining the role of ideology. In the following, we distinguish between (i) economic factors, (ii) journalistic norms, (iii) political context, (iv) ideological cultures, and (v) citizen decoding. These contextual factors can be interpreted as ideological filters that shape the identities, worldviews, and belief systems that are implicitly or explicitly present in mediated public discourse about climate change.

Economic Factors

A first group of studies emphasizes the ideological influence of economic factors upon news content, arguing that “the purse is mightier than the pen” (Monbiot, 2016). Corporate media interests and the vested interests of advertisers, it is argued, may discourage criticism of government’s inaction over climate change or the role of business in general (Anderson, 2009; McCright & Dunlap, 2003, 2011). Corporations that see their profit margins or the wider economy threatened by climate change mitigation strategies are unlikely to support media that promote such measures (Gelbspan, 2004). Dispensa and Brulle (2003) found that there was more scientific uncertainty and climate denialism in climate change coverage in the United States, which has a large and powerful fossil fuel industry, than in Finland and New Zealand, which do not. News media’s reliance on advertising also leads to inconsistencies in news content, as a significant amount of space is devoted to advertisements and articles that promote cheap air travel, meat consumption, and cars, which often clashes with the messages promoted in news articles about climate change (Edwards & Cromwell, 2005; Monbiot, 2007).

On the other hand, non-commercial, digital alternative media have been found to provide spaces where readers and viewers can confront disparities of knowledge, values, and power that commercialized media often gloss over (Brand & Brunnengräber, 2012; Gunster, 2012; McManus, 2000). However, economic factors do not necessarily occur through direct interference with the independence of journalists or through a conscious effort to suppress relevant information. The capacity of powerful actors to intimidate journalists may lead journalists to self-censor their stories so that they are written in ways that do not directly threaten these actors’ interests (Antilla, 2010). Other authors point to the significance of the overall commercial orientation of news outlets learned through socialization and habitual practices (Anderson, 2009; Howard-Williams, 2011). This connects to the second ideological filter: journalistic practices.

Journalistic Practices

A second group of studies focuses on the ideological influence of everyday organizational routines and professional norms. Time restraints force journalists to rely on news values that determine that a “good” news story revolves around dramatic and new events that happen to (famous) individuals in the proximity of the readers/viewers, in which a journalist performs the act of the impartial bystander who balances the views of authoritative, already established sources (Boykoff, 2011, p. 100). Where there is overt contestation between established groups over a complex issue, journalists frequently lean on the concept of balance and cover “both” sides of the story.

Several authors have criticized the norm of balanced reporting for resulting in a biased representation of the climate issue when equal weight is given to the opinion of a majority of climate scientists and that of a minority of climate skeptics (Boykoff & Boykoff, 2004; Leon & Erviti, 2011; McCright & Dunlap, 2003). Similarly, others have raised concern about “alarmist” movements that push climate change discourse in the media beyond the parameters of what science can currently claim (Hulme, 2009). The inclination of journalists to personalize climate stories as driven by individuals rather than group dynamics or social processes has also been criticized for de-emphasizing issues of power, context, and process and for reducing fundamental ideological disagreements to pitched battles between personalities (Boykoff, 2011, p. 101). Other studies point to how journalists’ desire to appear objective and impartial potentially serves as a motivation to avoid covering climate change in a way that threatens established interests (Antilla, 2010; Friel, 2005; Nisbet & Mooney, 2007).

Furthermore, journalists’ tendency to nationalize or domesticate climate change, i.e., placing the nation-state at the center of attention in all possible explanations, reproduces a number of banal, taken-for-granted, and invisible ideas and norms about the nation-state as a central locus for action (e.g., the Swedish self-image of being a climate leader in all respects) (Berglez, Höijer, & Olausson, 2009). In other words, these journalistic norms and news values have been shown to have clear ideological implications. However, they do not determine what implications precisely and cannot account for differences between media outlets. To understand this, we need to shift our attention to yet another ideological filter.

Political Context

A third explanation points to the wider social context. This perspective places less emphasis upon economic factors or news production processes but is more concerned with the relationship between journalists and societal stakeholders (e.g., governments, scientists, non-governmental organizations [NGOs], corporations, etc.). The contest to gain favorable coverage is not taking place on a level playing field since official sources tend to have greater financial resources and stocks of cultural capital (Anderson, 2009). A variety of studies have shown that news coverage tends to follow and reflect the political agenda on climate change rather than the other way around (e.g., Anderson, 1997; Berglez, Höijer & Olausson, 2009; Carvalho, 2005; Carvalho & Burgess, 2005; Olausson, 2009; Ungar, 2014). This allowed Ungar (2014) to explain why the extreme real-world weather events of the summer of 1988 created a social scare in the United States while the comparable weather conditions of 2012 did not. He showed that reporting on climate change not only relied on whether an event fits journalistic norms and logics (e.g., the novelty or drama norm) but also whether it resonates with the broader political context. A long-term shift in the issue culture away from the environment, a decline in related social movement activities, and near silence by political and environmental leaders were all found to diminish the attention devoted to climate change.

The United Nations climate process in particular has been found to both set the agenda, as newspaper attention mainly follows these climate summits, and set the terms of the debate (Carvalho, 2007; Pepermans, 2015). Changes in particular governments’ positions on climate change have been found to lead to changing editorial stances (Carvalho, 2005, 2007; Howard-Williams, 2011; McComas & Shanahan, 1999; Wilson, 1995). Dirikx and Gelders (2010), on the other hand, have argued that ideological differences between media outlets are more likely to prevail in countries in which global warming has brought about much discussion in the political field and in which a highly competitive media landscape is historically related to the political field, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, or France. Others have argued that the representation of climate change as either a closed matter of fact or a controversial matter of concern depends on who owns the issue (politicians, scientists, journalists, or NGOs) and whether contrarian voices achieve legitimate standing outside the media arena (Aykut, Comby, & Guillemot, 2012). Still others have emphasized how the framing of climate change is the outcome of an interplay of competition and complementarity between the different logics of journalists and scientists and the power of environmentalists as opposed to corporations (Mormont & Dasnoy, 1995; Ungar, 2014) (see Elite News Coverage of Climate Change).

Ideological Cultures

Journalists, however, are not weak-willed pawns of an all-encompassing economic, professional, and/or political context that determines what is news and what is not. A fourth group of studies has pointed to the importance of the norms, values, and ideas that journalists, editors, and their readers share (Carvalho, 2005, 2007; Doulton & Brown, 2009; Doyle, 2011; Leon & Erviti, 2011). In this respect, Carvalho (2007, pp. 239–240) has put forward the concept of ideological cultures to capture how media organizations and their audiences could be characterized as “communities of ideas, values and preferences.” This refers to how the latter are broadly shared among the leading journalists of a news organization and their audiences, although without suggesting that these are internalized in any fixed or uniform way or that there is no diversity in the range of opinions presented (especially by columns and op-eds, on the one hand, or by journalists writing only occasionally about particular topics, on the other). For instance, Carvalho’s (2007) research on the ideological nature of media representations about climate change in the British press revealed the existence of multiple ideological cultures: an ideological culture of neoliberal capitalism was found to characterize The Times, a social democratic ideology The Guardian, while in The Independent it depended on the respective journalist. Pepermans (2015) found similar ideological cultures in his research on the elite newspapers of the Dutch-language region of Belgium and one alternative online news site. Both studies revealed how a news outlet’s view of the social and economic status quo and its desire to either consolidate or challenge it tops its hierarchy of values, rather than scientific authority or partisan bias.

Citizen Decoding

The ideological filtering of climate change does not stop once media messages are coded but continues during their decoding by citizens (Hall, 1973). Research on cultural cognition has convincingly shown that individuals will form perceptions of (responses to) climate change that connect them to others who share their ideological standpoints (Kahan, 2012, 2014). Kahan (2014, pp. 10–11) consequently argues that ideological polarization is a consequence of how proficient individuals are in extracting the information on climate change that matters most for their own lives, i.e., the position on climate change by the people one feels closely affiliated to and on whose high regard and support one depends in myriad ways of daily life.

Experimental research has found that common practices on conservative media outlets, such as emphasizing scientific controversy about global warming or including interviews with climate skeptics, reduce perceptions of certainty and concern about global warming relative to news stories that do not include this type of coverage (Corbett & Durfee, 2004). Furthermore, multiple cross-sectional and longitudinal survey analyses have found that people who rely on conservative media (e.g., Fox News) are less likely to accept the scientific view on global warming, whereas use of non-conservative media is associated with greater acceptance of global warming (Feldman et al., 2012; Feldman, Myers, Hmielowski, & Leiserowitz, 2014; Krosnick & MacInnis, 2010; Zhao, 2009). Interestingly, Feldman et al. (2014) have shown that issue-related beliefs not only result from ideologically specific media use but also influence subsequent media selection. In other words, these processes appear to operate in mutual reinforcement rather than in isolation. This suggests that people indeed wall themselves off from information that challenges their existing beliefs rather than seek out information from a wide variety of sources (see The Effects of Network and Cable TV News Viewing on Climate Change Opinion, Knowledge, and Behavior). Taking advantage of these self-reinforcing spirals, advocacy groups devote considerable resources to flooding social media with politically favorable comments and purposively selected stories (Scheufele & Nisbet, 2012). Furthermore, information-seeking about climate change through search engines like Google is likely to lead to different results for different ideological publics, as word choices, past browsing, and search history of individuals affects the search results. As a result, the confirmation bias is activated (again) and pre-existing beliefs are further reinforced (Brossard, 2013). In this respect, Nisbet (2014, p. 178) warns how it becomes more unlikely for people to come out for what they believe when their peers primarily hold different views from their own on climate change. This way, everyone remains in their own ideological filter bubble.

Other qualitative research has been concerned with how people make sense of climate change through media and how this process reproduces or challenges the underlying ideological assumptions in media discourse. Studies have shown how citizens rely on the discursive frameworks (i.e., the language, concepts, categories, imageries of thought, and systems of representation) offered by media discourses while at the same time having (limited) autonomy to ignore, reject, or renegotiate these discourses (Olausson, 2011; Rhyghaugh, Sørensen, & Naess, 2010). For instance, many people make sense of climate change through the reporting on its consequences such as weather extremes while having the autonomy to reject a journalist’s link between weather and climate. Furthermore, media representations have also been found to influence citizens’ perception of their (potential) political agency or political subjectivity as they construct particular “subject positions” for individuals and cultivate dispositions to action or not (Carvalho, 2010). For instance, a focus group study with Swedish citizens on the ideological nature of their discourses on climate change (Berglez & Olausson, 2014) showed how citizens’ mediated engagement with climate change contributes to a depoliticized, consensual discourse that fails to challenge capitalism as the root societal cause of climate change.

Ideology, Media Discourse, and Climate Change

In addition to the identification of these five ideological “filters,” a further distinction can be made with regard to different interpretations of how ideology precisely serves as a filter of social reality, or, put differently, how ideology filters news. Most studies start from an idea of ideology as an independent variable that distorts an otherwise objective view on reality (e.g., Herman & Chomsky use such a conceptualization of ideological filters in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media), thereby obscuring and polarizing public understanding of climate change. Ideology is then linked to what many scholars understand as the (unjust) “politicization” of climate change. This refers to how climate science is being either suppressed or amplified by special interests for political reasons, resulting in the alignment of public attitudes toward climate change with existing ideological and partisan divisions (see also Pepermans & Maeseele, 2016).

For instance, this interpretation of ideology can be found in studies that (implicitly or explicitly) evaluate media discourses on the extent to which these accurately represent what is commonly put forward as the established scientific consensus (Bell, 1994; Boykoff, 2007; Boykoff & Boykoff, 2004, 2007; Painter & Ashe, 2012) or in audience research that focuses on the ideological effects of media or on the information-processing behavior of the public (Feldman et al., 2012, 2014; Krosnick & MacInnis, 2010; Zhao, 2009). Such a view of ideology has been identified in liberal-pluralist and affirmative media theory and research, on the one hand, and traditional Marxist thought, on the other (Berglez & Olausson, 2014; Raeijmaekers & Maeseele, 2015a, 2015b).

A second interpretation of ideology is more influential in cultural studies and post-Marxist thought (Cammaerts, 2015; Raeijmaekers & Maeseele, 2015a), deliberative democratic theory and discourse analysis (Nohrstedt, 2007), and cognitive social sciences (Lakoff, 2010; Van Dijk, 1998). This interpretation puts forward ideology as a constitutive practice in which it is impossible to distinguish between ideological and non-ideological meanings or between independent and dependent variables. A constitutive practice refers to how something is inherent to a particular process and thus unavoidable. From this line of scholarship, ideology functions as the constitutive framework people draw from in making sense of the world and of their and others’ social identities. In this regard, Carvalho (2007, p. 225) argues that “media discourse and ideology are mutually constitutive”: this implies that media texts not only result from ideological standpoints but also produce ideology, either in terms of reproducing or challenging dominant assumptions. Furthermore, she defines ideology as:

A system of values, norms and political preferences, linked to a program of action vis-a-vis a given social and political order. People relate to each other and to the world on the basis of value judgments, ideas about how things should be, and preferred forms of governance of the world. In other words, ideologies are axiological, normative and political. (Carvalho, 2007, p. 225)

As Berglez and Olausson (2014, p. 55) also emphasize, this notion of ideology exceeds a notion of political ideologies, such as liberalism, conservatism, or socialism, and how these potentially impact on the climate issue. In this sense, ideology is “rather viewed as comprising the deeper structures of climate discourse which, admittedly, might work together or conflict with various political ideologies.” Furthermore, Berglez and Olausson (2014, p. 57) also stress that ideological discourse is “effective as a mode of thinking and acting” because a dual structure underlies it that integrates both real structures and mythical elements. For instance, they refer to how the ideological project of the nation-state integrates issues such as territories, institutions, and citizenship (i.e., real structures) with the idea of the nation as an imagined community (i.e., mythical/fictional elements).

Building on the work of Bruno Latour (2004), Goeminne (2010, 2012) makes a similar criticism of the strict dichotomy between “ideology” and “science,” or “matters of value” and “matters of fact.” He argues that climate change disagreement should not be interpreted as a dispute over “matters of fact,” in terms of true and false, nor as a choice between “matters of values,” which retreats to radical relativism by granting every opinion equal value. Debate, conflict or resistance should be seen as a struggle for “matters of concern” in terms of what to be concerned about and what to take into account in debates (e.g., the rights of future generations or the jobs of people in the fossil fuel industry). The idea of “matters of concern” recognizes that factual and scientific claims are inextricably intertwined with diverse images of a desirable world. Approaching climate change as a “matter of concern” that cannot be directly observed, but only from a diversity of (sometimes) conflicting standpoints, creates the discursive space for fostering a democratic debate about alternative visions of society, in this way constituting an essential component of social change (Goeminne, 2010, p. 213). A good illustration of how values and facts intertwine is the use of cost-benefit analyses to compare the costs of reducing emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere with the benefits of reducing the magnitude of climate change (Hulme, 2009, pp. 115–123). This is an economic tool to support or undermine policies, which integrates three things: one, it relies on facts about climate sensitivity; two, it relies on different scenarios of future emissions (which depend on political choices); and three, it relies on value judgments about the rights and welfare of future generations relative to that of the current generation. This shows that technological and economic choices are inevitably ideological (Machin, 2013).

These two interpretations of ideology underlie a broader discussion in the social sciences on the relation between climate change and ideology and how scholars and activists should deal with it (Pepermans & Maeseele, 2016). The dominant perspective, discussed first, starts from the assumption that climate change is essentially a post-ideological issue (Giddens, 2011). Potential and existing antagonists should therefore overcome their political division and collaborate in addressing this huge challenge. Therefore, this perspective takes aim against both the climate denialism of small-government conservatives and libertarians for their ideological reverence of a particular interpretation of free market capitalism and the green movement for its ideological reverence of a particular mythical interpretation of nature. In other words, this perspective problematizes the politicization of climate change as an important barrier to collective action and therefore calls for its depoliticization to foster consensus and public engagement. In this regard, Nisbet (2014) has called for broadening the debate by including more technological and policy options, more trusted societal leaders whose messages resonate better with the identity and cultural background of broader segments of the public, and more possibilities for public deliberation.

In response, a second perspective has criticized this conceptualization for turning climate change into a post-political or post-democratic issue rather than a post-ideological one. This is based on the observation that while climate change has risen on the political agenda to unprecedented heights, mediated public discourse about it has been characterized by a simultaneous decrease of contestation and disagreement over the social, political, and economic structures that underlie it. In other words, while the first perspective makes a call to go beyond ideology, the second one criticizes the suppression of ideology in the climate debate. It argues that too often, necessary ideological debates about the role of technology and the market in nature and society, on the one hand, and the rights of future generations and the global poor, on the other, masquerade as disputes about scientific truth and error (Hulme, 2007). In that way, climate change is mobilized precisely to immunize essential ideological choices about how to organize society from criticism, debate, and contestation. Alternatively, this second perspective calls for a repoliticization of climate change as a matter of political concern to revive democratic debate and contestation between alternative sustainable futures (see, e.g., Carvalho, van Wessel, & Maeseele, 2017; Pepermans & Maeseele, 2016).

This article concludes by discussing three concepts that call for further exploration in future research starting from an interpretation of ideology as a constitutive practice: (i) ideological fault lines, (ii) ideological hegemony, and (iii) ideological strategies.

Ideological Fault Lines

Ideological fault lines represent a dimension of competing standpoints about what constitutes progress with regard to specific referents, such as the environment or the economy. In the case of climate change, previous studies (see also Carvalho, 2007; Hopwood, Mellor, & O’Brien, 2005; Jacobs, 1999) have revealed how two referents play a central role: nature/technology (the techno-environmental fault line) and the economy (the socio-economic fault line). It is important to stress that these ideological fault lines are not fixed positions or blueprints of an ideal society but different directions for techno-environmental or socio-economic progress. The concept of fault lines emphasizes how ideologies are defined as much by what they represent as by what they stand in opposition to.

The techno-environmental fault line symbolizes contention about the relationship between humans and their environment and the degree and priority of environmental concern. It refers to the struggle between “technocentred” and “ecocentred” views of environmental protection (Hopwood et al., 2005), “environmentalism” and “ecologism” (Dobson, 2005), or “Weak” and “Strong Sustainability” (Jacobs, 1999). On the one hand, we find a technocentric discourse that sees progress as the intensification of control over nature. Nature (or in this case the climate) is mainly seen as a resource, which is more resilient than often assumed and has no other value than use or exchange value for humans. Climate change is approached from a logic of efficiency, i.e., the belief that technological progress allows us to increase productivity, which can decouple growth in production and consumption from impact on nature. On the other hand, the ecocentric discourse takes a very different view of progress as producing and consuming within the limits of the carrying capacity of nature, a category that is understood to have value beyond human use and to be more fragile than is currently assumed. It approaches climate change through a logic of sufficiency, calling for limits to the use of natural resources and the expansion of small-scale, renewable technologies that work in harmony with natural cycles.

The socio-economic fault line represents competing ideologies regarding the importance of equity in policy action on climate change (Hopwood et al., 2005; Jacobs, 1999). In this case, we distinguish hierarchical-individualist and egalitarian-communitarian outlooks and values (Douglas & Wildavsky, 1982; Kahan, 2012, 2014). Hierarchical individualists prefer political orderings that treat individuals as responsible for securing the conditions of their well-being and tie authority to fixed social roles (Kahan, 2014, p. 6). In terms of policy, they advocate the expansion of market forces to distribute and generate the “goods” of progress (wealth), on the one hand, and handle its environmental “bads” (risks), on the other. In contrast, egalitarian-communitarians assign the responsibility for well-being to the group or collective and want to decrease forms of inequality and social stratification (Kahan, 2014, p. 6). In terms of policy, they advocate a logic of public control and public accountability to regulate the environmental “bads” and (re-)distribute the “goods” of economic progress towards those who are excluded of economic progress.

The role and relevance of fault lines as an analytical instrument is well illustrated in the work of Carvalho (2005, 2007), which inspired the work of Maeseele, Raeijmaekers, Van der Steen, Reul, & Paulussen (2017), Doyle (2011), and Pepermans (2015). These studies demonstrate how particular preferences on the techno-environmental and socio-economic fault lines are directly related to the selection and presentation of scientific “news” and its authorized agents of definition and the evaluation of particular policy choices. Newspapers such as The Times, The Daily Telegraph, or The Daily Mail in England or De Standaard in Belgium were found to start from hierarchical-individualist and technocentric ideological preferences, resulting in a particular interpretation of events, sources, and policy proposals that consistently serve to undermine further binding regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, climate change coverage in British newspapers such as The Guardian, The Independent, and The Daily Mirror or the Belgian newspaper De Morgen and alternative news site DeWereldMorgen was found to approach progress on climate change from more ecocentric and egalitarian-communitarian ideological standpoints, resulting in consistent support for the further regulation of greenhouse gas emissions by Western governments in particular.

Furthermore, Carvalho’s (2007) and Pepermans’s (2015) longitudinal designs (covering events from 1985 to 2001, in the former case, and from 2000 to 2012, in the latter) revealed how a news outlet’s hierarchy of values was topped first and foremost by its desire to either consolidate or challenge the hegemonic political-economic model of neoliberal globalization1 and the structuring influence of its values and interests on climate policy and the climate in general (rather than scientific authority or the allegiance to a particular party in government).

Ideological Hegemony

To understand the concept of hegemony, we have to go back to the work of the Italian Marxist philosopher Gramsci (1971). He stressed that power is not restricted to material capabilities (government by force) but should also be understood as the rule by consent through moral and intellectual leadership. Gramsci pointed out that rule by consent was most effective if and when the domination of a particular ideology could be presented as mere “common sense.” Common sense appears as spontaneous, popular knowledge that stems from the realities of daily life. It offers people frameworks to universalize what is specific and partial and to naturalize what is cultural to the point of being taken for granted in a view of the world as simply “the way things are.”

Such a Gramscian framework has been used to analyze Norwegian and U.S. media coverage of three climate summits and the civic activism surrounding them (Ytterstad & Russel, 2012). The possibility and emergence of an alternative hegemony, which opposes market-based (e.g., cap-and trade system) or technical (e.g., carbon sequestration) solutions and demands a rapid phasing-out of fossil energy use, was not taken seriously anywhere in mainstream media coverage. However, the study also showed some contradictions in the common sense of media, such as the display of sympathy for the protests, that suggest that media are not uniformly and inevitably the defenders of the hegemony of neoliberal capitalism.

Gramsci contended that hegemony is particularly powerful and pervasive when it is connected to, and implicit in everyday life (1971, p. 330). The concepts of hegemony and common sense have also been applied to citizen discourses of climate change in Norgaard’s (2011) ethnographic study of a Norwegian town. She showed how common sense about climate change is organized socially and reproduced in the daily lives of people, controlling what they perceive as normal through social norms of attention, conversation, and emotion within their cultural and political-economic contexts. In practice, it often leads to a routinized, collective denial of both the problem and power structures that cause and sustain the problem of climate change. Similarly, Berglez and Olausson (2014), based on focus-group discussions with Swedish citizens, have demonstrated how common sense about climate change is sustained through (i) the central role of science and the weather to naturalize the belief in climate change, (ii) the lack of strong emotional engagement with the consequences of climate change, and (iii), the enactment of apolitical, climate-friendly behavior changes, all of which impeded contestation with the hegemonic economic system of (carbon) capitalism.

Furthermore, the concept of an ideological horizon has been introduced as a multilevel perspective that emphasizes particular criteria of coherence as decisive for whether an ideology should be regarded as hegemonic or not (Höijer, 2007, p. 8; Nohrstedt, 2007). Berglez et al. (2009) have drawn on this concept to analyze the individualization and nationalization of climate change in leading Swedish news media. This refers to how the central role and glorification of the nation-state has been combined with an emphasis on initiatives and actions from below the nation-state and, more precisely, an emphasis on the role of the individual consumer who should adopt changes to his or her lifestyle. Consequently, the presence of power relations within the nation-state and between citizens is concealed.

These studies have in common that they illustrate how the hegemony of a particular group or discourse is consolidated through an ideological strategy of depoliticization, which presents the hegemonic discourse as entirely innocent of power and ideology. Therefore, the concept of ideological strategies is crucial to understand the role of ideology in media representations of climate change.

Ideological Strategies

The analysis of ideological strategies focuses on revealing how particular discursive mechanisms in media discourse serve to close or open the space for ideological disagreement by making hegemony and fault lines (in)visible. This can be revealed by establishing whether an ideological strategy of depoliticization or politicization is at work (see Maeseele, 2015; Maeseele et al., 2017; Pepermans & Maeseele, 2014, 2016).

An ideological strategy of depoliticization frames an issue in terms of a moral, scientific, or economic consensus about an inevitable, natural development. Simultaneously, the values, interests, and assumptions that inform this representation remain concealed, and dissenting actors are excluded as “skeptic,” “alarmist,” or “radical” enemies of the consensus. In doing so, the space for ideological debate is either denied or shifted to a meta-level between “right” and “wrong” (e.g., “scientific” and “unscientific”). This precludes an adversarial democratic debate in favor of consensual technocratic decision-making and/or market forces. In his longitudinal study of the representation of climate change in mainstream and alternative news media, Pepermans (2015) found two depoliticizing discourses. By framing climate change as an economic and technological problem, a first depoliticizing discourse was found to consistently serve the aim of delegitimizing more binding, regulatory emission reduction targets (either internationally or nationally), on the one hand, while advocating (market-driven) technological innovation to mitigate and adapt to climate change risks, on the other. By contrast, a second depoliticizing discourse was found to consistently advocate a binding multilateral agreement through the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change), by framing climate change as a scientific and moral issue. By naturalizing one course of action out of scientific, moral, technological, or economic considerations, both discourses served to close the discursive space for a democratic debate about the ruling political-economic model of neoliberal globalization and the structuring influence of its values and interests on climate policy, which remained invisible as a result.

Politicization then serves as the reverse of depoliticization, referring to an ideological strategy that aims to reveal the competing ideological preferences, interests, and assumptions at work in the competing demands of relevant social actors and make these subject of public debate. It entails the identification and problematization of particular socio-ecological arrangements and opens up conversations on political alternatives. In this way, the political choices, inequalities, and oppositions concealed in apparently neutral, scientific, economic, or technical representations can be revealed, debated, and contested, leading to a representation of the status quo as contingent, and therefore changeable. Pepermans (2015) was able to retrieve one politicized discourse in an alternative online news site that framed climate change as an ideological debate about the direction of climate policy, emphasizing that important choices have to be made between different strategies and between the political projects related to these. As a result, the contingency of existent social structures and the power relations underpinning them was revealed, and a democratic debate was fostered about alternative policy frameworks beyond neoliberal globalization.

Other studies have linked the depoliticization of climate change to the way climate science has been institutionalized in the UN’s climate process (Goeminne, 2010), the emerging consensus about the greening of the market economy (Kenis & Lievens, 2014), and citizens’ everyday experiences and practices with regard to climate change (Berglez & Olausson, 2014).


In the end, we concur with Carvalho’s (2007, p. 240) proposal for an ideological reading of climate (science) reports in the press, because just as media clearly “read scientific papers politically, so should we read the newspapers.” Indeed, scholars can never entirely put themselves above or outside the field of political contestation. Research about ideology is bound to be ideological as well. Therefore, the academic community should not try to hide behind the veil of objectivity, but rather should be explicit and reflexive about its preferences. Let this serve as a call for scholars who study as well as participate in public debate about climate change.

Suggested Readings

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(1.) Neoliberal globalization is a form of economic integration of national economies, which extends market values and relations to all institutions and social action (Phelan, 2014). International environmental governance discourse does not politically interrogate the causal role of neoliberal globalization itself and represents the market as a tool for tackling climate change that creates new opportunities for economic growth in the process (Kenis & Lievens, 2015).