Christel van Eck is a graduate student in Applied Communication Sciences, at the University of Wageningen in the Netherlands, and a former research intern at Climate Outreach. Over the years, she has specialised in climate change communications, with a special focus on building bridges between different realms of society. In collaboration with Climate Outreach, she wrote a Master thesis which inspired this blogpost.
Why climate change campaigner & skeptic discourse are worlds apart
Blogs: windows into different social worlds
The climate blogosphere is a public space where both climate skeptics and climate campaigners convey their messages. While in many ways not representative of the ‘real world’, the blogosphere nonetheless influences private and public discourse: ‘’it may generate areas of dense and highly conversational interactions or isolate unpopular topics, it may cut across national borders toward transnational media audiences, it may interact with other web 2.0 sites and with mainstream media agendas, and it may structurally change over time’’.
Bloggers’ influence over the public sphere can be seen everywhere from politics to popular science. The so-called ‘climategate’ affair (when emails were illegally released from the University of East Anglia server) is just one example of when the blogosphere became an important arena for skeptics, both politically and scientifically, to spread their arguments. Understanding the conversations on blogs is crucial, because it provides insight into how they may influence public opinion - and hence public support for specific climate solutions or resistance against certain discourses.
In collaboration with Climate Outreach, I conducted a discourse analysis on 358 blog posts – focusing on activists from both sides of the debate. A selection of blog posts of the climate skeptic blogs Global Climate Scam, Watts Up With That, climate-skeptic, Dr Roy Spencer, and Bishop Hill and climate campaigner blogs WWF UK, Greenpeace UK, Friends of the Earth UK, Climate Action Network, and Oxfam UK was analyzed. All of the blog posts were published between the UN climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009 and the UN climate summit in Paris in 2015. Two climate skeptics and two climate campaigners were also interviewed as part of the study. Some of the key findings are discussed in this brief summary of the research, and the paper concludes by asking whether a better understanding of blog discourses can help build bridges between the different social worlds of climate skeptics and campaigners.
Generally, it appears that climate skeptics and climate campaigners are engaging in different debates on similar issues. The discursive realities of the groups are fundamentally different and display only a few similarities. The skeptic discourses center around the idea that there is no credible evidence for the theory of anthropogenic climate change, while at the heart of the campaigners’ discourses is the notion that action on climate change needs to be a priority. Central themes for both climate skeptics and climate campaigners included the successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol and the question of climate finance. While the climate skeptics focused on the burden of making donations to the Green Climate Fund for developed countries, the climate campaigners focused on the need to provide financial ‘help’ for developing countries. While these top-line differences in blog discourses are to be expected, a more detailed analysis revealed some telling nuances in the different social worlds of skeptics and campaigners.
Different events in different discourses
Campaigners focused on campaigns, events and consumption practices, while skeptics discussed climate science conspiracies. Events that highly influenced both sides included the Copenhagen and Paris negotiations, the establishment of the Green Climate Fund, and the release of the 5th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The ‘climategate’ affair also influenced the climate skeptics, while Typhoon Haiyan was a big topic of discussion for climate campaigners. This is interesting, because it means that both sides largely talk about the same events, however manage to each give their own twist to the story.
Different conceptualizations of climate change
While skeptics mostly focused their assumptions on the causes of global warming, the campaigners focused on the consequences of climate change. One of the consequences the campaigners focused on was extreme weather events reflecting the state of climate change, which skeptics responded by arguing that the weather does not reflect the climate.
Skeptics were in favor of the phrase ‘global warming’ while campaigners preferred the term climate change. This means that both sides make different assumptions about the construct of climate change, which is counter-productive for the discussion as the two sides do not share the same starting point.
Heroes and villains
The most remarkable finding was that climate skeptics and campaigners mostly portrayed themselves as heroes. In fact, depending on the ‘side’ they were on, anyone who was in favour of (or against) the theory of anthropogenic climate change was portrayed as hero or villain, especially politicians and scientists. While in 2009 skeptics and campaigners both portrayed developing countries as victims , the skeptics shifted to portraying the developed world as victims a year later when the Green Climate Fund was adopted. Back and forth name-calling does not contribute to finding a common solution to the problem - rather it nourishes the divide.
Different rhetoric driving different discourses
Skeptics mostly deployed science-related rhetorical devices to convince their readers that there is no evidence for global warming. For example, the science was repeatedly framed as fraudulent and not sound. Campaigners mostly deployed rhetorical devices that related to the UN conference, to ‘commitment’, and to ‘judgment’. The conference-related devices were mainly intended to convince the reader that having a fair, ambitious, and legally binding agreement is important. The commitment-related devices were used to convince the reader that it is important that particular actors show commitment. As for the judgment-related devices, they were introduced to place climate change in a particular light, e.g. ‘’climate change threatens our safety’’. People reading blog posts from both skeptics and campaigners are therefore receiving contradictory messages, which explains why the general public is having a difficult time deciding what to believe and act upon.
Conflicting normative judgments
What should be done, and by whom, to tackle climate change and the extent to which these issues should be a priority was barely discussed by climate skeptics, while campaigners were consistently focused on who should do what and when. When the skeptics did mention this,, it was mostly related to revisiting the science. The campaigners generally stipulated that the world needs binding targets, effective action to reduce emissions, and long-term commitments on finance. Uniformity about what needs to happen and by whom is nowhere to be found, which makes gaining support for certain policies an almost impossible challenge.
Building Bridges: Is there any common ground between skeptic and campaigner discourses?
Climate skeptics and campaigners both convey their own stories about climate change, which is counter-productive for constructive discussions about the issue. Campaigners can address this divide by trying to find common ground, without sacrificing the essence of their arguments or their political aims. Most importantly, campaigners should try engaging with the values underneath the skeptics’ arguments, instead of arguing with the facts themselves (Kahan et al, 2012; Corner & van Eck, 2014). Also, campaigners could be more inclusive in the types of values and frames they use (Marshall & Corner, 2015; Corner & Marshall, 2016). Finally, the types of people portrayed as ‘heroes’ in blogs by both skeptics and campaigners tend to be politicians, scientists and themselves - it would be better to diversify the voices represented and to portray others as ‘heroes’ as well (Corner, Roberts & Pellisier, 2014; Messling et al, 2015). I do not argue that everyone needs to be one happy family, but overcoming the disconnect between campaigner and skeptic discourse will help (not hinder) the aim of building a proportionate societal response to climate change - that everyone has a stake in.
Corner, A.J. & van Eck, C.W. (2014). Science & Stories: Bringing the IPCC to Life. Oxford: Climate Outreach
Corner, A.J. & Marshall, G. (2016). Communicating effectively with the centre-right about household energy-efficiency and renewable energy technologies. Oxford: Climate Outreach
Corner, A.J., Roberts, O., & Pellisier, A. (2014). Young Voices: How do 18-25 year olds engage with climate change? Oxford: Climate Outreach
Kahan, D.M., Peters, E., Wittlin, M., Slovic, P., Larrimore Ouellette, L., Braman, D. & Mandel, G. (2012). The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nature Climate Change, 2, 732–735
Marshall, G. & Corner, A.J. (2015). Talking About Climate Change with Centre-Right Politicians and Members of the European Parliament. Oxford: Climate Outreach
Messeling, L, Corner, A.J., Clarke, J., Pidgeon, N., & Demski, C. (2015). Communicating flood risks in a changing climate: 9 principles for promoting public engagement. Oxford: Climate Outreach
Vicari, S. (2015). Exploring the Cuban blogosphere: Discourse networks and informal politics. New Media & Society, 17 (9), 1492-1512
Photo: Matteo Ranza