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COP26: what the public heard

By Jamie Clarke on May 18, 2022

An analysis of climate narratives around COP26 across traditional media, social media and culture. 

The UN climate conference in Glasgow was hard to miss. With hundreds of world leaders in attendance, and the UK hosts keen to position the negotiations as an illustration of climate leadership, media coverage exploded as COP26 got underway. Climate demonstrations and events also mushroomed in Glasgow and beyond.  But what messages were being heard and what was the impact on the public of this cacophony of climate change coverage? 

Climate Outreach led a team of researchers to analyse multiple communication channels in three countries across COP26 to generate a comparative understanding of key trends and how they impacted citizens. 

The relationship between media coverage and public opinion is not straightforward. Media coverage can be strongly ‘agenda setting’, framing the way an issue is perceived, and including or omitting certain facts or voices. However, there is usually not a clear causal link between media coverage and public opinion. Social media, infamously, can skew ideas about what ‘the public’ think, as a lot of noise can be made by a relatively small (or unrepresentative) group of people. Meanwhile, what people see, hear and experience through live events and ‘offline’ social networks is likely to shape perspectives. 

The team analysed key narratives and frames found in traditional media at different moments during the conference, and compared these with social media activity as the negotiations came to a close. Alongside this, Climate Outreach researchers reviewed public polling from a week before COP26 to a week after its completion, plus a selection of ‘cultural indicators’ providing insights into how arts and culture represented climate change during the COP26 period.

Trends in traditional media 

According to some commentators, the ‘wall to wall’ climate headlines represented a ‘sea change’ in media coverage. Quantity is important, and repetition is essential for ideas to reach readers who have many other pressing concerns and distractions. But overall levels of coverage aren’t necessarily the best metric for understanding how the media discourse around COP26 evolved, whether media coverage supported or undermined key campaign messages, and how all of this impacted public opinion. 

Focusing on a selection of the most-read media outlets in the UK, Germany, and South Africa from across the political spectrum, our analysis led by James Painter from the Reuters Institute, Oxford University, indicated clearly that some of the most prominent frames and messages being promoted by professional climate campaigners and civil society cut through to traditional media. 

On certain topics – for example, the importance of the 1.5C target, and the need for 100bn of ‘climate finance’ for developing/climate vulnerable countries – media coverage tended to pretty closely reflect campaigners’ perspectives and demands. Perhaps this isn’t too surprising; at least some of these demands were shared by the UK government and many other countries around the world. But the fact that the media – across the political spectrum – mostly framed the negotiations as reflecting limited progress rather than outright failure, suggests the ‘limited progress’ messaging of key professional climate NGOs was influencing media coverage.  

There were still some left/right differences in media coverage though: at the end of the conference, the message that the COP agreement had not delivered on providing financial support for the poorest countries was mostly to be found in the left-leaning media (34%), and least in the right-leaning media (14%). There’s definitely still work to do for campaigners looking to land their analyses and demands in right-leaning media. While this might simply reflect an ideological disconnect, campaigners could draw more on research unpacking how Conservative-leaning audiences engage with climate change, and how to better connect with them through climate stories. 

Social media and cultural narratives out-of-step with traditional media 

If many of the messages from within the COP campaign bubble landed well with traditional media, far fewer did in terms of the social media discourse at the end of the conference.  And hardly any were reflected in the ‘cultural indicators’ (i.e. cultural events and celebrity statements) we looked at during the negotiations.

The social media narratives at the end of COP and a range of cultural indicators we examined as the conference took place tended to align with the demands and perspectives of the ‘street protestors’ or indigenous/grassroots groups, where a focus on climate justice was much more prominent and the conference was positioned as a failure of moral and political leadership.

The reach of English-language Instagram and Facebook articles on climate was dominated by a small number of key influencers who were largely negative about the outcomes of the conference, in contrast to the dominant narratives in traditional media. There was also a clear association between political orientation of those posting and their view of the outcome, with left-leaning commentators skewed towards negative views and right-leaning to more positive. And there was a striking disconnect between the narratives being promoted by much of the professionalised climate movement (e.g. that despite major omissions, COP26 represented limited progress towards keeping 1.5C alive) and those that were dominant on social media (which focused on COP as an outright failure).

Key narratives identified at the cultural and arts events around COP26 tended to mirror the social media perspectives (when there was a distinguishable ‘perspective’ underpinning them). While the largest proportion of these events were focused on general awareness-raising, the second largest group reflected ‘street activists’ messaging such as Greta Thunberg’s ‘Blah Blah Blah’ commentary. The narratives of professional NGOs did feature, but not as prominently, and we only noted those of the UK government in one event. 

Narratives identified in cultural events around COP26

So what was the impact on public opinion over COP26?

Our review of the polling data around COP – mostly in the UK – showed a small but meaningful increase in optimism about the conference as it progressed. However, we also saw increasing numbers of people giving ‘don’t know’ responses in many of the survey questions we looked at, suggesting that the public may have become more confused/overwhelmed by the saturation of mixed messages as the conference progressed.

And the one group who didn’t become more optimistic as the conference concluded were young people – potentially the most likely demographic to be consuming social media narratives. 

COPs matter when it comes to public opinion on climate change

The annual UN conference provides a yearly focus point for climate media stories, events and activists. While the focus is on policy making, this can have a significant associated impact on how citizens view and understand the issues being discussed. For example the perceived failure of COP15 in Copenhagen is associated with a significant downturn in public climate concern. Understanding the interplay between different elements within the plethora of coverage is crucial for public engagement. 

Our analysis indicates that publics in general were engaged by COP26 and the majority felt more optimistic about chances of dealing with the climate change challenge by the end. Yet it is noticeable that there were marked differences in the dominant narratives between traditional media and those most loudly heard on social media and at cultural events. Does this matter? One possibility is that it doesn’t – and that as the climate conversation grows, it’s natural and right that differences of opinion will remain. But from a communications perspective, mixed messaging may impact on how people understand and relate to climate change – which could undermine effectiveness.  

Understanding the importance of messages, platforms and audiences

Ultimately, the research we carried out around COP26 points to the importance of climate communicators carefully considering how their messages will be received, which platforms they are using and how differing messages interact in their audiences. 

It is also clear that using multiple methods to build up a better picture of the communications landscape is critical: by teasing out the differences between different channels and metrics, it’s possible to see where the differing campaign messages and tactics are gaining traction, through which channels, and for which audiences. 

Moving past measuring the quantity of media coverage towards an analysis of the content of media, social media and cultural indicators allows campaigners to build in the evidence base on public engagement, and create more integrated approaches to campaign strategy.

Our work was funded by the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), and Climate Outreach was joined by a research team led by James Painter at the Reuters Institute, Oxford University and Adam Corner, Climate//Communication//Culture.


By Jamie Clarke

Jamie Clarke was Climate Outreach’s Executive Director for almost 10 years, from 2013 to 2022. Under his leadership, Climate Outreach grew into an internationally acclaimed organisation. As a values-based leader, he provided strategic direction with an empathetic management approach. He is a proven international speaker and considered writer who feels as comfortable addressing the UNFCCC as co-authoring books such as Talking Climate. In his studies as a social scientist, he focused on participatory processes at the nexus of societal and environmental issues. Undertaking extensive research in the Pantanal region of Brazil crystalised his understanding of centrality of effective citizen engagement in change processes.  

Passionate about widening engagement with climate change, he previously worked for advocacy organisations including Amnesty International UK and Practical Action. In these roles he saw how difficult it is for many people to connect with climate change narratives, and how this often underpins apathy and opposition. Determined to address this and the largely under-recognised role that the wider public has in tackling climate change, he previously led a successful youth climate outreach programme that targeted marginalised students studying vocational courses. Jamie lived for many years on a canal boat but now lives on terra firma in Oxford with his family and is rarely off a bicycle.

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