Climate change is a global problem requiring a globally coordinated response. Recent events such as the Brexit vote and Trump’s election suggest a possible shift away from a global approach in favour of a more nation-focused approach to policy. In addition, targets for reducing emissions following the Paris agreement have been devolved to individual nations through what is called the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions framework.
This shift reinforces the importance of understanding how the cultures, economies and politics of different countries shape public attitudes to climate change, and what these differences mean for effective climate change communication. The three new research papers summarised below explore attitudes and media representations of climate change in four different countries – China, India, and a comparative study of Adelaide (Australia) and Lisbon (Portugal). The China study examines how Weibo (the Chinese social network) is used to communicate climate change stories. The India study explores the relationship between media use and attitudes to climate change. The comparative study assesses the difference in willingness to pay for effective climate mitigation policies between Portugal and Australia. The results of these studies highlight the risks of following a one-size-fits-all global climate messaging strategy on climate change.
The more we can understand about national differences on climate perceptions, the better public engagement will be. Look out for the findings of a major new four-country European survey, the European Perceptions of Climate Change project, led by Cardiff University and three other international academic teams, in collaboration with Climate Outreach, and funded by the Joint Programming Initiative (JPI).
The three papers summarised in this month’s Research Round-Up share our interest in the potential of COPs, as important global media events, to engage the public with climate change. They seek to understand the extent to which the conferences impact public awareness, as well as whose stories, images and representations dominate the coverage. The research shows that COPs do indeed increase public awareness of climate change and that – because of the rather dry and procedural nature of what happens inside the conference halls – COPs present a unique opportunity for NGOs, through their protests and campaigns, to get their messaging out to a global audience. However our research suggests that currently the visual messaging employed by NGOs around COPs is fairly restricted and predictable and we are seeking to catalyse a new, more diverse and inclusive visual language for climate change at key moments in the climate calendar (like the COPs) and beyond.
This paper investigates the relationship between media coverage (how different stories about climate change are ‘framed’) and attitudes to climate change in India. Relatively few studies have examined media coverage and public understanding of global warming in developing countries where, the authors argue, a high proportion of people have never heard of climate change or do not understand its causes and consequences.
A representative sample of 4031 people were surveyed for this study. The survey questions were designed to investigate if media use, news attention (that is, the amount of time that respondents spent on environment and world affairs news) and trust in informational sources are associated with three key outcomes: the belief that global warming is happening and human-caused; the belief that it poses a serious risk; and support for policies to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
The researchers were simply looking for positive associations between media use and the key outcomes, and did not seek to establish causal links between these variables. They found a positive relationship between greater general media use, news attention and trust in information sources, and key global warming beliefs and policy support.
The results showed that whilst scientists were the most trusted sources of information for the Indian public, the second most trusted groups were environmental organisations. They also found high levels of agreement that the climate is changing (89%), though 31% of respondents attributed this change to natural causes. TV use was the media most positively associated with risk perception and policy support. It was surmised that this was because even though there is low TV coverage in India, TV provides a more powerful visual stimulus than print media, and may provide more easily accessible visual cues about global warming. They also found personal experience of extreme weather events was a strong predictor of belief in climate change.
They say: The results suggest the Indian media, through consistent and accurate coverage of global warming using trusted sources, can play a positive role in increasing public engagement.
We say: The fact that environmental organisations are the second most trusted source of information on climate change in India stands in marked contrast to the situation in the West. Understanding the reasons behind this may have important implications for building engagement in developing countries.
Weibo is China’s most popular social media platform and ranks as the 17th most visited website in the world. Its format combines elements of Twitter and Facebook.
The researchers examined the extent to which Weibo facilitates democratic discussion about climate change, whether the Chinese public use the site as a platform to push for climate actions, and what types of framing catch people’s attention. In order to do this the study analysed discussion about climate change on Weibo over a two month period around the Paris Climate Summit. The researchers analysed all posts with a topic of “climate change” or “global warming.”
The results show that state media and large international institutions dominate the discussion of climate change on Weibo. A significant proportion of Weibo posts aim to raise climate change awareness; few users discuss topics such as climate science, climate change’s actual impacts on China, or China’s low-carbon policy measures.
In terms of discourse the researchers found that climate change mostly appears as far removed from everyday life in China. The most talked about content was President Obama’s appearance on an American television show in which he traveled across Alaska to showcase the impacts of climate change. Obama made a much larger impact in China with his trip to Alaska than in the USA.
They say: Climate change is represented on Weibo as a global threat that has little connection to China’s national context. The researchers summarise the impact of this framing as making sure climate change remains “safe” as long as it appears to be a global and disembodied subject matter.
We say: The discourse around climate change on Weibo appears superficial and marginal, with minimal connection to the daily lives of Chinese citizens. Finding ways to overcome this particular form of ‘psychological distance’, and making climate change a social reality for the 1 billion members of the world’s largest country is a crucial priority for public engagement.
The authors surveyed residents of Adelaide (Australia) and Lisbon (Portugal) to ask if they would be willing to contribute regularly a significant but affordable part of their income to prevent or reduce negative impacts of climate change that will occur within their lifetime, and also negative impacts of climate change that will affect their descendants in centuries to come. That is, they explored people’s ‘willingness to pay’ for climate policies now or in the future.
The results showed that the people of Lisbon are more willing to contribute than those of Adelaide, despite Portugal’s poorer economic conditions. Furthermore, willingness to contribute in both Lisbon and Adelaide did not diminish even when the impacts were described as likely only to affect future generations. The authors interpret these results as suggesting that economic calculations are not the only criteria shaping attitudes to climate change.
The authors argue that previous studies on how people view future risks have focused purely on how far in the future the risks occur, and ignored considerations such as perceptions of ‘intergenerational equity’ (i.e. fairness between generations). Another possible explanation for the results is that attitudes to climate change are, in part, shaped by levels of trust in political leaders – will these leaders actually use the money to ensure climate change policies are effective and implemented? That trust is greater in Lisbon than Adelaide. A third possible reason is media framing: the media is more sceptical in Australia than Portugal, and more likely to associate natural disasters with climate change in Portugal than in Australia.
They say: Challenging the assumptions that the public will naturally reject action on climate change on the basis of cost-benefit calculations and a disregard for future generations is important because that reasoning ties inaction on climate change to supposedly deep-rooted aspects of human rationality, rather than modifiable aspects of culture and society.
We say: In demonstrating how attitudes to climate change are partly determined by social and cultural circumstances, this research adds weight to the idea that changes in the public discourse around climate change (and by extension how it is socially and culturally represented) is a crucial pathway to building policy support. People are not inherently opposed to climate policies, but they need to believe in the politicians delivering them and for there to be a vibrant national discourse about why climate change matters.