Why We Need to Talk Less about Climate Science (and Focus on Politics Instead)

After many decades of inaction, we have to face severe climate change. Yet, the most important question is not how bad it will get, but what can be done now to cut emissions quickly. This is a point often missed by the media and campaigners.


In my PhD research, I study news reporting on climate change and the roles of different actors in the many debates surrounding the issue. Reading lots of news about the issue is emotionally challenging: the massive wildfires, severe droughts and big floods provide an impression of what we will be facing over the course of the century. At the same time, I read daily about new evidence indicating that climate change is happening faster and going to be even worse than we thought.


While these are important news, showing us what will happen if we do not act to prevent catastrophic global warming, they often spark controversy in the media: was this wildfire “caused” by climate change? Is the thawing permafrost a sign of the climate passing a “tipping point”? Is planting trees really the best way to protect the climate?


From a professional perspective, I am very critical of this style of reporting. While it lies in the nature of science that important questions go through a phase of controversial discussion, none of the questions currently under scientific debate could diminish the challenges we face. There will always be opportunities to report (correctly) about scientific controversies, but such a focus centres the debate around the wrong issues.

When people perceive an issue as controversial, they engage with it [1] and tend to think less about other, in this case more important, questions. It is a positive development that climate change is receiving more and more attention, but rather than obsessing with scientific details, we should debate what needs to be done to prevent as much warming as we can.


The most important questions right now are what individuals, companies, and governments can do to address the challenges we face, and how we can do so without losing the support of those needing to change their lives and livelihoods. Yes, a certain level of concern is needed to mobilise people [2,3] but helping people see how their actions and choices — in particular in the political domain — affect their individual and our collective future is key to translating this concern into action [4].


In my own research, I have found that US media largely ignore such questions, whereas German media are much better at directing the attention of their consumers towards things they and the government can do [5]. While Germany has its own challenges to face, the population is relatively well-informed about climate politics, and supports a pro-climate policy agenda [6] — in my view this is at least partly explained by how the media report on this issue.


The take-away from this reflection is that anybody actively involved in climate change communication should be mindful about which issues they present — and how they present them. Over the next years, the news about the earth’s climate will be more and more frightening, sparking even more intense public debates. Yet, focusing on bad news or scientific controversies is counterproductive.


Campaigners, political officials, activists, and journalists alike need to be aware that the best way to get the public to act individually and support political measures is by highlighting the positive impacts those actions and policies can have and what contribution they can make to keep climate change from becoming a global catastrophe.

References

  1. Schuck, A. R. T., Vliegenthart, R., & de Vreese, C. H. (2016). Who’s afraid of conflict? The mobilizing effect of conflict framing in campaign news. British Journal of Political Science, 46(1), 177-194. https://doi.org/10.1017/s0007123413000525

  2. Chu, H., & Yang, J. Z. (2020). Risk or efficacy? How psychological distance influences climate change engagement. Risk Analysis. https://doi.org/10.1111/risa.13446

  3. Bradley, G. L., Babutsidze, Z., Chai, A., & Reser, J. P. (2020). The role of climate change risk perception, response efficacy, and psychological adaptation in pro-environmental behavior: A two nation study. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 68, 101410. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2020.101410

  4. Feldman, L., & Hart, P. S. (2015). Using political efficacy messages to increase climate activism. Science Communication, 38(1), 99-127. https://doi.org/10.1177/1075547015617941

  5. Tschötschel, R., Schuck, A., & Wonneberger, A. (2020). Patterns of controversy and consensus in German, Canadian, and US online news on climate change. Global Environmental Change, 60, 101957. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2019.101957

  6. Sonnberger, M., & Ruddat, M. (2016). Die gesellschaftliche Wahrnehmung der Energiewende. Stuttgarter Beitrage Zur Risiko- Und Nachhaltigkeitsforschung (No. 34/2016). Stuttgart, Germany: Zentrum für interdisziplinäre Risiko- und Innovationsforschung der Universität Stuttgart. ISBN 3-938245-33-0

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