The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change plays an enormous role in shaping how climate science gets translated into policy in countries around the world, but so does the media.
A new report finds that, while the IPCC could have managed the rollout of its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) better, lack of compelling coverage, especially in US media, is leading to less public demand for action and hence political will to adopt policies to deal with climate change.
The report, published in Nature Climate Change, examines how the IPCC’s release strategy around AR5 contributed to diminishing returns in terms of media coverage, as well as the ways media outlets chose to frame the issue and how that impacts public perception of climate issues.
Researchers with the University of Exeter studied print, broadcast, and online media in both the US and the UK and found that the biggest difference was that there is simply more climate coverage in the UK. A lot more: three times as many articles and five times as many broadcasts were dedicated to climate change in the UK as in the US.
There’s not just more climate coverage in the UK, but less divisive coverage, too, largely due to the fact that the climate is such a partisan issue in the US, which is not as true in the UK. (Although that’s changing quickly, as our colleagues at DeSmog UK investigate every day.)
The IPCC chose to release each of the three individual Working Group reports that make up AR5 sequentially, releasing WG1 (The Physical Science Basis) in Autumn 2013, with WG2 (Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability) and WG3 (Mitigation of Climate Change) released close together in Spring 2014.
As a result, WG3 received far less coverage than WG1 or WG2 across all media sources (TV, newspapers, social media) in both countries, though each Working Group’s contribution was “a key event in the public debate about climate change,” according to lead author Saffron O’Neill.
When media did cover AR5, O’Neill says, it was depicted using one of several frames that either emphasise or downplay different aspects and impacts of climate change.
“We found reporting of WG1 was often contested and politicised, using frames like Uncertain Science, whereas the reporting of WG2 and WG3 used a more diverse selection of frames including Opportunity and Morality and Ethics,” O’Neill told DeSmogBlog. “These findings on framing are important, as social science research shows that some frames are likely to be more engaging for audiences than others.”
O’Neill and her co-authors found that those more engaging frames are rarely used, however.
“While we currently see much of the ‘duelling experts’ of the uncertain science frame, or the dramatic visual imagery of the disaster frame, is there potential for other engaging stories? We suggest that there may be newsworthy material discussing climate change in terms of future energy provision, diet and climate, or cities and health,” O’Neill says.
This matters because the way the media chooses to cover an issue can shape the way people respond to it in profound ways. Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, told Climate Central that he didn’t find the study’s results surprising (Leiserowitz was not involved in the study).
“We find in our audience research that even the alarmed [those most concerned about climate change] don’t really know what they can do individually, or what we can do collectively. We call this loosely ‘the hope gap,’ and it’s a serious problem. Perceived threat without efficacy of response is usually a recipe for disengagement or fatalism.”
The report recommends that the IPCC pay closer attention to release dates and how those fit in with news cycles to maximize coverage in the media. But O’Neill says there’s a lot more the IPCC could be doing to more effectively communicate climate science to the masses and policymakers.
“Other authors in our Nature Climate Change Focus Issue argue for the IPCC to be more effective users of social media, and for the Summary for Policymakers to be re-designed to meet the needs of its target audiences – and we agree with much of what they say in these commentaries.”
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