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Climate Change and the Media

Mike S Schafer, Universitt Zrich, Institut fr Publizistikwissenschaft und Medienforschung, Zrich, Switzerland
2015 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.


Media communication and the coverage of mass media such as TV, radio, newspapers, or the Internet in particular is an
important source for peoples awareness of, and knowledge about, anthropogenic climate change. Accordingly, many
scholars have analyzed the emergence, characteristics, uses, and effects of mediated communication about climate change in
recent years. This article reviews the respective eld, presents its major ndings, and outlines future directions for research.

The Relevance of the Media in Climate Change As a result, the causes and consequences of climate change
Communication and its implications are not directly and easily perceivable, and
what most people know about them stems from media
Climate change, compared to many other issues, is an communication. The mass media means of communication
unobtrusive topic. This is because the climate and its past, that distribute content such as text, pictures, and sound to an
current, or future developments are not easily observable rst anonymous and spatially diverse public via technical means,
hand. The term climate refers to statistical averages of weather such as newspapers, TV, or radio are particularly relevant in
indicators, such as temperatures, precipitation, wind, and so this respect. Surveys in the US, the UK, Australia, and Germany
on. To speak of climate, these indicators have to be moni- show that mass media particularly television, followed by
tored and described on large scales both in terms of space and newspapers and, increasingly, the Internet are the most
time. The World Meteorological Organization, for example, important sources from which people draw information about
proposes to speak of climate when referring to average climate change. These studies also show mass media to be more
weather over at least 30 years. Spatially, climates are usually important than peoples interpersonal communication with
described for entire countries, continents, hemispheres, or the family members and friends, as well as workshops and school
whole world. Such dimensions lie far beyond most peoples classes. Accordingly, they are important arenas and important
life-worlds and biographical horizons. In addition, the main agents in the production, reproduction, and transformation of
anthropogenic causes of climate change greenhouse gas the meaning of climate change (Carvalho, 2010: 172).
emissions remain invisible.
A second reason for the issues unobtrusiveness is its
complexity. The climate and its changes are observed and Overview of the Research Field
(re)constructed primarily by scientists, whose results are
rather complex and difcult to understand for many people. The outlined importance of mass media communication on
This is due, among other factors, to the growing number of climate change has long been acknowledged by the scientic
disciplines participating in climate science. Each comes with community. A number of introductory texts into the eld are
its own kinds of data, measures, models, and heuristics, available, such as Mosers (2010) historical overview of climate
which results in climate models including more and more change communication that spans mass media as well as other
variables and interrelations between these. Moreover, the kinds of communication. Carvalhos (2010) description of the
ndings of climate science, as those of any other science, are politics of climate change communication, Schfers (2012)
not unanimously agreed upon. Although a consensus seems overview of online communication about the issue ONeill
to exist within the respective scientic community about the et al. s (2013) review of visual communication about climate
basic features and causes of anthropogenic climate change, change, and Andersons (2009) or Olausson and Berglezs
dissent, and uncertainty can be found in many details. (2014) programmatic formulation of a future research
Thirdly, climate change is also an unobtrusive issue because agenda are further examples.
its social effects and the measures to mitigate them are debated, Taken together as a whole, the research eld reveals a number
complex, and, at times, difcult to understand: A lot of the of specics. A recent meta-analysis of some 130 relevant publi-
consequences of climate change, and most likely the more severe cations shows the growth of the eld (Schfer and Schlichting,
ones, are not occurring here and now. They will appear in the 2014): After only a few analyses were published in the 1980s
future and affect countries in the Global South more than those and 1990s, research activity increased and remained on
in North America or Western Europe. In addition, stakeholders a moderate level until the mid-2000s, when annual publication
advocate different actions that are often based on elaborate, numbers rose considerably. Today, analyses of media represen-
difcult to understand rationales and justications. The most tations of climate change constitute a lively and growing eld.
important strand of current climate politics involves interna- This growth is accompanied by a diversication of research
tional efforts at mitigation, that is, a reduction of greenhouse approaches and objects. A relatively large number of earlier
gas emissions in developed countries, in particular, constituting single-country case studies (e.g., Boykoff, 2008; Gavin et al.,
a political process that is far removed from peoples life-worlds. 2011) have increasingly been supplemented by comparative

International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2nd edition, Volume 3 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-08-097086-8.91079-1 853
854 Climate Change and the Media

and longitudinal research. The theoretical foundations of the change from a certain perspective that correspond with prefer-
respective studies range from politically oriented agenda- ences for specic solutions (Table 1).
setting approaches to critical discourse analysis and adopt
quantitative, qualitative, and mixed method research designs.
Anthropogenic Climate Change as a Global Problem
In spite of this diversication, however, the research eld is
still strongly focused on a small number of countries and The rst frame, which already emerged in the early 1990s and
media: European and North American countries have received has been powerful ever since, emphasizes the existence of
by far the largest share of research attention and continuously anthropogenic climate change, and advocates various measures
do so. Asian, African, and Latin American countries, many of to ght it. Its proponents consist of renowned individual
whom are strongly affected by the outcomes of climate change, scientists such as James Hansen (US), Nicholas Stern (UK), and
have not often been analyzed (Schfer and Schlichting, 2014). Hans Joachim Schellnhuber (GER), prominent activists like Al
In addition, most studies focus on print media, particularly Gore, hybrid scientic/political organizations such as the
broadsheet newspapers. Even though the number of analyses United Nations Framework Convention for Climate Changes
taking up online and social media is increasing, other media (UNFCCC) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
are largely neglected. The importance of television as a source (IPCC), large international environmental NGOs such as
of information about climate change, in particular, has not led Greenpeace or the World Wildlife Fund, and, in many coun-
to an equally strong amount of scholarly attention for climate tries, green parties. These stakeholders use their considerable
change portrayals on TV. resources to argue that the warming of the climate system is
Furthermore, not all steps of the communication process are unequivocal, as is now evident, and very likely due to the
taken up equally. Most studies focus on the media presentation observed increase in anthropogenic [greenhouse gases]
of climate change, i.e., on how much attention media devote to (IPCC). It is further emphasized that these developments lead
the issue, or how they evaluate and frame it. In contrast, to more extreme weather, intensify resource shortages, and are
analyses of production processes, i.e., how different stake- already harming people and ecosystems (Greenpeace).
holders try to position themselves in media coverage and on Therefore, the need for action to counteract climate change is
media consumption and its effects are less common. emphasized, such as the 2-degree goal to limit global warming
The following article will focus on these subdimensions. It at 2  C compared to preindustrial levels.
will organize the literature into three distinct sections: agenda-
building efforts related to climate change, the role of journalists
Scientic Uncertainty
and the characteristics of the respective media representations,
and their uses and effects. In the mid-1990s, and particularly among representatives of
the US and Australian oil and automobile industries, a coun-
terframe to the abovementioned perspective emerged that has
Stakeholder Communication about Climate Change also been used in other science-related public debates, for
example, around the effects of smoking and secondhand
The existence of climate change itself, its extent and urgency, as smoking or genetic engineering: the scientic uncertainty
well as the appropriate responses and measures toward it are frame. It was sponsored by international corporations like Shell
deeply contested[, with] considerable competition among or Elf as well as their representatives such as the Global
(and between) scientists, industry, policymakers and non- Climate Coalition, conservative think tanks, and various
governmental organizations (NGOs), each of whom is likely administrations and political parties (especially in the US and
to be actively seeking to establish their particular perspectives in Australia). The frame was less prominent in Europe and
on the issues (Anderson, 2009: 166). Using different kinds other countries and has lost importance since the 2000s. The
of strategic communication, these stakeholders often aim frame argues that while global warming may exist, Scientists
for media representation because media are the main forum for do not agree on mans effect on the climate (Citizens for
public debates in modern societies and important sources for a Sound Economy Foundation). Those scientists who argue
information about climate change for many people. Therefore, otherwise are portrayed as alarmists, and their work is dis-
stakeholders try to position themselves in the media in order to credited as junk or pseudo science that has a political
be seen as relevant and viable actors in the eld, and to inject purpose (Global Climate Coalition). If anything, a proper
their positions and views into coverage in order to inuence the response to the alleged state of affairs would be more research,
societal perceptions of climate change and the subsequent but any political regulation is rejected as being premature.
decisions about paths of action.
A considerable number of studies from political science,
Economic Development
sociology, communications, and public relations have analyzed
these efforts using structuration theory, agenda-building theory, A third frame emerged in the wake of negotiations leading up
theories of the public sphere, or social movement theories (for to the Kyoto Protocol. It accepts global warming as existent and
overviews see Hall and Taplin, 2007; McCright and Dunlap, human activity as its major cause, but stresses the high
2003). They have shown that many concerned parties exist in economic costs of action. We are now trying to be more
the case of climate change, which devote large amounts of positive with the science, while still pointing to the high cost of
monetary, personal, cultural, and/or symbolic resources to the precipitate action (Ford), which might cost American fami-
issue. The strategic communication of these stakeholders can be lies billions of dollars and millions of jobs (Global Climate
organized in different frames, i.e., ways of interpreting climate Coalition) and damage competitiveness (Australian Industry
Climate Change and the Media 855

Table 1 Frames of climate change and their sponsors

Anthropogenic climate change

Frame as a global problem Scientific uncertainty Economic development Ecological modernization

Central organizing Scientic evidence shows Scientic evidence about Climate change does exist, Technological development is
idea climate change exists and is climate change is but measures will seriously key to ghting climate
man-made; action is needed inconclusive; therefore, hamper (domestic) change, industry, and
action would be hasty economic development developed countries as
Framing devices Scientic evidence points to Climate science as alarmist Climate change regulation Corporations acknowledge
climate catastrophe; and junk science; its leads to crippled economy responsibility, reframe
atmosphere as global background as a political and restricted lifestyle as them as business
common good; historical complot; climate change is well as a transfer of wealth opportunities for bridging
responsibility of developed a theory, not a fact technologies;
countries; global climate Ecoimagination
Main frame Prominent individual scientists Fossil fuel, coal, automotive, US fossil fuel, coal and European multinational
sponsors and activists, scientic and electric utilities automotive industry, corporations, later adopted
institutions and industry, their associations; Australian coal industry, by many industry sectors in
organizations, IPCC, think tanks, conservative conservative politicians many world regions
environmental NGOs, green politicians, especially in the
parties US
Occurrence Emerged in 1990s and is still Early to mid-1990s, relatively From Kyoto negotiations in Started around Kyoto
widely used widespread geographically, 1997 to early 2000s negotiations, rst in Europe;
most strongly present in strong in many countries
Anglo-Saxon world since mid-2000s

NGO, non-governmental organizations; IPCC, intergovernmental panel on climate change.

Sources: Schlichting, I., 2013. Strategic framing of climate change by industry actors: a meta-analysis. Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture 7 (4),
493511; Schmidt, A., Schlichting, I., in press. In: Hemmer, I., Mller, M. (Eds.), Sustainability and Climate Change: Interpretations and Claims by Societal Actors from
Germany, India and the United States. Oekom, Rio20, Munich with additions from McCright, A.M., Dunlap, R.E., 2003. Defeating kyoto. The conservative movements impact
on US climate change policy. Social Problems 50 (3), 348373; Nisbet, M.C., 2009. Communicating climate change: why frames matter for public engagement. Environment 51
(2), 514518; Weingart, P., Engels, A., Pansegrau, P., 2000. Risks of communication. Discourses on climate change in science, politics, and the mass media. Public
Understanding of Science 9 (3), 261283; and from own research.

Greenhouse Network). Accordingly, it is argued that political particularly Anglo-Saxon ones, stakeholders fall into two
measures have to take this into account, and that the respon- ercely competing camps of climate change: proponents and
sibility for tackling climate change cannot solely lie on indus- skeptics. Whereas in countries like Germany, the Netherlands
trialized, developed countries. To be as effective as possible, it or India, the different frames and their sponsors are found in
calls for a global effort that included countries like China, a less conictive situation.
India, Brazil, and others. Accordingly, international agreements
are rejected as long as they do not include all countries. This
frame is especially prominent among political and economic Climate Journalists and Their Role
factors from developed countries, especially from countries
with a strongly fossil-dependent economy like Australia or Agenda-building efforts directed at the media are not always,
Norway, but it also includes the US. and not equally, successful. Publishing houses and journalists
play important roles as an intermediaries in this respect. Being
seen by journalism theory as gatekeepers of the news ow,
Ecological Modernization
they ultimately decide which topics, stakeholders, and
The fourth frame acknowledges climate change as the single perspectives are represented in the media. Accordingly, the role
biggest environmental challenge facing the planet (Hong of journalists in climate change communication has received
Kong Shanghai Bank of China), but focuses on technological some scholarly interest (for overviews see Bodker and Neverla,
development as the key to ghting climate change and 2013; Brggemann and Engesser, 2014). Most of these studies
describes industry actors and developed countries as pioneer- are content analyses that measure journalistic output and
ing this development. It highlights the potential of an ecolog- extrapolate information about the journalists from there, while
ical modernization to create jobs and national welfare. surveys among journalists and in-depth ethnographic studies
Accordingly, the frame resonated not only among industry in newsrooms are largely missing.
representatives from BP, Shell, other companies, and conser-
vative politicians, but also among trade unions and NGOs, in
Who Climate Journalists Are
civil society and among liberal-to-left politicians like the Blair
administration in the UK. Even though little is known about the sociodemographic
In some variation, these frames are prevalent among many characteristics and attitudes of climate journalists, studies
stakeholders and in many societies. In some countries, have shown that they are a diverse group of professionals and
856 Climate Change and the Media

that their positions within the media differ strongly. As climate These studies cover a large number of different countries even
change is a cross-sectional topic that includes scientic as well though still primarily from the Western world different media
as political, economic, cultural, and other facets, the issue is outlets, many years, and several facets of climate change. Their
taken up by numerous media desks and their journalists. As main ndings are discussed in the following sections.
a result, most journalists writing about climate change are not
monothematic experts on this issue. Still, climate journalists
Climate Change Is a Relevant Media Issue Worldwide
seem to have become relatively knowledgeable about the issue
over time. While an early US journalist survey showed Many studies have focused on the amount of attention media
considerable gaps in their knowledge about climate change, devote to climate change. They show that the issue is a relevant
later studies came to different results and documented that topic in many countries on all continents, outnumbering other
journalists (average) knowledge about the issue is better than hotly debated science issues like stem cell research or genome
that of decision-makers, NGO representatives and others. sequencing. They also demonstrate that media attention for
Moreover, recent ndings indicate that most climate journal- climate change has risen considerably in many countries since
ists are in line with the IPCC view on climate change. the mid-2000s (Schmidt et al., 2014; see Figure 1).

How Climate Journalists Work Media Coverage Is Event-Driven

Some aspects of climate journalists work differ strongly from In addition, studies have shown that media attention for
country to country. The sources they tend to use, for example, climate change, as for many other issues as well, strongly
have been shown to differ considerably according to varying uctuates over time and that it peaks around specic events
national cultures of journalism in countries such as Germany (Schmidt et al., 2014). Some of these are weather events,
and India, scientists are the major sources of climate change particularly extreme weather; coverage about climate change
coverage, whereas in developing countries media and news peaked around Hurricane Katrina, the ood of the century in
agencies from other parts of the world and domestic political Germany and the heat waves in Europe. Journalists, looking
elites seem to be more important. Other aspects of journalists for newsworthy angles of climate change and visible mani-
work seem to be rather stable across countries: journalists festations of the invisible phenomenon, occasionally interpret
working routines consist, among other things, of nding such events as symptoms for climate change, even though
newsworthy topics and highlighting their newsworthiness in these claims often lack a scientic basis. Other events triggering
their coverage, while adhering to general journalistic norms climate change coverage are sociopolitical ones. Particularly
such as thoroughly researching information and providing inuential are the proceedings of international climate politics,
a balanced account of an issue to the readers. It has been shown namely the Conferences of the Parties to the UNFCCC process,
that these general characteristics also apply when journalists where international climate politics is debated by high-ranking
cover climate change, but that they sometimes lead to prob- politicians, and where numerous large NGOs provide addi-
lematic results. On the one side, because the unobtrusive and tional interpretations and photo ops for journalists. These
complex issue of climate change does not cater well to news high-prole political events occur annually, can be prepared
values, journalists have to nd and emphasize its newsworthy for, and systematically focus large amounts of media coverage
aspects in order to cover it. Therefore, they occasionally tend to on climate change and climate politics. But media attention for
play down or omit uncertainties connected to scientic infor- climate change has also been triggered by the recurring releases
mation to comply with the news value of unambiguity; or to of the IPCC Assessment Reports or the Stern Review on the
exaggerate the expected negative outcomes of climate change to economic impacts of climate change, as well as by cultural
comply with the negativity news value. Accordingly, news- events such as the Live Earth concerts and movies like An
paper headlines like Our Earth is Dying (German tabloid Inconvenient Truth or The Day after Tomorrow (Schfer
Bild, 3 February 2007) or, in turn, Climate Hysteria is et al., 2014).
a Scam (Australias Narrogin Observer, 30 June 2010) have
been criticized as being sensationalist and biased. On the other
Coverage Has Moved from the Science of Climate Change
side, established journalistic norms have been shown to be
to Its Societal Impacts
counterproductive at times when covering climate change. The
prime example is Boykoffs balance as bias thesis, which Longitudinal content analyses in various countries demon-
argues that the norm of balanced reporting led to a coverage in strate that the placement of climate change in media coverage
US media in the 1990s where a minority of climate skeptics was has changed over time. While it was mostly dealt with on the
portrayed as being equally important as the (large majority of) science pages (or segments) in the early 1990s, the issue moved
proponents of anthropogenic climate change (cf. Boykoff, from being a primarily scientic issue into other sections of the
2011: esp. 99ff.). media, most notably to politics and the economy. This is
a symptom of a changing focus a societal turn in climate
change coverage. While the scientic basis of climate change is
Media Representations of Climate Change still being reported upon at times (and, especially in Anglo-
Saxon countries, sometimes debated; see Painter and Ashe,
Analyses of media representations of climate change are most 2012), its relative importance has decreased, while climate
prominent in the respective literature, mostly coming from change has increasingly become a political, economic, and
communication and political sciences as well as sociology. social issue. Aspects like the political efforts toward a global
Climate Change and the Media 857

Figure 1 Media attention for climate change in 27 countries worldwide. For each country, one or two leading print media representing different
political positions were chosen for analysis. Leading print media were dened as national media with a high circulation, being published daily and
widely regarded as high-quality papers. The nal sample of the analysis contained 153 261 articles. Percentages indicate the amount of articles
dealing with climate change in relation to all articles published in the analyzed newspapers per month; 19962010; gaps in graphs are due to
missing data. Source: Schmidt et al., 2013.
858 Climate Change and the Media

treaty on emissions reductions, the costs of moving toward than, for example, family and friends. Beyond these rather basic
low-carbon societies for national economies, or the humani- facts, however, little is known about uses and reception
tarian and security implications connected to potentially processes. The social contexts in which users engage with
intensifying resource conicts and climate-induced migration, climate-related media content, their motivations, and grati-
are increasingly taking center stage when media cover climate cations as well as their interpretations of the content have not
change. yet been taken up properly. Motivational theories like uses-
and-gratications and theories of interpersonal communica-
tion and information diffusion could be useful to shed light on
The Content of Climate Change Coverage Differs Considerably
these facets.
from Country to Country
The increased focus of climate change coverage on societal
Agenda-Setting Effects on the Audiences Issue
impacts also seems to come with an increasing domestication
Awareness Exist
of the issue. While the timing and, to some extent, the occa-
sions of coverage are still quite similar internationally Studies on the effects of media representations of climate
particularly among Western European and North American change have mainly focused on individual level effects on
countries the content of coverage often differs considerably. peoples problem awareness, their level of information, and
While coverage in the Netherlands, for example, focuses more their willingness to act, i.e., on potential rst-level agenda-
on technical solutions in line with the described ecological setting effects and on persuasion. They have demonstrated
modernization frame, Swedish media emphasize moral and that the amount of climate change representations that people
ecological aspects to a larger extent. German media display encounter in mass media is linked to their awareness of the
rather warmist standpoints similar to the anthropogenic issue, pointing toward an agenda-setting effect. This result has
climate change as a global roblem frame, whereas media mainly been established through surveys of peoples self-
coverage in the US and Australia is stronger polarized between assessed media use, which are rarely supplemented with
skeptics and warmists who devote more attention to the analyses of actual media content or use. Future studies should
scientic uncertainty frame. In countries beyond the Western take these factors into account, and also aim to distinguish the
world, such as India or Bangladesh, postcolonial arguments specic contribution of different media with regards to
can be found, which interpret climate change as mainly of agenda setting.
Western concern (e.g., Billett, 2010).
Mass Media Use Increases Knowledge about Climate Change
Uses and Effects of Media Representations Cognitive effects of media representations of climate change
of Climate Change have also been repeatedly shown. People acquire information
about the issue from the media and learn something about it.
Compared to the analyses of media representations of climate This includes factual information about the phenomenon
change themselves which are often justied with their alleged itself the extent and causes of climate change as well as
effects on peoples issue awareness, knowledge, or behavior potential solutions and options for (individual) action
their actual uses and effects have received less scholarly atten- (Stamm et al., 2000; Taddicken, 2013). These processes of
tion (cf Taddicken, 2013). Furthermore, scholarship on these information acquisition have been well established for cases
issues has many gaps: Studies tend to focus on cognitive effects, in which people turn to media specically for information
but not on affective and other effects; on information-oriented about climate change. Their existence and extent is less certain
formats and not on entertaining or ctional ones; on print for general, unspecic media use, i.e., in cases where people
media and not on TV (which has been shown to have the use media habitually and come across climate change infor-
strongest effects in general and to be the main source of mation involuntarily.
peoples information about climate change); on individual
level effects and not on meso (institutional) and macro (soci-
Behavioral Effects Are Less Clear
etal) effects; and on the general public and not on special
audiences such as scientists, politicians, or journalists. In The existence of media effects on climate change-related
addition, the results of the few existing studies paint an unclear, behavior has not yet been established. Studies have found
incoherent, and sometimes contradictory picture. Nevertheless, effects of media use on peoples information-seeking; those
a number of recurring results can be extracted. using media and learning from them are more likely to search
for more information about climate change in the future
(Zhao, 2009). Regarding climate-related behavior and action,
Mass Media Are Important and Trusted Sources for Climate
however, only some weak media effects have been found, and
Change Information
in practically all cases refer to behavioral intentions rather than
Regarding the uses of media representations of climate change, actual behavior. Even in these cases, the evidence is mixed:
it has been shown repeatedly that mass media particularly whereas effects could be shown for the intention to engage in
television and newspapers, but increasingly the Internet as societally relevant activities, no media inuence could be
well are the most important sources for peoples information shown for self-reported investment decisions or lifestyle
about climate change. Furthermore, mass media also seem changes (Arlt et al., 2011). Therefore, more robust studies in
to be credible sources, whom people trust more on the issue longitudinal behavioral effects are necessary.
Climate Change and the Media 859

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