Bringing Climate Change Back on the Agenda

By Anthony Froggatt

The recent UN climate talks in Doha failed to make many headlines, despite the urgency of the problem. Yet the 2009 summit in Copenhagen, which was attended by heads of state from across the world, ranked high on the media agenda in the run up to and during the two week conference. Statistics show a general decline in media coverage on climate change: according to the Daily Climate global database 2011 coverage of climate change was 20% down on 2010 and 42% down on 2009.

This is in contrast to the volume of media coverage on energy. In the UK this peaked in recent weeks with the publication of the Energy Bill and departmental fighting on the role of renewable energy. Globally, energy features prominently in the media whether it be national calls for energy independence, reaction to the nuclear releases (such as Fukushima), higher energy prices and the opening up of new resources.

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Over the last two years the Chatham House Energy, Environment and Resources department has worked with the Media Group at Glasgow University on a project sponsored by the UK Energy Research Centre exploring public attitudes on energy security and climate change. Through focus groups, we assessed the role of the media in the formation of views and behavioural change. The results are important for policy makers to gain an insight into the degree of public understanding and motivations for behaviour change and also for journalists in their role as opinion formers.

The research shows that climate change has not only fallen down the media and political, but also the public agenda. The economic crisis has played an important role in this defection, preoccupying governments and publics. In the UK, caring about the environment is seen as a luxury by people from most backgrounds, and although awareness is high, they feel powerless and therefore unwilling to change their behaviour.

Furthermore, parts of the public remain uncertain over the causes of climate change and some state opposing views on the science as a reason for inaction. This contrasts with the majority scientific view as authoritative reports by the World Bank, World Meteorological Organisation and others are clear about the impact of increasing greenhouse gas emissions on the current and future climate.

The energy security story is similar in that without a full understanding of government policies the public are reluctant to give their support. The opposition by local communities to the deployment of renewable technologies across the UK, such as wind farms, is an obvious example. But while people generally have a sense - clear or confused - of what climate change is, the term 'energy security' is widely unfamiliar to the public. However, once the concept is explained, there is concern and a desire for government action.

The media is fundamental to public understanding and acceptance of the need for change. Trust in certain traditional media, primarily in the BBC in the UK, remains high, while new media is not yet the primary source of information for most people. What was clear from the focus groups was that without continual media attention, public perception on the urgency of energy and climate change is reduced. This creates a dilemma as many of the impacts and messages around climate change are repetitive: headlines require new stories.

Ongoing and high profile media coverage is fundamental to keep information flowing, shape ideas and encourage actions. Therefore more emphasis must be given on the work and relationships between scientists, policy makers, journalists and ultimately the public to build trust, understanding and consensus.

The question is whether decision makers and politicians are best placed to communicate the message. The study shows a higher level of public trust towards the scientific community, so the scientists who have public trust need to step up and become more visible on energy and climate change issues before damage becomes irreversible.

Antony Froggatt is Senior Research Fellow, Energy, Environment and Resources at Chatham House were this article first appeared. Republished with permission.

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