Media scepticism sows doubt, not progress, on climate change

11 December 2015

In the third and final article of our COP21 commentary series, Dr. Catherine Happer, Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Glasgow, looks at why climate change still hasn’t captured headlines in the UK, and how the interplay between media and politics fuels scepticism and apathy, despite increasing popular support for action.

On November 30, arguably the most important political event to take place this decade opened in Paris: the long-anticipated COP21, the UN climate summit, at which the future of the planet, and all who live there, will be decided. The world’s most powerful people came together to talk of ‘a shared mission for mankind’ (China’s Xi Jinping), ‘the hope of all humanity’ (France’s President Hollande) while the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron boldly asked: ‘what would we have to say to our grandchildren if we failed?’ A clean sweep on the mainstream news headlines paralleled by a tsunami across the world’s social media for the duration of the summit would be a given, surely?

In Britain, however, whilst media attention to climate change has indeed witnessed a significant spike in the last few weeks, the discussions have not quite grabbed the headlines in the way anticipated – indeed the way that is necessary. The terrorist events in Paris two weeks before, or the ensuing discussion about British action to be taken, could not, of course, have been predicted. But the way in which this issue wiped everything else, including climate change, off the media radar is significant. On the first day of the talks, not one major press outlet featured climate change on its front pages. Question Time, the BBC’s flagship news discussion programme and a fairly good indicator of the broadcast news agenda in any given week, didn’t include even one question about the issue. A debate about junior doctors striking was allotted the last five minutes of an edition devoted entirely to the parliamentary vote on bombing in Syria and the impact on the Labour leadership. The presence on the panel of the leader of the Green party, Caroline Lucas, indicated that climate change might have been a consideration at one point, but didn’t make the final cut.

For those studying media and public interest in climate change, however, none of this is surprising – if still disappointing. For many years, the issue has suffered from what has been described in academic circles as a ‘persistent conundrum’. That in spite of widespread recognition of the seriousness of climate change, we have not seen any effective and sustained public demand for action. In the UK, for example, it just doesn’t register as a public priority. Studies have shown that there are problems with the perceived remotenesss of the issue to people’s lives in the UK – unlike, say, in China where the association of climate change with pollution makes it a source of genuine concern. But research conducted by the Glasgow University Media Group has also shown the way in which public interest, and level of priority, is located in a circuit of communicative processes across politics and the media. Political actors, and the groups which have access to them including lobbyists and corporate PR, feed into the media and media content interacts with factors such as values, knowledge and experience to shape public opinion and belief – which crucially then inputs into political decision-making.

At the current time, sceptical perspectives in the media continue to sow the seeds of doubt about the need to pursue action, even as these viewpoints are marginalised. But, more significantly, the current lack of attention by government and opposition, and the prioritising of the economy over all other areas of state responsibility, has led to a relative media silence on the issue. In the age of social media, this leaves audiences with limited mainstream triggers for discussion and engagement. As one focus group respondent noted: if it’s not in the media, it’s not in our heads. This disengagement is reinforced by a general sense of the inevitability of inaction on climate action, partly because politicians aren’t interested, and partly because people are so focused on their own lives – and whether they can afford the new iPhone. If nothing is likely to ever get done at the collective level, why should individuals care? And this in turn lets politicians off the hook. In the last year alone, the Conservative government has cut subsidies for solar energy and off-shore wind, and cancelled the carbon capture and storage initiative, in a longer-term watering down of the commitments enshrined in the Climate Change act of 2008.

The Paris talks offered an opportunity to change that – for the strong and vocal online groups debating and analysing what might be achieved to spread their passion and commitment to the wider community. But, in spite of intensive efforts, climate change has not dominated the public agenda – even whilst politicians acknowledge it’s the most pressing issue of our time. As David Cameron noted in his opening speech, our imagined grandchildren will ask: ‘why on earth didn’t you do it?’ Imagine the public and media outcry when such a yawning gap between rhetoric and policy is exposed on, say, immigration? Why on earth? Perhaps because the public and media let them.

Follow Catherine on Twitter: @catherinehapper

News Focus articles are the views of the author and not necessarily those of the Campaign for Social Science.