By Jillian Smith, University of Birmingham
It has been a battle worthy of Cervantes, had he been alive in this era of anthropogenic climate change. Simply mentioning the terms ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ can elicit impassioned, often divisive, rejoinders from an audience. Invariably, belief and cultural systems drive the discourse of climate change opinion and news reportage; it is a complex chicken and egg scenario. There does, however, appear to be an esoteric climate change–political nexus that also, perhaps deplorably at times, influences public opinion. Nowhere does this egregious unification seem more prevalent than in the United States. How do the politics around climate change influence the narratives and public perception?
Astoundingly, when a group of researchers set out to examine seventy-four American public opinion polls between 2002 and 2010, they discovered that neither extreme weather events nor scientific stories affected public perception of climate change (Brulle et al., 2011). News reports – but more importantly, the politicians framed in the reports – were the biggest influences (Brulle, et al., 2011). The two strongest events driving public concern in the United States at the time were the Democratic Congressional action statements and the Republican roll-call votes (Brulle, et al., 2011). Indeed, most studies indicate that American views of climate change are strongly influenced by partisan politics. Worldwide, however, educational attainment is generally regarded as the single biggest predictor of climate change awareness.
Interestingly, while Americans and Canadians share a border and enjoy similar lifestyles, a 2010 cross-border poll revealed fewer Americans claim solid evidence of global warming “based on what they have read or heard” (Borick et al., 2011). Remarkably, 58 percent of Americans and 80 percent of Canadians answered affirmatively to the evidence of global warming (Borick et al., 2011). A more recent opinion poll suggests that while 70 percent of American adults believe global warming is happening, only 53 percent think it is caused by human activities (Marlon et al., 2016).
To delve into the cultural and worldview disparities between the United States and Canada would be an exhaustive endeavor. Still, it remains striking that Canada, within reach of America’s massive media kingdom, consistently reports and frames anthropogenic climate change differently than the United States. While American reports continue to debate the science behind global warming, Canadian reports tend to frame the mitigation of anthropogenic climate change (Good, 2008).
Novelty, controversy, geographic proximity, and relevance are all important frames in scientific stories (Caravalho, 2007). Experts employ frames to simplify technical jargon; journalists use frames to craft appealing news reports; and audiences rely on frames to envisage an issue (Nisbet, 2009). When climate change basics are framed as scientifically tenable positions, audiences must choose to question or quarantine their comfortably held beliefs. In documenting Arctic ice edge narratives, Veland and Lynch (2016) state that we tend to rely on narratives that provide comfort to us. The authors add that ontological insecurity can be a major challenge in making sound environmental decisions.
Once upon a time, scientists were informers and people listened. Today, because the average citizen does not read peer-reviewed scientific literature, many rely on media and opinion pieces to educate themselves on newsworthy science stories. Disparagement between petulant politicians and scientists often overshadows the science. But climate change is a science; it does not require belief. In that sense, public opinion matters little.
Moreover, the post-modernist notion that all ideas are worthy of expression can become unfavorable in the realm of climate science. Science is indeed stronger with scrutiny; but those scrutinizing it are often politicians, journalists, and bloggers, not scientists. It is not difficult to weave scandalous narratives about anthropogenic climate change: one side includes ‘alarmists’ and ‘manipulators of science’ who say the earth is doomed; the other claims global warming is an ‘elaborate hoax’. This ‘experts in conflict’ narrative is a popular practice used predominantly in the United States. International research demonstrates this custom is not widely used outside of America (Young & Dugas, 2011).
Undoubtedly, the path to re-engineering society will require a reorganization of thought – perceptions without politics, notions detached from debates, narratives with new frames. Veland and Lynch (2016) assert that the Anthropocene narrative warns that stories–and the networks that make them–must change. As Cervantes said through Quixote, “he who walks much and reads much knows much and sees much.” The path forward surely involves assembling this collective knowledge and having discussions, not debates.
Borick, C., Lachapelle, E., & Rabe, B. (2011, February 23). Climate Compared: Public Opinion on Climate Change in the United States and Canada. (The University of Michigan; The Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion) Retrieved from Public Policy Forum/Sustainable Prosperity: http://www.sustainableprosperity.ca/article911
Brulle, R. J., Carmichael, J., & Jenkins, J. C. (2011). Shifting public opinion on climate change: an empirical assessment of factors influencing concern over climate change in the US, 2002-2010. Climatic Change.
Carvahlo, A. (2007). Ideological cultures and media discourses on scientific knowledge: re-reading news on climate change. (S. Publications, Producer) Retrieved from Public Understanding of Science: http://www.pus.sagepub.com
Good, J. E. (2008). The Framing of Climate Change in Canadian, American, and International Newspapers; A Media Propaganda Model Analysis. (C. J. Communication, Ed.) Retrieved from http://www.cjc-online.ca/index.php/journal/article/view/2017/2006
Nisbet, M. (2009). Communicating climate change: Why frames matter for public engagement. Environment, 51 (2).
Veland, S., & Lynch, A. (2016). Arctic ice edge narratives: scale, discourse and ontological security. Area, 49.1, 9–17 doi: 10.1111/area.12270
Young, N., & Dugas, E. (2011). (C. S. Association, Producer, & University of Ottawa) Representations of Climate Change in Canadian National Print Media: The Banalization of Global Warming: http://www.ebscohost.com