Climate change is ‘the defining issue of our time’, according to the United Nations, with an impact that is global in scope and unprecedented in scale.1 Attention may be focused today on the immediate threat of coronavirus, but this does not reduce the underlying dangers of climate change. The role of the news media is critical in influencing levels of public concern, but even though extreme weather events such as hurricanes, floods, and fires seem to be happening more regularly, many people still do not always feel personally or directly affected. Multilateral conferences can feel like remote talking shops, while scientific models around the implications for sea-level rise or migration can be hard to explain. A further challenge for the media has been in making coverage attractive to different segments, including the young, the partisan, and those currently indifferent to climate change.
But the past year seems to have marked a shift in terms of public and political interest, with more people across the globe, particularly the young, joining demonstrations and strikes led by next generation leaders like Greta Thunberg. Much of this support in turn has been mobilised not by traditional sources like television but through networked channels such as Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. This generational pressure has combined with a series of real-life events which have included a record melting of the ice sheets, crop failures in the Mid-West, floods in Europe, and devastating fires in both the Amazon and Australia – all of which have raised climate issues higher up the media agenda. Some news organisations have also devoted more resource and editorial priority to the issue and there have been joint initiatives including Covering Climate Now which involves 400 media outlets.
In this chapter we explore in detail the different sources people use to learn more about climate change and how this is affected by age, education, and political affiliation. We also look at the extent to which different groups value the media’s coverage of this complex subject and ask how it could be improved. Our analysis covers 40 markets, from Sweden to Kenya to the Philippines.
The Majority are Concerned about Climate Change
Climate change really matters to most people. On average, across all markets, around 69% of respondents stated that they consider climate change to be an extremely or very serious problem. Less than one in ten (9%) of our respondents does not see climate change as serious while around one in five (19%) said they were somewhat concerned. There is some variation across countries. Around 90% of respondents in Chile, Kenya, and South Africa view climate change as very or extremely serious. Chile and some countries in Africa have historically shown high levels of concern2, and the high figure for Chile could also have been related to its first internal population displacements last year as a result of a ten-year drought.3 In Africa too, many countries are already severely affected by the consequences of climate change.4 However, in Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands, only around half (or less) think that climate change is a severe problem.
In most countries we observe a clear consensus about the seriousness on the issue on one side, but also a small number of individuals who do not take climate change seriously at all. This may be because they feel disconnected from the issue, because they are sceptical of the science, or because they are worried about the economic impact of measures to tackle climate change.
The vast majority of markets in our dataset have fewer than 3% saying climate change is not serious at all. But scepticism (or indifference) is far higher in the United States (12%) as well as in Sweden (9%), Greta Thunberg’s home country. Further, in Australia, 8% of respondents say that climate change is not serious at all, even though the country was going through devastating bush fires at the time of our fieldwork.
Ideological Differences in the Perception of Climate Change
Political alignment may help explain some of the differences. Across markets, the more left one sits on the political spectrum, the more the levels of concern about climate change tend to rise. But in markets where the issue itself is highly politicised, the differences are even starker. In the United States, for instance, 89% of those who self-identify on the left report a serious concern about climate change, compared with just 18% of those who self-identify on the right. Right-wing media outlets in the United States have often taken a sceptical view of the scientific consensus while President Trump has announced plans to withdraw from the international Paris agreement because he thinks the restrictions will undermine the US economy. We find a similar divide in Sweden where right-wing websites play a significant role in opposing the consensus on a range of issues including climate change.
Sources of News on Climate Change
Our data show that people pay far more attention to television when it comes to climate change than to other forms of media. These findings are in line with previous research (Schäfer and Schlichting 2014), perhaps reflecting the power of the moving image to stir our emotions. Watching glaciers melt or seeing images of plastic clogging up our oceans can often have more impact than reading a news article containing scientific details of climate change.
Online news sites of major news organisations are the second most popular news source across all markets. Our survey respondents also pay attention to specialised outlets covering climate issues (13%) as well as alternative sources such as social media and blogs (9%). By comparison it is striking that printed newspapers and radio are even less important as a source of news than conversations with friends and family. On average, 7% of respondents across all markets stated that they do not pay attention to climate change news.
How Young People Access News about Climate Change
While television is more prevalent among respondents over the age of 35, alternative sources such as social media and blogs are more popular among younger groups. 18–24s (so-called Generation Z) are three times as likely to access alternative sources of news around climate change when compared to over-55s.
In open comments our respondents told us more about their motivations for using social media. Many talked about the value they got from accessing news directly from activists. Others said they picked up news by following celebrities or influencers that they admired:
I follow climate activists like Greta Thunberg [on social media] and follow what she does.
Female, 19, UK
Leonardo DiCaprio posts on Instagram about climate change a lot – so does Cody Simpson.
Female, 20, US
Others still talked about using a wide range of different sources in combination with mainstream media. This is in line with evidence noted in our Executive Summary that young people are more interested in news with a point of view and in accessing authentic and diverse perspectives from a wide range of digital sources including podcasts and blogs.
I get most of my news about climate change from smaller, independent news outlets such as commondreams.org as well as from various peoples’ feeds, pages, and websites that post interesting, and scientific, and political content.
Male, 25–34, US
[I am] following politicians, activists, and leaders in the world posting about climate change and how the things we do affect our environment. The Earth is our past, present, and future and [I] think that climate change should be the number one priority in everyone’s life.
Female, 25–34, US
It is important to stress that, as well as following activists and influencers, younger groups are also accessing traditional brands in social media. Titles like National Geographic, for example, seem to be finding a new audience with its visual Instagram and Facebook posts on the subject.
Sources of News Amongst the Least Concerned
Around a third (32%) of those who report that climate change is not serious or not serious at all state that they do not pay attention to news about climate change. Many of these tend to have lower levels of education and are less interested in news more generally.
Those who do pay attention but are still sceptical are less likely to use mainstream media but just as likely to use alternative sources such as social media when compared with those that are more concerned. Only a fifth (20%) of those who say that climate change is not serious rely on television news compared with 37% of those that take it more seriously.
Participation and Climate Change
Those that are less concerned, while fewer in numbers, frequently report sharing news stories online – especially in polarised societies. For example, in the USA, those who say that climate change is not serious are as likely to share news about climate change via social media or email as those who are extremely concerned about climate change. And in Sweden, the least concerned are almost twice as likely to share news online as those who believe that climate change is a serious issue. In both these countries we see a highly vocal minority making a big noise online.
By contrast, in Chile, where we record the highest degree of concern over climate change, most of the online sharing comes from those with the highest levels of concern and this is the picture we find in most other countries.
How Do the News Media Perform?
With an overall consensus about the seriousness of climate change, how do people feel the media are doing in covering the issue and informing the public? Across markets around half (47%) say that the news media do a good job in providing accurate information about climate change. By contrast, those who say the problem is not serious are far more likely to think the media are doing a bad job (46%) than a good job (16%).
Combined with their relatively high use of alternative sources such as social media this might suggest a loss of confidence by this group in the mainstream media. This may be due to how trustworthy or biased they think the news media are when it comes to reporting on climate change. As we’ve already learned, in the United States much of this relates to the highly charged political atmosphere and how this colours views on the mainstream media in general:
Lies about climate control because [the] Democrats are full of shit.
Male, 37, US
Elsewhere critics from both left and right accuse the media of not being bold enough in their coverage, being relentlessly doom-laden and negative, and following hidden agendas. Many of these critiques are not specific to climate change and are part of wider concerns about the news media:
I don’t trust corporate media sources to be frank enough about climate change.
Male, 55–64, US
Twitter, allows people to speak freely on matters they know about such as climate change without the propaganda/indoctrination newspapers and TV has.
Female, 18–24, UK
I would rather read a balanced report that looks at all factors than the ‘we’re doomed’ coming from the likes of the BBC or Sky News.
Male, 18–24, UK
We observe a similar story when we ask about how well the media perform in terms of helping them understand what they can do personally about climate change, with an overall consensus that the media are doing a good job, but a minority that take a very different view.
The majority of our respondents express serious concern about climate change, with only a minority that disagrees. But at least part of this group has different news consumption habits about climate change than the rest. They are highly critical of the mainstream media and often use alternative sources including social media. These attitudes are not unique to climate change but the issue reflects the existing strong divisions among different segments of the population – especially in countries that already have high levels of political polarisation.5
Young people are not as disapproving of the mainstream media while still embracing alternative media sources in a search for authenticity and more diverse points of view. All of this is challenging for news organisations in terms of catering for different audiences and producing content in new formats. There is also a new level of competition with influencers and celebrities where journalists are now just one source amongst many.
Some media organisations are responding to these trends by taking a clearer stand. The Guardian, for example, has started to talk about ‘climate emergency’ rather than climate change. Other publications have started to take more content that is sponsored by NGOs and foundations with an interest in shifting policy choices. But any shift towards more campaigning journalism will also need to bear in mind the partisan differences in attitude to the subject revealed in this report and the widespread desire for a lack of hidden agendas if trust is to be maintained.
- United Nations. Climate Change. Accessed Apr. 2020. https://www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/climate-change/ ↩
- https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2015/11/05/1-concern-about-climate-change-and-its-consequences/ ↩
- M. Rojas, ‘Global Heating Plus Inequality is a Recipe for Chaos – Just Look at Chile’, Guardian (8 Dec. 2019), accessed Apr. 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/08/un-conference-global-heating-cop25-chile-madrid-climate-crisis ↩
- BBC, ‘How Africa Will Be Affected by Climate Change?’ (15 Dec. 2019), accessed Apr. 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-50726701 ↩
- Using a logistic regression (dependent variable: scepticism 0-1) across all markets with country fixed effects, we test the relationship between climate change scepticism and the media sources used for climate change, while controlling for political alignment (left-right), frequency of access to news, interest in news, trust in news, gender, age, education. We find statistically significant and negative relationships between various types of media sources (TV, online news, alternative sources, print, radio, specialised outlets on climate change) and scepticism. Those who report ‘not paying attention’ to news sources about climate change are more likely to be sceptical about climate change. Further, climate change scepticism and right-wing political ideology are positively linked, meaning that those who are on the right end of the political spectrum are more likely to report climate change scepticism. Women and those with higher levels of education are, on average, less likely to be sceptical about climate change. We also find that the more people trust in news, the less they report being sceptical about climate change. All results reported here are statistically significant (p < 0.05). ↩