Media coverage of climate change research does not inspire action

June 25, 2023

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Media coverage of climate change research does not inspire action

The planet is warming because of human activities and the consequences will be devastating for all living beings, including humans. At present, everyone is potentially exposed to this information in the media. But how do scientific journals and the media relay research related to these issues? Is the scientific focus of climate warming research reflected in what the media decides to present?

In a study published in Global Environmental Change, scientists specialized in geosciences and psychology have examined these questions. An analysis of the collection of about 50,000 scientific publications on climate change for the year 2020 was carried out to identify what of this impressive body of research made its way into the mainstream media. The analysis showed that most of the research selected by the media was biased to the natural sciences. It overly focused on large-scale climate projections that will occur in the future, and a narrow range of threats such as polar bears, drought and melting glaciers.

The paper shows that this type of narrative does not activate the mechanisms known from research on psychology that might engage pro-environmental behaviors in readers. On the contrary, the way the media’s selective choice of certain elements of climate change research could backfire, provoking denial and avoidance.

The study speaks of a possible distancing reaction on the part of the public, resulting from this globalizing approach.

What the researchers say: “The individuals exposed to these facts, not feeling directly concerned by them, will tend towards a peripheral, superficial and distracted treatment of the information. Only a central, deep and attentive consideration will allow the public to transform what they know into mechanisms of action and commitment”, explains the study’s co-author. “If the goal of mediating research is to have a societal impact, then it seems that we are pushing all the buttons that don’t work.”

Large-scale threats can create fear. But, as the researchers remind us, “research on human behavior shows that fear can lead to behavioral change in individuals and groups, but only if the problem presented is accompanied by solutions.” Faced with purely descriptive articles that emphasize only highly selected elements of climate change, the public will tend to ignore the problem, seek out less anxiety-provoking information and surround themselves with networks that present a more serene reality.

What can be done, then, to communicate in an effective, encouraging way, encouraging society to engage more widely in climate protection action?

“The treatment of environmental issues in a transversal and solution-oriented way would be useful. It would show that climate change has direct consequences on our lifestyles, our immediate environment or our finances, for example,” the lead author said.

This approach requires a change in the behavior of communication managers in research institutions, in publishers, as well as in the media. “For the time being, the most renowned scientific publications favor end-of-21st-century studies,” they explain. “Journalists then give very wide coverage to the publications of these journals, which are the most highly rated.”

So, what? Isolated, a human being acting now will not have an impact if the focus is a long time in the future (when most readers or viewers will no longer be alive). However, collective actions can be very effective. There are solutions, but they need to be brought to light, beyond local initiatives.

My fear is that, as with AI, the horse has long bolted. Climate change and unregulated (or poorly regulated) AI are two of what I call “the six horsemen of the modern apocalypse.” The rest are: nuclear winter, unregulated human genetic engineering, inequality and pandemics. Each of the horsemen represents a possible existential threat to humanity as we know it.

I might add right-wing populism to the list because of its tendency to denigrate science and minimize inconvenient (to plutocrats) facts. This delays action needed to save our species (and all others).

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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