How to best report on global warming

Global warming is one of today’s most important scientific issues. Of course there are still those who think it doesn’t exist, or that there are too many uncertainties around the subject. But if you are a concerned science journalist: what’s the best way to report about it? The March issue of the scientific journal Science Communication offers some clues. The editors of the journal’s special issue about global warming claim it is high time for science communicators to take their responsibility and try and make a contribution to solving the problems around climate change through their work. The journal contains four papers about issues concerning communicating global warming.

Stop trying to promote attitudinal change, say David Ockwell from the University of Sussex and two of his UK colleagues. Though it may seem logical to try and convince people that they should, for instance, take the car less often, research shows that this approach has little effect. In the UK, many people are already aware that behavioral changes like these have a positive effect on global warming. But they don’t make them. According to the researchers, this is because of socio-psychological reasons. People think others will probably not make these changes. And if others don’t, why should they? As long as it’s not the social norm to stop taking the car, nothing will change. Also, even if the social norm would change, there’s always the risk of the “free rider” effect. There will always be people that figure: “If so many others make an effort, it doesn’t matter much if I don’t” . But what if many people think this way?

So, according to Ockwell, the only way to make a real change is to force people to behave differently. Governmental regulations are a useful tool for this. But not many politicians are willing to propose or adopt regulations leading to low-carbon footprint lifestyles, because on the short term it will most likely decrease their popularity. Ockwell and his colleagues think the solution for this problem is twofold. First, science communicators should try and make people get used to the idea that forced regulation is the only way to bring about greener lifestyles. Second, they should encourage grass-root action in the form of the public asking the government for regulatory measures. This way top-down action can be achieved through a bottom-up approach.

Matthew Nisbet from the American University and John Kotcher from the National Academies come up with another approach. They say that opinion leaders are often overlooked when it comes to catalyzing action concerning climate change. Convince key individuals amongst communities and social groups that greener lifestyles and energy conservation are necessary. They are the persons most likely to succeed in getting the message across to the general public. This is of course what’s behind the famous Al Gore-effect. But the opinion leader doesn’t have to be a famous politician, or tv-star, or someone like that. It can also be, for instance, a local church leader.

And please: don’t scare the public too much. Focusing on the threats of climate change might just work counterproductive, according to Saffron O”Neill and Sophie Nicholson-Cole from the UK-based University of East Anglia. Previous research has indicated that continuous exposure to fearful images can lead to desensitizing and decreased concern. Continuous exposure to fearful images can also lead to feeling a lack of control, which in turn may lead to uncertainty and skepticism, an externalization of responsibility and blame or stating other issues as more immediate and pressing, and fatalism. O’Neill and Nicholson-Cole add the findings of two qualitative studies to these existing findings. They exposed 110 participants in total to a diverse range of images concerning global warming and asked what feelings these illustrations evoked. It turned out that the pictures that made climate change seem most important (e.g. starving children, a dried lake with dead fish) were also the pictures that made the participants feel most unable to do something about climate change. So, the researchers conclude: shocking imagery may very well act as an initial hook to get people’s attention and concern. But they are also most likely to distance or disengage people from climate change in the long run. So, to keep people engaged, it is better to use illustrations that give people the feeling there is something they can do. For instance locally relevant climate change imagery.

Finally, LeeAnn Kahlor and Sonny Rosenthal from the University of Texas in the US wanted to know which factors best predict the knowledge a person has about global warming. They held an online survey amongst a national sample of 805 participants. It turned out that the number of media sources used, the effort put into information seeking and the level of education were most positively correlated with one’s knowledge of global warming. Though these results are not very surprising, some other results are. Usually, people will seek out more information about a subject if they feel it has some kind of personal relevance for them. But in this survey, there was no correlation between perceived personal relevance and the level of knowledge about global warming. The researchers think this may indicate that most of the information about climate change people in the US encounter doesn’t frame the information as personally relevant. Another surprising result of the research is that, contrary to expectations, there turns out to be a negative relationship between newspaper usage and the level of knowledge about global warming. The researcher think this may either be because of a lack of expertise from or lack of coverage by newspaper reporters. So, here lies a big challenge for science journalism for US newspapers.

The abstracts of the papers mentioned above are available at http://scx.sagepub.com. The full text versions are not freely available, but may be accessed through university or library networks.