Eavesdropping on the climate change debate

Sun and turbines14 March 2012

By Simon Hadlington

With the research project 'Climate change as a complex social issue' researchers have been eavesdropping on people's discussions about climate change. The work presents an intriguing insight into how the political and scientific debate on climate change affects the views and attitudes of individuals and groups in society, and highlights how the issue is perceived differently across countries.

"There have been many projects looking at the public perception of climate change, but there has been little research on how the debate has changed from the 1980s until now," says project leader Professor Brigitte Nerlich of the University of Nottingham.

The project is jointly funded by ESRC and The Netherlands Science Foundation, and uses a wide variety of methods to monitor and analyse how climate change is discussed and debated in traditional media and across the internet.

The research team, from the universities of Nottingham and Leicester in the UK and the Free University of Amsterdam in The Netherlands, consists of experts in a range of disciplines, including linguistics, communication studies, organisation studies and social psychology. The team has made a detailed study of how climate change is represented in traditional media outlets such as newspapers and how this is reflected among the wider population through blogs, twitter and comments posted online.

"We have taken our starting point as 1988, when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was founded, and have mapped the debate since then," says Professor Nerlich. "It is clear that a general consensus appeared to be forming that climate change was a real threat and that solutions needed to be found. But that all changed in 2009 with the so-called 'Climategate' affair."

This refers to the leak of emails from the climate research unit at the University of East Anglia, which seemed to show that data was being manipulated. "From then onwards, the climate change debate has become a tale of 'two evidences'," says Professor Nerlich - scientific evidence is pitted against evidence of alleged scientific misconduct.

In one study, the team carried out a textual analysis of hundreds of blogs posted in the aftermath of Climategate, and showed how religious metaphors were being used to describe climate scientists. "Sceptics accused the scientists of being 'dogmatic' and behaving like faith preachers, relying not on evidence but on articles of faith," says Professor Nerlich.

A study of comments left on the website of the Daily Mail showed that following Climategate, people's faith in climate scientists was severely shaken. "Some climate sceptical readers invoked science as being the arbiter of truth and objective fact - while at the same time claiming that climate science was tainted and fraudulent through its association with politics and money," Professor Nerlich notes.

A comparison of newspaper coverage of the issue in the UK and the US demonstrates how there is generally more consensus in the UK that climate change is a problem that needs to be tackled, whereas in the US the debate remains polarised around whether or not it actually is a problem.

"One important observation in our study is that what people say and think about climate change reflects other aspects of society," says ESRC Research Fellow Dr Rusi Jaspal, of the University of Nottingham. "By mapping the climate change debate as it evolves, we hope to gain insights into how the media and politicians represent major events, and how groups and individuals within society interpret these representations, often depending on their identity. There is an important role for identity in the climate change debate – how people's or groups' identities dictate or influence their attitudes and perceptions."

'Climate Week' runs from Monday 12 March to Sunday 18 March 2012.