Nov 19, 2021 - Energy & Environment

What moves the climate communications needle

An illustration of a microphone with warning tape.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A new paper finds that words used in news stories to label climate change are less consequential than whether stories emphasize harm or solutions.

Driving the news: Researchers tested engagement with "climate crisis" and "climate emergency" — phrasing that has gained media traction — and "climate change."

  • They also showed survey participants stories focused on impacts (such as wildfires), solutions (such as U.S. states' climate plans), and a mixed set.

How it works: The survey involved tweets of stories under the Associated Press handle but actually from multiple outlets, and showed a headline, image and story lead.

What they found: Climate phrasing doesn't really move the needle, Rutgers and University of Michigan researchers found in the peer-reviewed study in Climatic Change.

  • "[T]erminology did not have any effect on public engagement with climate change, measured in terms of fear, hope, collective efficacy beliefs, policy support, and intended political action."
  • And to a small degree, the "emergency" frame "reduced perceived news credibility and perceived newsworthiness."

Yes, but: Long-term exposure to "emergency" and "crisis" framing may build support for action — or could bring "disengagement" among some audiences. The survey did not measure long-term impacts, and future research is needed, they write.

  • Turning to story content, "news about climate impacts decreased hope and efficacy beliefs, and increased fear, compared to news about climate actions."

The bottom line: The results "emphasize the importance of focusing on actions and efficacy information in news coverage of climate change, either alone or in combination with impacts, regardless of the terminology used."

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