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Sceptics, climate change and the media

newspapers detailThis is a guest post by James Painter of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism

It’s nearly Christmas, so it must be the end of another round of UN climate talks.  One of the less reported aspects of this annual meet-up is that the 190-odd delegations often come from quite different backgrounds when it comes to popular views about climate change in their home countries.

For example, surveys show significant differences between countries as to how much people believe that mankind’s greenhouse gas emissions are the main driver of climate change.

At first this might seem odd. After all, reports from the IPCC and others are pretty good at laying out where there are core certainties and residual uncertainties.  And these reports get widespread coverage in most countries of the world.

Difference of opinion
But in a recent AXA/Ipsos survey of 13,000 internet users in 13 countries, the USA and the UK showed much lower agreement than other countries with the statement that ‘human activity is mainly responsible for climate change’.

In the US, 58 per cent agreed with the statement.  In the UK it was 65 per cent.  All the other countries (Belgium, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Spain, Switzerland and Turkey) were 78 per cent or over.

In fact, the USA often appears near or at the bottom of the list of countries believing in man-made climate change.  It was only in September this year that for the first time since 2008, more than half of Americans (54%) said they believed global warming is caused mostly by human activities.

Climate of scepticism?
Is there any link between these lower levels of belief in human-made climate change and the stronger presence of climate sceptics in the media?

It goes without saying that a whole range of factors influence people’s beliefs about climate change, from their cultural and political values to direct experience of a changing climate.

But it would be hard to argue that the media have no influence, when it is there that most lay people get their information about science.

There are certainly important differences in the amount of space the media in different countries give to sceptic voices. We recently carried out research of the print media in six countries, which clearly showed that newspapers in the US and UK tend to provide much more room for sceptical voices on climate change than those in France, Brazil, China and India.

This has prompted some to ask whether climate scepticism is principally an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon.

It was interesting to find that the ‘trend sceptics’ (who deny the global warming trend) are almost exclusively found in the US and UK newspapers.  Sceptics who challenge the need for robust action to combat climate change also have a much stronger presence in the media of the same two countries.

So in the UK, the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which is seen mostly as a policy sceptic organisation, has achieved a major presence in the media since its formation in November 2009. The two most quoted sceptics by a huge margin were the two leaders of the GWPF, Nigel Lawson and Benny Peiser.

Poles apart
The core data came from a study we did at the Reuters Institute last year called Poles Apart.  In it, we also looked at all ten UK national newspapers.

In the period from mid-November 2009 to mid-February 2010, around half of all the articles in the Mail and Express about climate change included some mention of sceptical voices.   This was a significantly higher proportion than the other newspapers, which were mostly in the 10 to 30 per cent range.

We also concluded that much of the unchallenged climate scepticism was found not so much in the news reports but in the opinion pages of right-leaning newspapers, and particularly the Sun, Express and the Daily or Sunday Telegraph.

You would expect a lot of scepticism in this period as it included ‘Climategate’ and the questioning of some aspects of the IPCC reports.   But what’s happened since then?

New data
We are still crunching the numbers from the period mid-November 2010 to mid-February 2011.  Preliminary findings suggest that – unsurprisingly – the total number of articles about climate change dropped significantly compared to the 2009/10 period.  But expressed as a percentage of all articles about climate change, the incidence of sceptical voices seems to have remained much the same.

The Express remained the paper where climate scepticism was most apparent.  The Telegraph, Express and Sun continued to publish regular unchallenged sceptical opinion pieces authored by some of its columnists.

This research prompts an array of interesting questions.  One is the obvious and oft-asked one of why climate scepticism is more of a right-wing phenomenon both in the media and in wider society.

But it is also worth asking what the main drivers are of climate scepticism in the media.  Is it newspaper owners or editors pushing an agenda?  Is it journalists concerned with ‘balance’? Or is it the decline of specialist environment correspondents, who have an understanding of where mainstream science consensus lies?

Or are the media merely reflecting wider society, where there are loudly sceptical politicians and lobby groups?

At a time of questioning of journalistic standards in the press, it’s worth wrestling with these questions more.

Written by

Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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