The way we talk about climate change matters

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Max Boykoff, environmental studies professor and director of Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado Boulder
Angela K. Evans

The climate crisis has been making headlines recently, spurred by the worldwide youth climate strikes on Sept. 20 and U.N. Climate Summit on Sept. 23. Whether it’s been Greta Thunberg chastising U.N. leaders over inaction or the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report documenting the strain climate change is having on the Earth’s oceans, every day it’s something. But maybe that’s a good thing, says Max Boykoff, environmental studies professor and director of Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado Boulder. 

“[Media] saturation has shown itself to change cultural perceptions in significant ways,” he says. “It’s really important to look back through time, look at the gay rights movement, look at movements for racial justice, look at women’s rights, looking at perceptions of world war, look at support for the Vietnam War — that saturation through the media forced sets of conversations, reflections, reconsiderations.”  

For the last 20 years or so, Boykoff has been researching how the media covers climate change and what effect it might have on public and political opinion and action. 

His work led to the creation of the Media and Climate Change Observatory (MeCCO) at CU Boulder, which tracks climate change coverage in roughly 100 news sources across TV, radio and print in 43 countries around the world. 

Climate change intersects with almost every aspect of people’s daily lives, Boykoff says — our lived attitudes, tensions, perspectives and behaviors. Therefore climate change shows up across a variety of themes in the media, not only in scientific reports, but also political, cultural, economic, ecological and meteorological stories as well. 

“Science is this really well worn pathway to knowing and learning and understanding climate change. And you know, we’ve made a lot of great progress scientifically understanding the changing climate and humans’ role in it,” he says. “But science is just a part of the stories that are told increasingly in the media landscape.” 

Boykoff and the team at MeCCO track the stories coming out of news outlets and publish their analysis in monthly reports. As of August 2019, coverage of climate change was up 83% around the world over a year ago. In the U.S., coverage has increased by 32% in that same time frame. Overall, Boykoff says, MeCCO has documented increasing coverage of climate change during the Trump administration, although not all of that coverage is positive. News reports of Trump’s environmental rollbacks and skipping out on climate talks accounts for at least some of the spike. While any coverage that mentions the climate crisis raises awareness, Boykoff’s research shows it’s not all effective in actually creating change. 

In his most recent book, Creative (Climate) Communications, Boykoff explores the effectiveness of certain storytelling techniques and ways of discussing climate change in the hopes that productive communication around the topic will lead to more constructive engagement. 

Based on his research, Boykoff says the alarmist approach — “freaking people out” — has proven to raise awareness but falls short of compelling action. Books like The Uninhabitable Earth may sell well, he says, but they haven’t proven useful in moving the needle. 

“If your objective is to find common ground, move productively forward on confronting this issue, that’s shown to consistently not be helpful,” he says. 

Take, for example, coverage of the 2018 U.N. IPCC report warning that we have 12 years to reverse course to avert the worst impacts of climate change. 

“The report itself was very constructive,” he says. “Media accounts of it, though, are a different story.” 

Whereas the report detailed not only the severity of the climate situation but also actionable steps that will move us forward and bend the curve away from complete destruction, media reports were and continue to be more fatalistic. 

Reporting, appropriately, that we are in the middle of a climate crisis may be alarming, Boykoff says, but he makes a distinction between that and the alarmist approach which often leaves people feeling alienated and hopeless.  In fact, it may even lead to a sort of boomerang effect whereby people are overwhelmed by the enormity of the issue in such a way that paralyzes them from doing anything. This is where different communication strategies are key, Boykoff says — being authentic, accurate, trustworthy and aware of your audience is critical.

The conversations around climate change might be different if you’re talking to a group of environmental activists or you’re talking to hunting and fishing or more conservative communities, for example. But that doesn’t make these conversations less effective. 

“It’s about smartening up the way that we discuss these things,” Boykoff says. “It’s not dumbing it down for the public, it’s smartening up.” 

And it’s about addressing the issue through a variety of avenues, including performance art, music, fine art and even comedy. 

“You may not necessarily be into climate change or too preoccupied with the science, but if you’re a fan of comedy, increasingly you might start to hear about these things through comedic acts,” he says, citing examples like Trevor Noah and Samantha Bee. 

Boykoff has been researching this specifically through his work with Inside the Greenhouse, a project at CU Boulder that seeks to create interactive theater, film, fine art, performance art and television programming inspired by climate change. When it comes to comedy, Boykoff says, the results have been largely positive. 

“It’s lowered defenses,” he says. “It’s opened up kind of common ground for people to point out the incongruencies that we can then share and start to work on together.”

As the public becomes more engaged on a variety of levels with the climate crisis, the hope is that we can start to reverse course and avert the worst possibilities of our current trajectory. According to Boykoff, the media plays a role in that, and if media continues to grow its coverage of climate change, hopefully in both quantity and quality, then we might just reach a level of saturation that actually makes a difference. 

“I’m less worried about fatigue than I am about not discussing it enough,” Boykoff says. “Put simply, the scale of our response to date is nowhere near commensurate to the scale of the challenge that we face. We have a ways to go on that.”   

This story was published as part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story. 

Covering Climate Now