Changing the Story on Climate Change

Is there solid evidence that the average temperature on Earth has been getting warmer? In 2006, 77 percent of Americans polled by the Pew Research Center answered “yes” to that question. By 2009 the percentage had dropped to 57, a huge shift in public opinion. The shift occurred among all political affiliations, but was especially dramatic among Republicans, from 62 to 35 percent.

Frederick “Fritz” Mayer, associate professor of public policy and political science, became intrigued about what could cause such a significant change in public opinion in such a relatively short time. As a Shorenstein Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School last fall, Mayer researched this shift by analyzing the types of stories told by television news channels. He found the science hadn’t changed, but the stories had.

“Stories have the power to shape beliefs, evoke emotions and appeal to values. Narratives matter. Much of politics is a battle of narratives, counter-narratives and counter-counter-narratives,” he said.

Mayer identified and tracked six narratives common in media coverage about climate change. The two most common were: The Climate Tragedy (disaster looms and we must act now); and The Hoax (climate change scientists are frauds; it’s not that bad). The other narratives were He Said, She Said (contest between scientists); Don’t Kill the Goose (climate change is an excuse to regulate); The Denialist Conspiracy (opponents to climate change are corrupted by corporate money) and The Policy Game (focusing on the fate of policy instead of the planet).

He ran keyword searches of the Lexis-Nexis database of news transcripts for ABC, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News from 2001-2010. For the first part of the decade, the amount of climate change coverage on the networks was similar and fairly balanced among the narratives. All of the networks had huge spikes in the number of stories in early 2007, when the film “An Inconvenient Truth” won two Oscars and the film’s producer, former Vice President Al Gore, was jointly nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize with the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). That month, the IPCC also released its Fourth Assessment Report, a strongly worded report of global warming driven by human activity.

On the cable networks, a second spike came in November 2009 with the release of e-mails by climate scientists hacked from the servers at the University of East Anglia, a major climate research center. This occurred just weeks before the Copenhagen Summit on climate change. The story, dubbed “Climategate,” was picked up by bloggers and spun by critics of climate science as evidence of scientists manipulating findings to support climate change.

“Curiously, the traditional networks, as exemplified by ABC, not only largely ignored Climategate, they gave much more limited coverage of the Copenhagen Summit and produced many fewer Climate Tragedy stories than two years earlier,” Mayer said.

Beginning in 2007, the differences in the frequency of the six narratives among the networks were striking. For ABC News, more than 60 percent of the total stories for the period followed the Climate Tragedy narrative, while on Fox News, the Hoax narrative accounted for 23 percent of the stories. MSNBC had more Denialist stories and CNN had the most balanced mix of narratives.

“A Fox viewer whose entire understanding of climate change came from its broadcasts could certainly be excused for believing that the whole thing was a hoax, concocted by those whose intent was to empower government and limit personal freedom,” Mayer wrote.

Mayer examined whether the recession which began in 2007 could have been the cause of the shift in public opinion, but was skeptical that economic conditions alone could account for the partisan divide in attitudes. Other countries also suffered the recession without a corresponding shift in opinions on climate change.

“Changes in attitudes about the scientists themselves are strongly suggestive of a direct impact of stories that attacked their credibility... Although it is possible that beliefs about scientists also changed because of the economic downturn, a media effects explanation is equally plausible and more parsimonious,” he wrote.

The article, “Stories of Climate Change: Competing Narratives, the Media, and U.S. Public Opinion 2001–2010,” by Frederick Mayer was published online by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy in February. This story was originally published in Sanford Insights.