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Climate change communication: Building consensus

DePaul University’s Jill Hopke offers suggestions for scientists, news media and social media users

Jill Hopke
Jill Hopke, an assistant professor of journalism in DePaul University’s College of Communication, researches how the news media and social media shape the public’s understanding of climate change. (DePaul University/Rachel Laden)
CHICAGO — From frigid cold in the Midwestern U.S. to melting heat in Australia, extreme weather and climate change are making news around the world. Yet, the topic of climate change continues to be politicized, and journalists often struggle to cover it in a way that’s accurate and evidence-based, according to Jill Hopke, an assistant professor of journalism in DePaul University’s College of Communication.

A founding member of the International Environmental Communication Association, Hopke researches how the news media and social media shape the public’s understanding of climate change. She contributed to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Climate Change Communication, a special project of the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. Hopke recently published one of the first studies of climate visuals on social media with Luis Hestres of the University of Texas at San Antonio in the journal Social Media + Society. She also attended last year’s UN climate talks (COP24) in Katowice, Poland, as an observer.

In this Q&A, Hopke discusses climate change terminology and how journalists and social media posts can focus on scientific consensus and local issues to boost the public’s understanding of climate change.

Q: Up until recently, the term “global warming” was used to describe the effect of greenhouse gases on the planet. Now, it seems the consensus is to use the phrase “climate change.” Is there a reason the language has shifted?
A: The terminology to describe climate change has evolved. In the 1980s, newspaper readers would have seen the term “greenhouse effect,” along with “global warming.” Now it’s “climate change.” Actually, the first documented use of the term “climate change” was in 1975 in the journal Science by the late Wallace Broecker, a geochemist from Columbia University.

Social science research tells us that political conservatives tend to use the phrase “global warming” more often, such as in social media posts, than do liberals. Whereas, climate scientists use “climate change,” specifically anthropogenic climate change, which means a change caused by human activity.

The important thing to focus on, regardless of the phrasing you prefer to use when talking about climate change, is the broad consensus among climate scientists that the rise in global average temperatures is caused by human activity, mainly the burning of fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas and coal. Research shows that focusing on the broad scientific consensus that climate change is caused by humans, what we call “consensus messaging” — in other words to emphasize this high level of agreement among working climate scientists — can help bridge divides between political conservatives and liberals on the issues.

Q: How might climate change scientists better discuss their findings with the public? 
A: It’s important for scientists to connect climate change to daily life and localized concerns. One of the tired tropes that we continue to see, on social media and elsewhere, is about polar bears. Polar bears and the Arctic are hugely impacted by climate change — that’s a very serious issue — but the problem with continually using polar bears to represent climate change is that it makes it feel very far away from the daily, lived experience of most of us.

Personal narratives and stories can really help drive home these issues and put a human face to what's happening in our country and community. A way to make climate issues meaningful is to connect climate change to local issues to help encourage individuals to make changes in their own lives. For example, if you’re a homeowner in Illinois, a climate change-related concern is flooding, which is more likely to occur with the increased intensity of rainfall the Midwest has seen, and will continue to see in the future. Another major public health concern affecting local communities in the United States and elsewhere is how to deal with extreme heat, particularly when overnight temperatures don’t cool down like they used to.

Q: Extreme weather events always make the news. How can journalists ensure they’re reporting accurately on the connections between say, a heat wave, and climate change?
A: The news media clearly contributes to public understanding of climate change. In some cases, they do so while trying to adhere to journalistic norms of objectivity and balance that continue to hinder evidence-based climate reporting. What I mean by that is given that the there is broad agreement among climate scientists that climate change is happening and that it’s driven by burning fossil fuels, it would not be accurate to give equal space to the views of groups and individuals seeking to cast doubt on the prevailing scientific consensus.

Another area that requires a deeper understanding by the news media is climate attribution, which is a sub-field of climate science. The goal is to explain the extent of climate risk associated with individual extreme weather events, like heat waves, as opposed to natural variability. Gaining a better understanding of the difference can help improve both reporting generally and public understanding of the issue overall.

Q: How can journalists tell the difference in a weather event that happens normally and one that is influenced by climate change?
A: First, it is important to understand the difference between climate and weather. A good way to understand this distinction is the analogy that climate is what you keep in your closet and weather is what you wear on any given day. 

Beyond that, there are exciting advancements in the field of climate attribution, such as work by the World Weather Attribution project, which is a partnership of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre and Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute. For example, researchers there found that for Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the record rainfall Houston experienced was made three times more likely because of climate change. Based on science like this, what we can increasingly say is the extent to which individual extreme weather events are, or are not, influenced — meaning made more, or less, likely to occur — by climate change. An analysis​ by the specialist news outlet CarbonBrief found in reviewing 20 years of peer-reviewed studies on 260 extreme weather events that in more than two-thirds of the cases (68 percent) the extreme weather events were made more likely, or more severe, because of climate change.

Q: Can you provide an example of how the news media might work climate change into their regular coverage of the weather or other local stories?
A: In Chicago, a story on public transit infrastructure during the January Polar Vortex included a quote about how transit systems need to prepare for an increase in extreme weather events in the future due to climate change. That’s a climate adaption story. Journalists should work to expand reporting to look at climate issues related to such areas as public health, business, clean energy, public infrastructure, food systems, arts and culture, sports, religion and disaster preparedness.

Q: How do new media technologies, like social media and visuals, help readers understand climate change?
A: Climate change comes up at the grassroots level on social media in interesting ways, such as earlier this year when the 10-year challenge meme went viral and people started sharing climate change related posts with the hashtag. What I find in my research on climate visuals on social media is that we need to go beyond images of protests and high-level procedural matters, like the interworking of international climate negotiations. Climate change imagery shared on social media is still often not what we can connect with in our daily lives, for example polar bears in the Arctic. We need to tell new visual stories about localized climate impacts, such as the devastation of extreme weather events, and couple that with images of actions individuals can take towards solutions, like pictures of people using bike-sharing systems, for example, or taking public transportation.


Jill Hopke

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