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Why You Need to Worry About How the Media Covers Climate Change

Renewable energy developers and advocates often find themselves talking about climate science. And sometimes they run into skepticism and even hostility on the topic. Understanding where bad information about climate change comes from and why some people reject climate science can help us communicate more effectively about climate change as well as the role renewable energy plays in reducing climate-altering emissions.

Scientists are clear when it comes to what they know about climate change. The National Academy of Sciences, which was founded by Abraham Lincoln to advise the federal government on scientific matters, concludes that, “Climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for — and in many cases is already affecting — a broad range of human and natural systems.” 

Unfortunately, public understanding of climate change lags behind our scientific understanding. While a majority of Americans accept that climate change is happening, only a fraction correctly attributes these changes to human activities. Meanwhile, 10 percent of Americans take a “dismissive” attitude toward climate science and think climate change isn’t happening.

Why the gap? Misleading representations of climate science in the media have a lot to do with it. For instance, one research paper found that 60 percent of Fox News Channel broadcasts on climate change rejected mainstream climate science. By contrast, 70 percent of CNN and MSNBC broadcasts on climate change accepted the science. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) analyzed recent climate science representations on Fox News Channel and in the Wall Street Journal opinion page. Over a six month time period, more than 90 percent of Fox News Channel’s primetime coverage offered a misleading view of climate science. And over the past year, the Wall Street Journal opinion page was misleading on climate science more than 80 percent of the time.

In many instances, speakers and writers rejected climate science in a way that was clearly tied to ideological views they held regarding climate change policy. One notable example was a long interview between Sean Hannity and Sen. James Inhofe, in which they repeatedly referred to climate change as a “hoax” while expressing support for coal, oil and gas drilling. Similarly, a Wall Street Journal column argued, “We are in the middle of what you might call a global warming bubble. It is a failure of the global warming theory itself and of the credibility of its advocates, but also a failure of the various ‘green energy’ schemes proposed as a substitute for fossil fuels.”

It’s frustrating for those of us who value and appreciate science to see such dismissive representations of climate science in these outlets. And it’s alarming for renewable energy advocates to see such similar arguments being made against clean energy technology and policies.

So why do we see these ideological takes on climate change pop up in the media and public so often? 

A study published in the Journal of Risk Research proposed a possible answer: fundamental beliefs we have about how society should function deeply affect how we perceive scientists’ findings about risks society faces. 

For instance, the study concluded that people who are satisfied with the distribution of wealth in society and who favor individual rights are more likely to reject scientists’ findings when it comes to climate change. They see the conclusions of climate science as critical of our current energy system, which they favor. And the policy solutions proposed for climate change, including energy efficiency and renewable energy requirements, can strike these individuals as limiting people’s freedom to use energy as they see fit.

Conversely, people who want a more even distribution of wealth and who favor community needs over individual rights are much more willing to accept what scientists have to say about climate change. They are more likely to be critical of large corporations, including many oil and coal companies. And they see value in protecting the global community against climate change, even if that means changing how we use energy here at home.

For me, the lesson from these studies is clear. It’s not worth getting into endless arguments about whether or not climate change is real. It’s far more productive to directly address the values that inform most people’s opinions on climate change. So instead of trading emails back and forth with a climate skeptic about whether or not climate change is real, it’s better to ask them, “How do you see the debate over climate change policy impacting you personally?” You might be surprised by the answer you get. And you might then be able to have a conversation about how new technology like smart metering, energy efficiency and fuel efficiency can increase the options consumers have, not limit them. Saving money on electricity and gas, after all, means more money for the things we truly enjoy spending on, like entertainment, gifts and other discretionary spending.

The good news is that renewable energy still enjoys strong support among most Americans. But I’m not sure how long that will hold true, especially as opponents of addressing climate change deploy the same tactics they’ve used to attack climate science to undermine public confidence in wind, solar and other renewable energy sources.

In any case, over the long term, we all have to get better at talking to people about climate change. We need a shared understanding of climate science in order to have a productive debate about appropriate responses to a changing climate.

To that end, the United States Global Change Research Program has excellent resources on local and regional climate change. And UCS has put together presentations that address best practices for conveying basic climate science and dealing with difficult conversations about climate change.

Because renewable energy developers and advocates are playing such a key role in reducing emissions, they can also play a key role in explaining what’s happening to our climate in the first place and why it’s worth having a rational, fact-based discussion about it as a society. 

Aaron Huertas is a press secretary at the Union of Concerned Scientists, where he helps scientists communicate their research. Previously, he worked for Congressman Jim Saxton (R, NJ-3) and as an Explainer in the National Air and Space Museum. He received a bachelor’s degree in mass media and political communication from The George Washington University.

Renewable energy developers are an important part of UCS’s network and are encouraged to sign up for updates from the organization on energy policy and research.

Lead image: Get the facts via Shutterstock

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