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No one cares about polar bears
How U.S. print media coverage of climate change impacts affects Americans‘ views on climate risk assessment and policy prioritization
Climate Change Science
IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
―There is high agreement and much evidence that…global greenhouse gas emissions will continue to grow over the next few decades.‖ (3.1)
―Anthropogenic warming could lead to some impacts that are abrupt or irreversible, depending upon the rate and magnitude of the climate change.‖ (3.4)
On the next slide, Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) will demonstrate the United States federal government‘s most significant policy response to climate change:
Building Al Gore‘s New Igloo:
―[Climate change is] the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.‖ – Sen. Jim Inhofe
A History of Policy Inaction
1997: Kyoto Protocol adopted. U.S. Senate unanimously rejects ratification.
2003/5/7 – McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act(s) June 2009: Waxman-Markey bill passes house by 7 votes July 2010: Waxman-Markey bill dies in the Senate August 2010: Copenhagen Climate Conference – no binding emissions reduction targets
Media Coverage of Climate Change
The mass media—in conjunction with political elites— has become an important source of information about climate change for the American public. (Reynolds et al)
As a result, most Americans are at least ―minimally aware‖ of climate change.
Question of Interest
Coverage of climate change in the mass media is scientifically accurate and informative for most Americans. Yet policy policy continues to languish.
What features of mass media coverage of climate change might explain this phenomenon?
Mass media outlets devote relatively little coverage to localized climate change impacts.
Theory – Three Parts
1. Although most Americans believe climate change is real, they do not prioritize it as a policy issue.
2. What explains this disconnect? Americans do not prioritize climate policy because they do not understand how climate change will affect them personally. 3. The public lacks this understanding because the news sources they rely on for information, including print media, rarely convey how climate change will impact localities.
Examine data from public opinion surveys on climate change.
Review the scholarly literature to explain the findings— and in particular for evidence that Americans do not possess local understandings of climate change. Conduct a content analysis of print news media articles to determine how climate change impacts are geographically represented.
Part 1 – Gauging Public Opinion
What do Americans think about climate change? My methodology led me to compile surveys conducted from 2006-2011 by reputable organizations:
Brookings Institution – Is climate change occurring?
Pew Research center – Ranking public policy priorities
Gallup – Ranking environmental problems Gallup - Does global warming pose a threat to you?
Is Climate Change Occurring?
Source: Brookings Institute
Is Climate Change a Policy Priority?
American Climate Policy Prioritization, 20072011
100% 80% 60% 40%
0% Jan-07 Jan-08 Jan-09 Jan-10 Jan-11
% of Americans identifying global warming as a top policy priority (source: Pew Research Center)
Relative to Other Issues:
Source: Pew Center
Is the Environment a Concern?
Is Global Warming a Threat?
Part 2– Explaining the Disconnect
While a majority of Americans think climate change is real, only a small minority believes that it is a significant concern. Why is this?
To find the answer, I conducted a rigorous literature review of scholarly sources, focusing my search around studies of climate change impacts, more targeted survey-based studies, risk assessment, and so forth.
Conducted a national mail-based survey
Question: how do Americans identify climate change impacts as a function of space and time? Findings Conclusion: Americans think global warming will affect distant places in distant times.
Scannell and Gifford 2011
Conducted a controlled study
Do people respond differently to climate change when educated about local impacts? Findings Theory of place attachment Distance skews risk assessments.
Tying Parts 1 & 2 together:
If the American public was informed about the localized effects of climate change, they would be much more inclined to support and prioritize efforts to combat it.
The fact that such prioritization is nonexistent suggests that the American public isn‘t properly informed.
Part 3 – Content Analysis
Content analysis: a comparative assessment of how climate change impacts are represented in the American print news media.
Unit of analysis: 144 articles from the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Houston Chronicle. (Lexis) Date range: June 2006-May 2010. (48 articles per paper).
Content Analysis – Unit Selection
Lexis: Boolean search
Sampling method Criteria for sampling eligibility: section, length, minimum keyword hits
Content Analysis – Unit Coding
I assigned each article a Type Rating based on their substantive content.
Type 1: Pure science/social science focused discussion Type 2: Politically-focused discussion Type 3: Miscellanea (such as ―features‖) Some articles combined elements of both Types 1 and 2
Content Analysis - Impact Coding
Determining ―Local‖ versus ―non-local‖ – what makes the cut?
What doesn‘t count as an impact?
Findings: Quantity of Impacts
In the entire sample, 70 local impacts were mentioned, and 377 non-local impacts were mentioned. This means that of all impacts in the sample, 15.5% were local.
Is this a good methodology? It gives us a general picture, but it is highly imprecise. Stronger methodology: count articles, not impacts.
Findings: Articles Sorted by Paper
New York Times – 12/48 articles (25%) discussed at least one local impact of climate change
Washington Post – 8/48 articles (16.5%) Houston Chronicle – 13/48 articles (27%) Across the entire sample, 33/144 articles (23%) discussed at least one local impact.
Findings: Sorted by Type
Type 1 (science): 15/59 articles (25.5%) discussed at least one local impact
Type 2 (politics): 10/64 articles (15.5%) Types 1 & 2 (both): 4/12 articles (33%) Type 3 (misc.): 4/9 articles (44.5%)
Findings: Sorted by Geography
New York Times: 7/48 articles (14.5%) mentioned at least one impact in the Northeast United States
Washington Post: 3/48 articles (6%) mentioned at least one impact in the Mid-Atlantic United States
Houston Chronicle: 8/48 articles (16.5%) mentioned at least one impact in Texas or along the Gulf Coast
Total: 18/144 articles (12.5%) in the sample
Findings: Sorted by Severity
New York Times – 7/48 articles (14.5%) mentioned at least one severe local impact
Washington Post – 7/48 articles (14.5%) Houston Chronicle – 10/48 articles (21%) Total: 24/144 articles (16.5%) in the sample
Findings: Polar Bears
20/144 articles (14%) mentioned severe ecological stresses on polar bears as a result of climate change.
Compare to local geography/severity.
Do Findings Support the Theory?
Given the data that I‘ve collected, it appears likely that the print mass media tend to under-cover local impacts. This provides evidence to support the hypothesis.
As for the broader research question, the findings support the notion that the mass media has not adequately informed Americans about local impacts.
Caveat 1: no basis for a brightline between sufficient local coverage and insufficient coverage
Caveat 2: local newspapers may do a better job than national prestige papers.
Caveat 3: other types of media, particularly television news media, may have completely different representations of impacts.
Why Are Local Impacts Ignored?
Articles that discuss national and international politics and policymaking may not be appropriate venues to insert local impacts.
The scientific literature on local impacts is tiny in comparison to the literature on broader impacts.
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