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How To Talk About Climate Change When No One Is Listening

2004-2012 world news coverage of climate change or global warming | Image credit: Climate Counts

The annual United Nations climate change negotiations recently ended in Doha, Qatar, leaving the world — by most accounts — underwhelmed. The New York Times reported that outcomes were unclear, and The Associated Press noted that expectations for the event had been low. Articles on the conference on USA Today’s website yielded only a handful of user comments.

Perhaps as disturbing as the lack of global policy progress is the lack of attention paid to our progress. The Age of Engagement blog on BigThink.com compiled research highlighting a sharp decline in global and U.S. news coverage of climate change since 2009. Meanwhile, a new U.N. report indicates that sea levels are rising 60 percent faster than anticipated. If humanity is facing what is arguably the most pressing challenge of our time, why aren’t we paying more attention?

The idea that there is a collective public “attention span” that grows, peaks and fades has existed for 40 years. In 1972, Anthony Downs published “Up and Down with Ecology,” his thesis that a five-phased attention cycle exists in the U.S. for issues such as the environment, poverty or racial inequality. In Phase 1, an issue gains attention from niche audiences. In Phase 2, it grows prominent and the public gets enthusiastic about solving it. In Phase 3, there is a collective realization that solutions are more difficult, expensive or threatening to our comfortable status quo than we realized. Interest declines gradually throughout Phase 4, and in Phase 5, an issue interest plateaus at a much lower level. Though the length of each phase varies per issue, what is critical to note is that in Downs’ cycle, interest declines even if the problem isn’t solved.

An analysis I conducted in 2012 as part of the Duke Environmental Leadership Master of Environmental Management program at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment found that U.S. media attention on climate change solutions is in the twilight of the issue-attention cycle. This holds true for media coverage of market solutions like cap-and-trade and carbon taxes, which use economic incentives to change behavior, and technology solutions like renewable energy, cleaner cars and carbon capture, which aim to make our day-to-day behaviors more sustainable.  

Here’s the good news: we don’t have to be helpless victims to the issue-attention cycle. Even when it seems that no one is listening, it is possible to help spur media dialogue. Though media attention on climate change solutions has declined in both volume and tonality, there are still smaller “spikes” in coverage:

Graph 1

Examining the content of these articles, it becomes clear that these spikes share common characteristics. These characteristics inform three important ground rules for communicators working in today’s relative issue-attention desert:

      • Capitalize on the media’s love of technology. When technology and market solutions coverage tonality is mapped over time, technology solutions almost always receive a greater volume of positive coverage, as illustrated in blue:

        Katya2
        Those looking to earn positive media attention for climate change solutions should highlight the technology aspect, leveraging a pattern of media fascination with technology.

        • Use a life preserver. Several topics were consistently included in periods of increased attention on climate change solutions, suggesting they play a role in driving media attention:
        • Event: Major events such as U.N. conferences spark media coverage of climate change solutions before, during and after the event.
        • Federal Policy: Climate change solutions proposed as part of federal policy consistently received media coverage and commentary.
        • Asia: Asia is a topic of continued interest to us in the U.S., particularly the continued economic development of India and China.
        • Automotive Trends: Put simply, we care about our cars. The development of new technologies in the automotive industry in response to climate change received media coverage throughout the study period.
        • Nuclear Energy: Media has consistently been interested in nuclear energy, both its promises and drawbacks.
        • New Research: The publication of research reports covering market or technology solutions to climate change attract media attention, particularly when findings are unexpected or controversial.

        These life preservers can attract media attention for a short period of time, even in the declining phases of the issue-attention cycle. When possible, communicate about a climate change solution in the context of one of these media attention-drivers.

      • Tell an underdog story. The idea that Americans support groups or individuals that are at a disadvantage against a more powerful entity is prevalent in sociology and popular culture. In the media, it’s no different. Throughout the study period, examples of local or small-scale solutions bucking a trend of national and international inaction received positive coverage, such as the December 10, 2010 Washington Post headline: “Some aren't waiting for climate consensus.”

As its name suggests, Downs’ issue-attention cycle is cyclical. Once an issue is elevated to national prominence, it may sporadically recapture interest or become part of a future issue undergoing the cycle. As climate change effects become significant disruptions to our lives and economy, the U.S. media will be forced to cover solutions. But let’s not wait that long  environmental advocates, policy-makers and communicators can utilize best practices today to help build a more robust dialogue around climate change solutions. 


Katya Chistik Hantel is a director at GolinHarris who develops communications strategies for Fortune 500 companies and global non-profit organizations, focused on business-to-business and business-to-consumer sustainability platforms. A leader in GolinHarris’ sustainability practice, Katya has a master’s degree in… [Read more about Katya Hantel]