As the withdrawal of the US from the Paris Agreement demonstrates, the agreement is not a binding contract requiring countries to act on climate change. In fact, given the fact that the emissions pledges in the agreement were voluntary, political and civic engagement will play an important role in ensuring that governments keep to their pledges.
So, did the widespread media coverage of COP21 negotiations in Paris make any headway toward achieving this kind of civic engagement with climate policy? According to a paper in this week’s Nature Climate Change, it seems as though coverage may have done the opposite. People’s understanding of the issues at stake improved slightly over the course of the conference, but not much changed in their sense of personal or national responsibility. If anything, the authors write, “this global media event had a modest appeasing rather than mobilizing effect.”
A team of economists, psychologists, and media researchers in Germany used the opportunity of COP21 to study how a media event of this kind might shape individual thinking about an important political issue like climate change. Michael Brüggemann and his colleagues conducted a three-part survey, asking the same group of people in Germany a series of questions about climate change before, during, and after COP21.
Although 2,098 people took part in the first wave of the survey, the researchers narrowed down the second wave to a group that matched the demographic characteristics of Germany at large. After accounting for drop-outs, 1,121 people participated in all three waves of questions. The surveys covered basic information like where people had come across news coverage of the conference, as well as testing participants’ knowledge of some of the basics of climate change policy, like the concept of “mitigation” and what the Kyoto protocol is.
The most important questions were those that assessed how people thought about their own role in shaping action on climate change. The team probed how effective people thought they could be individually and how effective world governments could be at acting against climate change.
Another series assessed where people felt responsibility fell: with developed countries, developing countries, and with Germany specifically. And finally, the surveys asked people about their intentions to change their own behavior—like mode of transport or shopping choices—and to engage politically about climate change.
Ignoring the obvious
Intuition might suggest that heavy media coverage of climate issues should lead people to make some resolutions about their personal or political behavior or to update their perceptions of how important climate change is as a subject. That was emphatically not the case in this sample: there were few significant changes in people’s answers before the conference compared to afterward.
The only questions that saw a large change in response were people’s understanding of the objectives of COP21 and the importance of limiting average warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius. This suggests that people weren’t just on autopilot while taking the survey and that there were some concepts in the media coverage that were taking root.
But when it came to people’s ideas about which countries are most responsible for acting on climate change and their own personal responsibility, the results were less encouraging. In fact, people were slightly less likely to say they intended to engage politically about climate change in the future, less likely to think that Germany should play a leading role, and less likely to think that they were able to do anything about climate change as individuals. Despite this, they were more likely to say that governmental negotiations had the possibility of being effective.
The changes in these answers were really meager, so it’s difficult to say with certainty what they mean. The authors suggest that overall, the summit seemed to make people more likely to kick back and leave the issues to the government rather than believing that they had the personal responsibility or power to make a difference. To be really certain that this is the case, it would be essential to see similar work done with additional climate-related news.
While it’s not possible to say for sure that media coverage of international climate policy negotiations actively made people think they didn’t have to worry, it certainly doesn’t seem to have had much of a motivating effect. An important question to try to answer is whether this is true of climate coverage in general or only of large intergovernmental events. Do people relax a bit when they see that governments are showing leadership on the issue but get more anxious when some awful climate-related news breaks? Unfortunately, opportunities to study these questions are rare.
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