The IPCC’s latest Assessment Report has turned the media’s attention back to climate change. Almost every newspaper and countless magazines and television and radio stations covered it, not to mention all the discussions on the internet. But how does the media affect people’s attitudes towards climate and their behavior?
To find this out, we conducted over 40 detailed interviews with citizens of Hamburg as part of a KlimaCampus project. We chose our interviewees to cover as broad a range of attitudes on climate change as possible. It was also important to have a cross-section of Hamburg’s populace: young and old, men and women with various levels of background knowledge of the subject and from different neighborhoods.
The interviews show that different experiences affect our understanding of and attitude towards climate change. Most of those interviewed consider the media to be the most important source of information for learning about climate change. According to our findings, however, the media is less important when it comes to behavior and awareness of the issue. Interpersonal communication has a far greater influence – especially discussions with parents, friends or at school. In addition, personal experiences affect whether or not people consider climate change to be a problem. Extreme events such as heat waves and flooding were frequently mentioned.
Our interviews showed a clear pattern, enabling us to identify various types characterized by their media use and communication behavior. The most common type uses a wide range of media and formats to obtain information on climate change and discusses the topic with friends and family. They are convinced that humans are responsible for climate change, and so they are climate-aware in their actions.
Often climate-aware: social and professional media users
There are three other types who share this view and whose behavior is also climate-aware: the first group are those who read specialist media and watch science programs and who do internet research and discuss the topic. The second group gets their information from social media platforms like Facebook and also uses them to communicate, while the third group includes people whose awareness of the problem has been heightened by an environmental disaster or by a film which has prompted them to make their behavior more climate friendly. One film that was often mentioned was Al Gore’s “An Uncomfortable Truth.”
The other types all doubt that humans are to blame for climate change and as such do not exhibit climate-aware behavior. On the one hand, these are people who use traditional media, who aren’t interested in the subject and don’t look for information on it. They are often older people who hardly use the internet. But the group also includes those who are skeptical of the mass media and mistrust newspaper, radio and television reports. They look for alternative sources of information such as internet forums and blogs. We are currently carrying out a survey of over 1,000 people to look at how often the individual types occur in the community.
Ines Schaudel works in the research group for “Public Discourses on Climate Change” at the University of Hamburg’s Institute of Journalism and Communication Science (IJK). She is currently writing her doctoral thesis as part of the German Research Foundation (DFG)-funded project “Climate Change from the Perspective of Media Recipients.”