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The collective action problem of climate change

starlings.jpgThis is one of several presentations from the CPA conference  London The Psychology of Climate Action: New Perspectives on Leadership November 2016

Presenter Dr Catherine Happer is a Lecturer in Sociology and a member of the Glasgow University Media Group, researching audience reception and social change. She is co-author of 'Communicating Climate Change and Energy Security', published in 2013. Before she returned to Glasgow University, she worked at the BBC developing and making Factual programmes.

First of all thank you for having me – it’s really nice to be asked to speak about this question, this problem, I’ve been exploring for nearly six years now which is not the practical problem of climate change, of decarbonisation, but what I see as the collective action problem of climate change. This is about addressing a persistent conundrum – that in spite of widespread recognition of the seriousness of climate change and a broad awareness of the science, we have not seen any effective and sustained public demand for action.

So why is that the case? As we know it’s very complicated but what I’m interested in specifically is the role of media and communications in this process. How have they inhibited the development of strong public sentiment and sense of priority in relation to climate change – and crucially how might they promote it?

So that’s what I’m going to talk about, and I’m going to draw on a series of audience reception studies involving focus groups I’ve conducted across the UK.

First I want to say a few words on the conceptual foundation for my work – and that is that media and communications do not simply operate in a vacuum, but that they are both the product of social processes and reflective of power dynamics, but they also can be productive in themselves – with very real societal impacts.

Therefore, to fully understand this we need to look at: first, the cultural, political and production processes that shape media content, second , the way in which audiences respond to that content – and finally, the implications those responses might have for social action, both at the level of how governments respond in policy and how people feel and act both collectively and individually.

I am most interested in this moment when the audience and media meet – what makes people more predisposed to accept these arguments and reject others? And in the digital age, we also have to think about: why would some people share and comment on these messages and not others – and why prioritise these perspectives? How are these choices related to membership of particular communities both online and off? Ultimately, what is driving these processes of selection, evaluation and engagement?

Looking at climate change specifically then – so I mentioned already what we know, and that is that we have this phenomenon of what’s sometimes called stealth denial. The sense that people may feel alarm at reading a report saying it’s the hottest year on record and they somehow categorise it as not their problem or not something they need to think about right now.

So why are audiences disengaging?

One of the main reasons is a lack of clarity around the science. This is perhaps not surprisingly with such a complex issue. In fact I’ve seen real developments in this across the years I’ve been conducting research in this area – the confusion over the ozone layer, for example, is relatively rare now. Most participants if asked in surveys tend to agree that human activity contributes to climate change.

But this is where focus groups are illuminating on the complex nature of belief and understanding. We can look at the descriptive language used in reference to climate change; it’s a ‘dispute’, it’s a controversy’, there’s ‘indecision’ , it’s ‘confused’. The background to that is a widespread uncertainty about the degree to which the scientists are in agreement.

My research shows that scepticism should be seen on a spectrum rather than a fixed set of positions. The outright denial position is marginalised now – even sometimes ridiculed. There are boos and hisses on Question Time when Nigel Lawson speaks. But even amongst those who state a strong belief in anthropogenic climate change, there is a tendency to question the robustness of the data or the limits upon scientific knowledge.

So does the disproportionate time given to sceptics in our media lead to a public denial of climate change – no, but they have helped to sow those nagging little doubts about whether the science is solid enough to act upon. People feel that, with all these other priorities like immigration and the economy, there is a question about prioritising climate change – and this is compounded by a sense that there isn’t 100% certainty. As one research participant noted: ‘everyone thinks it’s someone else’s problem’. This is a very powerful strategy. Last year I conducted research in Brazil and China – climate scepticism in the media doesn’t really exist – and my participants don’t use these phrases and don’t have these hesitations.

Returning to the earlier point about differing reception to messaging, how does this connect with the broader political and media culture people inhabit and their existing belief structures? My research also confirms something that is often talked about, and very much recently, which is the crisis in public trust. This to me is one of the biggest challenges we face.

There is currently a very widespread ideology of cynicism in relation to the information environment, the media and journalists. Once upon a time media bias was the concern of a particular branch of academia, now it’s everyone’s concern. That media bias does exist doesn’t preclude the very negative impact of a default suspicion of everything that you’re told.

So how do people work through this? Well, there’s often a quite complex process by which they select and evaluate information. This comment from my 2014 research is fairly representative:

I scour it all [all media]. I think newspapers, TV, news channels I think they all have their own political agendas nowadays, and it’s up to you to work out which one is telling the truth… I couldn’t trust them as far as I could throw them. They’re in cahoots with the military, the government… (Male, Small business owner)

There are two things here that are interesting to me. The first is, that in the digital environment, it’s not the case that mainstream media are being displaced. They still remain at the centre of these processes – and very much the lifeblood of social media too. As such, they still have agenda setting powers. So low mainstream coverage on climate change, on the BBC and so on, is mirrored by what people are talking about on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. There is no cycle of engagement on climate.

What’s also interesting – if you ask people how they feel about these developments, that you can look at the BBC, the New York Times, Russia Today, the Sun versus the Guardian, almost all will say that it is empowering. There is a way of seeing through the bias and we are much more aware now.
But across all samples, when probed, participants concede that actually there is too much information. For every argument you hear, there is another to counter it. It’s overwhelming. As this comment illustrates:

I think it’s because we’re exposed to so many opinions from people and, you know, a lot of the time it is conflicting opinions, you don’t know who to believe, so it’s a case of believing nothing instead of believing anything. (Female, Middle income)

On social media, a common response is to take sides in an almost instinctive way– and if that side happens to be one that reflects your own views about all information, all expert sources being corrupt, much the better. This is the Farage and Trump position, incidentally both on the sceptical side of the spectrum when it comes to climate change. They feed on powerlessness.

The background, of course, is a very low level of trust invested in politicians and other public figures. This is in the context of the Leveson inquiry, the expenses scandal, and the financial crash and that translates into a lack of faith in the decision-making process and democracy more generally. If ultimately we don’t trust the decision-makers to act in the public good, then it’s easy to disengage from climate change because they will not take the lead. Again, powerlessness is a defining feature.

How might we combat this? It’s a genuine challenge and it is difficult but I did want to leave you with some positives.

The first point relates to messengers – and builds on the original statement about science. In spite of that construction of ‘division and dispute’ amongst scientists, we have seen an increasing move towards the science consolidating in the public mind. In the context of distrust, the one group that comes out top in my studies and most others in terms of trust is scientists, and other academic experts. I’m not wholly convinced by Gove’s argument and I think the fallout from Brexit may see people reinvesting in experts. The problem is that we don’t hear from the scientists and academics often enough.

And what could leadership originating in that expertise achieve in respect of powerlessness? Something very interesting happened a few weeks ago – in the neoliberal context, when decisions almost always seem to favour corporations over the public, we had the Uber ruling. Legal and employment experts won a victory in support of workers’ rights. It sends out a message – we might not trust this government but expert leadership can force their hand to drive change.

The level of trust invested in scientists and academics gives them a great deal of public influence. Another recent example is the divestment programme which a number of universities, including my own, and the BMA, have signed up to. We have huge, respected, companies responding to arguments rooted in the scientific expertise no longer accepting profit from fossil fuels. This is not bad PR for the oil and gas industries – they really don’t need our help in that area, it’s about bad PR for governments. It’s about moving public opinion towards a sense that feeding the fossil fuel companies is no longer acceptable. It is forcing governments to act even in the face of powerful pressures which dictate otherwise. So collective action rooted in science, I think can be hugely powerful and we need more of this – who might lead the legal and expert case against the third runway at Heathrow? Which group is going to lead the charge against Trump on the Paris deal?

My last thought relates more directly to the media. One of the significant shifts we’ve seen in journalism in the digital environment is the way in which content is led by algorithms. When particular subjects see huge audience spikes, social media buzz and so on, news outlets respond by giving them more of the same. The algorithms tell journalists what the audience wants. So there is a need to generate a buzz – and working from the bottom up is something mainstream outlets, however ideologically set, will respond to.

The other side to this is that politicians also monitor social media – this has become a big part of the day to day job of their communications and PR people. Perhaps individual blogs and so on cannot reshape the media environment but collective sway can be significant and so it is crucial to generate widespread affective response on there, and build on that. But the crucial point is that lack of attention to climate change is not inevitable.