Freudenburg was a widely respected scholar in the field of climate communications, and his death is a blow for the field on par with the similarly untimely death of Stanford climatologist Stephen Schneider last year (the Society of Environmental Journalists, of which he was a beloved member, has set up a nice memorial page). When I interviewed Freudenburg last fall, before he succumbed to a two-year-long battle with cancer, he explained that he thinks it is the climate-related policy stories, and the stories that follow major reports such as those from the IPCC, which tend to muddy the waters of public understanding by quoting ideologically oriented think tanks. This is problematic because such events tend to provide the dramatic narratives that drive coverage, as American University communications professor Matthew Nisbet pointed out in a blog post about the decline in climate coverage.
At any rate, Freudenburg’s conclusions about the predominance of science stories that report worse-than-thought climate findings should please critics like Romm and Johnson. The two recently criticized the press (justly, in this case) for botching a story about research at the University of California, Berkeley, which was released online in November and will be published this month in the journal Psychological Science.
The study’s basic conclusion was that dire messages about climate change reduce many people’s belief in global warming, and that was the takeaway message generally reported by the press. But there was a lot of confusion about what, exactly, the researchers were describing as “dire.”
The paper itself is partly to blame. Study participants were randomly assigned to read one of two newspaper-style articles about global warming. The articles were identical for the first four paragraphs, “providing information about he climate change reported by the IPCC,” but differed in their final two paragraphs. The researchers explained the difference in the final paragraphs like this:
The “dire message” article detailed devastation and possibly apocalyptic consequences that could result from global warming, while the “positive message” article focused on potential solutions to global warming, highlighting how technological ingenuity could potentially reverse the effects of global warming and find solutions to carbon emissions.
The problem, as Johnson pointed out (over the protestations of one of study’s authors), is that this is a very misleading description of the articles. Doing what reporters should have done, Romm obtained the text of the articles, which apparently wasn’t available online when the research was released. Doing so quickly revealed that the identical first four paragraphs did more that simply “provide information about climate change reported by the IPCC.” In fact, the fourth paragraph begins by stating, “The IPCC says many devastating consequences of global warming are possible, some of which we have already begun to feel,” and then goes on to make a series a worrisome statements about heat waves, hurricanes, sea-level rise, and the melting of ice sheets.
As Romm put it, the fourth paragraph is a “pretty damn dire” description of climate change, but not the “dire” message that the researchers were referring to. The one they were referring to was the scarier of the two alternate endings. Yet the “dire” ending did not, as the paper stated, “detail devastation and possibly apocalyptic consequences that could result from global warming.” Again, that was covered in the fourth paragraph. The big difference between the alternate endings was that, where the “positive” version said we can do something about global warming, the “dire” version said we can’t.
Unfortunately, most reporters seemed to think the “dire” message in the study referred to the standard scientific description of the observed and expected consequences of climate change, not the unusually pessimistic opinion that nothing can be done about it (and, as Romm wondered, is there anybody on the planet that actually uses that message?). Contrary to the feeling that one got from media reports, what the study really found, as Johnson nicely put it, is that “combining scientific urgency with solution-oriented hopefulness” should be a successful messaging strategy.