When President Obama gave his State of the Union address in January, there seemed to be more commentary among environmentalists about what wasn’t said than what was: specifically, his failure to even mention the words “climate change” or “global warming” or “carbon” despite speaking effusively about the need for clean energy development.
There has already been plenty of reflection on this rhetorical retreat, with good summaries and analysis coming from Andy Revkin of The New York Times and Bryan Walsh of Time magazine. The reason for Obama’s sudden climate shyness is well known. Even Republican pollster Frank Luntz has advised those fighting climate change not to mention “climate change,” but to focus instead on alternative energy and more popular reasons to support it, particularly those related to security and the economy. Hendrik Hertzberg, noting what a change this marked from Obama’s previous speeches, in which he spoke forcefully on climate, called it a “masterly exercise in rear-guard tactics” in The New Yorker. Not everyone agrees, of course. David Roberts of Grist and Molly Haigh of 1Sky argued that continuing to mention climate change is good policy and good politics, and vital to building public support for clean energy.
Contrasting with Obama’s reticence was the fact that at the Cancun Climate Summit the previous month, there was a greater focus on communications than ever before. Usually at these summits there are one or two side events that focus on communications, including a panel by the Climate Change Media Partnership that I help to organize. In 2010, there were at least half a dozen additional events, including sessions sponsored by the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, the International Institute for Environment and Development, the UN Foundation, the British Council, the Asian Development Bank, and the World Climate Summit (a business-oriented gathering).
The reasons these organizations are focusing on climate communications just as politicians are running from it are probably one and the same: an apparent declining interest among the media. Douglas Fischer of DailyClimate.org reports that after spiking in the run-up to the 2009 Copenhagen Summit, media coverage of climate change dropped dramatically last year, back to 2005 levels. Drexel University’s Robert Brulle confirmed this in his analysis of nightly news coverage, and similar trends were found globally by the University of Colorado’s Max Boykoff and Maria Mansfield at Oxford University. Another study coming out of Copenhagen, Summoned by Science, produced by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, found that even when there are lots of stories, the quality is often lacking, particularly in terms of scientific content.
Responses to a straw poll carried out among members of the Earth Journalism Network revealed the situation is quite nuanced in various parts of the world, however.
Journalists such as Michael Simire of the Independent Group of newspapers in Nigeria, Martin de Ambrosio of Perfil in Argentina, and Marianne de Nazareth in India all sense a growing weariness of climate change stories among their audiences and journalistic colleagues. This may at least be partly due to “climate fatigue”. Public interest does tend to ebb and flow over the years. But it’s also partly due to a common problem journalists face: whether and how to use environmental jargon. Terms like “climate change” and even “environment” can be a turn-off to general audiences.
Wang Yan, an editor of NewsChina, despite not sensing any boredom with the issue among Chinese audiences, has taken up a strategy echoed by several others: only mentioning climate change when covering United Nations conferences and the like. “I’d prefer breaking down the larger picture into specific cases [such as deforestation or energy efficiency], so that it could make the readers get involved in the possible solution towards the issue,” she said.