Opinion: stories which highlight solutions rather than consequences would enhance engagement with climate change issues

By Sinead Mellett, NUI Galway; Neide Areia, University of Coimbra; Edel Doherty, NUI Galway and Alexandre TavaresUniversity of Coimbra

Studies have revealed that Ireland is the worst performing country in Europe when it comes to taking action to combat climate change. According to a report by Germanwatch and the New Climate Institute (NCI), their 2018 Climate Change Performance Index, Ireland had fallen 28 places to 49th out of 56 countries ranked.

Agriculture contributes almost 90% of total N2O emissions, primarily owing to emissions from animal waste and nitrogen fertiliser usage. The lack of access to information in simple language, specific to the different type of farming sector, region and size of the farm, was evident in studies carried out in NUI Galway and one that acted as a perceived barrier to changing in line with climate change. Failing to get the communication across means that farmers cannot play a fundamental role that they are capable of.

According to a recent study, media plays a strong role in shaping individuals reaction to climate change. This study was part of wider Interreg Atlantic Area project, called RiskAquaSoil, which aims to develop a comprehensive management plan for risks in soil and in water to improve the resilience of the Atlantic rural areas. The need for RiskAquaSoil is due to the impact of climate change, which presents significant threats for the Atlantic area. Countries face challenges from changing temperatures and rainfall patterns, sea level rises and the impact of extreme climate events.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Cian McCormack reports on discussions around climate change at the Youth Assembly on climate change in November 2019

In this study, online Irish media coverage on climate change was analysed in order to understand what are the climate related topics that receive coverage in the media. Over 297 online news articles, published in 2017 and 2018 in various national media, were examined. 

The news which was collected through the Google News' database and selected in order of media relevance, in six time periods: February to March 2017; June to July 2017; October to November 2017; February to March 2018, June to July 2018 and October to November 2018. The research gathering targeted on average 60 articles from each period, excluding any news that did not relate to the research goals. The content was then analysed to exclude duplicates and articles unrelated to the research goals and grouped into general, specific and rural related characteristics. 

The data gathered shows editorial preference toward a national framing, mainly centring on extreme weather events, which accounted for almost half of all climate-reported media during the periods. Droughts were discussed in around one-fifth of media reports. Most media coverage focused on current impacts of climate change and future impacts received much less coverage.  In terms of sectoral analysis, agriculture accounted for approximately half of media coverage, while the effects on coastal areas accounted for one-third of coverage. Other sectors such as forestry, human health, biodiversity and the wider economy accounted for less than five percent each of media coverage on climate change. 

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Mark Ferguson from Science Foundation Ireland on their 2019 survey into Irish attitudes and understanding of climate change

Similar results were obtained on an Iberian media coverage study, carried out by a research team from the Centre of Social Studies at the University of Coimbra. Results from the study demonstrated that the Iberian media tend to give an important salience to political debates, while dismissing the common citizens from climate change adaptation. Iberian media tended to also emphasise a non-proactive narrative, in which solution-focused measures are hardly mentioned.

The actual climate change communication process seems to be contributing to the disengagement of individuals from environmental issues. Climate change is still reported as an overwhelming problem for which solutions are not being developed and implemented. This study comprised an in-depth content analysis of almost a thousand news stories from the Portuguese and Spanish press. 

Currently, researchers from both NUI Galway and the University of Coimbra are co-operating in a wider study in which is aimed to analyse the climate change media coverage at a European level. For that, almost 2,000 news items are being analysed from the Irish, British, French, Portuguese and Spanish press. Preliminary results of this study are demonstrating a journalistic bias toward distant and consequence framing in which the civil society remains dismissed from climate change adaptation.  

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From RTÉ Brainstorm, how pop music from Lana Del Rey to the 1975 is telling the story of climate change

The findings from the above studies may contribute to the public's low levels of climate change related knowledge which thus undermine the mobilisation to take climate action, such as the adoption of pro-environmental behaviours and environmental policies' support. A more proactive climate change media discussion which uses solution-focused instead of consequence framings, would be more efficient in increasing individuals’ perception of response efficacy regarding the actual climate crisis and would enhance individuals’ active engagement with the environmental issues. Discussions focused on actions undertaken at a local level to adapt to climate change, such as the measures implemented in communities, localise climate change to common citizens’ realities which facilitates individuals’ willingness to act environmentally.

Dr Sinead Mellett  is a postdoctoral researcher at the School of Business and Economics at NUI GalwayNeide Areia is a Junior Researcher at the Centre for Social Studies at University of Coimbra; Dr Edel Doherty is a lecturer in Economics at the J.E. Cairnes School of Business and Economics and a member of the Health Economics & Policy Analysis Centre (HEPAC) at NUI GalwayProf Alexandre Tavares is an associate professor in the School of Sciences and Technology and a researcher at the Centre for Social Studies at University of Coimbra


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ