How misinformation persuaded my neighbor, and why I chose not to “educate” him

by Fenja De Silva-Schmidt

Recently I chatted to my neighbor and we happened to stumble upon the topic of climate change. He told me: “I don’t think the earth is really heating up, big changes don’t happen so fast. This so-called warming effect is physically not plausible, even many scientists say so – I learnt about that when I followed the climate conference on YouTube.” I was surprised about many aspects of this statement – that my neighbor, a well-educated man who reads medical journals for fun, is a climate change “ignorant” or “denier”, that climate conferences are streamed on YouTube, and that denialist positions are supposedly spread there.

Further into the conversation, I understood that he was referring not to the UN climate summit, but to a “climate conference” organized by the most influential German climate change denial blog, also present on YouTube. With a quick online search, I later found that the UN climate summit is indeed also streamed on YouTube.

To deny the existence of problematic anthropogenic global warming, media users ignore common information sources, trusting in misinformation from “alternative media” instead.
Picture by Pexels / Pixabay

I then wondered: Why did my neighbor fall for the fake conference and miss the correct information that was also present on the same media channel? Communication research has lots of useful theories on these questions: part of the problem might be filter bubbles (your online search only shows results similar to what you’ve looked at before) and confirmation bias (people look for information that fortifies their precast attitudes and beliefs). In addition, videos from the COP following the meetings that last for hours are not attractive to watch (the video ranking highest in my quick search was 5:30 hours long). Thus, there is also a communication deficit on the side of the scientific community.

So what did I do in reaction to my neighbor’s revelation of his ignorance? For some time following our conversation, I kept sending him links to summaries of the scientific consensus and to information on how to identify strategic misinformation on climate change – which he politely ignored or dismissed later.

At first, I was deeply disappointed that he refused to see the truth and continued to deny the existence of climate change. But then I remembered the main reason why I think knowledge about climate change is important: because it can be necessary to act against climate change. And although my neighbor does not want to acquire this knowledge, in his actions he is already pretty climate friendly: He is a vegetarian who only uses energy-saving lightbulbs and devices. He is very good at reducing waste (we share a common rubbish bin, so I know), and when he needed a new car, he even bought one with a combination of combustion and electric engine. Although all these actions were motivated by interests other than saving the climate – i.e. saving money –, I reasoned there is no need to “educate” him on the topic. In the end, it reminded me that knowledge alone of climate change and its consequences is not enough to motivate people for climate protection – and that sometimes, there can be climate protection without knowledge.

New article published: Climate politics in the media – the audience is expecting more

In an article for the German journal “Media Perspektiven”, we analysed our survey data from 2015 and 2018, focusing on media use and evaluation of the coverage related to the topic of climate change and climate politics. The article is available here (open access, German only).

 

 

In einem Artikel für die Fachzeitschrift “Media Perspektiven” haben wir unsere Befragungsdaten aus 2015 und 2018 im Hinblick auf die Nutzung und Bewertung klimapolitischer Medieninhalte ausgewertet. Der Artikel ist hier online zugänglich.

Blogpost series: Current protests for climate protection

As the protests for more political engagement in climate protection have spread to even more countries and expandend from schoolchildren protesting on “Fridays for Future” to “Scientists for Future” supporting them, we have decided to publish a series of blogposts on this social movement, its coverage in the debate and in media reporting.

This post will serve to compile a list of the blogposts related to this topic.

Part 1: “Fridays for Future” – Can the next generation save our world?, January 27, 2019

Part 2: Public protests “for future” as part of citizenship – children and scientists included, March 15, 2019

Part 3: “Yes, but“-narrative in the German climate debate, March 20, 2019

Part 4: Science for Dummies, March 20, 2019

There is also a report about the climate change protests in Boulder, Colorado (USA) on our partner blog.

Public protests “for future” as part of citizenship – children and scientists included

by Michael Brüggemann

Schoolchildren protesting during the Fridays for Future march in Bremen. (Private photo from March 15 2019)

Today, I went to the streets with my ten-year-old son. It was his first protest march, and my second. We went with his elementary school class, loudly shouting: “don’t steal our future!” And while German politicians claim that they understand the children’s concerns, they also claim, more or less implicitly, that the children do not really get the complexities of politics and should “leave it to the professionals”.

However, politicians have failed to keep their promises with regards to climate protection. Today, 23.000 “scientists for future” affirmed: the children’s concerns and anger adequately reflect both the size of the climate change problem and the associated policy failure.

The demonstrations and the scientist’s petition will not immediately change German government policy, but they have generated two groups with the chance to (re)claim political agency. The two groups could not be more different: a new generation of youths that has awoken with a political voice and will hopefully sustain its lobbying for stronger environmental policies, and a group of scientists who increasingly felt entrapped in an ideology of value-free science. The idea of the application of the scientific method regardless of one’s personal interests is sometimes misunderstood as the duty of scientists to pretend to have no personal interests and values. Yet, it is the application of scientific methods and not the scientists themselves who should be neutral. As scientists with the privilege of a more detailed insight into the issues we study, we do not only have a right, but a duty, to raise our voices if things go wrong. Going to the streets is justified, especially if warnings about the risks of a climate crisis remain unanswered by the “professionals” in government.

Sober and cautious warnings have been included in scientific reports for decades now. Yet, it turns out that politics yields to political pressure and not to scientific reports. Therefore, it is the right and duty of every citizen to increase political pressure on neglected matters of common concern.

This blogpost is part of our series about current protest movements for more climate protection – see a list of all posts here.

First results from survey: What do people eat in Hamburg?

What kind of food do people in Hamburg usually eat, and do they link their daily consumption to sustainability? The sub-project from Prof. Stefanie Kley conducted a representative telephone survey with more than a thousand respondents in Hamburg from August to December 2018, dealing with the topics of food choice and nutrition. First results are now available (flyer, in German).

Percentage of diets of Hamburg inhabitants.

A short summary for our English-language readers: three out of four people eat meat regularly; 18% call themselves flexitarian, meaning they only eat meat on rare occasions. Only very few respondents are vegetarian or vegan.

The large majority of participants buy their groceries in the supermarket or discounter. Most important aspects for food choices are healthiness and regional production.

Was essen die Menschen in Hamburg, und spielt Nachhaltigkeit eine Rolle für ihre Ernährungsgewohnheiten? Das Team von Prof. Stefanie Kley hat eine telefonische Umfrage durchgeführt, um mehr dazu herauszufinden. Von August bis Dezember 2018 nahmen mehr als tausend Hamburger teil. Erste Ergebnisse werden in einem Flyer zusammengefasst.

IPCC Report Trumps Trump: Climate Change on Twitter in 2018

by Fenja De Silva-Schmidt

While Donald Trump was responsible for most peaks in the Twitter debate on climate change in recent years, 2018 was different: a scientific report trumped Trump in triggering the most intensive Twitter debate related to climate change.

As in previous years, we take a look at the Twitter data our Online Media Monitor (OMM) has gathered over the course of 2018, and describe the events that triggered tweets about climate change, as well as the most important domains that were linked to and the most active accounts in our sample.

In summary, the number of tweets related to climate change has again risen in the past year. However, our sample does not allow us to examine whether this means that climate change has become a more prominent topic in Twitter communication, or if the number of tweets in total has risen, too.

For most of the year, the number of climate change-related tweets per day is astonishingly stable. In the second half of 2018, attention peaks were triggered by political and scientific events, as well as weather phenomena.

There were more than 1,200 tweets per day for the first time in 2018 in early August, during the persistent heat wave and drought in Europe. Forest fires were raging in Portugal while Germany and other countries were suffering from extreme drought. On Aug. 6, the German Potsdam Institut für Klimafolgenforschung (Potsdam Institute for research on climate change effects) issued a statement that climate change might trigger heat waves sooner than previously thought. (We already analyzed if and how the weather triggered climate change coverage earlier on this blog.)

In September, Hurricane „Florence“ hit the US. The peak of attention manifested on Twitter when scientists’ reports connected the storm to climate change, warning that climate change will probably intensify the frequency and magnitude of hurricanes.

The most discussed event on Twitter in 2018 was a scientific one: After the release of the IPCC special report “on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels” on Oct. 7, the OMM recorded an all-time high of 4196 tweets on one day. In comparison: The highest peak in 2017 had 2803 tweets per day, when Trump announced to leave the Paris Agreement; in 2016 his mention of a “climate hoax” in the presidential debate with Hillary Clinton triggered 1485 tweets that fit our criteria.

Again, it was Trump who triggered another peak of attention for climate change, with his dismissive reaction to the fourth national climate assessment for the USA. Although the report warned that the US will face serious economic consequences of climate change, the American president just did not “believe it“.

As in previous years, the UN climate summit was a major driver of Twitter dialogue about climate change. Its beginning on Dec. 3 resulted in the highest number of tweets in the two weeks of the summit. Unsurprisingly, the debate reached its low point on Dec. 25, when most Twitter users were likely too busy celebrating Christmas to tweet about climate change.

We can sum up – in accordance with our colleagues from MeCCO, who are following the climate change debate in offline media – that Donald Trump is still a major driver of attention for climate change (although often in a negative way). In contrast to the previous year, however, he is not dominating the main events any more: Out of the five events triggering the most tweets, only one related to him directly. The other events are a combination of extreme weather events and scientific reports, linking the weather events to the greater picture of climate change. Thus, the voice of science seems to have become more prominent in the global Twitter debate.

Regarding the domains that the tweets linked to, there were almost no changes compared to previous years. News outlets still dominate the ranking. Two of them are new in our top ten list: Vox, an American news and opinion website noted for its concept of explanatory journalism, and grist.org, an independent news outlet and network of innovators writing about climate, sustainability, and social justice. On rank 10, we find the personal blog of an Australian climate activist.

  Domain Count
1 www.theguardian.com 4550
2 www.nytimes.com 1837
3 www.independent.co.uk 1143
4 www.washingtonpost.com 947
5 thinkprogress.org 876
6 insideclimatenews.org 834
7 www.vox.com 683
8 www.bloomberg.com 663
9 grist.org 658
10 jpratt27.wordpress.com 624

The three accounts contributing the most tweets in 2018 were “GlobalClimateChange” (@GCCThinkActTank) with 56,759 tweets in our sample, Anne-Maria Yritys (@annemariayritys) with 33,943 tweets and AroundOnlineMedia180 (@AroundOMedia) with 20,814 tweets. All three accounts belong to the same person – who self-declares herself as “Finland’s most followed business person on Twitter” and describes herself as “an active (online) networker and social media strategist” also interested in climate change and sustainability. As far as a Google search reveals, she seems to be a real person and not a bot – which would make her case a stunning example how single people can reach vast audiences via social media.

The most retweeted tweets in 2018 were all sent by accounts that are extremely active, having sent more than 50,000 and up to 150,000 tweets. They contained either extreme right positions or an extremely positive stance towards climate activism – this is not a pattern specific for the topic of climate change, but extreme positions on Twitter in general trigger high numbers of retweets.

To sum up, our retrospective gave some insights into general mechanisms of attention on Twitter – controversies and extreme positions fuel the debate – as well as explain attention for climate change on Twitter in 2018, which was mostly provoked by scientific and natural events, completed by political events.

Method: Our Online Media Monitor provides ongoing monitoring of the transnational online media debate on climate change by searching for related tweets. Since January 2016, the OMM collects tweets if they contain the following hashtags or key words: #climatechange OR “climate change” OR “global warming” OR “Klimawandel”. Additional criteria are that the tweets got at least 5 retweets and contain at least one link.

“Fridays for Future” – Can the next generation save our world?

by Fenja De Silva-Schmidt

Young people are often criticised as self-centred and politically disinterested. But recently, the next generation has been engaging more and more in climate politics, and their voice is getting heard – at least in media coverage.

On a public Christmas tree in Eckernförde, children and young adults hung up their wishes for the future. One tag names “preventing climate change”. (Private photo from January 2019)

One of their figureheads is 16-year-old Greta Thunberg from Sweden (link to her Twitter profile). She started striking in front of the Swedish parliament to protest against the government’s weak engagement in climate protection. By now, she is still on school strike, though only on Fridays, and has reached millions of people with her message: During COP24 in Katowice, she held a much-noticed speech in front of the UN plenary, addressing the worries of the future generation and demanding climate justice – globally and intergenerationally. “You say you love your children, and yet you are stealing their future in front of their eyes” – her accusations seem to strike a nerve. Last Thursday she spoke again on a big stage, at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Greta’s call for a global school strike has been heard. During COP24, there were nationwide strikes in Australia against the nation’s coal-friendly policy that were featured in many news outlets during the climate conference. In Germany, the movement “Fridays for future” (link to their Twitter profile) is currently covered widely by the media. Interestingly, in the beginning the reports were mostly framed as a school and education topic or sorted in the miscellaneous category – although a strike concerning climate policy would usually be covered in the politics section, if it was carried out by grown-ups. Many of the reports deal with the question if children and teenagers should be allowed to skip school to engage in politics or not. Only recently some reports have also appeared in the politics section (probably mostly because the German economics minister Peter Altmaier now wants to talk to the protesters). The framing and the discussions about unexcused absence from classes shows that most media admire the young generation’s engagement – but do not see them as a player that needs to be taken seriously in political debates.

We will see how this develops if the strikes continue or get bigger. It would be admirable if the young people’s voices not only got heard, but also had an impact.

German pupils on strike. (c) Fridays for Future

Related links:

“Fridays for future” worldwide action: https://fridaysforfuture.de/

http://www.spiegel.de/lebenundlernen/schule/fridaysforfuture-schueler-streiken-fuer-den-klimaschutz-a-1248693.html

https://www.infranken.de/regional/nuernberg/fridays-for-future-schueler-in-nuernberg-erlangen-und-bayreuth-schwaenzen-gegen-den-klimawandel;art88523,3989916

https://www.mopo.de/hamburg/schueler-demonstrieren-fuer-klimaschutz-behoerde-droht-mit-konsequenzen-31899354

https://www.berliner-zeitung.de/politik/meinung/schuelerprotest–fridays-for-future–warum-schwaenzen-wichtig-ist-31931098

http://www.spiegel.de/wirtschaft/soziales/fridays-for-future-peter-altmaier-will-mit-streikenden-schuelern-reden-a-1249839.html

 

This blogpost is part of our series about current protest movements for more climate protection – see a list of all posts here.

First results of our new survey

by Fenja De Silva-Schmidt

During the first week of the recent COP 24 in Katowice/Poland, we reran our survey from 2015 and questioned a sample of German nationals about their climate change knowledge and attitudes. The German newspaper DIE ZEIT published an article about our first results – here is a summary for our English speaking readers:

In short, the Germans’ interest in climate change has risen: Compared to 2015, they talked about the topic more often, did more online research and more people said it was a relevant topic for them. 30 percent of the respondents named climate change as one of the two biggest problems Germany is facing at the moment (in 2015: 15%). Almost half of the Germans called themselves rather interested or very interested in climate politics (2015: 36%).

Concerning international climate politics, people have become more pessimistic than in our first survey. Only one in five Germans believes that a global agreement can help prevent dangerous climate change, when it was previously more than one in four. Only 36 percent think that the 2-degree-goal is still achievable (2015: 45%).

In consequence, more Germans are willing to participate in climate protection in their everyday lives: Almost half of them want to factor climate protection into their future food and mobility choices; many claim to do so already. One in three wants to participate in online actions for climate protection such as petitions, while one in five even wants to engage politically in an organisation to protect the climate.

 

 

Während der ersten Woche der vergangenen Klimakonferenz in Katowice/Polen haben wir unsere Befragung aus 2015 wiederholt und erneut ein Deutschland-Sample nach den Einstellungen zum und dem Wissen über den Klimawandel befragt. Eine erste Zusammenfassung der Ergebnisse gibt es bereits auf ZEIT online zu lesen.

“Paris 2.0”? Why we are planning to rerun our survey from 2015

by Fenja De Silva-Schmidt

During this year’s climate conference in Katowice (Poland), we are going to rerun our Down to Earth quantitative survey from December 2015. By surveying another national German quota sample three years after our initial study, we want to examine long-term effects: Did the Germans’ knowledge or attitudes towards climate politics change in the meantime? How is the summit in Poland received via the media, especially in comparison to the “milestone” conference of Paris?

Interestingly, the upcoming COP24 – taking place from December 3rd to 14th – is expected to be another important conference by international climate politicians. UN Climate Change Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa explained the relevance of this year’s climate conference as follows: “COP21 saw the birth of the Agreement. In Poland, as I call it Paris 2.0, we will put together the pieces, directions and guidelines in order to make the framework really operate.” (UNFCCC 2017)

We will see if the conference stands up to these high expectations and if the German public experiences it as a relevant media event. Current news about the conference will be provided on its official twitter channel.

COP24 Logo

Links:

UNFCC 2017: “COP24 Will be Paris 2.0”. Available online: https://unfccc.int/news/cop24-will-be-paris-20

The Polish presidency’s agenda: http://cop24.gov.pl/key-messages/

Conference homepage: https://unfccc.int/katowice

International twitter channel: https://twitter.com/cop24

German twitter channel: https://twitter.com/UNKlima

Six theses for a constructive climate communication

Although not quite as revolutionary as Luther’s theses, our six theses for a constructive climate communication might prove a use-oriented help for communication practitioners.

In his column “On the subject” for the Deutsche Klima Konsortium (DKK), Prof. Dr. Michael Brüggemann presents six theses for a constructive climate communication. You can find the complete editorial here (in German only).

The six theses for constructive climate communication are in short:

1. We must continuously explain the fundamentals and backgrounds of climate change and climate policy.

2. We must not provide a forum for the denial of climate change.

3. Disaster scenarios can be supplemented by positive visions of a possible future.

4. We should treat people as subjects capable of acting and making decisions rather than as victims and sinners.

5. We can respect people’s values, beliefs and needs and show how climate protection aligns with these values.

6. We should link the big picture with short-term and day-to-day goals.

 

 

 

Sechs Thesen für eine konstruktive Klimakommunikation

In einem Editorial für das Deutsche Klima Konsortium (DKK) hat Prof. Dr. Michael Brüggemann sechs Empfehlungen formuliert, wie eine bessere Klima-Kommunikation mehr Menschen in ihrem Alltag erreichen und den Klimaschutz voranbringen kann.

Das komplette Editorial mit ausführlicheren Erklärungen zu den einzelnen Thesen finden Sie auf der Webseite des Deutschen Klima Konsortiums.

In der Kurzfassung lauten die sechs Thesen:

1. Wir müssen die Grundlagen und Hintergründe von Klimawandel und Klimapolitik immer wieder erklären.


2. Wir dürfen der Leugnung des Klimawandels kein Forum bieten.


3. Katastrophen-Szenarien lassen sich um positive Visionen einer möglichen Zukunft ergänzen.


4. Wir sollten die Menschen als handlungs- und entscheidungsfähige Subjekte behandeln und nicht als Opfer und Sünder.


5. Wir können die Werte, Überzeugungen und Bedürfnisse der Menschen respektieren und zeigen, wie Klimaschutz mit diesen Werten vereinbar ist.

6. Wir sollten das große Ganze mit kurzfristigen und alltagsbezogenen Zielen verknüpfen.