This post was written for the Green Alliance blog,to coincide with the launch of a paper on public opinion and the environment.
Coverage of public opinion on climate change is never just about reporting numbers. Without appreciating the need for journalists to tell a story, we can never really understand why climate change polls are reported as they are.
Over the last decade, two distinct narratives have been told about what the public think of climate change. Each of these narratives has been so dominant for a time that it has been difficult for alternative views of public opinion to get much attention.
The first, which dominated for most of the noughties, was that climate change was increasingly settled in the public’s minds as a great concern. Polls on climate change were rare for much of the decade, but when they did appear in the media, the coverage tended to acknowledge that the public was worried, although perhaps unsure about the risks or about possible solutions, as in this Observer article.
As a result, there was little prominent dissent from the view that climate change was becoming a more important issue for most people, along with a belief that the world needed to take decisive action.
The rise of scepticism
But by the end of 2009, this prevailing narrative about public views on climate change had given way to a very different account.
It happened quite suddenly, around the time of the COP15 in Copenhagen. Now, the dominant frame was that growing numbers of people doubted the existence of serious man-made climate change, and that there was increased resistance to measures to tackle it.
Opinion polls were important to the development of this new account. For about a year, from late 2009, polls were repeatedly used to show the same narrative: that fewer people were now worried about climate change.
The sheer weight of polls, reported across the media, gave the overwhelming impression of an ongoing change in opinion. But this was misleading: in fact, there appears to have been a one-off fall in concern about climate change, which happened between November’09 and January ’10.
The difficulty in understanding opinion lies in the fact that media outlets want to report their own polls, as an exclusive story. They’re much less interested in repeating polls that another newspaper or broadcaster have commissioned.
So over a period of several months, we saw different polls in outlets from the Daily Mail to the BBC and Guardian, which essentially restated the same phenomenon as if it were a new finding. The result was a powerful new narrative, that concern about climate change was experiencing an ongoing decline.
There are two reasons why it’s useful to see this as a new dominant narrative about public opinion, rather than as straight-forward reporting of opinion.
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