Good news about global warming: The public’s paying attention

How can the world forge the cooperation needed to manage climate change? Most answers to that question hinge on the challenge of enforcement. It is easy to dream up bold agreements but hard to make them stick.

Over the past decade, there has been much thought on how to make the main cooperation mechanism, the international climate change agreement, more effective. The idea that global agreements reached by consensus, such as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), can themselves force governments to act and punish those who do not try is a thing of the past. Instead, this new theory highlights how a small group of highly motivated governments and businesses invest in new technologies and business models.

They do hands-on experiments and quickly learn what works and what doesn’t. These experiments lay the groundwork for the future of new industries and are costly for other companies and governments to pull out of. But what motivates these major corporations and governments to act? related to the media of Without targeted public pressure, it would be easy for governments and corporations to hide or cheat.

There is ample anecdotal evidence that media attention is focused on public pressure. For example, recent revelations that carbon offsets don’t work (see here and here) have led many companies and institutions to adjust their strategies. This shapes the way leaders, the engines of international cooperation, invest. Anecdotes are helpful, but there’s a better way. To capture the systematic pulse of media coverage, we focus on the annual events that certainly get the most attention on climate change.

UNFCCC Conference of the Parties (COP). The 27th Congress, held in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, ended in November this year. Most of the time it was a disaster. But things could have been so much worse, with every tale of disappointment clouding the bigger, more important, more hopeful narrative.
These days, the public is paying more attention than ever to cooperating on climate change. Many previous studies (like here and here) have looked at elite media such as well-known newspapers.

While this approach reflects the thinking of the elite, it is prone to bias. Especially since many of these newspapers are investing in climate desks, hiring more reporters and producing more coverage autonomously. Focusing on what the elites who pay attention to UN conferences think is a misleading way of measuring political gain, especially in countries where political systems are polarized against these elites.

Here we take a different approach, made possible by new data sources that allow us to systematically look at broader media coverage. Focusing on the United States, he analyzed over 11 million news articles from over 10,000 US news outlets from 2011 to 2022 using the Media Cloud database, a research consortium. Elite newspapers such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal are also included, but most databases contain content from smaller, local news providers. (The articles involve syndication, and future research may explore whether local news outlets are primarily channels for nationally curated articles, or providers of new content.) Yes, the role of the channel seems to be an important one.) 

According to this broader look at American media, as shown in figure 1, coverage has gone up, and much of that coverage is tightly timed with the COPs. We measure coverage by looking at the percentage of all articles that address climate, and wonks will find more fodder in the caption. Two COPs have attracted the most attention — COP21 (2015) in Paris, which produced the landmark Paris Agreement, and COP26 (2021) in Glasgow, which was the first significant update since Paris.

These attracted attention because the hosts organized them as major events, and the diplomats delivered. Other trends are also clear, such as a plummet in coverage as other topics rose quickly to capture public attention, such as in early 2020 (the global pandemic) and early 2022 (Russia’s invasion of Ukraine). A big rise starting in the fall of 2019 (until the pandemic plunge) is linked to the substantial climate protests which started in September and focused on the U.N. General Assembly meetings that month.

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