Has the latest climate change issue-attention cycle peaked?

Last month, Sky News moved its flagship daily climate show from its primetime slot of 8.30pm into the dead of the afternoon, a 15-minute weekday airing at 3.30pm.  (It also announced that a new in-depth weekend programme would be forthcoming).  Sky’s industry-first daily climate show had started in April 2021, signalling the build-up to the UN’s COP26 conference in Glasgow in November last year, with two 15-minute segments being shown at the hot-spots of 6.30 and 9.30pm. 

So, having lasted for just 12 months, how does one read the decision to downgrade Sky’s daily coverage of climate change?  That climate change is less important for Sky’s viewers than it was last year?  That viewers have more pressing matters to grab their attention, such as the rising cost of living or Putin’s war in Ukraine? 

I’m reminded of the idea emanating from communication studies of the ‘issue-attention cycle’, first introduced by the American economist Anthony Downs in 1972.  It is very hard for news media outlets to hold their publics’ attention and interest, even on important issues, for more than a short period of time.  This is especially so when these issues don’t immediately impact the public’s daily life.  As Downs says, “…we should not underestimate the…public’s capacity to become bored – especially with something that does not immediately threaten them, or promise huge benefits for a majority, or strongly appeal to their sense of injustice.”

The issue-attention cycle framework has been applied to climate change communication analyses before.  Previous spikes in media attention to climate change have been identified, at least in western media, most notably during 1989-1991 linked to the end of the Cold War and the emergence of the IPCC, again during 2006-2009 in the run-up to COP15, and then a shorter spike in 2015-16 associated with the lead-in to COP21 and the subsequent Paris Agreement.  The most recent climate change issue-attention cycle was from 2019 into 2021, brought about by a combination of new social climate movements, the AR6 cycle and COP26 in Glasgow.

Sheldon Ungar analysed the first of these spikes in ‘The rise and (relative) decline of global warming as a social problem’ in a 1992 article in The Sociological Quarterly and Max Boykoff’s Media and Climate Observatory continues to track the cycling of climate change stories in print news media.

So, did 2021 witness the latest peaking in news media’s attention to climate change?  

Apart from Sky News’ decision, there are other straws in the wind that suggest that the recent issue-attention cycle may be waning.  For example, the campaigning energy that thrust forward Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for the Future through 2019 and into early 2020 is dissipating, as these wide-ranging social movements begin to turn inwards.

Climate doomism is an unsustainable narrative.  Doomism has been much in evidence since 2018 and has driven, in part, the most recent issue-attention cycle.  According to a recent BBC article, “Climate doomism is the idea that we are past the point of being able to do anything at all about global warming.”  As 27-yr old Tik-Tok host Charles McBryde said, “I am a climate doomer.  Since about 2019, I have believed that there’s little to nothing that we can do to actually reverse climate change on a global scale.” 

Doomism holds that humanity is likely to become extinct because of climate change.  But such extinction rhetoric is misguided.  Doomism cultivates a dangerous psychological disposition, especially amongst teenagers and young adults.  It leads to burn-out, apathy, cynicism or depression.  And the hyped-up, doomist version of the climate change narrative that gained salience during 2019-2021 is not easily sustainable as a news media story. 

The above examples of a dissipating attention-cycle are underwritten by the recent re-setting of climate science discourse following the publication of the IPCC’s AR6 Reports during 2021 and early 2022. 

At the time of the IPCC WGI Report release last August, the UN Secretary-General’s deployment of the ‘Code-Red for humanity’ metaphor gained immediate media attention.  But there is growing evidence of biases both in climate modelling – the so-called ‘hot model’ problem — and in the propensity of climate researchers to use the increasingly implausible worst-case (RCP8.5) emissions scenario, which is driving many climate impacts studies into unrealistic prognostications about the future.

The consequence of the above is that there is a growing interest from climate communication scholars in applying the lens of ‘misinformation’ symmetrically across climate change pronouncements.  It is not only discourses of climate delay that feed off misinformation.  Likewise, discourses of climate alarm both seed and consume climate misinformation.  Climate denialism and alarmism are similarly distorting narratives.

But if this latest ‘wave’ of big media attention to climate change is indeed passing, there will be future waves.  Media issue-attention to slow-burn issues like climate change is cyclical, as Downs recognised half a century ago.

But what will prompt the next cycle and what shape will it take?

Mike Hulme, University of Cambridge, 10 June 2022