Today, the problem of climate change is one of the most controversial issues since scientific evidence shows that the situation is critical, yet mass competence remains low. The different opinions of political parties largely impact the views of people and complicate the beliefs about climate change. While the Republicans seem to be skeptical about global warming, the Democrats promote the urgency of action and human activity as the main cause (Castilla, Rodríguez, & Quesada, 2014). Such polarization leads to difficulties in communicating the problem to the public and increasing its awareness. The images that are shaped by the scientific evidence and political ideologies are also subjected to personal experience, news and social media, and emotional engagement. To better understand the debate on climate change, this paper aims to focus on discovering the reasons for polarization based on the critical examination of peer-review articles and news media cases.
A frame reflection approach is selected as the theoretical framework for guiding the exploration of climate change communication. It is considered that people perceive and evaluate the surrounding environment through images, metaphors, and catchphrases, which is especially pertinent with regard to controversial issues (Baumer, Polletta, Pierski, & Gay, 2017). According to the frame reflection theory, not only individual traits but also framing effects matter in determining people’s opinions on climate change. This approach implies that political ideology and education are the two key factors that impact environmental attitudes. In addition, there are emphasis frames that prioritize one or another aspect of an issue over others: for example, the moral wrong of a government program can be stressed by the opposition. Baumer et al. (2017) state that along with individual frames, contextual moderators present the exposure to competing frames. This paper aims to use frame reflection as the method of effortful thinking to scrutinize the available literature and reveal the underlying reasons for climate change conversation polarization.
Underlying Reasons for Climate Change Discourse Polarization
Political Ideology and Political Economy
The topic of climate change can be regarded as one of the most politicized issues of the 21st century. The division of partisan lines in the US is the paramount source of the fact many people question the very presence of climate change. Namely, 30 percent of Americans do not believe that climate change is occurring, and 42 percent consider that it is not caused by humans (Bolsen, Palm, & Kingsland, 2019). The exposure to the climate change debate frames forms public opinion, yet it seems to be more important to understand how different political sources affect the decrease or increase of beliefs. In their study, Bolsen et al. (2019) state that the frames stressing global warming and made by scientists increase the opinions regarding human-caused climate change. The concern for this problem can, for example, be raised by the visual presentation of flooding or other related events. However, politicized rhetoric that competes with the scientific appeals is likely to undermine its role.
The source of information, including its perceived credibility, persuasiveness, and trustworthiness, impacts public awareness of climate change (Castilla et al., 2014). The Republican Party was identified as the source that can draw more attention to the given problem since this partisan group made unexpected claims (Bolsen et al., 2019). Considering that Republicans tend to be skeptical towards the climate change issue, their appeals are likely to be perceived as more persuasive and honest. When a message on the threats comes from the Democratic Party, the Republicans are more likely to speak about the polarization of this topic. It was also discovered by Bolsen et al. (2019) that the involvement of the military increases the credibility of the messages as people consider link climate change with national security in this case. Accordingly, being impacted by a range of sources that propose different attitudes, public opinion either sticks to skepticism or supports those who provide scientific arguments.
An editorial section of prestigious newspapers is another source of political polarization in terms of climate change, which can be discussed based on the positions of The New York Times and El País. Castilla et al. (2014) state that editorial identifies a newspaper’s ideology, which shows that in both of the mentioned newspapers, politics is given a greater role compared to climate change. Accordingly, the presentation of the problem as a political one since the majority of the articles uncover the issues related to the government, international agreements, and authorities. For example, if initially, the Kyoto case was regarded as an important act to be ratified by the US government, the editorials published later recognize it as an insufficient agreement (Castilla et al., 2014). While The New York Times and El País agree that the US is the key international actor and assign it a role of leading the world in the combat against climate change, the American government did not promote the Kyoto protocol. Such discrepancy leads to disagreement on climate change, dividing public opinion into two opposing stances.
The attention of news media towards climate change is superficial and largely one-sided, with an emphasis on political economy. The views of Boykoff and Yulsman (2013) are consistent with those of Castilla et al. (2014) in claiming that news media significantly contributes to the political polarization of climate change debate. The critical review of the news media allowed finding that the mere presentation of this topic does not increase public awareness, while the shift towards linking climate change to politics became more pronounced in recent years. Instead of promoting the need to combat climate change, the authoritative newspapers focus on the political sides of the problem (Boykoff & Yulsman, 2013). The current political economy forces journalists to compromise informed decision-making and in-depth research in favor of discussing how one or another political party considers global warming issues.
Cable News Channels and Social Media
The widespread use of the Internet led to the act that such cable news channels as NBC, CBS, and Fox News target specific segments of viewers instead of focusing on masses. The political messages translated by cable media often examine the opinions of liberals and conservatives, supporting one or another side and showing the debates between their representatives. The study by Feldman, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, and Leiserowitz (2012) points to the biased processing of news, which impacts the ways people understand the most pressing topics. In particular, the identified authors state that watching Fox News is associated with a lower acceptance of climate change due to a dismissive approach of this media to the given issue. On the contrary, MSNBC and CNN are related to greater awareness of viewers of global warming. It is noteworthy that Fox News provided more information on climate change, and it caused more doubts among its audience, two other channels focused on scientific data coverage (Feldman et al., 2012). This study clearly illustrates that cable media have a strong impact on shaping public knowledge and polarizing public opinion.
Hostile media perceptions refer to the tendency for a person to view media coverage as biased against his or her preexisting and strong attitudes regarding a certain problem. In the context of global warming, Hart, Feldman, Leiserowitz, and Maibach (2015) verified the hypothesis that such media correlates with greater discussion of climate change with friends and family. In this case, hostile media serves as a mediating agent that stimulates further interpersonal discussion and the polarization of attitudes. The social comparison mechanism that is fostered by the identified media leads to evaluating one’s personal experience and relating to the public opinion (Hart et al., 2015). When individuals are engaged in the politically heterogeneous environment, they are more likely to change their attitudes under the influence of the opposing opinion. For people with a homogenous social network, the topic of climate change is associated with the amplification of the division between conservatives and liberals.
The impact of media on global warming policy support is also connected to political ideology, which involves social network heterogeneity or homogeneity. According to Hart et al. (2015), “hostile media perceptions increased polarization indirectly through discussion; however, this indirect path was significant only among conservatives” (p. 524). Nevertheless, high social network heterogeneity was related to the decrease in polarization, but this was true only for liberals and those with moderate political views. Based on these findings, one may claim that hostile media perceptions foster a three-way interaction, which shows how media coverage can be adjusted to promote climate change policies and increase the support of the public. The insights provided in the article by Hart et al. (2015) seem to be useful to be implemented into practice to be explored in further research. For instance, several sources of hostile media perceptions can be selected to study their mediating and moderating effects on public views.
Along with cable and news media, online resources serve as an integral part of shaping the attitudes of people towards climate change conversation. One of the recent studies focuses on the role played by English language blogs in global warming polarization, exploring the meaning of hyperlinks. Based on the analysis of more than 500,000 blogs, Elgesem (2019) argues that hyperlinks used by bloggers predominantly lead to the sources they support in their posts. At the same time, they are likely to provide criticism towards the sources that contradict their opinion. Accordingly, skeptical bloggers connect their posts to the organizations and authorities that dismiss climate change to some extent (Elgesem, 2019). In turn, supportive bloggers tend to use hyperlinks to link with mainstream discourse. As a result, polarization emerges, and bloggers engage with the opposite view only with the purpose of questioning and rejecting it.
Among the underlying reasons for polarization in the sphere of blogs, it is possible to list three mechanisms, such as a limited set of arguments, group identity strengthening, as well as a confrontation against challenging opinions. The findings made by Elgesem (2019) emphasize that people interacting in a group are likely to have a limited pool of arguments, which motivates them to stick to the side with seemingly stronger statements. More to the point, those who consider themselves as the deniers of global warming feel a stronger connection with each other since they identify as the opposition. Elgesem (2019) clarifies that skeptical bloggers are concerned with rejecting climate change exposure, but the followers of the dominant opinion are likely to concentrate on increasing awareness, initiating programs, and other related issues. Thus, one may suggest that the views of deniers mostly drive climate change polarization, which is based on the way bloggers use hyperlinks and consider the overall debate in the given field. However, it seems that social media and hyperlinks should also be studied to increase the generalization of the ideas provided by the reviewed article.
Public Engagement and Emotions
Since climate change is potentially associated with threats to the environment and people, it is perceived through emotions. It is widely considered that emotions evoke irrational decisions and incorrect thinking, but Roeser (2012) claims that they can also be used as motivation to stimulate practical wisdom of public. While panic and uncritical enthusiasm are associated with disruptive approaches, it is stated that emotions can also lead to moral insight. Not only rational beliefs can be beneficial but also anxiety, fear, and others may contribute to supporting people’s awareness of climate change. For example, Roeser (2012) mentions that compassionate messages about the need to assist starving children in Africa are more effective than purely rational statements. Accordingly, emotions can enable people to better understands the risks of global warming, thus accepting their presence. Such a strategy seems to be successful in overcoming the key problem of rejecting the scientific view that is complicated and controversial.
Elaborating on the idea of emotions as the reason for climate change polarization, one should stress that they can be seen as serving two purposes. On the one hand, they can be used to better understand the role of moral right and its impact on climate change (Roeser, 2012). In this case, people would be encouraged to sympathize with those who are victims of environmental challenges. On the other hand, emotions can shape the foundation for more credible and rational information about global warming. Roeser (2012) cites the philosopher, Zagzebski, and claims that emotions have two inherent aspects: affective and cognitive, which can be less effective with time. The ground level moral judgments are the most powerful ones, yet when their feeling aspect becomes less intense, the motivating aspect also decreases. For example, fear can be a motivating factor to avoid a particular object or situation, but it can also be paralyzing that leads to avoiding fear messages and conversations. Consequently, the messages translated to the public should be based on moral judgments, and some prognosis for their impact should be made in advance.
Public engagement should also be examined in the context of public awareness to understand the existing dysfunctional debate on climate change. The messages sent to the public are often made by prominent political figures or governance regimen, which affiliates the transmitted ideas with his or her identity (Roeser, 2012). The presence of ideological bundling can be prevented by applying a mix of various messengers, predominantly those with a low or moderate political identity. The strategic alliances between politicians and experts can be used to address polarization since the shared interests of the representatives of various ideologies would eliminate critical differences in their approaches to the target topic (Colvin et al., 2020). The employment of alliances can also open the opportunity for applying proper framing practices on the basis of emotional appeals to the public and increase in knowledge. This strategy shows that the political spectrum, public engagement, and media coverage are closely intertwined issues that should be considered in combination to understand a full picture.
Misunderstanding of climate change involves framing and biases, which is accompanied by limited knowledge of the population. For example, the topic of negative emissions as one of the anthropological causes of climate change is widely discussed in the public. Colvin et al. (2020) emphasize that the framework for this discourse is identified as environment versus economy, which poses these two issues as contradictory to each other. This means that people can perceive economic prosperity being opposite to pro-environmental approaches, which an evident bias of framing (Colvin et al., 2020). The above author assumes that ideologies should be removed from the climate change debate to ensure that misunderstanding does not mislead people and cause polarization. Roeser (2012) also supports the idea of designing proper appeals to citizens to evoke their moral ethics. In combination, emotions and knowledge are likely to reduce the existing distinction between the deniers and proposers of climate change, which would contribute to climate change combat.
To a great extent, climate change discourse can be identified as the field that is discussed by elitists and experts, while scientists, citizens, workers, and communities remain neglected (Murphy & Tinga, 2019). Public engagement is impossible without paying attention to the needs and interests of people. In the situation, when global warming is regarded as critical and mere adjustment of industries is insufficient to mitigate its consequences, public engagement is especially significant. The effective climate change communication is undermined by the fact that public discourse is based on competition and conflicts instead of cooperation, as stated by Murphy and Tinga (2019). One of the strategies to depoliticize the contemporary communication practices is to apply moralization. This idea of Murphy and Tinga (2019) is consistent with Roeser (2012), who also proposes a humanitarian approach to struggle with climate change misunderstanding. The conditions that discourage and limit political engagement in global warming are seen as a viable and promising option for decreasing polarization.
To conclude, it should be emphasized that climate change and related public opinion are closely associated with the polarization of views. The framing effects include one’s personal experience, heuristics, political economy, the role of emotions, and extensive media impact. This paper attempted to discover the mechanisms that drive this polarization to better understand how people perceive global warming, identify their attitudes, and take actions. The proactive views of the Democratic Party contradict the skeptical opinions of the Republican Party, while the messages translated by the media are also largely politicized. In terms of the media impact, some cable channels are associated with dismissing the very exposure of people to climate change, while other channels promote a rational and scientific view on the problem. Public engagement and the role of emotions is another reason for climate change polarization, which refers to a lack of knowledge, emotional prisms, and moral ethics.
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