Are We Bored With Climate Change?

ANALYSIS
Are We Bored With Climate Change?
AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski
Are We Bored With Climate Change?
AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski
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As the COP24 conference on climate change wrapped up last week in Poland without any major developments, downward-trending levels of interest in the subject have raised the question of whether the public and media have become weary of discussing it. 

The timeline below shows the average percentage of airtime (as measured in 15-second intervals) on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News, combined by year, from June 2009 to present that mentioned either “climate change” or “global warming” (using data from the GDELT Project’s processing of the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive). 

The immense media coverage of the 2009 Copenhagen conference is starkly clear, as is the steady increase in coverage over President Obama’s fourth through seventh years in office, culminating in the 2015 Paris accord. President Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement last year brought the fourth highest television coverage of the past decade. In contrast, the lack of major developments this year led to 2018 having the second lowest coverage.  

The earth’s changing climatic environment is typically referred to as either “global warming” or “climate change.” The former emphasizes a warming planet, while the latter focuses on warming, cooling and climate-enhanced extreme weather events. 

The bar chart below shows the percentage of airtime on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC over the past decade mentioning the two terms. Fox News has used “global warming” nearly as much as the other two channels combined. MSNBC has spent 0.16 percent of its time on the two terms combined, followed by Fox News at 0.13 percent and CNN at 0.10 percent.

Turning to worldwide online news coverage, the timeline below shows the percentage of coverage in the 65 languages monitored by the GDELT Project that mentioned either of the terms. Here again, “climate change” is the clear favorite, mentioned 3.7 times as often as “global warming.” The relative dearth of climate change coverage in 2018 can also be seen below, with media interest finally picking up in early August, showing a brief burst in early October with the IIPC report release, and peaking over the past month in advance of COP24.

The largest amount of coverage in the last two years came in June 2017 when Trump withdrew from the Paris accord and again the following month when other nations reiterated their support for it at the G-20 summit. 

In all, roughly 20 percent of climate-related coverage has mentioned President Trump, suggesting that perhaps one of the reasons for the relative silence in 2018 is the lack of major pronouncements from the White House. 

All of this prompts the question: Does the general public care about climate change anymore? The timeline below shows worldwide search volume for the Google topics “Climate Change” and “Global Warming” (which include their translations and related terms in all the countries where Google is used). Google does not report the actual number of searches, instead treating the month with the highest number of searches as 100 percent and reporting the other months as percentages of that peak.

Interest in “climate change” peaked in March 2007 as Al Gore and “An Inconvenient Truth” basked in the glow of an Academy Award win, but faded away over the next half decade. In contrast to media coverage that has long favored “climate change” over “global warming,” Google searches historically focused on the latter, though that gap has closed in the last few years. Searches for “global warming” are at their lowest since Google’s data measurement started in 2004. 

Searches for “climate change” began to tick up after the 2015 Paris accord, but seem to have enjoyed a slight renaissance in the era of Trump, increasing several percentage points since his election. However, other than the COP24 bump, even this term seems to be fading from interest. 

Putting this all together, while Trump’s anti-climate change rhetoric has offered a mild reprise of public interest and media coverage, both are in decline. Whether this means the world believes the debate about causality and consequences is settled or whether the public has been so inundated with climate messaging that it simply can’t sustain the same level of concern anymore, the end result is that the topic has been slowly fading from the public view.

RealClear Media Fellow Kalev Leetaru is a senior fellow at the George Washington University Center for Cyber & Homeland Security. His past roles include fellow in residence at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government.



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