Public opinion and climate change

Kirellos Abdelmalak, Tuesday 11 Oct 2022

Kirellos Abdelmalak describes the challenges hindering the spread of public awareness of the dangers of climate change worldwide

Climate change

Climate change may be the most devastating problem faced by humanity throughout history, clearly evident from the fact that there are entire countries that could disappear because of this unprecedented problem. The impacts of climate change such as reduced crops, increased floods, droughts, severe weather phenomena, desertification, and the displacement of hundreds of millions of people should also make people think.

Spreading awareness of the impacts of climate change needs far more efforts on the part of the media and educational institutions than they are receiving at the present time. Greater awareness will facilitate changing behaviour harmful to the environment and the climate and obtaining community support for the actions necessary to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are responsible for global warming.

It can also help to support climate-change mitigation and adaptation strategies that can improve health and reduce vulnerability. Without public awareness, governments and societies cannot take serious steps to confront the effects of climate change, because popular buy-in is essential for their success and implementation.

Despite the importance of people’s awareness of the issue of climate change and its effects, ignorance of it is still widespread in the developing and developed countries alike. There is evidence that many people die from hot weather every summer in the UK, for example, though many still do not understand that the frequency of heatwave conditions is increasing.

In Norway, many people refuse to pay attention to the impact of global warming, which leads to a failure to respond to its threats. In Canada, a study has found that most of the population does not adequately understand the threat of climate change and therefore does not deal with it in the required manner. Climate change, despite its severity, does not dominate elections, headlines, live broadcasts or social media in Canada, and it has little impact on consumer choices.

In Egypt, the relevant state institutions are seeking to raise awareness of climate change through a number of activities. The ministry of the environment has announced the need to raise awareness and popular understanding of climate change and environmental degradation through appropriate education programmes that will accelerate civic participation, behavioural and lifestyle changes, and consumer awareness.

Egypt’s National Strategy for Climate Change 2050 includes as its fifth objective knowledge management and the raising of awareness to combat climate change. Within this goal, an increase in national campaigns aimed at raising awareness among different segments of society is slated, with these emphasising the importance of preserving the environment and natural resources and modifying people’s behaviour towards them.

There is also an emphasis on preparing awareness campaigns about the dangers of climate change and its associated effects, with efforts being made to address them in institutions such as schools and universities and through media of various kinds, especially TV dramas and films.

UK climate change researcher Jennifer A Rudd has acknowledged that scientists have fallen short in publicising the climate-change crisis, writing that “obviously, as scientists we weren’t doing a particularly good job at communicating the vital information around climate change, if even those working on climate mitigation were unaware and/or doing little to curb their own carbon footprints.”

She advocates academics to use their positions to interrogate the systems in which they live and work, including by challenging their own universities to reduce their carbon footprints, asking their political representatives whether they represent the climate in their work, making it easier for people to learn about the content of scientific research, and using social media to open conversations about mitigating climate change.

Another study has found that European think tanks have contributed to ignorance regarding the impacts of dietary choices on the climate for ideological reasons related to economic, anthropocentric, and patriarchal worldviews. It reveals that these think tanks have been associated with the defence of certain interests, including of business as usual on a number of issues.

 

THE WESTERN MEDIA: The Western media has also contributed to the general ignorance regarding the issue of climate change, mainly due to a lack of sufficient credibility and a resort to superficiality in dealing with it.

Some meteorologists in the US have denied the importance of climate change to the general public by appearing in the media despite their lack of proper expertise in climate science. Researchers at George Mason University in the US have found that more than a quarter of American television broadcasters agree with the statement that “global warming is a scam”, for example, and nearly two thirds believe that if global warming is occurring it is mostly caused by natural changes.

This contradicts the findings of the American Meteorological Society, which has stated that global warming is real and suggests that human activities are the cause of it. Researchers at Yale University and at George Mason have found that 56 per cent of Americans trust weather broadcasters with global warming news much more than they do other media. This reveals the role of the US media in spreading ignorance about the issue of climate change and its effects. Added to this is the misinformation that many Americans regularly receive on the issue of climate change from conservative politicians repeating their ideas in the media.

Climate Feedback, a website that scientists use to rate the accuracy of articles on climate change in the mainstream media, has revealed that fake news stories on climate change are shared millions of times each month in the English-language media, including by climate sceptics on social media. This information is difficult to rebut because climate change is a very complex issue, while popular news is based on superficial information that is easy to handle.

In the Middle East, longstanding social and religious conflicts have pushed climate change down the agenda of public opinion and news reports in many Arab countries. Climate-change reports are usually copied from international news agencies, and as a result the issue has traditionally been covered as foreign news with a focus on international climate-change negotiations, causing it to be of limited interest to readers in the region.

 

FOSSIL FUELS: Fossil fuel companies and other major contributors to climate pollution and their allies have also played a prominent role in spreading climate disinformation, and these companies and their supporters have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to spread false and misleading content on social media.

An analysis of social-media posts on the climate has found that 16 of the world’s biggest climate polluters were responsible for placing more than 1,700 ads on Facebook in 2021, and these were shown to users 150 million times.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation, a US think tank with strong ties to the oil and gas industry, has created YouTube videos against wind energy as part of an alleged local fight against the multinational corporations. ExxonMobil, a US multinational oil and gas company, has also made at least 350 ads intended to influence proposed legislation in New York state that would phase out the use of natural gas in new buildings.

Climate misinformation has also been incorporated into fossil fuel marketing plans in the US via social media. Trade groups that manufacture natural gas have given money to Instagram influencers in exchange for making the use of fossil fuels a recipe for success. These messages are often directed to young women who follow foodies and culinary enthusiasts in talking about the supposed benefits of cooking on a gas stove.

Social media is an ideal tool for spreading climate disinformation, as it relies on cognitive biases, in other words, systematic errors in thinking that stem from the tendency of users to use mental abbreviations. It also relies on social biases, defined as a tendency to trust information that comes from people who are known to users in comparison to information from other sources. There are also algorithmic biases, which mean that social-media platforms adopt content that they expect will reap interaction from their users.

For years, social media has been filled with misinformation about the climate and clean energy, and there has been no easy way to control this growing problem. Twitter allowed nearly half a million posts denying the existence of climate change in 2020. But the same site recently added a link to scientifically accurate sources in relation to such posts, and it has also modified its algorithms to direct users towards reliable information.

In October 2021, Google, the parent company of YouTube, announced that it would not allow content creators to make money from content that contradicts the established scientific consensus about the existence and causes of climate change.

Also last year, Facebook announced that it would begin attaching warning labels to certain content and directing readers to a climate science information centre containing accurate information on the issue. However, these steps have not put an end to the misleading or deceptive content that is being posted.

 

EGYPT’S TAKE: Ali Qotb, a professor of climate science at Zagazig University and a former vice-president of the Egyptian Meteorological Authority, says that ignorance of the issue of climate change is due to economic interests and the policies implemented by the major industrialised countries to exploit the use of cheap and available fossil fuels.

These countries want to promote their development, so they resort to the use of fossil-fuel energy to do so even though this is damaging to the planet. They want to hide this damage, with the result being the public’s ignorance of the dangers of such energy.

Qotb said that the major industrialised countries want to shirk their responsibility for the climate-change crisis, pointing out that despite the occurrence of violent weather phenomena resulting from climate change and the strength of hurricanes striking the US itself, former US president Donald Trump withdrew from the UN Climate Conference in Paris in 2015, with the US only returning to the negotiations with the inauguration of current US President Joe Biden.

He said that the developing countries need to raise popular awareness further because the cause of climate change is environmental pollution, and just as there is natural waste from various sources, so too is there unnatural waste resulting from human practices. Chemical plants dumping their waste into rivers is one example, but there are also the impacts of ordinary practices such as the use of plastic packaging for food. Not only does this packaging cause pollution if inappropriately disposed of, but the use of methane gas in plastics production can also contribute to climate change.

Waste management must be improved in tandem with greater public awareness, Qotb said, and this began to happen after decisions taken in parallel with the preparations to host the COP27 Climate Conference. A decision has been taken to criminalise construction on agricultural land, for example, because agricultural land contributes to the production of the oxygen we breathe and reduces circulating carbon dioxide, helping to reduce the rise in temperatures.

Qotb said that the media’s role is to raise public awareness and follow up the implementation of decisions regarding environmental pollution, notably by highlighting violations such as the cutting down of trees, the inappropriate disposal of waste, and the waste of water causing damage and water shortages. There are laws that criminalise these practices, but unfortunately there is sometimes a lack of enforcement, he added.

Maher Aziz, an energy and climate change consultant, said that the media in Egypt did not deny the existence of climate change, adding that since the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change was announced in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, the world has put the issue of climate change at the forefront and fully engaged the cooperation of the media in raising public awareness.

In an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Aziz said that the issue of climate change was a popular issue and that information about it should be included in all stages of education from the first year of primary school to the last year at university. Egypt’s media — television, satellite channels, radio, and the press — have also been working to raise awareness among the public.

He said that ordinary people must understand that the current heat waves that they are experiencing are the result of climate change, causing them to support the decisions of the state when it takes action to protect the public against climate change or to address its negative effects on them.

Should natural disasters occur due to climate change, the state will need the public’s awareness and cooperation in order to take appropriate decisions, because if not the situation could go from bad to worse.

The writer is a researcher in political science and managing editor of the Middle Eastern Visions Platform of the European Centre for Middle East Studies in Germany.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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