Refocusing attention on the climate crisis

Dr Friederike Otto, Senior Lecturer in Climate Science at Imperial College
15th November 2023
13:00 - 14:00
Mathematical Institute, Woodstock Road, Oxford, and online

The speaker

A few days before COP28 convenes in Dubai, we’re teaming up with the Oxford Climate Journalism Network to speak to Friederike Otto, Senior Lecturer in Climate Science at Imperial College and one of the leading climate scientists worldwide. The seminar will be held at Oxford's Mathematics Institute and co-hosted by Green Templeton College, the site of one of the UK's oldest meteorological stations. 

Dr Otto is one of the founders of the World Weather Attribution initiative. Founded in 2015 by Dr Otto and her colleague Dr Geert Jan van Oldenborgh, the project quantifies how climate change influences the intensity and likelihood of an extreme weather event using weather data and computer modelling, and often immediately in the aftermath of the event.

Dr Otto has authored the book Angry Weather and her work has been featured extensively in several global news organisations. In this seminar, she will discuss how journalists can do a better job covering this year’s critical climate summit.

Why climate journalism matters

  • Our latest report on climate change and news audiences found that in most of the eight countries covered, there has been a slight increase in climate change news use from 2022.
  • According to our 2023 Digital News Report, however, climate change is among one of the topics audiences avoid the most with publishers expressing difficulties in engaging audiences on climate stories.
  • Our research suggests that audiences are interested in positive news and coverage presenting solutions when it comes to climate.
  • Scientists like Dr Otto remain the most trusted sources of news and information about climate change, trusted by 73% of people on average, according to our latest climate report.

Four takeaways from the talk and discussion 

Refocus the attention towards the climate crisis. Rather than focusing on carbon accounting, journalists should focus on the human impact of the climate crisis. They can interpret and connect scientific technical concepts with their impact on people’s everyday lives: from the economy to health consequences. “We don't talk about needing these climate policies because the climate crisis is impacting the most basic human rights of people across the world,” said Otto. 

Think about how the story is framed. Otto pointed out that journalists have a responsibility to adequately communicate the consequences of extreme weather events. “For every extreme event that we look at, we always look at human suffering,” she said. Rather than just focusing on facts, journalists can balance communicating impact as well as mitigation. 

For example, she said that when journalists are covering a heatwave, it is important to avoid illustrating the story with people having fun at the beach but rather showing the real consequences of what a heatwave means. This ranges from telling audiences when they should avoid going out into the heat to informing them where they can go to cool off. By being deliberate about what is being communicated, journalists can play a role in keeping people safe. 

Balance and moderation are important. Answering a question about climate denialism, Otto pointed out that it is crucial to be honest about what can be attributed to climate change and what cannot. “We have gone from 'climate change is not happening' in a broad part of the media to ‘everything that's happening is climate change,’ but of course, the reality is in between,” she said. 

To engage audiences in conversations about the climate crisis, they must have an understanding of what they can do about it, in addition to what it means for their daily lives. By showing where climate change plays and doesn’t play a role, audiences can feel they have more agency to take action. 

Scientists also have a role to play. While Otto highlighted the importance of journalists when it comes to adequately communicating the impact of extreme weather events, she also calls attention to the role of scientists in the media. “The scientific community is, on the one hand, frustrated that nothing happens,” said Otto. “But on the other hand, most of my colleagues have refused to ever speak to a journalist unless the journalist asks a question about a specific paper they have just published.”

Scientists, she said, should broaden their horizons when it comes to being available to speak to the media and be open to discussions on climate science that go beyond specific papers they have published. Science communication is an important tool to reframe conversations about the climate crisis amongst the general public. “The conversation in the media about what the role of climate change is is happening anyways,” she said. “If we want to have this conversation happen based on scientific evidence, we need to engage with the people that write and build the narratives around these stories.”

The bottom line 

Audiences need to relate to news stories about the climate crisis: how it impacts their daily lives and what they can do about it. Moreover, journalists and scientists are responsible for engaging critically with each other to provide the most accurate information to the public and refocus attention on the climate crisis. 

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