Climate communications aim to bridge partisan gap

Maps of New Mexico counties showing voter results and relative belief of climate change in each county. Darker counties represent a higher percentage of the specified result. For reference, a correlation coefficient ‘r’ greater than 0.7 is considered strong, while those greater than 0.9 represent a very strongly positive correlation. (Graphs by Joe Rull)

By Sevia Gonzales and Joe Rull / News Port

Climate change has become a central issue on the American political stage, and studies show that the politicization of climate science has grown in recent years, which may be limiting the progress of bipartisan efforts to tackle environmental issues with policy. The research suggests that this schism is likely due to biased, partisan mainstream media coverage of climate issues.

Retired Sandia Labs physicist and UNM adjunct professor Mark Boslough, Ph.D., said he thinks one thing stalling bipartisan support for climate change policy is the mainstream media’s tendency to participate in “both-siderism” or “false balance”.

More than ever, Boslough says, two battling “sides” are portrayed as being at seemingly insurmountable ideological odds about climate change action. He said he finds the presentation of global warming as a binary issue irresponsible. 

“The idea that there are ‘two sides’ to the scientific debate is preposterous,” Boslough said.  “There is a spectrum of scientific opinion, all consistent with human-caused global warming — and there are many unscientific opinions, denial & certain doom being two.”

A newly published study from the Yale University Program on Climate Change Communication shows that this portrayal by partisan media is likely the source of the recent spike in political polarization. The research examines an increase in partisan polarization on climate change action as the Green New Deal gained national attention in the mainstream media.  

“…everyone — every single person — needs to figure out why they care about climate change and how it will personally affect [them]… then talk about it everyday…”  

– Jordan Wostbrock, UNM Earth and Planetary Sciences 

Introduced last year by U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), the GND proposes a transition to one hundred percent renewable, zero-emission energy sources and investments in green energy technology and jobs in just ten years. The resolution also outlines more expansive social policy reform, including universal health care, an increased minimum wage and retirement security.

The Yale study suggests that as media coverage of the GND increased, bipartisan backing for the resolution declined, due to an abrupt decrease in Republican support. According to the Yale research published in the Nature Climate Change Journal, conservative Republicans who had heard the most about the GND were the least likely to support it, seeing a 59 % increase in GND awareness and a 25 % decrease in support from December 2018 to April 2019. Conversely, Democratic support remained high and saw no significant decrease during this time. 

YPCCC data showing the change over time in support for the Green New Deal in various voter demographics. (Graph by Joe Rull)

The study identifies the “Fox News effect” as a possible catalyst for the simultaneous spike in awareness and opposition to the GND among Republican voters, suggesting that the biases expressed in mainstream media are sparking bipartisan polarization.


YPCCC data suggests that negative Fox News coverage of the Green New Deal is likely contributing to the decline in general Republican support for the policy. (Graph by Joe Rull)

The Yale study specifies that those who regularly watched Fox News had heard the most about the Green New Deal and supported it the least. Opposition rose even among Republican Fox News viewers who expressed support for the objectives of the Green New Deal before the resolution made its rounds on Fox News and other mainstream media. 

The research suggests that this is the result of media “agenda setting”— the way media can intensify opinion polarization along a partisan divide. The research points to previous studies, which show that negative media coverage in particular drives political polarization on climate change. 

“The research shows that party affiliation strongy dictates what you think is right for action on climate change and your opinion on climate change science,” said Jordan Wostbrock, a UNM Earth and Planetary Sciences Ph.D. student who puts on local climate communications events. 

“If you’re watching partisan news and they’re covering the Green New Deal in a negative light, then that’s going to be your main way of thinking about it,” Wostbrock said. “If you’re only listening to far-left leaning news channels as well, you would have the same repercussions.”

The Yale Project on Climate Change survey on Global Warming’s “Six Americas” categorizes six groups based on Americans’ opinion and belief in climate change, with possible responses being “alarmed,” “concerned,” “cautious,” “disengaged,” “doubtful” and “dismissive.”


Results from the YPCCC “Six Americas” Survey in 2015 and 2019, showing the percent change for each response. (Graph by Joe Rull)

The YPCCC study found a 92-point partisan divide in GND support between Republicans and Democrats who had heard “a lot” about the resolution, 4% and 96%, respectively. Among Republicans who had heard “nothing at all” about the Green New Deal, 85% were supportive of the GND. Democrats in the same group saw an 89% rate of approval. 

In spite of this partisan split, a 2018 run of the “Six Americas” survey shows Americans to be increasingly aware of climate change as a legitimate issue. The portion of those identifying as “alarmed” as risen to 29%, an all time high. Efforts to implement climate action policy, however, remain at a standstill. Experts suggest that this is due to the media’s practice of “bothsider-ism”, or the tendency to give an equal platform to both sides of a debate in attempts to appear unbiased.

Boslough said he thinks this inclination, defined in the New York Times as “the practice of journalists who, in their zeal to be fair, present each side of a debate as equally credible, even when the factual evidence is stacked heavily on one side,” has given traction to climate change misinformation.

He said he thinks “bothsider-ism” bolsters a rivalry between both sides of the spectrum, pitting “alarmists” — otherwise known as “doomers” — who maintain that there is no hope to reverse climate change, against “deniers”, or those who are aware of the science but choose to overlook the facts. 

“The biggest problem with both-siderism is that it gives the impression that there are two sides to every story and that to be ‘fair & balanced’ both sides must be given equal weight,” Boslough said. “But the media get to decide who gets to represent the ‘other side’ — always deniers but never alarmists in the case of climate change.”

Boslough also said the terminology can be used to misconstrue the climate change beliefs identified by the Six Americas study. 

“Deniers and their enablers tend to conflate ‘doomer’ and ‘alarmist’ with anyone who is alarmed,” Boslough said. “In the opinion of most of my colleagues, any rational and informed person should be alarmed, but that doesn’t make one an ‘alarmist’ or ‘doomer’ any more than someone who buys fire insurance is a ‘fire alarmist’ or someone who avoids smoking is a “cancer doomer’.”

Climate change communicator and Colorado University at Boulder Ph.D. student Holly Olivarez agrees that the media’s tendency toward “bothsider-ism” in the name of nonpartisan coverage can be misleading when reporting on climate change issues and policy.

“I think that when it comes to climate change, there is no debate,” she said. “It is tried and proven, there is no confusion. It’s going to happen whether we debate it or not. It’s the people that are choosing to debate it and choosing to make it political that it’s become political.” 

Olivarez has held climate change communication events across New Mexico and said she thinks that the media’s coverage of climate change suggests a lack of scientific consensus regarding climate change, a misrepresentation she believes is detrimental to bipartisan climate action progress.

“In the news media we have portrayals that there is debate or that there is confusion about the seriousness of it, and if it’s human-caused, and that simply isn’t true,” she said. “They have to stop it, because it’s very confusing to the public. I also think that there is a campaign to confuse people and so it’s sad to me that the news media outlets are participating in that.”

Despite the recent polarization on climate change policy, Americans’ general acknowledgement of the climate crisis is on the rise. In less than five years, the percentage of respondents who said they’re alarmed by climate change more than doubled, while the portion of dismissive or doubtful responses dropped by eight points, per the YPCCC Six Americas survey.

Nevertheless, policies made to address these climate concerns have sputtered, with support continually divided along party lines. Here in New Mexico, this trend is in full bloom. 

YPCCC data shows that the voting results in New Mexico’s counties shows a strong positive correlation with the percentage of residents within that county that “believe in global warming”, with Democrat-leaning counties expressing more belief in global warming and Republican-leaning counties expressing less belief.

Maps of New Mexico counties showing voter results and relative belief of climate change in each county. Darker counties represent a higher percentage of the specified result. For reference, a correlation coefficient ‘r’ greater than 0.7 is considered strong, while those greater than 0.9 represent a very strongly positive correlation. (Graphs by Joe Rull)

“I think New Mexicans in general are starting to see the effects of climate change here in New Mexico,” said Wostbrock. “In 2013, the water allocation for our farmers was reduced by a huge amount. They usually get 36 inches per acre, and that year they only got 3.5 inches per acre which is insanely reduced… so (there are) longer periods of drought. I think people are feeling the repercussions of that.”

Wostbrock said she thinks that extending discussion outside the climate science community and raising awareness for global warming through public discourse is crucial to bridging the partisan gap and reaching bipartisan climate change resolutions.  

“I think that everyone — every single person — needs to figure out why they care about climate change and how it will personally affect [them] and then find other people who care about those same things and then talk about it everyday,” Wostbrock said. 

Olivarez agrees that working to normalize climate change discussion from a variety of perspectives is key. At CU Boulder, she is currently enrolled in a graduate program centered on preparing scientists to do just that. 

“My motivation for going to graduate school and getting my Ph.D. is so that I can be a climate change communicator,” Olivarez said. 

The university’s environmental science program partners with other departments to include sociologists, psychologists and natural scientists in an interdisciplinary approach to climate change communication. 

Olivarez also said she thinks shifting away from the negative framing of climate change issues could help inspire people to get involved in climate change action, regardless of party affiliation. One of her ideas includes starting a Twitter campaign of hopeful and encouraging climate change headlines.

Of course, before positive headlines can be made, policy makers from both sides of the aisle must come to a consensus on climate change action. Democrats have showed their support for climate resolutions, including the Green New Deal, but Republicans generally remain steadfast in their opposition.

Wostbrock says she thinks the key to making progress on things like the Green New Deal comes in showing conservative lawmakers that resolutions like the Green New Deal reflect American values and could bring positive reform to their constituents.

“If you took out every word of ‘environmental’ and ‘climate change’ in that Green New Deal, you’re left with just jobs and economic growth and research and innovation,” Wostbrock said. “Those are deeply American roots.”

Sevía Gonzales is a reporter for the New Mexico News Port. She can be reached on Twitter @GonzalesSevia or at nmnewsport@gmail.com. 

Joe Rull is a reporter for the New Mexico News Port. He can be reached on Twitter at @rulljoe or at nmnewsport@gmail.com.