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Perception Gaps

New research paper: politicians and activists ‘speak a different language’ on climate change

23 July 2022

In a new paper (open-access link) published in the journal Language and Ecology, Clare Cunningham and her colleagues at York St John University analysed the prevalence and use of climate change words and phrases by politicians and activists.

The analysis revealed major differences. Activists use emotive language and talk about ecology, guilt, and morality. Politicians use much more technocratic language and focus on finance, trade-offs, technologies and the economy, reflecting a longstanding positioning of environmental issues among political elites as emerging from a cost-benefit analysis perspective.

Perhaps most strikingly, ‘people’ barely feature in politicians’ discourse on climate – showing up only as ‘bill payers’. 

The analysis is important to help understand why campaigns aimed at political or other ‘elite’ groups can sometimes fail to land with public audiences, and vice-versa. In related research, IPPR tested a range of climate change narratives and found that (despite their common usage by climate campaigners) language around ‘green jobs’ was not as compelling for the public as language around protecting the environment for future generations, or the need to reduce the risks from climate impacts.

Climate Barometer tracker polling backs this up: the public is not very persuaded by arguments that climate policies will deliver lots of new jobs. But this is more likely to reflect a widespread lack of trust in the ability of government to deliver on its promises, than a distaste for green jobs.

The latest from the Perception Gaps timeline:

From the Climate Community 22nd February 2024

Video: People want climate action so why don’t politicians get it?

Climate Barometer’s Adam Corner created a short video talking about perception gaps, in collaboration with ‘Need to Know UK and VideoRev. 

Opinion Insight 12th February 2024

Global study shows climate perception gaps are prevalent around the world

A new survey of nearly 130,000 people across 125 countries has found that there is widespread support for climate action around the world. But, people often don’t realise how much support there is.

The open access article, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, presents new, large-scale evidence of a global mandate for climate action, while shining a light on the pervasiveness of climate ‘perception gaps’. The headline findings across the global dataset show that:

  • 89% demand intensified political action.
  • 86% endorse the pro-climate ‘social norm’ that people in their country should try to fight global warming. 
  • Strikingly, 69% of the global population expresses a willingness to contribute 1% of their personal income. 

However, this ‘actual’ support for climate action was at a mismatch with what people ‘perceived’ the levels of support to be. Around the world, people “systematically underestimate the willingness of their fellow citizens to act”.

And these discrepancies matter. If we don’t believe there’s a mandate for green policies, inertia slows the pace of the green transition. ‘Perception gaps’ like these have consequences.

  • Source: Nature
  • Authors: Peter Andre, Teodora Boneva, Felix Chopra & Armin Falk
  • Date: 9th February 2024
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