Climate change beliefs: We need a values-based approach

The need for research into public understandings of climate change, as expressed through social media, supports the vital role of social sciences and humanities research in addressing the global challenges of climate change.

“Although climate change is a highly salient topic in society and has become a lived reality for some, an empirical investigation of the meanings, values and forms of public knowledge related to climate change as expressed on social media lags somewhat behind,” noted a study titled “A values-based approach to knowledge in the public’s representations of climate change on social media” published in Frontiers in Communication on 21 October 2022.

According to the study, conducted by Antoinette Fage-Butler, associate professor at the school of communication and culture at Aarhus University in Denmark, the “time is ripe” for a concerted research focus on representations of the public’s knowledge of climate change on social media that uses qualitative approaches.

“This would provide insights into online communities’ climate-related beliefs, attitudes and values, which underpin climate (in)action,” it said.

The study called for new research programmes that investigate the public’s representations of their scientific knowledge of climate change in online settings, particularly on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, discussion blogs and online forums, etc, as “they shape the knowledge or values meanings that are possible in the online context”.

A values-based approach

The study highlighted that such a research programme “has potential application for facilitating constructive dialogues about climate change that span diverse groups, puncturing the algorithmically derived epistemic and value bubbles that form around online communities”.

It also pointed to the “great potential in exploring values in relation to knowledge in such a research programme as, by moving beyond understandings of knowledge as defined in the natural sciences, we can better understand the meanings associated with climate change in the online public arena”.

“A values-based approach to public knowledge broadens the concept of knowledge from being a cognitive and quantifiable attribute that the public may be expected to have less of than experts,” it said.

“A focus on knowledge or values may help to create empirical findings that unpack the public’s future-oriented climate ‘imaginaries’,” the study found.

“Values are of great interest in the context of climate change, as they relate to tangible outcomes: values affect trust levels and underpin attitudes that in turn affect behaviours,” it said.

Qualitative methods

The study argues for the usefulness of applying qualitative methods to analyse knowledge and values in the public’s climate change discourse, and outlined methods to support that endeavour.

“Four qualitative approaches that can be used to explore the normative and epistemic qualities of knowledge or values: three approaches for text (Foucauldian discourse analysis, framing analysis and narrative analysis), and one for other modes (multimodal analysis) – useful for the more visual content typical of Instagram and TikTok, for example,” the study noted.

“These are intended to indicate a range of approaches and are not meant to be exhaustive.

“Qualitative analysis of the public’s knowledge or values regarding climate change in online settings opens up new research vistas.”

The study said a humanities approach appeared “highly relevant”, given the human causes of climate change.

“Humanities researchers have analytical tools as well as ethical and critical perspectives that can be applied to unpack knowledge or values in social media communication about climate change.

“Such a humanities ‘kit’ can lead to greater awareness of public perspectives on climate change, and, we can hope, provide leverage for the dialogue and action needed at this critical juncture in our history and the history of our planet.”

Exploring social media data

Speaking to University World News, Fage-Butler said that “social media make scientific information about climate change freely available, as well as create a space where climate activism takes place and where climate science is contested”.

For that reason, it is “important that we know what is being expressed on social media about socio-scientific topics such as climate change”, she said.

“Researchers at universities and associated research centres could enhance online public climate change knowledge and values through exploring social media data to spot trends in the evolving discourse around climate science using both qualitative and quantitative methods as well as mapping out both what the public knows about climate change, and the values they attach to it,” Fage-Butler said.

Humanities and social science researchers have “relevant theories and methods” that allow them to examine and analyse climate change knowledge and values communicated on social media.

“There is a need for such studies in developed and developing countries; also as climate change is experienced differently around the world,” Fage-Butler noted.

Professor Walter Leal, head of the Sustainability and Climate Change Management Research and Transfer Centre at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences in Germany, told University World News that social media can be an important tool to communicate around climate issues “and to pass on non-complex messages, especially for younger audiences”.

Leal added: “Universities may use social media in order to announce scientific findings, report on research results, and announce events or recent publications, hence, reaching a wide audience.

“However, social media platforms need to be used with care and quality control is needed, so that only accurate messages are passed on.”

Political polarisation

Leal’s views are supported by a November 2021 study titled “Twitter’s fake news discourses around climate change and global warming”, which argued there was a “clear politically polarised discussion on climate change”.

A 2019 study titled “Role of social media as a soft power tool in raising public awareness and engagement in addressing climate change” also noted “visible links between social media and changing public perceptions, with the possibility of public opinion influencing political decision-making”.

Research Professor Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid, based at Cairo’s National Research Centre, told University World News that putting universities and science centres “in the driver’s seat” to lead educational and research programmes on investigating values embedded in the online public’s representations of their knowledge of climate science is an “important step in the long rocky road to tackle online disinformation and misinformation about climate change”.

“Universities could also help in producing scientific workforces who will be at the forefront of addressing the climate crisis along with producing climate literate people needed for building a sustainable future,” Abdelhamid said.