Climate change is a global emergency !

Public opinion on climate change: a barrier that is part of the solution

Nowadays, man-made climate change and global warming have become an emergency that goes far beyond national boundaries and certainly represents one of the greatest challenges humankind has ever faced. In fact, because of direct consequences like heat waves, more frequent and intense storms, rising sea levels, warming of the oceans and many others, humans, but most importantly animals, face new challenges for survival. In order to limit as much as possible damages, concrete actions need to be undertaken.

However, still ~30% of the worldwide population views climate change as a minor threat or not a threat at all and do not consider the matter as an emergency1. This constitutes a huge barrier in addressing climate change as shifting the public opinion is needed to encourage climate-friendly behaviours. Therefore, changing public opinion may be a huge part of the solution but also one of the greatest challenges. This is why identifying the factors that influence public views on climate change is a critical step to urge politics to propose solutions on the matter and convince the population to act daily. One of these influences certainly is the media coverage of the topic that sensitizes the population on the severity of the situation.

Public opinion can be influential. The media can be influential.
Noam Chomsky

Figure 1. Yale Climate Connection-reported survey in 31 countries of public opinion on the causes of climate change.

This data story explores the QuoteBank dataset to evaluate the occurrence of the topic of climate change in the English news as well as its correlation with several parameters to better understand its influence on the population’s interest on the matter. We pushed our analysis further by assessing the influence of the social context of the speakers (age, occupation, political party, academic degree, nationality…) on the opinions on climate change using sentimental analysis.

How much is climate change mentioned in the news ?

An increased tendency through the years…

This question can seem quite obvious and simple to answer. However, to have a better idea of the importance the news give to the topic and the influence they have on public opinion, we need to first find out how much climate change is mentioned and whether it correlates with the gravity of the situation.

To answer this question, we first sorted the quotes of the QuoteBank dataset in order to keep only the quotes related to climate change by keyword search. the following keywords were chosen by our wonderful team:

  • Climate change
  • Global warming
  • Greenhouse effect
  • Greenhouse gas
  • Climate crisis
  • Climate emergency
  • Climate breakdown

We were then able to visualize the occurence of climate change-related quotes through the years, from 2008 to 2020:

We can observe in this first plot an overall increased tendency of quotes related to climate change through the years. This result isn’t a surprise for us as we hypothesize that the more the situation worsens, the more the news talk about it. We’ll come back to this later.
Interestingly, the end of the year 2009 also shows a higher occurrence. Several hypotheses could explain that phenomenon:

  • First, at that time, 2009 was tied for the second warmest year in the modern record by NASA2, which could explain why global warming was a particularly hot topic during this time period.
  • It is also possible that the QuoteBank dataset contains more quotes from December 2009 than from other time periods, thereby yielding a bias.

And through the months ?

An other interesting fact that one can observe from this plot is the increase in the occurence of climate change-related quotes at the end of certain years. Let’s have a closer look at this:

If we look more precisely at the plot above, there only is a significant increase at the end of the year in 2009 and 2015. This could be completely random or partially explained by the arguments cited above in the case of 2009. Interestingly, 2015 belonged to the top 3 warmest years on record until 20193. This could explain the peak in global warming-related quotes at the end of 2015. More generally, media coverage of climate change tends to increase at the end of the year while annual reports of global temperature anomalies and other data are published at that moment. We are therefore not surprised by these results.

Figure 2. Top 10 hottest years until 2019.

The worst the situation gets, the more interest in the topic

A correlation with the increase in global temperature ?

To understand whether the observed increase in climate related-quotes through the years is in fact due to the aggravation of the situation, we plotted the correlation between the monthly temperature anomaly (referring to the difference from the average, normal, temperature) and the monthly occurrence of quotes mentioning climate change. To do so, we retrieved the HadCRUT5 dataset of global historical surface temperature anomalies.

Even if the correlation isn’t significantly high, we can still observe a positive correlation with a R2 value of ~0.12 which stays consistent with the hypothesis that the more the situation gets worse, the highest chance the news will talk about it. Yet, this correlation isn’t strong enough to conclude anything relevant.

The news talk about it, people google it

To evaluate the influence of the media on public opinion, we thought of comparing the Google trends of climate change-related web searches with the occurrence of the quotes on the topic to assess whether media coverage could encourage people to get more informed on the subject.

Figure 3. Google trend of climate change searches from 2009 to 2019.

Interestingly, we can observe a significant correlation with a R2 of ~0.61, meaning that people do tend to get informed on subjects that the news cover. Surprisingly, we can even notice that the highest web search trend corresponds to the highest climate change related-quote occurrence, in September 2019. Did a particular event happen in September 2019 ? Yes absolutely !
In fact, the Global Week for Future, which were a series of international strikes and protests to demand action be taken to address climate change, took place from 20–27 September 20194. This explains perfectly the boom in quotes occurrence and Google searches on the matter. We, therefore, have here a perfect example of public opinion influencing media coverage and media coverage influencing public opinion.

Figure 4.The Global Week for Future of September 2019.

Who talks about climate change ?

A description of the most common speaker profile…

To see whether the social context influences the opinion on climate change, we first wanted to have a glance at who are the speakers talking the most about it on the English news without looking at the opinion on the matter. To do so, we decided to work with 5 main characteristics:

  • Age of the speaker
  • Occupation (job)
  • Political party (in the USA)
  • Academic degree
  • Nationality

Except for the age that was calculated by substracting the birth date to the quote date, this information about speakers was provided to us by our teaching assistants who extracted them from the Wikidata knowledge base. We first simply plotted the top 10 quotes’ occurrences covering the climate change topic based on the characteristics of their corresponding speaker.

We can observe that the most common overall speaker profile in the subset of climate change-related quotes is the following:

  • Age: 50-70
  • Occupation: Politician
  • Political party: Democratic
  • Academic degree: Bachelor of Arts or Juris doctor
  • Nationality: USA

This can be explained by the fact that, first, QuoteBank is a corpus of English newspapers meaning that the USA represent the majority of speakers here. Secondly, people that tend the most to be quoted on news are politicians. We don’t know about you, but in our case, we do not know a lot of politicians younger than 50 years old or older than 70. Finally, the dominant party in the USA is the Democratic party and it is therefore not surprising that most quotes belong to democratic politicians.
It is important to emphasise here that these results do not indicate the proportion of climate-related quotes among all cited quotes but rather show what is the most frequent profile of Quotebank speakers in the subset of climate change-related quotes. We, therefore, need to plot the proportion of climate related-quotes among all cited quotes by the speaker to really get relevant results in analysing the influence of social context on the interest in climate change.

Quotes on climate change VS the rest of them

To see who really talks about climate change the most, we first plotted the proportions of climate change-related quotes compared to all cited quotes for the last 4 speakers’ characteristics, keeping the exact same features as the last plot to visualize the difference between proportion and occurrence.

As expected, the values change dramatically and the results a highly relevant:

  • Occupation: As highly expected, the speakers that talk the most about climate change are environmentalists.
  • Political party: The parties that talk the most about climate change are the Labour party and the Nationalist People’s coalition. Interestingly and without any surprise, the Democratic party talks more about it than the Republican party.
  • Academic degree: Again, as expected, holders of a Doctorate of Sciences are the ones that cover the most climate change in the news.
  • Nationality: Finally, South Koreans are the most interested in climate change.
Figure 5. Democrats and Republicans votes on "Is climate change a serious problem ?".

We then ploted the top 15 proportions in each 4 characteristics to see who’s the final winner that covers the most climate change in English newspapers:

Without any surprise, the profile of the speakers that talk the most about climate change is the following:

  • Occupation: Climate activist
  • Political party: Nationalist People’s Coalition
  • Academic degree: Doctor of Sciences
  • Nationality: South Korea

The influence of social context on opinions of climate change: a sentiment analysis

Why sentiment analysis ?

When trying to understand the feelings or opinions that underlie a text or quote, sentiment analysis directly comes to mind. To analyse whether the speakers’ characteristics mentioned above could influence the opinions on climate change, we decided to use a pre-trained model from huggingface which was run on all the quotes that classifies quotes as positive or negative. For example, the following quotes are good examples of what positive or negative means:

  • “No challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change” - Barack Obama = negative
  • “Who can stop climate ? We can. You and you and you, and me.” - Desmond Tutu = positive

We, therefore, plotted the percentage of positive versus negative quotes for the top 10 occurrences for each characteristic.

Let’s see whether we can conclude anything on the influence of the speaker’s characteristics on climate change opinion:

  • Age: younger speakers seem to be more negative about climate change than older speakers (not enough speakers between 80-100 to have relevant information). This isn’t very surprising to us as younger people are more aware of the gravity of the situation than older people in general.
  • Occupation: Politicians and diplomats have higher positive points of view about climate, mostly because they are smooth speakers and also because they do not seem to see climate change as threatening as journalists for example.
  • Political party: As expected, Democrats are more positive than Republicans about climate change.
  • Academic degree: People with a bachelor of science seem to be more negative about climate change as well as people with a Master of Business administration. This could be explained by the fact that these speakers have more knowledge on the topic and are more aware of the matter. However, it seems difficult here to conclude any significant influence of Academic degrees on opinion on climate change.
  • Nationality: South Korea seems to have a more significant positive point of view about climate change compared to other countries. This could make sense while South Koreans tend to be indirect in their communication style5.
Figure 6. Sanna Marin, 34 years old, is the world's youngest serving prime minister (Finland).

Is it really relevant ?

However, we would like to emphasize the fact that using a positive/negative model maybe wasn’t the most appropriate model to classify climate change-related quotes. In fact, even if we can see some tendencies that could make sense, most categories of speakers’ characteristics have as many positive quotes as negative ones. Therefore, it is really hard based on these data to conclude whether in fact some of the features could influence the opinion on climate change. Maybe using a model based on optimist vs pessimist would have made more sense in the case of the topic of climate change. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to test this other model (and that’s sad).

What have we learned ?

Sadly, you have already reached the end of this data story. But what have we learned ?

  • Climate change-related quotes’ occurrence increased among the years and peaks in years 2009 and 2015 could be explained by the fact that they belong to the top 10 hottest years on record until 2019.
  • The increased occurrence through the years slightly correlates with the increase in temperatures. However, it highly correlates with the Google trends on climate change-related web searches. The peak in September 2019 in quotes’ occurrence, as well as Google searches, is certainly due to the Global week for future that took place at that time.
  • The most common profile of speaker in English news is a 50-70 year old politician from the USA Democratic party that has a Bachelor of Arts or PhD in Law.
  • The winner of the profile that talks the most about climate change is a climate activist that has a PhD in Sciences and is South Korean. If the person is American, its most likely party is the Nationalist People’s Coalition.
  • Sentiment analysis could show some relevant information but wasn’t overall the best model to analyse the influence of speakers’ characteristics on the opinion on climate change. Further improvements could have been done.