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Climate Change: a serious Risk

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Dr Reuben Ng, Behavioural Scientist from the National University of Singapore, speaks about climate change and reframing the risks involved.

3% to 18% 3% to 18%

From 2010 to 2017, climate change featured in only 3% of global risk conversations, but this increased significantly to 18% from 2018 to 2019.

Reframing climate change as a risk

The raging Californian wildfires and recent Australian bushfires are unfortunate reminders that climate change is an urgent reality. Despite many news-breaking (and heartbreaking) calamities, 1 in 2 respondents of the Lloyd’s Register Foundation World Risk Poll—that represents 98% of the world’s population—did not consider it to be a very serious threat. Another YouGov-Cambridge Globalism study found that 10% of respondents in at least 3 of the 23 polled countries thought that “human activity is not responsible at all.”

Having worked across the policy-implementation continuum as a former policy consultant, practitioner and now scholar, it is evidently clear that the stumbling block is not policy but policy communication where we do a poor job. Let me explain.

Climate change narratives are framed in four ways. One, the ‘Contrarian Views Approach’ promotes a balanced conversation but leaves the impression that the climate change impact is inconclusive, evoking no sense of urgency to act. Second, the ‘Doom and Gloom’ narrative frames climate change as an irreversible catastrophe where humans have little control, producing the erroneous impression that the world is on an inexorable slide towards extinction. This approach jolts public attention but leave the majority feeling helpless, as if the proverbial climate train has left the station—it has not. Third, framing climate change with nationalistic undertones may results in cherry-picking evidence that is politically expedient.

These three narratives are widespread: a review of over 300 media sources across six countries revealed that sensationalism and uncertainty were the dominant themes of climate change communications1. To spur the public into action, I appeal that we discuss climate change as a risk. Risk language promotes action conversations around risk management, and overcomes the doom-gloom paralysis.

However, climate change did not feature prominently in global risk conversations measured in a 10-billion-word online database of over 28 million articles across 20 countries. Over 10 years from 2010 to 2019, climate change averaged a 6% prevalence compared to health (36%), and financial (26%) risks2. Nevertheless, there was a heartening shift from the first seven years (2010-2017) and the latter two years (2018-2019): specifically, from 2010 to 2017, when climate change featured in only 3% of all risk conversations, and increased significantly to 18% from 2018-20193.

This trajectory is encouraging and lays the groundwork for framing climate change as a risk to increase public awareness, and to spark conversations of mitigation and action. Our unprecedented analyses of global risk conversations at the LRF Institute for the Public Understanding of Risk, National University of Singapore has revealed that climate change risk narratives have increased in recent years but there is plenty of room for more.

Since September 2020, more than 30 million have been diagnosed with Covid-19 and close to a million have died3. The global pandemic has increased risk conversations dramatically. It is an opportune time to surf the waves of risk conversations, triggered by the pandemic, to re-frame climate change explicitly as a risk, and advocate for timely action and behavioural change. The time to act is now.

  • 1

    Painter, J. (2013). Climate change in the media: Reporting risk and uncertainty. London: Published by I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd in association with the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford.

  • 2

    Ng, R., & Zhu, Y. (2020). Framing Climate Change as Explicit Risk: Evidence from a 10-billion-word-database across 20 Countries over 10 Years. Manuscript submitted for publication.

  • 3

    World Health Organization. (2020, September 20). WHO Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Dashboard. Retrieved from World Health Organization website: https://covid19.who.int