Advancing communications measurement and evaluation

Climate Change and Renewables: A Presentation of CARMA’s Research on Media Perception

On April 20 and May 16, CARMA sponsored events on climate change and renewables in Washington, D.C., and London, respectively. These events included a panel discussion with energy sector experts. A full list of panelists from both events can be found below.

Additionally, the event included a presentation of research conducted by CARMA. The research analyzed media coverage of topics related to the energy sector to reveal trends and perception.

Research background

Jason Booms, Managing Director of Analysis with CARMA North America, delivered the analysis presentation at the Washington, D.C., event, while Tom Vesey, Consulting CEO with CARMA Europe, presented at the London event.

The research was based on a sample of coverage collected during a period of 14 months, between January 2016 and February 2017, including mainstream publications and excluding trade publications. As the study looked at the link between climate change and renewables, articles had to mention both topics to be included in the research. The analysis sought to study the media perception of renewables and climate change coverage.

Climate change coverage

As climate change can be a contentious topic, the research studied how the media portrays the subject. The results found that coverage of climate change largely acknowledged its reality, with 64 percent of studied articles accepting it and only six percent of articles refuting climate change.

Despite the coverage accepting its reality, climate change remains a controversial issue that tends to be debated across partisan and ideological lines. These biases can influence media coverage, as well as the public’s perception, of these issues.

Panelists addressed challenges of reporting on these topics, specifically by outlining the most effective methods of delivering facts to the public. Adam Vaughan, a member of the London panel and Environment Editor of The Guardian, stated, “Our role is not necessarily education… Our goal is to decide what we think is important, that’s what editors and reporters do, and then tell that story in a way that will get read.”

A similar sentiment appeared in the D.C. panel discussion. Roger Ballentine, President of Green Strategies, Inc. and Venture Partner at Arborview Capital, discussed the importance of objective, fact-based reporting by stating, “If we did more of that, we’re not telling people what to think. We’re telling them that a Manhattan-sized chunk of ice just fell off west Antarctica and what that means. Let them figure out, ‘Okay, well that sounds okay or not.’”

London panelist Emma Pinchbeck, Executive Director of RenewableUK, also addressed gaining media coverage that appeals to the public and journalists. She stated, “If you want to get coverage, then part of the game for us in industry is not just presenting the facts about insulation, but helping out to get it through [the journalist’s] editorial desk by spotting what human interest goes with your analysis.”

Renewables and climate change perception

In the media studied for this research, the perception of climate change was found to be generally favorable. Two major dips in the perception of climate change occurred, however, one taking place at the height of the U.S. Republican Presidential Primary and Caucus, and another in the month following Donald Trump’s election as President. These decreases were associated with uncertainty about how the new administration would approach energy sector issues.

Conversely, the coverage of renewables experiences less volatility than climate change. By a ratio of 20:1, renewables are seen as pivotal to fighting climate challenges. The potential for renewables to combat climate change likely contributes to its favorability in the media.

The main aspect of renewables that does not have a positive perception is related to the predictability of its output and the cost associated with producing and implementing. The D.C. panelists discussed the public’s concern on cost, but Roger Ballentine explained that high price was a misconception. Prices of solar energy decreased 83 percent in the last six years, while the prices of wind power fell 66 percent in the last six years.

Despite the positive potential for renewables, London panelist Stephen Ballard, Managing Director of BCM Public Relations Ltd, explained the difficulty of sharing information about renewables in the media. According to Ballard, energy sector professionals struggle to pitch and receive coverage on renewables. “There seems to be a road block when contacting many journalists who are not such prolific writers on renewables… If you’re pitching a climate change story, straight and simple, then you tend to get media traction. If you’re just going in with renewables, it tends to be a hard sell.”

Erik Sardain, a member of the London panel and Consultant with CARMA, proposed a different approach to gaining coverage of renewables. “I think renewables shouldn’t be seen any more as a sort of a solution pass or just a solution to climate change,” said Sardain. “It is also a business opportunity, and this is probably the best hope because I always believe that when economy and environment are basically ones against each other, environment is going to lose.”

Business opportunities

The concept of pitching climate change and renewables as a business opportunity also emerged during the D.C. panel. Dipka Bhambhani, Director of Communications with U.S. Energy Association, explained that positioning these issues as a business opportunity allows the energy sector to advance the progress of renewables and combat climate change. “What we’re saying is we’ve reached an impasse on the policy discussion. There is so much acrimony between the “climate deniers” and the people that believe it’s going on. We’re saying, ‘If you want to move the ball forward, you’re going to have to tell the business story.’”

Renewables’ business opportunities were seen as especially promising, and these energy sources now compete with fossil fuels. Renewables, for example, are now a larger global generator of energy than coal.

Despite the opportunities for business, the collected coverage made very minimal mention of corporations, with 73 percent of coverage lacking any mention of corporate affiliation at all. The absence of corporations in this coverage gives companies the opportunity to take a leadership role on energy, allowing them to create a narrative on the positive contributions of renewable energy and improve reputation by demonstrating a commitment to bettering the environment.

Government and regulatory issues

In addition to the close ties between business opportunities and renewables, energy sector topics have a close relationship with the federal government and regulations. The combination of regulatory issues and politics comprised 54 percent of the collected coverage. The prevalence of government in the coverage was likely due in part to the period from which coverage was collected, as it was gathered throughout the U.S. presidential election.

Evan Lehmann, a member of the D.C. panel and Editor at E&E News’ Climatewire, discussed how the United States’ new presidential administration could shape media coverage and public perception of these topics. “From a journalist perspective, it’s really interesting to have an administration that for the first time since I’ve been covering this, proudly states that climate change isn’t a problem, and talks about it through the policy lens as if it’s not a problem. This is going to generate a lot of attention through the media, perhaps more than Obama was ever able to by talking about it in friendly tones.”

Disseminating accurate information to educate the public allows people to develop an understanding of the reality of energy sector issues. Brian Wolff, a member of the D.C. event panel and Executive Vice President of Policy & External Affairs with Edison Electric Institute, explains how media should approach educating and delivering media without political or ideological biases. “We used to take everything from Washington and poll it to the states and tell everybody in the states what to think. It now should go the other way around. We should be taking what’s happening in the states and educating policy-makers and Congress.”

Despite the prevalence of discussions surrounding government and politics, most countries’ governments were largely absent from conversations in coverage, especially the EU. London panelist Lawrence Slade, CEO of Energy UK, believes the media should work together with governments to educate and share information. “I think you’ve got to look at how you can have a partnership between media [and government], and how therefore industry, government and media can actually work together.”

D.C. panelist Cary Funk, Associate Director of Research on Science and Society with Pew Research Center, discussed a similar idea about how government and media should work together to address energy sector issues. “Well, so much of media coverage is driven by changes in regulations and policy proposals that it’s obvious that we’re going to change how you [cover these topics in the media] because you’ve got all sorts of new proposals on the table. There is a natural way in which you’re going to have spikes in media content as you see coverage often driven by government action.”

Additional event follow-up 

The presentation of research, as well as the panel discussion that followed at both events, revealed important trends and data on media coverage and perception of renewables and climate change. For more information on this event and the content covered during it, check out CARMA’s YouTube channel to watch recordings from the events, or the SlideShare account to access the presentation slide deck.


London Event

Tom Vesey, Consulting CEO, CARMA (Presenter and Moderator)
Emma Pinchbeck, Executive Director, RenewableUK
Lawrence Slade, CEO, Energy UK
Erik Sardain, Consultant, CARMA
Stephen Ballard, Managing Director, BCM Public Relations Ltd
Adam Vaughan, Environment Editor, The Guardian

DC Event

Jason Booms, Managing Director, Analysis, North America, CARMA (Presenter and Moderator)
Roger Ballentine, President, Green Strategies, Inc.; Venture Partner at Arborview Capital LLC
Dipka Bhambhani, Director of Communications, U.S. Energy Association
Cary Funk, Associate Director, Research on Science and Society, Pew Research Center
Evan Lehmann, Deputy Editor at E&E News, Climatewire
Brian Wolff, Executive Vice President, Policy & External Affairs, Edison Electric Institute


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