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The Portrayal of Climate Change in Political Discourse and Its Connection to Natural Disasters

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Table of contents

  1. Abstract
  2. Introduction
  3. Placing the Research in Current Literature
  4. Argument and Methodology Discussion
  5. Research Findings, Analysis and Discussion
  6. Conclusion


Climate change has, since the 1970s become an increasingly unanimous science, with fewer and fewer people dissenting to the view that man is causing the climate to shift, i.e. is the cause of anthropogenic climate change. However, solutions to this used to be viewed as contrary to good economic practice, and so were likely to cause any government implementing them economic harm, although this can to some extent be explained as a construction of discourse used by businesses (such as Big Oil) to stop policies that may harm their profits from being implemented (Carvalho 2005+2007). This essay is going to explore the way that climate change is constructed in modern political discourse, how much time politicians give to it in their conference speeches and how much of manifestos are taken up by it. Then it will explore the effect that natural disasters have on this construction, concluding that they make political rhetoric and construction more environmentally aware.

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The question that this article will attempt to answer refers to how parties use political discourse to portray the environment, and the problem of (anthropogenic) climate change. The issue of how climate change is portrayed is important because, for most people, politicians and the media are where they absorb the majority of their information regarding scientific matters and how they ought to affect policy decisions.

The central argument of this essay will be that, whilst climate change is, fortunately, considered virtually unanimously anthropogenic in the UK, it often takes a back seat in major political discourse, with references to it, for the most part, scarce. However, when natural disasters strike, discourse will change to appeal to the populist beliefs of the general public, in an attempt to gain political standing and increase popularity.

In order to assess the legitimacy of this hypothesis, discourse and content analysis shall be conducted on manifestos and speeches given by party leaders at their respective yearly conferences in order to conclude the manner in which climate change is portrayed in usual political discourse. Then the same research methods shall be applied to speeches and appearances of the leaders around the times of natural disasters, such as the flooding in the UK in Winter/Spring 2013/14. Because the hypothesis being tested centre around the portrayal of climate change, and not the questioning of it, most of the research and analysis will focus on the time after the Second intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report was published in 1995/6 as this marked a time when the science of climate change became an almost unanimously agreed upon fact in Politics (save for a few dissenters, mostly in the US).

Also, as the graph, compiled with data from research done by Carvalho and Burgess (2005) shows it marks a rise in the number of media time given by the three “big political” newspapers. This also marks the beginning of the “third circuit” on climate change. (Carvalho and Burgess: 2005:1)

Placing the Research in Current Literature

Currently, the majority of research into the portrayal of climate change in political discourse seems to focus on media outlets, most notably Broadsheet newspapers and how they affect, and are affected by science, popular opinion, and policies. (Carvalho & Burgess: 2005, Carvalho: 2007, Zehr: 2000, Bell: 1994) Whilst some research even delves into the way(s) that popular media and culture, i.e. Hollywood films with environmental themes and messages, affect public perceptions and shape political discourse (Lowe, Brown et al: 2006)

The thesis which seems to be central to much of the current literature seems to be that the ‘construction’ of climate change in political discourse, and policy recommendations that stem from this are deeply rooted in ideology (Carvalho: 2007). This argument is put forward surmised well by Burgess & Carvalho (2005): “Forms of filtering and reinterpreting information about climate change are rooted in, and reproduce, profoundly divergent value systems.” Research on broadsheet newspapers and their depiction of climate change in discourse tends to focus on three papers; the Times (right leaning), the Guardian (left leaning) and the Independent (free from bias), and analyses the manner in which the ideology affects the argument, with the conclusion usually centring around the idea that ideology does affect the argument, but that in recent years with the certainty of anthropogenic climate change the only difference is the nature of the combatant policies that are advised.

Argument and Methodology Discussion

The position being taken by this work, which the research confirms is that climate change, whilst not being denied by any politician in the UK, is not a main priority for many of them policy wise. Although this can be observed to change when climate change, or more accurately natural disasters affect the UK. In recent years evidence of the mounting threat that natural disasters pose to Britain is clear. And after this the construction of climate change in discourse; the positions of politicians on man’s effect of the environment; and the urgency needed for action; all become much more heightened. This is in an attempt for the politicians to gain favour with a public that are seeing the obvious effects of the phenomena (of climate change) and are looking to their leaders as the ones who can change the situation. The rhetoric about climate change should slow, and calm down in its urgency after the disaster has been averted and the aftermath dealt with.

The methods that shall be used in order to answer this question, and prove the hypothesis are going to centre around political discourse, and so the two chosen are content analysis, and also discourse analysis. Whilst seeming similar the two methods explore different phenomena and complement each other well in terms of answering questions about constructions of climate change discourse. Content analysis is, and will be, used to discover trends in speeches and political construction of climate change discourse. It looks at the manifest contexts of texts and discourse, namely things like the number of times a word, phrase or theme is brought up in communications (Berelson 1952: 18).

In the context of this work the communications chosen have been speeches from the leaders of political parties at conferences, and election manifestos, in order to observe how political discourse usually treats the issue of anthropogenic climate change and the policies associated with dealing with it and solving the problem. Then news articles and speeches given by leaders and politicians around the time of, and after, natural disasters are going to be analysed to see if there is a spike in the number of mentions of climate change related words, phrases and themes, which there should be given the nature of the hypothesis, in order for it to be proved right.

One slight problem with this type of research, focussing solely on the contents of a text, is that political discourse and constructions are not neutral, nor do they exist solely in vacuums. In order to further understand the nature and construction of climate change in political discourse, discourse analysis shall be employed in order to gain a greater knowledge and understanding of what are, in the subjective reality of political discourse; “interrelated set(s) of texts, and practices” which, through “their production, dissemination and reception… bring an object into being.” (Philips and Hardy 2002)

The idea behind using discourse analysis alongside content analysis comes down to the need to understand the affect to which the timing of a discourse construction affects the content and meaning behind it, this gives an obvious need for a great understanding of the context and thematic meanings behind articles, speeches and other types of communication by ‘opinion leaders

Research Findings, Analysis and Discussion

The first phase of research to be used to answer the question of how natural disasters affect the construction of climate change in political discourse is to apply content analysis to the manifestos of the main parties, and analyse their speeches at the respective conferences in order to gauge the level of time, effort and urgency given to the problem of anthropogenic climate change. The analysis of the manifestos of a huge number of parties in elections worldwide stretching back decades has been conducted by the Manifesto Project, and this shall form the basis of the analysis of the manifestos of the main parties in UK General Elections.

The table above shows the frequency with which the main parties had policies concerning the wellbeing of the environment in their manifestos from the first 1974 election through to the most recent election in 2010 (the Liberal Democrats formed after the 1987 election as a merger of various centrist parties, although this is tangential to the argument). Whilst this shows some interesting things, such as the fact that after the first IPCC report in 1990 the frequency with which climate change policies appear in a manifesto appear to spike, a similar point can be made about the 2001 election manifestos after another of the IPCC reports. These can be argued to be the catalyst for the dissemination of knowledge concerning anthropogenic climate change to the public via media outlets and public bodies and politicians.

However, when observing the percentage of the manifestos that these frequency numbers translate to it may seem that this conclusion is slightly off. As the table seems to suggest only a slight positive correlation between the percentages of a manifesto given over to environmental policies and the more recent an election the manifesto is from. Although, if one bears in mind the hypothesis that environmental discourse and policies are used as a sort of popularity grab by politicians, it seems that as the Liberal democrats became a more mainstream party and gained vote shares, they reduced the amount of climate policies in their manifestos, in line with what the hypothesis suggests.

Likewise, if one considers that the Labour party were far behind the Conservatives throughout the 1980s then the reason for the slight spike in frequency from 1979’s second election throughout the 80s towards Blair’s election victory in 1997, when climate science was much more accepted, thanks to various IPCC reports. This analysis also stands up when one considers the jump in frequency in the conservative manifesto from 22 policies in 1997 to 85 in 2001, at the height of Blair’s reign back down all the way to 9 in 2005, when Blair had seemingly held office for too long to hold on to his populist status, and was handing over to Gordon Brown at the next general election regardless of anything else.

The reason that the sample of manifestos chosen goes back to 1974, before any of the IPCC reports, is that this was the decade that climate science was beginning to see mainstream popularity and acceptance in academic circles. With analysis of the problems of aerosols and CFCs beginning, and most literature arguing against the traditional belief that the earth was set to continue in a cooling cycle, with most scientific articles predicting the opposite, that the earth was about to heat up.

However, in terms of the analysis of speeches given at party conferences, the decision was made to stick to speeches given at conferences after the 2010 election. This is because the analysis is simply more time consuming when looking through speeches consisting of dozens of pages, and roughly 200 paragraphs of rhetoric and discourse. Also, having ascertained the levels of policy preference and priority given to climate change in terms of election manifestos this exercise simply seeks to give a more in depth and focused look at the context in which natural disasters can be placed on a timeline between elections. The changes in policy direction from parties at elections five years apart could well be markedly different, and so adding in the yearly conferences adds to the background context in which the discourse around natural disasters can be placed.

Since leading the Conservative party to victory in the 2010 election, David Cameron has given 4 speeches at party conferences. In these he seems to usually follow ‘the usual political speech format’ (Anonymous: 2013) with very little in depth analysis allowed for, having been looked over in favour of a more generalist approach; using humour, accessible language, simple examples, and rousing rhetoric in order to keep both the audience entertained and the media happy in the quality of the sound bites that they are receiving. This, however, leaves very little room for expansion on what is realistically a complex issue. The solutions to anthropogenic climate change are not obvious, and policy directions associated with dealing with the threat have obvious pros and cons associated with them.

Perhaps because of this Cameron only mentions the environment, or green policy a few times in each speech. In 2010 for instance, he makes two references; one about the first green investment bank, and the other about keeping the environment protected. In terms of wider context much of the speech focuses on the election win that the party had just enjoyed after over a decade of Labour government. The 2013 conference speech had the same number of mentions in it; 2, about the importance of green jobs and producing clean energy.

The year with the most references to the issue of climate change, and the environment is 2011. With there being 5 references in the entire speech, so still a small number, with only about 2% of the paragraphs in the speech containing any reference to the environment. This was the second conference at which Cameron gave a speech as Prime Minister, and so there was much less of the triumphant rhetoric of the previous year, with this seemingly replaced by talks about the riots of the summer, and how the nation needed to develop into a strong society.

As a result of this much of the anecdotes and imagery focused around a sense of togetherness. In his 2012 speech Cameron referenced the environment three times, mostly about renewable energy sources. This speech was given shortly after the 2012 Olympics, so again much of the time was given over to that, with the rhetoric seeming to suggest a marked improvement on the Britain that had seen rioting the previous summer.

Looking back over the speeches and the ways in which the discourse about climate change and the environment are constructed it can be seen that nearly all of the references are worked into the speech in the context of the economy and potential benefits to it. This mirrors the findings of Carvalho (2005 (with Burgess) and 2007) in which it was found that conservative leaning newspaper, the Times, focussed a large amount of its articles about climate change to either argue the higher importance of the economy or stress that environmental policy needed to consider the importance of the economic impacts that it would have on the UK.

An article published in the Guardian (Mason: 2013) is cited as saying that David Cameron has ordered the Coalition government to remove green ‘c**p’ from bills, as it is driving costs too high, this once again shows that the economy is given preference over the environment, and although Cameron never announced this, the manner of his policies constructs this discourse, and shows us that this is how he wishes to lead the country. Another article, this time published on the Huffington Post website (Bartlett: 2014) also notes the fact that Cameron once promised “I want this to be the greenest government ever, a very simple ambition and one that I am absolutely committed to achieving.” However the article then goes on to note that:

“The government’s ideology has reverted to an ever-increasing move to the right – Cameron and Osborne have ditched environmental … policies in favour of economic growth. “ The article even goes as far as to suggest that Britain remains too reliant on fossil fuels, suggesting that much of Cameron’s rhetoric about creating green jobs and clean energy remain just that, empty rhetoric not reflecting the political reality that Cameron is created behind his discourse. This argument can be summed up with George Osborne’s 2011 statement that: “If we burden (British businesses) with endless social and environmental goals – however worthy in their own right – then not only will we not achieve those goals, but the businesses will fail, jobs will be lost, and our country will be poorer.”

However, after the Winter/Spring of late 2013 and early 2014 proved to be one of the wettest ones in recorded history rhetoric about the environment, climate change, and the threat it posed the country changed. During a PMQ debate in the Commons, after the Somerset Levels, along with many other parts of the country had undergone severe flooding Cameron announced his belief that “man-made climate change is one of the most serious threats that this country… faces.” This construction of a serious political discourse, combined with the coalition record, and Cameron’s visit to areas of Wales affected by the floods shows the hypothesis, that climate change rhetoric takes a back seat during election manifestos and day to day running of the country, but is supported unanimously when the country is faced with a natural disaster, to be largely correct.


The findings of this (brief) study into the construction of climate change in political discourse, and the effect that natural disasters have on this, have confirmed the previously set out hypothesis. Namely that, because natural disasters bring the environment to the forefront of media discourse, and usually climate change is lauded as a reason for them, politicians construct their discourse about its prevalence far more carefully. In the aftermath of disasters very few politicians would be willing to go on record claiming that the economy should take priority over environmental policies. This research, and its’ findings, appear to have a level of generalisability to it, in that it should at the very least be applicable to UK politics, particularly in the later constructions of “climate circuits.” (Carvalho & Burgess: 2005)

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In future research the hypothesis and methodology should be applied to a wider range of parties and governments to test its generalisability to British politics on a wider scale; it could also be applied to instances of other nations suffering natural disasters. Another interesting avenue to explore with this hypothesis would be using surveys to explore the extent to which the public consume the constructed discourse of the importance of climate change after natural disasters, and how this affects their opinions on politicians and politics in general.

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