An analysis of climate change message framing and its implications for levels of motivation for collective climate action in young people living in Ireland

by Catriona Reid

Provenance of the research: 

  1. Title of thesis/research question: An analysis of climate change message framing and its implications for levels of motivation for collective climate action in young people living in Ireland
  1. Type of thesis: Undegraduate
  1. University affiliation: University College Cork
  1. Research timeframe: January – April 2023

1. Abstract/Summary: 

As climate change impacts worsen, addressing climate change has become a top priority of governments around the world. In this context, climate change communication has become an increasingly important tool to prepare the public for the risks associated with climate change. As an interdisciplinary field leaning on approaches from the communication sciences, social sciences, and physical sciences, it contributes to the formation of best practices for climate communicators, ensuring that the public is kept well informed and engaged. However, in Ireland, there exists a mismatch between the level of people who are concerned by climate change (62%) and the level of people who are currently participating in collective climate action efforts (3%) (Leiserowitz et. al., 2021: 16-19; 32). This poses the question of whether climate communication holds the solution to increasing the number of people actively involved in climate action. 

Message framing is a key tool used in climate communication, providing audiences with a lens through which to understand a given topic. However, poor framing may alienate audiences, cause anxiety, or decrease their levels of motivation for long-term action, which is a key component of efforts to address climate change. Conversely, high quality framing may foster long-term engagement in climate action and inspire individuals to pursue collective action methods. This raises the question of which climate communication message frames are most effective in fostering motivation for long-term collective climate action in young people living in Ireland?

This dissertation begins with an in-depth analysis of climate change communication and the role played by message framing. Next, a set of five message vignettes were created to capture the essence of five message frames: Scientific, Economic, Environmental, Public Health, Morality/Ethics. This research was conducted through the use of a focus group – the chosen cohort was young people living in Ireland aged between 18-25. Focus group participants were asked to reflect on the effect had by these vignettes on their motivation for collective climate action. The research results are analysed in relation to the wider climate communication literature and recommendations are provided for climate communicators aiming to engage young Irish audiences in collective action.

2. What were the most important or surprising findings of your work?

The most important finding in my work was that the focus group participants were most engaged with the message vignettes which presented them with practical steps which could be taken to address climate change. For example, the scientific message vignette presented participants with scientific-based solutions, such as green energy – however, despite this seemingly quick fix, participants did not immediately feel empowered to engage in collective action because of a perceived lack of agency in engaging with climate science. Participants did not feel empowered to participate in science-based solutions to climate change despite their appreciation for the necessity of such solutions. To me, this signals a need for more opportunities for collaborative citizen engagement with climate science solutions. 

The most surprising finding in my work was that the biodiversity vignette was not more popular with the focus group participants. I had expected the participants to be more engaged with biodiversity messaging, considering the essential role that biodiversity restoration, conservation, and rewilding efforts have to play in climate mitigation. However, this message frame was quite unpopular with participants – multiple participants expressed feelings of overexposure to this type of messaging. To me, this signalled a need for a shift in how biodiversity conservation is communicated to the public.

3. What did you struggle with during the research and/or writing process, and how did you overcome these issues?

The biggest struggle was in marrying the parallel fields of climate change communication, youth empowerment and engagement studies, and political science. Given that this is quite a niche area, it was difficult to find relevant readings to ensure that I had enough background knowledge to tackle this subject. I was able to overcome this by engaging directly with professionals in the field and by working closely with my supervisor, knowing when to ask for help and knowing when to trust my intuition that I was on the right research path.

4. What are you doing now, and what are your plans for the coming year?

Now I am a Research Assistant at MaREI, the SFI Centre for Energy, Climate and Marine in UCC and I am working on projects which engage young people and citizens in biodiversity and climate risk communication. One of the projects I am under, TRYBE, has just published a Biodiversity Activity Book for primary school children in addition to a suite of online resources for secondary school teachers, so I have had plenty of chances to apply my learnings from my dissertation to the real world!

5. Following the above, did your research impact those plans in any way?

Absolutely – working on my dissertation gave me a space to build up key research skills and confidence working with research participants which I needed to apply to my work in MaREI.

6. Do you have any advice for people who are undertaking this type of research?

Trust the process! It can be very hard to put yourself and your ideas out there, but have faith in your abilities and in your knowledge. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it though!

Author Bio: 

Catriona has always been fascinated by the human and political aspects of climate change, and it was this interest that brought her to study Government and Political Science at UCC. Throughout her degree, she became more interested in research, which led her to join MaREI where she is assisting with research into youth engagement with climate action. Her background is in politics and political science, having gotten involved in climate activism from a young age. Throughout her undergraduate degree, her political interest in climate issues developed into a research interest, and she began to tailor her degree towards this topic.

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