Researchers to chart the highs and lows of public debates about climate change

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31 Jan 2011 15:52:59.673
PA 31/11

Understanding how public attitudes to climate change have been shaped by discussions, debates and controversies is to be the focus of a new research project involving academics from the UK and the Netherlands.

Public debates about global warming have been marked by slow periods of agreement and concern on the topic, punctuated by peaks of intense interest and, at times, scandal.

Linguistics specialists from The University of Nottingham and the University of Leicester, working with experts in science communication from VU University Amsterdam, will be examining what brings about these phases, the way in which individuals and organisations shape public opinion, the role of language in discussions, and the impact of social and technological networks on the debate.
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Nottingham’s Brigitte Nerlich, Professor of Science, Language and Society, said: “Climate change is a complex social issue involving a wide cross section of society — including scientists, policy makers, industry, the mass media, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), activist groups and the general public.

“Debates about climate change or global warming have been characterised both by longer periods of slow, mainly consensus-dominated phases and by a series of sudden changes in attention to, and the social, cultural and political meaning of, ‘climate change’.

“An example of such a sudden shift in public debate would be the controversial ‘Climategate’ incident of November 2009, where hacked email exchanges between scientists at the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in Norwich led to some critics accusing them of manipulating scientific data on climate change and so-called climate change sceptics to call into question the emerging scientific consensus on the human influence on climate change.”

The project will investigate public interest in climate change from 1992 to 2010, examining the communication of global warming both across longer periods of time and at specific points of intense scrutiny — from the Rio Earth Summit of 1992 to the aftermath of ‘Climategate’ and the United Nation’s Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen 2009 and beyond.

The researchers will also analyse the influence that various public figures and organisations have had on various key turning points of the debate and the way in which climate change has been used for a variety of political purposes. This will contribute to an increasing dialogue on the wider cultural dimensions of climate change already gaining momentum, including Mike Hulme’s 2009 book Why We Disagree about Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity.

The rise of the web has also played a crucial role in the changing dialogue of climate change, allowing the debate to be played out across an increasing network of social media and technologies.
One of the aims of the new research will be the development of new tools for dynamic web analysis to establish where and how debate on global warming is evolving on the internet.

The project brings together established research expertise examining the language of climate change. Professor Nerlich within the School of Sociology and Social Policy at The University of Nottingham and Dr Nelya Koteyko in the Department of Media and Communication at the University of Leicester have previously studied the linguistics of the debate surrounding global warming and the impact of political labelling such as ‘Climategate’. The Dutch academics, led by Dr Iina Hellsten, have centred their previous work on public hype triggered by events such as the outbreak of epidemics and use in the media of words such as ‘Frankenfood’.

Professor Nerlich added: “Social scientists, discourse analysts and communication analysts have studied climate change for a long time, but nobody has engaged in-depth with the complexity of public perception. The tools we will be using for this project will allow us to uncover patterns and reveal changes in the dynamics of social change, accelerated through the increasing impact of the internet.”

The project is being supported by a €750,000 grant from the Open Research Area Scheme (ORA), the largest joint initiative between European funding agencies in social sciences. The ORA is a new way of funding international research through the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR), Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) and the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). The scheme supports projects that address important social and economic issues and will provide positive benefits not just for the countries involved but for the European Union as a whole.

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Notes to editors:

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's planned total expenditure in 2009/10 is £204 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at

The University of Nottingham, described by The Times as “the nearest Britain has to a truly global university”, has award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. It is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 75 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and the QS World University Rankings.

The University is committed to providing a truly international education for its 39,000 students, producing world-leading research and benefiting the communities around its campuses in the UK and Asia.

More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to the most recent Research Assessment Exercise, with almost 60 per cent of all research defined as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. Research Fortnight analysis of RAE 2008 ranked the University 7th in the UK by research power.

The University’s vision is to be recognised around the world for its signature contributions, especially in global food security, energy & sustainability, and health.

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More information is available from Professor Brigitte Nerlich on +44 (0)115 846 7065,

Emma Thorne Emma Thorne - Media Relations Manager

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 951 5793 Location: University Park

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