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Social media conversations about climate change quickly tail off after a major climate event

New research from UNICEPTA provides a stark warning that conversation around climate change issues wanes significantly just three days after a major climate calendar moment.

The general public’s fickle attitude toward the environment and climate change has been laid bare in new research presented by media intelligence solutions provider, UNICEPTA. Following a key calendar moment, attention to environmental issues noticeably diminishes after a mere three days, raising questions about broad commitment to protecting the planet and the impact of policy events and international awareness days in building momentum.

Distrust and misunderstanding

An in-depth analysis of more than 46m global social media conversations that referenced climate change, demonstrates a worrying trend that the general public’s attention wanes significantly two to three days after a major event. It also highlights that the impact of government intervention is hindered by a lack of understanding and distrust.

How quickly does attention dissipate after key climate moments?

Social media conversations wane quickly

The media experts found that, after a key calendar event, social media conversations are not sustained for longer than around two to three days - regardless of the level of anticipation prior to the event.

On average, social media conversation drops by 43% within the first 24 hours, 72% on day two, 76% on day three and 82% by the end of day four. There were outliers to this finding, which saw sustained levels of attention for a longer period. These events shared a common denominator: either they celebrated tangible steps taken to drive climate action, or they exposed instances where policymakers were perceived as being not up to the task.

Conversations around COP27 remained at least 60% of the peak volume until three days later - compared to less than 50% for UN General Assembly’s (UNGA) climate roundtable after just two days. COP27 remained at least 20% of the peak volume until 11 days later, demonstrating that it plays an important role in highlighting climate issues to the public.

Policymakers must try harder

Due to a perceived lack of trust in policymakers’ willingness and ability to deliver on climate targets, citizens’ attention is better sustained when climate action (or a lack thereof) is directly experienced or seen.

The language used to discuss climate action was a key factor contributing to holding the public’s attention. For example, conversations around UNGA, the Emissions Gap report and the Adaptation Gap report surfaced many superficial posts highlighting the importance of adapting to climate risks or reducing emissions, without demonstrating how policies will be implemented in practice. Additionally, many discussions often featured images of politicians discussing issues without any detail of concrete solutions.

Given citizens’ limited trust in policymakers’ ability and willingness to deliver on climate action, vague and top-line narratives not only inhibit citizens’ attention during a particular key moment but also increase the likelihood of citizens’ disengagement in the future.

Climate disasters

More often than not, the aftermath of climate disasters reveals vulnerabilities amongst communities' ability to withstand climate risks, such as droughts, floods, or heatwaves - reflecting the urgent need for climate action. The research revealed that social media conversations around flooding remained at 36% for three days following the peak, whereas heatwaves stood at 26%. This can be attributed to the severe consequence of the floods in August 2022, in particular those occurring in Pakistan, which affected 33m people.

It demonstrates that citizens’ attention to the subject of climate change is most sustained in the aftermath of climate disasters when exposure and vulnerabilities to climate risks are revealed.

More action required

Against the backdrop of this summer’s European heatwave and one of the most significant cold snaps in the UK since December 2010, the research demonstrates that from government to boardroom level, more needs to be done to keep the public engaged with climate-related issues.

Naturally, we see that the public’s attention is held for longer around natural disasters that are linked to climate change. But it raises questions about why the conversation rates decline so quickly even after these events. COP28 is just a matter of months away and our research shows it holds a lot of importance with the general public. Communications professionals must leverage its influence and work harder to keep the public engaged for as long as possible, by presenting and communicating their clear roadmaps to action. We hope this report will help all climate change advocates improve the way they communicate and enable them to accelerate change through sustained citizen attention.

How does attention to climate change differ among event categories?

Methodology

Over an 11-month period, ending 31 May 2023, UNICEPTA monitored major awareness days, high profile international conferences, climate disasters and scientific announcements. The company has identified how climate change discourse ebbs and flows around key calendar moments, the factors that shape the public’s attention of climate change issues, and how different strategies are perceived.

The full report is downloadable here.

Written by Michael Urquhart, analytics and insights principal (UK) at UNICEPTA

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