What you think about when you hear the words climate change

Using a new method, researchers in Bergen discovered that so-called climate sceptics are more ambivalent about climate issues than previously assumed. Their results have now been published in Nature Climate Change.

Kjersti Fløttum from University of Bergen and Endre Tvinnereim from Uni Research Rokkan are co-authors of an article published in Nature Climate Change on 1 June 2015.
ANTITYPICAL CLIMATE RESEARCH: Kjersti Fløttum from the University of Bergen and Endre Tvinnereim from Uni Research Rokkan Centre are challenging the commonly held view about the attitudes to climate change among so-called climate sceptics. In June 2015, their research results were published in Nature Climate Change.
Ingvild Festervold Melien

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Professor Kjersti Fløttum from the Department of Foreign Languages at the University of Bergen (UiB) and researcher Endre Tvinnereim from Uni Research Rokkan Centre have worked across academic disciplines to better understand what the average Norwegian thinks about climate-related issues.

The researchers discovered that the so-called climate sceptics have far more nuanced views than the often heated debate in the media between the different camps in the climate debate may indicate.

The results are so remarkable that on Monday 1 June, the journal Nature Climate Change published the results from the Bergen research team in an article entitled ‘Explaining topic prevalence in answers to open-ended survey questions about climate change’. It is not an everyday occurrence that a linguist, such as Ms. Fløttum, is published in Nature.


Open-ended questions = interesting answers

According to Professor Fløttum, the researchers were excited about the public's response to the question:  What do you think when you hear or read the term climate change?

“It was the very openness of the question that attracted us,” says the professor of French enthusiastically. “The fact that our survey gave people the opportunity to provide us with ideas and emotions in their own words.”

The survey was conducted in 2013 and the researchers received 2,115 responses to the question of what people think when they hear or read the term ‘climate change’. The survey gave no definitive answers or options to tick off a box in a questionaire. Instead, severy person had to formulate what she or he thinks and feels about climate change. The responses to the survey have provided the researchers with completely new insight.

“The manner in which we ask the question makes it easier to bring out nuances. For example, we see that more of those who otherwise say that they have doubts about whether climate change is man-made have the proviso that some of the changes are due to human influence when they are given the opportunity to answer in their own words.  Climate sceptics are more ambivalent than what previous surveys have demonstrated,” says Uni Rokkan researcher Tvinnereim.


What the researchers’ results showed

The results showed that people's associations with ‘climate change’ can be divided into four topics: Weather/ice, future/consequences, money/consumption, and causal effects. By combining the results with other variables, connections were found such as those who expressed more concern were also found among those who placed most emphasis on future consequences, while those who were less concerned typically placed more emphasis on causal effects. In addition, there was a tendency among older respondents to associate climate with weather and melting ice. Younger respondents on the other hand placed emphasis on the future and personal or social issues.


Combining quantity and quality

The process used by the researchers combined the quantitative Structure Topic Modelling method from the social sciences with the more qualitative approach generally found in humanistic disciplines.

“What is particularly exciting about this collaboration is how we have combined the quantitative and qualitative aspects and thereby obtained new and research-based knowledge,” says Professor Fløttum who heads the Linguistic Representations of Climate Change Discourse and Their Individual and Collective Interpretations (LINGCLIM) project, which examines how language and rhetoric influence the climate debate.

The respondents to the survey were taken from the Norwegian Citizen Panel (Norsk Medborgerpanel), which LINGCLIM participates in. The respondents provided their answers via the internet, something which made it financially and practically possible to reach the broadest possible selection of Norway's population.


Praise for research partner

Professor Fløttum has particular praise for her collaborative partner and first author of the Nature Climate Change article, Endre Tvinnereim.

“The method that was used as a basis for the study is something Tvinnereim is an expert on. At the same time, there was a need for more semantic and qualitative analyses. This is where the linguistics and knowledge from LINGCLIM was essential,” Professor Fløttum explains.

She believes that the dynamic between the different academic communities that were involved in the survey was decisive for the remarkable findings that are now published.

“The collaboration with the Citizen Panel has provided us at LINGCLIM with a fantastic infrastructure and has allowed us to think across academic disciplines,” says the language researcher.


Long-standing commitment

Professor Fløttum has long been interested in how language and rhetoric influence what we think about climate change. The former UiB Vice Rector for Internationalisation was also one of the founding mothers of the Bergen Summer Research School (BSRS), a research summer school for PhD candidates that has been arranged annually in Bergen since 2008 with UiB as the host institution.

In June 2011, Professor Fløttum, together with Professor and LINGCLIM member Trine Dahl from the Norwegian School of Economics (NHH), organised a course at BSRS in which the relationship between language and climate was the focus. Since then, Fløttum has significantly expanded her horizon at the intersection between climate debate and use of language.

“The most important thing I have learned is that the diversity of opinions and attitudes that are found are precisely that – diverse! There is so much diversity in this. This is based on people’s interests and values and their value systems. That has been the most surprising aspect of these research findings. Obviously I knew from the start that there are differences in the climate debate, however now I know that these are more nuanced than those believing and those not believing in human-made climate change and we can document this scientifically,” she says.

“But the debate has changed since. What are people talking about now? There is less talk about causes, because there is a majority who support the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and who believe that human activity plays a majors role in the cause of the temperature increases. Now the discussion is more about what we can do. It is about finding solutions and how to achieve the reforms that are being discussed. Also, new arguments have entered the debate. I believe there has been a major shift in the past four-five years.”


A more democratic debate

With regard to the actual use and choice of language, she is uncertain about whether the shift is as definitive as the change in the overall debate. However, French Professor Fløttum sees a promising trend as discussions becoming more democratic and inclusive, with an increasing number of diverse voices being heard.

“Some words that have not been used before and which are being used more often, such as ‘reform’ and ‘green’ and ‘the green shift’, are clearly more common now than they were only five years ago,” she says. “What is interesting in terms of language is that a word such as ‘reform’ and an expression such as ‘the green shift’ give rise to a debate. What does this actually mean? These words and terms serve to contain a multitude of opinions and this is something linguists love to do research on. If nothing else, to determine how the words and terms can be assigned a different meaning dependant of the speaker.”

It was also Professor Fløttum's long-standing involvement in the intersection between linguistics and climate change debate that resulted in the establishment of the LINGCLIM project, which in 2013 received support for a three year period through the Research Council of Norway's SAMKUL (Cultural conditions underlying social change) programme.

“The publication in Nature Climate Change is one of several results we have achieved, and new results will be published in the future,” she says. “We are also preparing a psychological experiment where the results will be clear in autumn 2015. A lot of exciting things are going on! I believe there is unlimited potential for what LINGCLIM and the Citizen Panel can achieve together when continuing this collaboration.”


Bergen interdisciplinary climate research cluster?

The level of ambition is sky high and Professor Fløttum indicates that climate research collaboration between UiB and Uni Rokkan may have an outlet through several channels in the years to come. Even though LINGCLIM’s funding is approaching its end, Professor Fløttum and her fellow researchers do not plan to end their ambitious research any time soon.

On the contrary, she considers LINGCLIM to be only the start of the establishment of a more long-term commitment, whereby humanists and social scientists combine with natural science researchers to create a broad climate research front. The Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research is already involved in LINGCLIM.

“What we have achieved thus far demonstrates the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration. Not least, we have achieved a significant part of LINGCLIM's principal objective, namely using methods from multiple disciplines. The fact that we have sobtained new knowledge through this interdisciplinarity demonstrates how correct this approach is,” Fløttum says.

According to the veteran language researcher, this is good evidence that the upcoming research clusters at UiB and in Bergen must work across academic disciplines.


Local potential on global scale

“This small collaboration and experiment shows the potential Bergen has to establish a new climate research centre, where humanities and social sciences constitute an equal part with the natural sciences,” says Professor Fløttum. “What should these clusters become? This is a good example of us not only crossing academic disciplines, but also faculty and department boundaries and achieving something new and of high quality.”

In October 2015, LINGCLIM  hosts a conference where top international researchers will discuss language and climate: The Human Side of Climate Change. Following this, she and her fellow researchers will commence the work of ensuring that even more research funding flows to the ever-expanding, interdisciplinary climate research community in Bergen.