Over the last eight years the web-searching public has steadily decreased its interest in the latest information and news about climate change, even as major world leaders make the topic a central thrust of their public diplomacy.
It has been a busy week for climate change. In his first visit to the United States, Pope Francis chose to make climate change a central tenant of his trip, speaking about it more than any other topic in his address on the White House lawn on Wednesday, emphasizing it in his United Nations speech, and choosing it as his single call to action when speaking before Congress Thursday. On Friday China announced a new cap-and-trade emissions reduction program. All of this comes on the heels of President Obama’s trip several weeks ago emphasizing the impact of climate change on the Artic. What can the world of data tell us about the current state of public interest in climate change as an issue and how the world’s media is covering the topic across the planet?
Turning first to the question of whether the public is actually interested in climate change, Google web searches show that the countries searching most frequently on the topic tend to be those most affected by changing climatic conditions: Fiji, Philippines, Mauritius, India, South Africa, Trinidad & Tobago, Jamaica, Ethiopia, Malawi, Nepal, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and Uganda. This suggests that being affected by the phenomena increases public interest: it is not wealthy countries idly researching a topic they hear on the news, it is affected populations trying to understand more about what they are experiencing. Looking at how search interest has changed over time, the timeline below shows that “global warming” has historically been the term of choice used by the public when searching on the topic, while “climate change” has been the preferred term of academics and policymakers and thus less searched on.
Google web searches for “global warming” (red) versus “climate change” (blue)
The graph above shows relative web search interest in the two terms, demonstrating that interest in global warming decreased substantially in mid-2010 and by mid-2013 dropped equal with searches for climate change, exhibiting a more than ten-fold decrease in public interest. Searches for climate change increased from 2006-2010, but in the last three years have been stable at their early 2005 levels. Put simply, the public simply isn’t searching about the topic anymore, suggesting they either aren’t interested or they feel they already know what they would like to know about changing climatic conditions. Google News searches exhibit a nearly identical downward slope suggesting that the public isn’t searching for the latest breaking climate news either, indicating an overall decreasing interest in the topic.
On the other hand, even if public interest is waning, media coverage certainly isn’t. Using data from my GDELT Project, which monitors local news media in almost every country of the world, live translating 65 languages, and thematically, emotionally and event coding all of this coverage in realtime as a live open data stream cataloging global society, over 354,000 articles relating to climate change are seen over the last seven months. […]
Through the lens of massive amounts of data we are able to take a topic dominating the headlines of the week and explore how the world is internalizing it, gaining new insight into both public interest and the information environment surrounding it. Through the map above we can see that climate change impacts the entire world and that its impact varies by continent, but that despite all of this media coverage, over the last eight years the web-searching public has steadily decreased its interest in the latest information and news about climate change, even as major world leaders make the topic a central thrust of their public diplomacy.