The number of UK newspaper editorials calling for more action to prevent climate change quadrupled in the three years to 2021, according to analysis by climate science site Carbon Brief.
Right-leaning outlets have seemingly given up earlier misgivings on whether climate change is occurring, but the press is yet to come to a consensus on what kind of action should be taken and how radical any measures should be.
Carbon Brief, in collaboration with University of Exeter PhD researcher Sylvia Hayes, assessed 1,364 editorials published by British newspapers between 2011 and 2021.
Carbon Brief said there were 556 pro-climate action editorials between 2011 and 2021, versus 63 opposing action.
That trend was in large part driven by The Guardian, the Financial Times, The Times and The Independent, who in the period studied both published the most editorials on the topic and were almost universally in favour of climate action.
However, right-leaning publications have gone through a marked change in their stances in recent years.
Carbon Brief said that in 2011 right-leaning newspapers published five editorials opposing action on climate change and one in favour. In the same newspapers in 2021, for every one editorial opposing climate action there were nine favouring it.
Across the whole political spectrum, there were more than seven times as many editorials arguing for action on climate change in 2021 as in 2011.
According to Carbon Brief, “the number of editorials calling for more action to tackle climate change has quadrupled in the space of three years, mirroring a wider increase in news coverage of the topic”.
For example, of the 77 Times editorials analysed, more than two-thirds were written in the final three years of the 11-year window for the analysis, which Carbon Brief said indicated "the topic’s relatively recent rise up the publication’s agenda".
By contrast, opposition to action among all the newspapers analysed remained at approximately the same level across the decade: there were five editorials opposing climate action in 2011 and seven in 2021, with little major divergence in the intervening years away from the annual average of 5.7.
Carbon Brief said some of the older sentiments remain, however: “Overt scepticism about climate science is now virtually absent in editorial articles, but arguments that remain include complaints about the ‘cost’ of climate action, blaming other countries and criticising climate activists.”
Carbon Brief pointed to media opposition to campaign groups Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain as examples of the latter.
“This rhetoric increasingly goes hand-in-hand with reassurances that the newspapers in question support (unspecified) climate action.”
With regard to what specific action the newspapers have lobbied for, the climate news site assessed editorials about renewable energy, nuclear power and fracking.
It found that among right-leaning tabloids, renewable energy - in particular, wind turbines - have remained controversial. Left and centre-leaning papers, along with The Times, have taken a predominantly pro-renewables line.
Fracking, in contrast, pulled together a different coalition, with the Mail, Express and Sun joined in support by The Daily Telegraph, The Times, and the Financial Times.
Despite opposition in The Guardian and Independent, newspaper sentiment last decade was in general strongly pro-fracking, with some backlash in 2018 and a tail-off in interest since.
Carbon Brief reported there were 110 editorials supporting fracking between 2011 and 2021 and only 26 opposing. Only one of the latter appeared in a right-leaning publication, the Sunday Express.
Nuclear power also inspired mixed emotions among Britain’s leader writers.
“While nuclear power is a near-zero carbon form of electricity generation,” Carbon Brief said, “it has drawn criticism from both left- and right-leaning editorials for being too expensive. Editorials have pointed to projects such as Hinkley Point C exceeding their budgets and relying on investment from foreign powers.”
The Mail, The Sun, The Daily Telegraph and The Independent have all been largely pro-nuclear.
Meanwhile the Financial Times, Guardian, and Times devoted the most column inches to discussing nuclear power, but expressed a broad range of opinions in them.
Carbon Brief said there were five times as many editorials about the benefits of renewable energy between 2011 and 2021 as there were about the benefits of nuclear power.
Certain newspapers were excluded from the analysis.
The i was left out because it does not publish editorials. The Daily Star was excluded because “Carbon Brief could not identify enough relevant editorials to justify analysis”. The Evening Standard was discounted for being “a regional newspaper” and Metro because “there were no relevant articles”.
The Independent was included, despite no longer being published as a print newspaper, because it "continues to publish newspaper-style editorials".
The authors noted that, because the analysis covers the period ending in December 2021, it does not capture the bulk of the discussion on the energy crisis in recent months, which has seen some papers call for a re-uptake of some fossil fuels.
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