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Analyzing science forums to track the evolution of climate change discourse

The past decade has seen notable increases in public awareness of climate issues with the entry of leading voices such as Greta Thunberg’s and new policy proposals such as the Green New Deal, but what has this actually achieved?

To understand how the academic conversation around climate has evolved over the past ten years, Relative Insight’s language comparison platform was used to compare earth and climate science forum posts from 2010-2012 against those written between 2018-2020.

The platform works by taking multiple language data sets, and comparing them, in order to discover nuances in the way people use words, and to understand what they really care about.

Alternative energy:
Words and phrases related to alternative energy sources such as wind, geothermal and solar were nearly 5x more prevalent in the 2010-2012 data set. This could suggest that the academic discussion of clean energy has moved on with increased mainstream adoption of alternative energy sources.

Discussions of sustainable agriculture, and particular concepts like ‘vertical farming’ and ‘biochar’ were infinitely more prevalent in the 2010-2012 sample. Similar to alternative energies, this may be attributable to the mainstreaming of these ideas, or as we will see below how this may be part of a shift in focus to the bigger picture of what is now called ‘climate change’.

Carrying capacity:
References to the carrying capacity of the planet and how this relates to human population growth were 16.5x more prevalent in the 2018-2020 discussion than in other years. This may indicate a shift away from specific topics such as renewable energy to the ‘bigger picture’ conversation around humans pillaging the earth through the unsustainable consumption of resources.

Climate change: 
Words and phrases relating to climate change are more than 3x more prevalent in the 2018-2020 conversation. While the terms were present in the earlier sample (as would be expected in a climate science forum…), the increase suggests that conversation may be shifting away from the phrase ‘global warming’ which has long been criticised for its failure to capture the full breadth of changes that can be attributed to carbon emissions.

Paying attention to emotion:
Moving beyond the words to analyse the emotional differences between the two sets of forum posts, the 2018-2020 sample shows heightened levels of fear and anger along with greater emphasis on the need to be brave in the pursuit of solutions. Despite the advances that have been made, it is clear that many remain frustrated with the pace of change on environmental issues.

Comparing conversations over time to understand how discourse on a particular topic or brand has evolved is one way that Relative Insight’s language comparison technology can be put into action. Other applications include comparing research papers to deduce key areas of difference and similarity between leading experts – the possibilities are endless.

If you’ve got questions about how language comparison works, or if you’d like to see the platform in action, then contact us and we’ll show you!

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