Bridging the Science Communications Gap: The Role of Media In Reporting on the Complexities of Solar Geoengineering

June 18, 2024

As the field continues to evolve, solar geoengineering has emerged as a topic of significant interest and debate. The media plays a key role in shaping public understanding and discourse around this issue, serving as a primary conduit through which the public learns about scientific developments, including solar geoengineering. Reporters bridge the gap between complex scientific research and the general public, and their stories can influence public opinion, policy decisions, and even funding for further study. Effective media coverage can help demystify solar geoengineering, presenting it in an understandable and relatable way. This visibility is crucial for fostering informed public discourse about considering solar geoengineering as part of a broader portfolio of responses to climate change.

Context and Framing

Climate change is one of the most pressing challenges of our time, and understanding this context is essential for appreciating the potential role of solar geoengineering. If media coverage positions these technologies within the broader narrative of the urgent need to address the climate crisis, it can underscore their relevance and importance. Media can help its audience see solar geoengineering as part of a larger suite of tools that humanity might need to tackle climate change rather than as an isolated or fringe solution. However, if solar geoengineering is seen as a last resort or a desperate measure, it might be perceived as a response to the failure of conventional climate strategies. This type of reporting can impact public willingness to support ongoing mitigation and adaptation efforts, potentially fostering a false sense of security or fatalism about our ability to manage climate change without drastic interventions.

This underscores the importance of framing, a powerful tool that shapes how audiences perceive and understand complex issues. Because any given article cannot possibly cover the complexities and context of solar geoengineering, reporters and editors choose certain framing devices to enhance the story they seek to tell. One example of framing is the risk-risk framework, as defined by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report Reflecting Sunlight: Recommendations for Solar Geoengineering and Research Governance: “Risk-risk assessment (or risk trade-off analysis) provides a framework wherein the risks of one policy option are comparatively assessed in relation to the risks of others to identify options that maximize benefit. The relevant comparison would characterize the risk of climate change without [SRM] versus the risks of climate change with [SRM]—in both cases, looking across a range of greenhouse gas (GHG) concentration pathway scenarios and including an array of other climate response actions.” 

Using the risk-risk framework helps scientists and leaders better understand benefits and trade-offs. By providing this critical context and framing, the media can help the public understand that solar geoengineering is not intended to be a standalone solution but a potential component of a multi-faceted approach to addressing climate change.

When it comes to solar geoengineering, it’s vital for the media to avoid falling into the trap of alarmist or clickbaiting coverage and framing. After all, solar geoengineering is a controversial subject and offers an easy way to generate engagement. Clickbaiting poses a significant danger to media discussions of solar geoengineering by prioritizing sensationalism over substance. When articles use attention-grabbing headlines, they often oversimplify complex scientific issues and mislead the audience. Such tactics can distort public understanding by amplifying fears or unfounded optimism, leading to polarized views rather than fostering informed and balanced discussions. Alarmist coverage can undermine trust in credible sources as readers become wary of exaggerated claims. For a topic as nuanced and consequential as solar geoengineering, accurate and responsible reporting is crucial to ensure that public dialogue is based on facts and thoughtful consideration, not sensationalized or misleading content.

Reporting on Implications, Pitfalls, and Ethical Considerations 

Accurate and balanced media coverage ensures that solar geoengineering is discussed within the context of broader climate strategies. Reporters who understand the intricacies of the topic can provide a comprehensive view that includes the potential benefits, risks, and ethical considerations. This helps prevent sensationalism and misinformation, fostering a more informed and thoughtful public dialogue. But effective media coverage of solar geoengineering is not just about providing information; it’s about fostering a deeper public understanding and engagement. When reporters can convey the science accurately and compellingly, they empower the public to participate in meaningful discussions and decision-making processes.

The media’s role is to convey the implications of solar geoengineering, including its potential risks and uncertainties. Journalists and media outlets can help the audience navigate these complexities by presenting balanced perspectives from scientists, ethicists, policymakers, and affected communities. In-depth reporting can explore scenarios, potential side effects, and governance challenges, providing a nuanced view that goes beyond simplistic pro or con arguments. By highlighting the importance of robust scientific research, transparent governance, and questions that remain, the media can foster a more informed and engaged public.

Ethical considerations are a central component of the solar geoengineering debate, and how these issues are framed can profoundly influence public perception. Media stories that feature ethical dilemmas, such as the potential for unequal impacts on vulnerable communities or the moral hazard of diverting attention from emission reductions, invite audiences to think deeply about the broader consequences of deploying these technologies. Framing that emphasizes these equity concerns can lead to greater scrutiny and calls for inclusive, transparent decision-making processes that consider the voices and needs of marginalized groups. This approach can help ensure that the development and potential deployment of solar geoengineering technologies are aligned with principles of justice and fairness.

As solar geoengineering research proceeds, public scrutiny will inevitably follow. With this in mind, accountability will be vital. Transparent and informed media coverage ensures that these technologies are not shrouded in secrecy or misunderstood but are evaluated and debated openly. In a world where misinformation can spread rapidly, the media’s role in providing accurate, balanced, and context-rich information is more important than ever. Moreover, the media can also play a watchdog role, scrutinizing the actions of governments and corporations involved in solar geoengineering research and deployment. This oversight ensures that any move toward solar geoengineering is conducted ethically, transparently, and with broad societal consent. By building the journalistic capacity for understanding science and accessing experts across different fields, we can ensure that the public discourse on solar geoengineering is informed, thoughtful, and inclusive.

Building Capacity

As the potential for these technologies grows, so does the need for reporters who can navigate their complexities and communicate them effectively. The media’s understanding of solar geoengineering helps foster a well-informed public and guides responsible discourse on climate intervention strategies. Investing in scientific literacy for journalists and building robust networks with experts will ensure that the media can fulfill its role in this conversation. To effectively cover solar geoengineering, reporters need more than just a basic understanding of the subject. They also need to build science literacy, facilitate a dialogue with experts of all kinds (including scientists, ethicists, and policymakers), build critical thinking skills, and improve ethical reporting practices. 

DSG is in the early stages of developing a journalist capacity-building program that will work with reporting in climate-vulnerable communities to provide the necessary knowledge, skills, and ethical/governance frameworks to effectively report on this issue, foster informed public discourse, and promote responsible decision-making. As DSG expands our tools and resources, we also seek to foster a full understanding and bridge the knowledge gap to catalyze an informed and inclusive dialogue on the challenges and opportunities solar geoengineering presents. 

We also seek to build capacity with local journalists, who are best equipped to incorporate regional perspectives and cultural contexts that are often overlooked in broader, more generalized coverage. Empowering local voices ensures that different communities’ unique concerns and needs are addressed, fostering more inclusive and nuanced public discussions about the potential impacts and ethical considerations of these climate interventions. We aim to empower all stakeholders to participate actively in discussions, ensuring that diverse voices are heard and unite to pursue equitable solutions. Moreover, recognizing that the complexities of solar geoengineering extend far beyond the realms of science and technology, we seek to support media on the frontline of climate impacts to engage with experts and stakeholders from diverse backgrounds, including ethics, governance, and social justice. This interdisciplinary approach enriches the dialogue and helps identify blind spots and potential pitfalls that might otherwise go unnoticed. 

The media’s role in communicating about solar geoengineering is indispensable. By providing context within the broader climate change narrative and explaining its implications and potential pitfalls, the media can help shape a well-informed public discourse. As we navigate the complexities of climate change and build the capacity to tell a well-rounded story, the media’s contribution to public understanding and engagement with solar geoengineering will be crucial in ensuring that any consideration of this technology is grounded in knowledge, ethics, and societal values.