Climate change irony: Politicians only tweet about the environment when public opinion supports it

ITHACA, N.Y. — Is climate change a major issue for politicians or just a political talking point? A new study reveals, when it comes to social media, most leaders are just playing to the crowd. A team from Cornell University find that both Democrat and Republican officials tweet about climate change the most only when their constituents show more concern about the issue.

Ironically, politicians in the most at-risk areas for climate change are less likely to tweet about the issue. Moreover, politicians representing wealthy districts and those with large amounts of public support for climate change reform tweet the most about the subject. The team adds Democrats generally tweet more about climate change than Republicans, but both tend to ignore the issue when their voters show little interest in it.

“Certainly on a partisan level, Democrats tweet about climate change much more than Republicans, but with both Democrats and Republicans, their quantity of tweeting is based on how much their citizens are concerned, and not at all by how much risk they face,” says Drew Margolin, associate professor in the Department of Communication in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, in a university release. “Even in districts that face severe risks from climate change, politicians are not willing to push this topic beyond public opinion.”

Do leaders really lead or just stick to talking points?

The team looked at over one million tweets from 638 U.S. politicians between 2017 and 2019. This group included every senator, congressman, governor, and mayor from the 100 biggest cities in the country.

Cornell researchers then compared those social media posts to two distinct measures — community-level risk from climate change and community-level support for climate change reform. The results reveal that when voters express more concern about climate change, politicians in these areas tweet about it more.

On the other hand, study authors believe there’s a reason areas most at-risk from climate change see little attention paid to the subject. Study co-author Shorna Allred says part of the issue is that these areas also face large wealth disparities in comparison to areas where politicians regularly take to Twitter to discuss the climate.

“The least resourced governments may be focused on urgent economic issues and likely not in the best financial position to respond to climate change,” Allred explains. “This highlights the importance of prioritizing resources for climate change mitigation and adaptation in communities where high climate risks coincide with low per-capita income. It also highlights the vital nature of income equality and the role of community income levels in driving political action.”

Researchers note they wanted to learn more about the concept of leadership in politics. Do politicians lead based on what the facts are telling them regardless of criticism, a concept called trusteeship, or do they just play to the crowd and go where the voters are leaning?

Politicians can learn from their response to COVID

Study authors discovered several examples of trusteeship during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially from governors who shut down facilities like schools before the virus spread. In the case of climate change however, researchers say those examples simply don’t exist.

The science of climate change really hasn’t changed since the 1990s, but there has been very little action by leaders based on that evidence,” Margolin concludes. “What has changed is public opinion. We’ve basically waited for the weather to get so bad that public opinion changed.”

The findings appear in the journal Social Media + Society.