Media Messaging On Eating Meat And Climate Change
Meat-eating is taking a toll on the environment, human health, and animal welfare. But with global population and wealth on the rise, meat-eating may skyrocket by as much as 76% by 2050 – at a time when we desperately need to cut back. This study set out to examine what role the media might play in promoting a shift toward more sustainable diets, and what kind of messaging would be most effective in what cultural contexts. Through qualitative analysis, it explores three aspects: participants’ attitudes towards climate change and meat consumption; how they engaged with media; and how they received information about the connection between meat-eating and climate change. Based on these findings, the researchers suggest how we can shape our messaging in culturally specific ways to promote behavioral change.
The study focused on four countries: the U.K., U.S., China, and Brazil. The four countries are culturally and politically diverse, but all four eat a lot of meat, produce a lot of greenhouse gases, and suffer the public health impacts of overconsumption. Researchers held nine focus groups in each country, with participants from three socioeconomic brackets (low income, middle income, and students) in three regions of each country. Each focus group contained six people on average, all from the same socioeconomic bracket. In total, there were 270 participants.
During the study, researchers gave participants information about the link between climate change and meat-eating. Before the study, most participants were unaware of this connection, and when presented with information that meat-eating is on par with transport in greenhouse gas emissions, many were doubtful. This skepticism showed that participants were more likely to accept and believe information that was in line with their own preconceptions. Part of the problem here is the difficulty of visualizing meat-eating as contributing to climate change: we see fumes trailing behind cars and airplanes, but the animals we eat are all but invisible. A further setback is that the media has largely failed to cover how meat-eating contributes to climate change. For this reason, it’s really important that we communicate effectively to raise awareness about this issue. So what’s the best way to get the message across?
By examining how people use media, the study found that tapping into social media groups and identities could be a valuable way to build momentum on climate change messaging. People construct their identity through social media – what they share, what they post, what they like. Many participants who actively shared information and news about climate change were skeptics, and were more likely to tie this position to their political identity. Distrust of mainstream media meant that many participants mentioned comparing sources, reading across the political spectrum, and looking online. Brazilian participants, in particular, used social media to gather information.
Lack of awareness is not the only barrier to behavioral change. The study found that a complex interplay of factors influences how individuals react to information about meat-eating and climate change, including lived experience and cultural narratives surrounding meat (e.g. as crucial for health, or as a social activity). In China and Brazil, for example, participants were more likely to have experienced the effects of climate change. Chinese participants talked about pollution, and Brazilian participants brought up deforestation and water shortages. Their personal experiences with climate change shaped how they perceived information about the topic. In contrast, media consumption and cultural values held more sway than personal experience for participants in the U.S. and U.K., and skepticism of climate change was higher. Across all four countries, avoiding meat was stigmatized: meat is bound up with cultural and personal identity. This stigma is a further barrier to behavioral change.
In the U.K. and the U.S., many participants described feelings of powerlessness. They felt that politicians had failed, and that there is little that they can do either as individuals or as a collective. This meant that even when British and U.S. participants accepted information about meat-eating, they were unlikely to decide to act and reduce their meat consumption. Since Britons and U.S. adults are cynical about their ability to affect systemic change through their actions, arguments highlighting the impact of diet on one’s own health may be the most effective way of encouraging dietary change. In China and Brazil, conversely, participants expressed personal responsibility, saying that action should “start from yourself,” and were more likely to say that they would cut back on meat. In these countries, messaging that taps into the people’s sense of responsibility may thus be an effective way of promoting behavioral change.
Across the study, the majority of participants agreed that we need to take action, and that governments have a responsibility to tackle climate change. Although U.S. participants particularly disliked the thought of government intervention into lifestyle choices, there was a sense that it’s acceptable when done for the public good, as with regulations on smoking. To legitimize public measures to reduce meat consumption, it will be vital to act gradually, emphasizing the scientific evidence and that the government is acting for the people. Using the insights from this study, media messaging can play an important role in supporting such measures, through raising awareness of the issue and promoting behavioral change.