Drawing from a database of more than 1,300 editorials, which are the formal “voice” of a newspaper, this work examines how the language used to describe human-caused climate change, as well as renewables, fracking and nuclear power, has shifted since 2011.
The analysis shows that 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. Nowhere has this shift been more apparent than among the nation’s right-leaning newspapers.
Between 2011-2016 editorial articles in publications such as the Sun, the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail generally opposed action to tackle climate change, citing “unreliable” science and “expensive” environmental policies.
But in recent years – a period that has seen the Conservative government commit to net-zero emissions by 2050 and host the COP26 climate summit – right-leaning publications have more readily embraced some efforts to cut emissions.
As a result, these newspapers are now far more likely to support climate action in their editorial pages than oppose it.
In 2011, for example, right-leaning newspapers published five editorials arguing for less climate action and just one calling for more – a ratio of 5:1 against. By 2021, their seven editorials calling for less action were heavily outweighed by 65 supporting climate policy – a ratio of 1:9 in favour.
Alongside this overall finding, Carbon Brief has also identified more subtle trends in the way some publications push back against clean technologies and environmental policies.
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.
Some of these issues have become more prominent in the press amid a global energy crisis that has hit the UK hard, and been exacerbated further by the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, a major fossil fuel exporter. However, most of these events are not captured in this analysis as its cutoff date was the end of 2021.
This article lays out the key findings from the analysis, outlining how attitudes in the UK press have changed and how they have intersected with political and societal shifts. A methodology can be found at the end of the piece, including links to the datasets behind the analysis.
However, in recent years, a shift has taken place. In 2019, there was a surge in UK climate coverage that coincided with stark warnings from scientists, the rise of Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunberg, and the UK government adopting a new “net-zero emissions” target.
Since then, as the nation geared up to host the COP26 climate summit at the end of 2021, publications including the Sun and the Daily Express have made unprecedented commitments to cover climate change and support "green" activities.
This was welcomed by many who saw it as a sign of a wider societal change, but others were sceptical about the sincerity of these newspapers, some of which have spent years opposing climate policies, renewable energy and the science of climate change itself.
Meanwhile, publications such as the Guardian and the Independent, which have long prioritised climate change in their pages, made further commitments to improve their coverage and adopt stronger language when discussing the issue.
To investigate the scale and nature of these changes, Carbon Brief has turned to its database of more than 1,300 climate- and energy-related UK national newspaper editorials. This resource has been built up over years of monitoring the daily news coverage and expanded further using Factiva, a tool that allows users to search the global news archive by topic.
Often referred to as “leading articles”, editorials express the formal opinion of the newspaper. They are distinct from opinion pieces and columns by individuals expressing their own views. Therefore, editorials provide a window into the changing attitudes in the press, which can both reflect and influence readers’ opinions.
Using original analysis undertaken with Sylvia Hayes, a PhD researcher at the University of Exeter, this interactive article examines changes in language, tone and messaging in editorials written about climate change, as well as renewables, nuclear power and fracking for shale gas, between 2011-2021.
This kind of research can help to understand the relationship between the media, public attitudes and climate politics, as Dr Saffron O'Neill, who researches public engagement with climate change at the University of Exeter, explains to Carbon Brief. In the video interview, she says:
“Media is a reflection of what’s going on in society so [if] we see the raising up of certain types of coverage then that means that probably people in society are caring about those things.”
However, she adds that this can also work the other way round:
“What we see in the media is also shaping what people think about – how they feel and act and interact on climate change.”
Most British people do not rely on newspapers as their primary source of information about climate change, preferring to watch television or read online news. However, newspapers are still generally seen as important in setting the political and news agenda, and there is plenty of overlap between physical and online content.
In this analysis, relevant editorials were selected and then split into different overarching groups: "more action", if they were in favour of tackling climate change and advocated for action to address it; or "less action", if they resisted efforts to tackle climate change.
If the article was purely informational, or argued contradictory points, it was categorised as "mixed". For example, an editorial could state that some climate action, such as building more wind turbines, is necessary, whereas other climate action, such as eating less meat, is not necessary.
In the energy dataset, containing editorials about renewables, nuclear power and fracking, the articles were categorised as either "pro", "anti" or "mixed" for each technology.
Further analysis was also carried out to assess the nature of the support or opposition. Does the editorial question climate science, or merely criticise a particular government policy? Is it more concerned about the cost of a technology, or the amount of emissions it will release?
This analysis was used to assign editorials to sub-categories based on different themes. For example, an editorial might mention the "economic benefits" of climate action, or it might state that climate action itself comes with an unjustifiable "economic cost".
Some editorials were assigned to multiple sub-categories and these did not always align with the overall category. For example, an editorial calling for "more action" on climate change might also mention the “economic cost” of doing so.
The coding used in this analysis is rigorous, but, as it aims to avoid subjective judgements, it can miss out on some of the more subtle messaging in editorials. For a full methodology, including a step-by-step explanation of how the research was conducted with links to the underlying spreadsheets, go to the end of this article.
For the first part of the analysis, 711 editorials that dealt explicitly with climate change between 2011-2021 were identified from Carbon Brief’s larger database.
These articles were not divided up equally between newspapers. The Guardian published the most climate-relevant editorials across this period, 189 in total, and traditional tabloid newspapers generally published the least.
Overall, there have been far more editorials supporting climate action over the past decade than opposing it. However, newspapers’ attitudes have followed a clear ideological split.
According to Carbon Brief’s analysis, left-leaning publications did not publish a single editorial explicitly opposing climate action across this period. In fact, nearly every negative editorial featured in a cluster of right-leaning titles composed of the Sun, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the Daily Telegraph and some of their Sunday equivalents.
While the actual number of editorials opposing climate action is small – only 9% of the total – their placement is significant.
Right-leaning newspapers dominate the UK media landscape, with more titles available and far more readers. For example, the Sun and the Daily Mail each have print circulations roughly 10 times higher than the Guardian’s.
(Some newspapers, notably the Guardian, have a far broader “reach” online than in print. However, not all newspapers publish their editorials online.)
The Guardian and the Daily Mirror – and their Sunday equivalents, the Observer and the Sunday Mirror – are the only UK newspapers regarded as left-leaning, while the Financial Times has been described as centrist. The Independent was launched in 1986 as a non-partisan, centrist publication, but today is regarded as leaning more to the left.
The Times is a firmly conservative publication. It has been criticised over the years for giving undue attention to climate-sceptic views, such as those of the lobby group known as the Global Warming Policy Foundation, or the newspaper’s former columnist Matt Ridley.
Nevertheless, according to the Carbon Brief analysis, the newspaper has had a broadly positive editorial stance towards climate action over the past decade. It is worth noting that of the 77 Times editorials analysed, more than two-thirds have been written in the past three years, indicating the topic’s relatively recent rise up the publication’s agenda.
Overall, Carbon Brief’s assessment of the breakdown of viewpoints among the UK’s newspapers matches previous work that has been undertaken in this area, as Dr James Painter at the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism explains. In the video interview, he says:
"Historically, there’s been a very sharp division between left-leaning and right-leaning media in the UK, particularly in the degree of scepticism or denialism that’s found in both the coverage and particularly in the editorials or opinion pieces."
The following charts outline how a surge in positive sentiment towards climate action has largely drowned out scepticism about climate action in the UK media landscape.
At the start of the decade, the new Conservative prime minister David Cameron was leading what he promised would be the “greenest government ever”. However, climate change remained relatively low on the news agenda and this was reflected by the number of related editorials.
In 2011, just 32 climate-related editorials were published in UK newspapers. By 2021, this number had increased to 185, a boost driven almost entirely by an increase in articles calling for more climate action.
The number of editorials overtly opposing climate action has always been low. However, in the early 2000s such editorials still made up a sizable proportion of the total, whereas in recent years their share has gradually fallen.
The shift that has taken place is clearer to see when the almost uniformly positive left-leaning and centrist titles are removed from the analysis.
This chart shows how a clear switch takes place in the second half of the decade across right-leaning titles, with the publications apparently embracing climate action. By the end of 2021, as the UK hosted the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, 79% of editorials in these newspapers supported climate action, up from 13% in 2011.
In earlier years, right-leaning tabloid newspapers warned of “huge doubts surrounding climate change science”, accused ministers of “throwing money away” in pursuit of climate policies, and mocked “doom-laden warnings about global warming”. Editorials in the right-leaning press were highly critical of “ludicrous green taxes” that they said were harming the UK’s “hard-pressed families”.
Since 2016, negative sentiments in UK newspaper editorials have remained low while positive sentiments have shot up, mirroring rising concerns among the British public.
In 2018, the Daily Mail assured readers it was “far from blind to the potential threat posed by climate change” and in 2019 the Sun hailed the UK as “a world leader in the green movement”, acknowledging its own readers’ concerns.
Notably, this was the first Sun editorial to speak approvingly of climate change action in the dataset analysed. The Daily Express followed with its first positive editorial in 2020.
But these newspapers’ newfound eagerness to show off their environmental values was accompanied by scepticism about the kind of climate action being undertaken.
A surge of negativity in 2019 – which led to the highest annual number of editorials opposing climate action across the period analysed – can be attributed almost entirely to tabloid anger about the disruptive tactics of activists, such as Extinction Rebellion.
There were also mounting concerns about the “cost” of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, a target that had been approved by prime minister Theresa May that summer.
One of the most notable shifts over the past decade is the disappearance of newspaper editorials questioning the existence of climate change, or the science behind it.
Carbon Brief’s analysis shows that no publication has published such a piece since December 2018, when the Daily Telegraph told its readers that:
Sceptical editorials were rare even in 2011, but they could still be found in right-leaning titles, with references to “huge” and “serious” doubts over climate science in the Daily Mail and Daily Express.
In June 2013, the historically sceptical Daily Telegraph stated that “the vast majority of scientists are persuaded that climate change is real”, while adding that “there is plenty of scope for disagreement…over its extent”. Later that year, the Sun bemoaned the apparent shifting attitudes towards climate scepticism.
Why does the PM treat anyone who questions global
if they had claimed to
have seen Elvis in Tesco?
The scientific community is NOT unanimous in its support of the climate change doomsayers.
Meanwhile, after 2014 was declared the hottest year on record, the Daily Mirror denounced the “ostrich brains who still deny global warming”.
Editorials in sympathetic left-leaning and centrist titles have frequently been used to make it clear that those publications understand and appreciate the significance of climate science.
However, Carbon Brief’s analysis finds that as climate scepticism has receded, editorials pushing back against sceptical narratives and emphasising the “settled science” of climate change have also become rarer. This may be because leader writers feel it is no longer necessary to emphasise that human-caused climate change exists.
Although outright denial has disappeared from editorial pages, other narratives have become more common.
The analysis shows that the perceived “fairness” of climate action – and how the UK’s efforts compare to the rest of the world – has been a growing area of concern for right-leaning titles.
However, the most common criticisms over the past decade have been levelled either at the politicians, scientists and activists promoting climate action, or most of all at what editorial writers perceive to be the high costs of such action. (As the chart shows, “positive” themes that make the case for climate action – particularly highlighting the threat climate change poses – were far more common than “negative” themes.)
Newspapers point to the sacrifices that they say will be needed and what they see as the prohibitive costs of reaching net-zero. Some also argue that the UK, accounting for just 1% of global emissions, cannot be expected to solve climate change alone.
An early example of this type of argument came in the Daily Express in September 2013.
climate change may well be happening, but if
it is happening
slowly and Britain is not one of the countries suffering as a result…
There is no justification for Britain going above and beyond what other developed nations are prepared to do when it comes to hugely expensive carbon reduction measures.
In the lead up to COP26 editorials frequently took aim at other countries that they saw as not pulling their weight compared to the UK. China – currently the world’s largest emitter – is the nation that is most frequently singled out, as the Sunday Times did in March 2021.
China is like a giant cuckoo in the nest when it comes to climate change. Persuading people in the rest of the world, including the UK, to make sacrifices when the great emitter carries on regardless is hard.
Another argument used to push for less action on climate change targets the legitimacy of the people involved in such action. Editorials might question their credibility, frame them as radicals or describe their ideas as unrealistic.
In earlier years such arguments were aimed broadly at climate “zealots” and “alarmists”, sometimes alluding generally to campaigners, politicians or scientists. However, the more recent spike in this kind of narrative can be attributed almost entirely to the media’s focus on Extinction Rebellion and, in 2021, Insulate Britain.
One Daily Telegraph editorial from April 2021 captured all of these narratives in a single passage.
This rhetoric increasingly goes hand-in-hand with reassurances that the newspapers in question support (unspecified) climate action.
However, it also aligns with a concept academics have dubbed “discourses of climate delay”. These are “statements that exploit discussions on how we should reduce emissions, with the purpose, or effect, of limiting action on climate change”.
Emphasising the high costs of action and corresponding impact on ordinary people, as well as diverting attention to other nations, are both examples of these discourses.
Dr James Painter, whose work has also explored these themes, has seen similar trends emerge in his studies of UK media attitudes to climate change. He tells Carbon Brief:
“The type of scepticism has changed. Whereas previously in the right-leaning media there would be criticism of the science, there is now what we call contestation or criticism of the need to take radical action.”
The second part of the analysis focuses on the UK’s energy supply, a topic that is intrinsically linked with climate change and which remains a consistent focus for newspaper editorials.
To analyse editorial attitudes regarding the energy sector, Carbon Brief returned to the larger editorials database and identified the three most frequently discussed energy sources from the past decade.
Renewable power was the most popular topic, with mentions in 327 editorials, followed by fracking for shale gas with 164 and nuclear power with 162. In total, 507 energy editorials were analysed, with many mentioning more than one of these topics.
Other issues, such as the wider oil-and-gas industry or coal power, while important, were less common talking points over the past decade, with dedicated editorials appearing in the database just 52 and 18 times, respectively.
Renewables have been a highly contested topic in the UK press. While there have been a handful of editorials about technologies such as solar power, the main target has invariably been wind turbines, which have often been dismissed in leading articles as expensive, ineffective and ugly. (The British public, by contrast, has consistently been supportive of wind power.)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, editorial attitudes to renewables largely mirror attitudes towards climate change, with nearly all of the negative coverage found in right-leaning publications.
Fracking, by contrast, shows the complete opposite trend. Exploiting the UK’s shale gas reserves using this technology has long been proposed as a means of developing a new industry in the UK and providing domestic energy security.
The Sun, the Times and the Daily Telegraph have led the charge, mainly in the first half of the decade, in supporting this technology.
Meanwhile, the Guardian and the Independent have consistently opposed fracking, pointing to its potential impact on the environment and the emissions from burning shale gas.
Nuclear power has been the least partisan of the three technologies, with publications expressing far more “mixed” views on the subject
While nuclear power is a near-zero carbon form of electricity generation, 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 next section outlines how attitudes to these energy sources have altered over the past decade – and how this has mirrored wider societal shifts and attitudes towards climate change.
At the start of the decade, wind power – especially onshore wind – was a highly unpopular topic in sections of the national press, blamed for high energy bills and “devastating” the British countryside.
Right-leaning newspaper editorials routinely criticised politicians for placing their faith in renewables, in what they perceived as misguided attempts to show off their “green credentials”. These publications warned of blackouts as the UK shut down fossil-fuel infrastructure and replaced it with wind power.
Other newspapers had a more positive outlook on this technology, noting its importance for tackling climate change, but they also acknowledged that a political divide was emerging as many Conservative MPs resisted the installation of wind turbines.
However, even as the government made it harder to build new onshore wind farms and solar panels, opinions in the UK press were beginning to shift around the middle of the decade.
After years of plummeting costs and rapid growth, particularly for offshore wind, support for renewables across the political spectrum caught up with broadly supportive public attitudes, and this has been reflected in newspaper editorials.
The shift in editorial attitudes to renewables is illustrated by the shift in their economic framing. In 2011, editorials were more likely to describe this technology as too expensive, but in the latter half of the decade this argument had largely been flipped on its head, with editorials increasingly hailing the economic benefits of investing in renewables.
A notable spike in positive economic sentiments came in 2017, when the government awarded offshore wind contracts at record-low prices and a Times editorial welcomed the “winds of change”.
The Daily Express, which began the decade by describing wind farms as a “craze blighting countryside and economy”, ended it by welcoming a “green industrial revolution” in the UK.
After prime minister Boris Johnson announced his intention to make the UK the “Saudi Arabia of wind”, an editorial in the Daily Telegraph in October 2020 conceded that:
(If the UK meets its targets for wind power capacity, the proportion of electricity demand it could supply by then is likely to be closer to half.)
Criticisms of the local impacts of wind turbines and on wildlife have faded away over the decade. However, arguments about their critical role in addressing the global environmental challenge of climate change now appear in most editorials about renewables.
Fracking for shale gas has been a highly controversial topic in the UK press over the years.
Initially touted as a way to significantly expand the nation’s domestic gas supplies, government efforts to support its development in the UK received a largely positive reception in UK newspapers. But, despite this, public support for fracking was never high and it fell lower and lower as the decade progressed.
Fracking has consistently faced pushback not only from those worried about climate change, but also people with concerns around everything from water pollution to the minor earthquakes linked to drilling activities.
These reached a head in 2018 when, after years of debate and false starts, the energy firm Cuadrilla began extracting shale gas at a site in Lancashire. After strong public opposition that was mirrored by a spike in critical newspaper editorials, the government ended support for fracking in England the following year.
With fracking moratoria now in place across the UK, newspaper editorials focusing on this activity had essentially vanished by 2021. (There has since been a small resurgence in fracking discussions in the UK press amid the on-going energy price crisis, although it remains an unpopular technology among the public).
The main arguments for fracking have been that shale gas would help meet the UK’s energy demand and provide an economic boost to the nation. These ideas were summarised in a July 2014 editorial from the Daily Telegraph.
While there were consistent concerns about the local environmental impacts of fracking operations, towards the end of the decade the main argument cited to oppose fracking was that the development of this new industry did not fit with the UK’s climate targets. A February 2019 Guardian editorial stated:
However, it is noteworthy that over the course of the decade there are just as many editorials arguing that fracking is a climate solution, with publications such as the Daily Telegraph highlighting that shale gas is a “far cleaner fuel than either coal or oil”.
Nuclear accounts for around 15% of the UK’s electricity supply, but the approaching closure of older plants and disputes around the construction of replacement facilities have been frequent topics of discussion in newspaper editorials.
While there were some negative responses to this in the UK press, with one Guardian editorial referring to the “undisputed nastiness of nuclear”, for the most part newspapers’ criticism of nuclear power in the UK has centred around its cost, rather than perceived environmental or health risks.
In the first half of the decade, newspapers welcomed plans for more nuclear power in the UK and investment plans from Japanese energy giant Hitachi, which the Independent said would help usher in “Britain's fledgling nuclear renaissance”.
However, there was a spike of negativity in 2016 due to concerns about the rising costs of the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant, as well as national security risks due to the involvement of the Chinese state in its financing.
These concerns are revealed by Carbon Brief’s analysis, which shows that by far the most common grievances expressed by editorials are economic ones. There is a notable increase in these sentiments in 2016 amid concerns about Hinkley Point C.
Meanwhile, the main reason given for supporting new nuclear power is the need to provide an on-going, reliable electricity supply for the UK. Arguments for and against were summarised by the Sun in July 2016 when it declared:
According to the Times in July 2016:
Hinkley Point needs to be scrapped...
The evidence suggests that Britain and France are pressing ahead with Hinkley Point C to save the blushes of successive governments that put their faith in it without paying enough attention to its many flaws. Shame on them.
As the government once again raised the prospect of new nuclear plants with its energy white paper in December 2020, the Financial Times stated that:
That same month, the Daily Telegraph asked why nuclear power was being provided “by state actors in China and France” rather than the British state and called the UK’s lack of commitment to nuclear “one of the great failures of public policy of the past 40 years”.
Despite such widespread concerns about costs, the most common framing for nuclear has been as a way of meeting the UK’s energy demands. Notably, while nuclear is a near-zero carbon power source, its climate benefits were only referenced in 32 editorials, compared to 170 mentions for the emissions-cutting potential of renewables.
Carbon Brief’s database of UK newspaper editorials draws on “leading articles” published in 17 national titles, including weekday and Sunday editions.
Some newspapers with high circulations were excluded from the analysis. The i newspaper, which only split from its then-sister title the Independent in 2016, does not publish editorials. The Independent now only operates online, but continues to publish newspaper-style editorials, which are included in this analysis. The Daily Star was the only other conventional, high-circulation newspaper that was excluded, as Carbon Brief could not identify enough relevant editorials to justify analysis. Two free publications with high circulations, the Metro and the Evening Standard, were also left out of the analysis, as there were no relevant articles for the former and the latter is a regional newspaper.
Editorials that were specific to regional variations of the newspapers, such as the Scottish Sun, were also excluded. This was a decision made when Carbon Brief’s editorial database was initially set up in 2016.
Factiva does not always distinguish between some Sunday newspapers, such as the Independent on Sunday or the Sunday Telegraph, and their daily equivalents. This may have led to some editorials being wrongly assigned for years prior to 2016, when Carbon Brief began manually monitoring editorials.
Carbon Brief has been running its editorial database since April 2016, capturing leading articles in the UK press on matters relating to energy and climate change.
Prior to this analysis, the database was based on monitoring UK newspaper coverage for the Carbon Brief daily briefing newsletter, which is released every weekday morning. This is maintained using a collection of RSS feeds to monitor global climate and energy coverage, supported by Factiva and PressReader to allow Carbon Brief staff to track UK editorials.
The editorial grid was supplemented by an initial Factiva search when it was set up. However, at the time this search was not intended to be exhaustive for the years prior to 2016 and was instead meant to give “a good sense of where the newspapers stand on each issue” with a handful of editorials from previous years. For the purpose of this analysis, the database has been expanded for the years 2011-2021 with more detailed Factiva searches.
Factiva searches were undertaken based on the categories used for Carbon Brief’s editorial grid and an assessment of the words commonly used in editorials about climate and energy.
This search was applied to the 17 newspapers covered by the analysis, which were filtered for “editorials” in Factiva.
Applying this search to each year 2011-2021 resulted in many results that were not relevant, including articles that were not editorials or were about unrelated issues. These results were then manually filtered and used to expand the editorial grid.
This process was not comprehensive, so Carbon Brief used additional searches to gain a more complete picture. The Financial Times yields no results on Factiva, so the newspaper’s web archive was manually trawled to pick out editorials that reference climate or energy. The Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday yielded very few results for editorials, and none for some years. These results were bulked out by searching manually through the “Daily Mail Comment” archives, however, this process only captured pieces that feature as the main editorial (there are normally a couple of shorter ones each day about different topics, some of which have been captured in the Factiva search and daily monitoring of the press).
In total, Carbon Brief identified 1,364 editorials relating to climate or energy, of which 711 were used for the climate change analysis and 653 for the energy sources analysis. Some editorials were assessed for both analyses.
Carbon Brief worked with Sylvia Hayes, a PhD researcher at the University of Exeter who specialises in climate change communication in the news media, to undertake a qualitative content analysis of the editorial database.
Hayes created a coding schema (a framework for categorising and quantifying different themes present in the text) to rigorously assess the language and themes used in editorials concerning climate change and three energy technologies in UK editorials. Her codebook includes details of the precise methodology used and links to scientific literature that helped guide its creation.
Each climate editorial was categorised as “more action required”, “less or no action required” or "mixed" based on its overarching stance, after being read in full and according to the codebook. It was then additionally categorised according to thematic codes, details of which can be found in the codebook.
The same exercise was carried out for the energy editorials, using categories defined as “pro-” or “anti-” each energy technology, or "mixed". These were then also further categorised into thematic codes.
Thanks to James Painter, Saffron O’Neill and Travis Coan for advice on conducting the analysis, and to Sophie Yeo and Jocelyn Timperley for their work, when Carbon Brief journalists, creating and updating Carbon Brief’s editorial grid.
Hero credit: Pond5 / Alamy Stock Video