The rhetoric of climate change documentaries and their strategies to impact public opinion within the public policy process

January, 2021

Public policies result from argumentative processes in which individuals collectively alter or maintain the rules under which they live in. We seek to understand how documentaries apply different rhetorical strategies to impact public opinion and, thus, generate a favorable environment for the promotion of policies to deal with climate change. Using the rhetorical approach and the Multiple Streams Model as our theoretical framework, we conduct a rhetorical analysis of two movies (“Before the flood” and “How to let go of the world and love the things climate can’t change”). We identify hypotheses about the relationship between the elements of persuasion employed by each movie and their strategies to impact the actors who influence public policy processes for climate change, in particular by contributing to the emergence of a public mood that is perceived by government officials and elevates the topic into the governmental agenda. Our qualitative and exploratory analysis suggests that documentaries simultaneously affect the problem stream (with arguments more centered around ethos and logos), describing the science behind the causes and consequences of climate change with the assistance of visual tools, and the political stream (with arguments more reliant on pathos), instilling a sense of moral responsibility in the audience with emotional arguments rooted, for instance, in ideas of family and war, while devoting less time to the proposal of solutions.

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