2. The Case of “Costa del Nuuk”: Greenlanders Make Sense of Global Climate Change1

Freja C. Eriksen

© Freja C. Eriksen, CC BY 4.0 https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0212.02

This chapter investigates how fifteen inhabitants of the Greenlandic capital, Nuuk, make sense of climate change and its impacts through media exposure and personal experiences. While Greenland’s melting ice sheet has long served as a backdrop to the global climate debate, local public views of climate change have largely been overlooked. This study finds that, although the media is an important source of information about climate change for the inhabitants of Nuuk, their sense-making of the phenomenon is saturated by personal experiences. Alarmist media representations, for instance, are continuously challenged by references to personal experiences of positive local impacts of climate change. The chapter identifies six distinctions underlying the inhabitants’ sense-making of climate change—natural/unnatural, certainty/uncertainty, self/other, local/global, positive/negative, and environment/economy.

A “Poster Child” for Climate Change

“In a couple of years, you can come up here to visit ‘Costa del Nuuk’“[laughs].


This chapter presents a case study of how fifteen inhabitants of Greenland’s capital, Nuuk, make sense of climate change and its impacts through media exposure as well as personal experiences. It opens with a quote from one of the study’s participants, Johannes. He is fifty-nine years old, works at an airline in Nuuk, and cannot help but laugh at the thought of climate change transforming his hometown into a sunny holiday destination. This study contributes his and fourteen other interviewees’ sense-making of climate change to the literature on public views of climate change. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “human influence on the climate system is clear” (IPCC 2014: 2). However, there are several gaps in our understanding of how climate change is experienced, understood, and made sense of in its many contexts around the world. The case of Nuuk illuminates only one in a daunting range of cases yet to be studied (Schäfer and Schlichting 2014). It is, however, particularly pertinent due to the observable and rapid melting of Greenland’s ice sheet and the country’s status as a “poster child for Arctic climate change” (Holm 2010: 145).

Greenland (Kalaallit Nunaat) and its melting ice sheet have for several years served as a backdrop to the international climate debate for politicians, environmental campaigners, journalists and researchers (Bjørst 2011). The annual shrinkage of the ice sheet, which covers 80% of the country’s geography, has “increased four-fold from 1995–2000” (Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme 2012: 3). In the foreign media, Greenland regularly headlines stories, such as “Greenland is melting away” (Davenport et al. 2015) and “Climate change: Greenland loses a trillion tons of ice in four years as melting rate triples” (Harvey 2016). Studies of British tabloid and broadsheet newspapers have documented how images associated with Greenland, of “melting ice” and “polar bears”, have come to dominate the coverage of climate-change impacts (Smith and Joffe 2009). The status of these iconic images is underlined by studies that show how laypeople’s first associations of climate change in the USA, England, and Sweden were references to “melting glaciers and polar ice”, “polar regions melting”, “melting icebergs” and “rising temperatures” (Wibeck 2014b; Smith and Joffe 2013; Leiserowitz 2006). Through climate change science, international news coverage, and global institutions such as the IPCC, a “climate change crisis discourse” has developed, in which the Arctic nature, and, to a lesser extent, its citizens, play a leading role (Farbotko and Lazrus 2012; Bravo 2009; Martello 2004). While in this discourse “climate vulnerable populations are being positioned as victims, but also as evidence of the climate crisis”, their own voices and perspectives are at risk of drowning (Farbotko and Lazrus 2012: 382). But although such narratives are prominent in global climate-change discourses, they may not necessarily represent Arctic citizens’ views (Bravo 2009). Studying how the people of Greenland make sense of climate change and its impacts is therefore both relevant and compelling.

Greenland has arguably been on a path to “greater economic and political independence” (Government of Greenland) since the end of Danish colonization in 1953. Yet, its economy still greatly depends on an annual block grant from Denmark of about 470 million euro (Government of Greenland). The desire for economic and political independence is a powerful undercurrent in the country’s public debate on climate change (Bjørst 2011; Nuttall 2009). In April 2016, Greenland opted for a territorial reservation to the Paris Agreement, as negotiated in December 2015, because the agreement did not take the country’s economic development considerations fully into account (Government of Greenland). The disappearance of ice in Greenland has made valuable resources, such as oil, gas, mining and hydrocarbon development, both at sea and on land, more accessible (Ackrén and Jakobsen 2015; Nuttall 2009). Due to these possibilities for economic development, Nuttall (2009: 295) concludes that “Greenland is literally warming to the idea of less snow and ice”. Greenland represents a particularly interesting case to study: in the global climate governance regime, it must balance its role as the voice of an Indigenous people, while campaigning for its right to produce emissions and thus contribute to climate change (Bjørst 2008).

I share Farbotko and Lazrus’ (2012: 382) view of climate change as both a “discursive and material phenomenon”, and find that Nuuk’s inhabitants are affected by climate change in both a physical and a social sense. Nuuk’s residents represent a “climate-exposed population” (Farbotko and Lazrus 2012: 382) whose voices and views are an important addition to the current literature; global climate-change narratives must take local discourses and individual experiences of climate-change impacts into account. According to Farbotko and Lazrus, the “[c]limate is changing, but its meanings are contingent on place and history and cannot be imposed from above without risk of disjunctures and injustice” (2012: 383). This paper hence proceeds on the assumption that Greenland’s political discourses on climate change and its citizens’ sense-making of the issue should be added to current research on local, contextual understandings of climate change around the world. The study’s main research question thus is how do inhabitants of Nuuk make sense of climate change and its impacts through media exposure and personal experiences?

I investigate this question using (1) data gathered in five focus group interviews involving a total of fifteen participants and (2) a survey of their media use, both in general and related to climate change. The chapter proceeds by introducing the study’s relevant concepts and theoretical framework of social representations. I then review previous studies of audience reception of climate change coverage and outline the study’s research design and methodology. The bulk of the chapter is dedicated to presenting and discussing the study’s findings. The main conclusion is that, although the media is an important source of information about climate change for Nuuk’s inhabitants, their sense-making of the phenomenon is heavily influenced by personal experiences. For instance, they continuously challenge alarmist media representations by referring to personal experiences of positive local impacts of climate change. Finally, the chapter identifies six distinctions underlying residents’ sense-making of climate change—natural/unnatural, certainty/uncertainty, self/other, local/global, positive/negative, and environment/economy.

Conceptual Considerations and Literature Review

“Climate-Exposed Populations”

While research on public views of climate change has generally focused on North America and Europe, there have been some recent studies on Asia, Africa, and Latin America (Schäfer and Schlichting 2014; Wibeck 2014a). Schlichting and Schäfer’s 2014 review of 133 publications does not mention any studies of Greenland, although they stress the relevance of analyzing the countries “most affected by” climate change (2014: 146). Most climate change-related studies of Greenland thus far have been conducted by “physical scientists, often with a focus on the ice sheet” (Holm 2010: 145; Hall et al. 2006; Lüthcke et al. 2006; Zwally et al. 2002). Studies involving Greenlanders’ attitudes towards climate change are fewer, although growing in number (Holm 2010).

As climate-change impacts—and efforts to mitigate those impacts—have entered the global agenda, an interest in Indigenous peoples and their role in anthropogenic climate change has emerged (Martello 2008). Studies have gradually investigated Indigenous peoples’ perceptions of climate change and how their “traditional ecological knowledge” can inform our understanding of physical climatic changes (Roosvall and Tegelberg 2012). A group of anthropological researchers has touched on local climate-change discourses in Greenland (Tejsner 2013; Bjorst 2011; Holm 2010; Nuttall 2009, 2008; Leduc 2007). Using multi-sited ethnography, Bjørst (2011) identifies several recurring discourse elements framing climate change in relation to Greenland and the Arctic. Studying the perceptions of her informants in the Disco Bay area, she finds a common “mistrust in science” and a related questioning of the phenomenon of climate change in general, which has left room for more local theories of climate change (Bjørst 2011). She and Nuttall (2009: 297–98) maintain that climate is often understood to be continuously changing and intrinsically unstable, related to the Greenlandic word for climate (sila). As such, climate change is not necessarily perceived as extraordinary or manmade (see Chapter 5, Tanzania). This outlook leads to a situated form of “normalization of the threat” (Bjørst 2011: 242).

Another key observation made by both Nuttall (2009) and Bjørst (2011: 243, author’s translation) is a preoccupation in Greenland with “possibilities as well as problems”. Nuttall (2008: 47) argues that this apprehension is perhaps more prevalent in Greenland than anywhere else in the circumpolar North, due to its aspirations for self-governance and independence, which are made more likely by the prospect of a warmer climate opening up new industries. Bjørst (2011: 246, author’s translation) similarly identifies a tendency to put “development, national political and economic independence before anything else”. These are important findings, because it can be assumed that these tendencies resonate in the local sense-making of climate change. To my knowledge, this study is the first to examine Greenlandic discourses of climate change from a communication and media studies perspective.

Following the finalization of the present study, a nationally representative survey of Greenlandic perspectives on climate change has, however, been published (Minor et al. 2019). It provides evidence that more than nine out of ten Greenlanders think climate change is happening, although only about half think it is mostly caused by human activities and about a third believes it is caused by “natural changes in the environment”. Residents in the area of the survey covering Nuuk (West Sermersooq) were slightly more certain that climate change is happening and is caused mostly by human activities. Two thirds of the residents of West Sermersooq said they had experienced the effects of climate change (compared to 76% in the general Greenlandic population), and about 60% said they heard about climate change in the media at least once a week or at least once a month. 45% heard people they know talk about climate change at least once a week or at least once a month. The survey also reveals a clear tendency of respondents to see climate change as mainly a bad thing. In West Sermersooq, about half saw climate change as either “bad” or “very bad”, while most others saw it as “neutral”. A greater part of the respondents also saw climate change as more likely to harm than benefit the people of Greenland. A majority of respondents both in West Sermersooq and Greenland in general saw “protecting the environment even if it costs jobs” as more important than “economic growth, even if it leads to environmental problems”, favoring policies of re-entering the Paris Agreement, regulating greenhouse gas emissions from industry and investing in alternative energy sources. These findings are pertinent as they form a more recent and representative insight into perspectives on climate change in Greenland and Nuuk where environmental concerns apparently outweigh economic interests.

Social Representations Theory

The present study contributes to the constructionist literature that has used social representations theory to research “public views” of climate change (Wibeck 2014b; Smith and Joffe 2013; Olausson 2011; Whitmarsh, Lorenzoni, and O’Neill 2011; Cabecinhas, Lázaro, and Carvalho 2008; Lorenzoni and Pidgeon 2006; Moscovici 1984a). As these studies have demonstrated, social representations theory is particularly suitable to researching how laypeople or specific groups within society make sense of climate change. At its core, the theory, originated by Moscovici (1984b), endeavors to explain how people familiarize themselves with hitherto unknown objects or change. Moscovici’s (1984a) theory presupposes that “concepts and images” of scientific origin permeate society, where they evolve into collective and “mundane understandings” (Olausson 2011: 953). The social representations approach views the popular sense-making of, for example, scientific knowledge, as “a valid knowledge system in its own right”, as opposed to a distortion or inaccurate representation of scientific knowledge (Moloney et al. 2014: 1; Wibeck 2014b: 206). Following this approach, the present study does not seek to verify whether citizens’ knowledge of climate change is scientifically accurate, but to understand how the scientific concept of climate change is publicly made sense of (Smith and Joffe 2013). I use the phrase “make sense” to operationalize the process of creating meaning, as employed in Wibeck’s (2014b), Olausson’s (2011), Moloney et al.’s (2014), and Marková’s (2003) adaptations of Moscovici’s theory.

According to Moscovici (1984a: 953), social representations “fill our minds and our conversations, our mass media, popular books, and political discourses”. Therefore, mass media have only increased the importance of social representations by multiplying the changes ideas undergo as they are subject to media simplifications and sensationalizing (Moloney at al. 2014; Moscovici 1984b). The media is an important “discursive site” where social representations are “(re)produced” (Olausson 2011). Analyzing interviewees’ social representations reveals a glimpse of “iconic images” that circulate in the “socio-cultural context” (Smith and Joffe 2013).

This study relies on four central notions to operationalize the theory of social representations. According to Moscovici (1984b), the process of making the unfamiliar familiar happens through two central mechanisms—“objectifying” and “anchoring”. Objectifying refers to a mechanism of turning “something abstract into something almost concrete” (Moscovici 1984b: 29); it involves attributing a real-life form to the abstract (Moscovici 2000). For example, climate change is typically objectified in media representations as a storm, heatwave, or flood (Höijer 2010). Anchoring is a process in which people place new ideas in relation to categories or paradigms of their existing representations (Moscovici 2000). In other words, new ideas are placed in a “familiar context” in order to make sense of them (Moscovici 1984b). The process of anchoring takes place through “naming” and “classifying”, also known as “drawing distinctions” (Moscovici 2000: 42; Olausson 2011: 285). Through the mechanism of naming, abstract phenomena are given a “label” or “familiar name” (Moscovici 2000: 42). According to Moscovici (2000: 42), a phenomenon that does not have a familiar name or category is perceived as “alien” and “threatening”. Thus, for example, laypeople refer to climate change as “weather” in some studies. In this way, the “abstract and intangible risk” it poses “acquires familiar and comprehensible characteristics” (Olausson 2011: 289). Drawing distinctions involves placing intangible phenomena in the context of “well-known opposites”, in a form of hierarchy or classification (Olausson 2011: 285; Moscovici 2000: 43). Smith and Joffe (2013: 19) label these distinctions “themata”, and define them as “mutually interdependent oppositions or dialogical antinomies”. Common distinctions, such as natural/unnatural, certainty/uncertainty and self/other, reveal the “latent content, or latent drivers of public thinking” around climate change among interviewees (Smith and Joffe 2013: 16).

Making Sense of Climate Change

The present study employs social representations theory to investigate how the inhabitants of Nuuk make sense of climate change. Most similar to this study’s conceptual and methodological approach are Olausson’s (2011) and Wibeck’s (2014b) case studies in Sweden. Both studies explore laypeople’s social representations of climate change through focus group interviews.

Olausson (2011: 289) finds that respondents discuss climate change’s “existing consequences” with great conviction and use “everyday experiences of the weather” as a way to anchor their conceptualizations of the phenomenon, often familiarizing it through the label “weather”. She concludes that “the respondents’ own experiences are of utmost importance”, which is especially relevant for the climate-exposed sample of Nuuk’s inhabitants (Olausson 2011). Wibeck (2014b: 209, 211) similarly reports participants referencing their “own experiences of changes in weather”, but stresses the finding that they saw climate change mostly as a “global issue” with severe, yet distant consequences. She finds that focus groups continuously negotiate the certainty and severity of climate change and our ability to mitigate it (2014b: 212–14). Somewhat in contrast, Olausson finds that a general “belief” in anthropogenic climate change seems to be commonplace among her interviewees (2011: 286).

Smith and Joffe (2013: 21–22) find “melting ice” to be their London participants’ most common first association with climate change, followed by references to “weather” and “pollution”. These associations, they conclude, echo “how newspapers visually represent the threat” in British media. They identify three “themata” that interviewees use to structure their sense-making in a “non- or unconscious” way (2013: 19, 22). First, they categorize their British interviewees into those who are certain and those who are uncertain about anthropogenic climate change. While respondents generally express certainty that global warming is real, many are still uncertain about its causes, and blame this on “contradictory media coverage” (Smith and Joffe 2013: 27). Second, they identify a thema they call “natural/unnatural”, which highlights the way respondents observe “strange and bizarre weather” in relation to their expectations of how nature should behave, thus also drawing on personal experience of changes in weather patterns (Smith and Joffe 2013: 25-26). Third, they identify a thema labelled “self/other” (Smith and Joffe 2013: 23-25), and find respondents place responsibility for climate change mostly on the “other”, portraying the USA, China, and India, for example, as the main perpetrators of global warming. The impacts of climate change are also largely distanced from the “self”, and serious consequences are thought to affect others more (Smith and Joffe 2013: 25). Meanwhile, notions of the “self” are related to solutions to climate change, often associated with recycling, which ambiguously provide either a sense of “satisfaction” or “helplessness and frustration” (Smith and Joffe 2013: 25).

Audience Reception of Climate Change Coverage

The scientific construct of global climate change is not directly visible, and therefore requires “media transmission”, even to Greenlanders (Taddicken 2013). There is limited understanding of the media’s role in shaping the public’s “knowledge [of] and attitudes” towards climate change (Taddicken 2013: 39; Cabecinhas, Lázaro, and Carvalho 2008: 172). Taddicken argues that until now, “communication scholars have paid much greater attention to media content than to audiences and media users” (2013: 40). In many current studies within the field, the media is assumed to play a key part in framing people’s understanding of climate change, but these assumptions are “rarely verified with reference to empirical studies on the relationship between media output and audience reception” (Olausson 2011: 282). Hence, there is a need for more research on the “complex reception process” that takes place as people make sense of a phenomenon such as climate change—a process in which the media “constitutes only one of several meaning-making resources” (Olausson 2011: 282). The current study therefore adopts a similar approach to that of Olausson (2011: 282–83), viewing the media as a central element in the analysis, while preventing a focus on the content of media reporting on climate change from overshadowing the audience’s complex reception process.

Olausson concludes that the media serves as her Swedish focus group participants’ primary source of information about climate change, although this information is “negotiated and remolded in conversations and discussions with other people” (2011: 294). She refers to the media as the “agenda-setter”, but argues it is important not to underestimate how people negotiate and embed their own experiences into media discourses and vice versa when making sense of climate change (Olausson 2011). Olausson further identifies three criticisms of general media representations noted by her Swedish interviewees: a fatigue with “emotionally charged media messages”, an awareness of their “commercial conditions”, and the media coverage’s “lack of continuity and integration of various sorts of news” (2011: 292–93). Ryghaug, Sorensen, and Naess (2011: 784) similarly conduct focus group interviews with members of the Norwegian public, and find that all groups referred to the media (specifically newspapers (print or digital) and “television and radio”) as their primary source of climate change information. Yet their interviewees, like those in the Olausson (2011) study, believe that the media exaggerates stories “to sell more newspapers” (Ryghaug, Sorensen, and Naess 2011: 790).

Previous studies have portrayed the mass media—first, TV; second, newspapers; and, to a growing extent, the internet—as the main sources of information on climate change, which are more influential than “people’s interpersonal communication” (Schäfer 2015: 853). These conclusions, however, are based on a review of surveys from the USA, the UK, Germany, and Australia (Schäfer 2015). In Southern England, Whitmarsh (2008) found mass media to be the main source of information on climate change among respondents, with TV as the primary source, followed by newspapers and radio, while Stamm, Clark, and Eblacas (2000) found newspaper and TV to be the most used information sources in a segment of US citizens. In Portugal, Cabecinhas, Lázaro, and Carvalho (2008: 174) found that the media (television news, followed by newspapers and “televised films and documentaries”) was their survey participants’ main source of information on climate change. Respondents viewed the news media and “people they know” as somewhat credible on this issue, while they mistrusted “government, local authorities and corporations”. Taddicken (2013: 39) investigated the “impact of mass media and internet use” on German internet users’ knowledge and attitudes towards climate change and found that only regular use of television, but not of print media, positively affected knowledge and attitudes. She concluded that visual cues are powerful tools for communicating information about climate change. Arlt, Hoppe, and Wolling (2011: 52, 57) found that watching public news programmes in Germany predicted greater awareness, while reading weekly print media “had a slightly negative effect on problem awareness”, indicating that media use does “not always have a motivating, awareness-heightening effect”. A survey of the German public by Brüggemann et al. (2017) showed limited effects of media coverage of annual UN climate summits on knowledge and attitudes, and no effect on the respondents’ intention to act.

Research Design and Methodology

Research Design

Based on the conceptual considerations and findings from previous studies, this study explores how inhabitants make sense of climate change and its impacts. It is an open inquiry into how interviewees represent climate change and its impacts at both the local and global levels. It explores interviewees’ associations with both the scientific phenomenon of climate change and its impacts (e.g., socio-economic), including how these associations are negotiated among focus group members, how important interviewees believe future climate change is, how they demarcate it, etc.

The study furthermore explores the origins of interviewees’ representations of climate change by investigating the relevance of personal experiences versus media exposure in shaping their sense-making of climate change and its impacts. “Personal experiences” is defined as interpersonal communication, as well as personal climatic and societal observations; in sum, anything that inhabitants refer to in making sense of climate change and its impacts that is not directly related to mediated communication. “Media” refers to any type of mass media content consumed by focus group participants, including printed newspapers, internet sources, radio, TV, social media, Netflix documentaries, etc.

Finally, the study explores how the interviewees relate media representations to their personal experiences, and how they negotiate any contradictions between information gained from the two sources. The aim is to determine how inhabitants interpret media representations, such as how they relate to memories of specific examples of media coverage or general evaluations of discourses on climate change and Greenland’s role in these.

The research questions were investigated in August 2016 through (1) five focus group interviews with fifteen participants and (2) a survey of eleven of these participants’ media use, both general and related to climate change. Unfortunately, the survey responses of FG 5 could not be retrieved. The case study method is useful for investigating a phenomenon that cannot be separated from “important contextual conditions”—in this instance, local discourses of climate change in Greenland’s capital city. This object of study is intrinsically linked to its “real-world context”, as we are interested in how discourses of a global, scientific phenomenon are shaped in a local environment (Yin 2014). The case study approach allows the use of different sources of evidence (Yin 2014). The present study employs a mixed-methods approach that draws on data from qualitative focus group interviews and a survey of the same participants’ media use (David and Sutton 2011). The focus group interviews give insights into the interviewees’ “everyday experiences, meanings and language”, while the self-administered survey explores the participants’ individual media use more directly and in depth than would be possible during a focus group (David and Sutton 2011).

The Case Study: The City of Nuuk

Located in southwest Greenland, Nuuk is the world’s northernmost capital (Gill 2015). The city is home to one-quarter of Greenland’s 55,847 inhabitants (Rasmussen 2016: Schultz-Lorentzen and Rasmussen 2012; Statistikbanken). Nuuk has a variety of inhabitants employed in “government administrative work, education, health care […] hunting, fishing, fish and shrimp processing” (Encyclopaedia Britannica 2017). The city encompasses a cross-section of professions, ages and geographic backgrounds. This study thus complements previous findings from Greenland that have mostly studied Disco Bay, located close to the receding glaciers of Ilulissat Icefjord. Greenlandic is the population’s first language, while 12% of Greenlanders are bilingual Danish speakers (Rischel 2016). Half of Greenland’s Danish inhabitants live in Nuuk (Statistikbanken).

Focus Group Interviews

The study’s primary method was five semi-structured focus group interviews with two to four participants in each group (Table 2.1) (David and Sutton 2011). According to Moscovici, it is precisely “material from samples of conversations [which] gives access to the social representations” (2000: 62). Previous studies of sense-making of climate change have employed this technique (Wibeck 2014b; Olausson 2011; Ryghaug, Sorensen, and Naess 2011). A total of seven men and eight women were interviewed. Workplaces and institutions were contacted by email and phone asking for three to four people willing to take part in the study. The targeted workplaces and institutions were chosen according to the methodological principle of maximum variance, taking into consideration that people with different professions, which are presumably affected by climate change to varying degrees, might express different perspectives.

Two administrative employees at a fish factory in Nuuk (FG 1) were sampled as fishery is Greenland’s largest industry and about half of the country’s fishing fleet is based in Nuuk (Schultz-Lorentzen and Rasmussen, 2012). Three airline employees were included in the sample (FG 4) as tourism comprises a growing industry in Greenland, while air traffic by its nature contributes to the country’s CO2 emissions. Both industries were assumed to be somewhat affected by climate change, and thus the views of their employees were deemed of interest. A bank clerk and two women working in kindergartens, albeit in different schools, were targeted (FG 2) in order to include insights of inhabitants whose work would not be directly affected by climate change. As more than 60% of Nuuk’s inhabitants work in public and private service, these also constitute important segments of the population (Schultz-Lorentzen and Rasmussen, 2012). Two Danish government officials were chosen in order to add insights from inhabitants who had obtained higher education and to provide a perspective of someone dealing, perhaps indirectly, with climate change as a political matter. A Greenlandic tourist guide was included to get a perspective from someone in contact with the tourists in Greenland, some of them specifically to experience climate change (FG 3). Four high school students were included in the sample (FG 5) in order to get the perspectives of a group of younger inhabitants of the city. While climate change has been a known phenomenon in Greenland for much of their lives, the younger generation are also an interesting group as their media use could vary from that of the generation before them. Since employees and students signed up to participate in the interview, a small self-selection bias (e.g., interest in climate change) must be expected and accounted for in the analysis.

Table 2.1 Focus group participants

Group no.


Participants (no. and gender)

Name and age


Interview date

FG 1

Administrative employees in fishing industry

2 (2 men)

Frederik (53), Bjarne (56)

Danish, Greenlandic,


FG 2

Employees in public and private service (banking/education)

3 (3 women)

Jonna (55), Nivi (49), Karen (64)

Greenlandic, Greenlandic, Greenlandic


FG 3

Public officials and tourist guide

3 (3 men)

Malthe (23), Gorm (59), Ulrik (34)

Greenlandic,Danish, Danish


FG 4

Employees at different levels of airline

3 (1 woman, 2 men)

Sofie (38), Johannes (59), Pavia (55)

Greenlandic, Greenlandic, Greenlandic


FG 5

High school students

4 (3 women, 1 man)

Ivalu (n/i*), Tanja (n/i*), Hansine (n/i*), David (n/i*)



Table adapted from Wibeck (2014b: 208). *no information.

As the study’s research question refers to “inhabitants of Nuuk”, Danes are included in this sample. Nuuk is home to half of all of the country’s inhabitants born outside of Greenland and has a high population of Danes. Many of the Danish inhabitants in the study have, however, resided in Greenland for several decades. Interviews were conducted in Danish, which is the second language for most Greenlanders (Rischel 2016) and the first language of the author. A translator was not necessary. Most interviewees were fluent in Danish, while a few were helped by other interview participants to remember forgotten words. Participants’ names, workplaces with few employees and place names mentioned during the interviews were anonymized during transcription.

All interviews were conducted according to a semi-structured interview guide. They took between 45 and 80 minutes, well within the recommended time frame of 45 to 90 minutes (David and Sutton 2011). All five group interviews were slightly different, as the interviewer attempted to follow the flow of the participants’ conversation as well as follow up on interesting themes raised. The interviews were audio taped, transcribed and subsequently analyzed by qualitative content analysis in order to map the “patterns within [the] qualitative data” (David and Sutton 2011). Deductive codes were based on the analytical elements of social representations theory (objectification, anchoring, naming, and distinctions), and key themes of interest according to the research questions. Subsequently, a “descriptive” coding, an “interpretative” and a final coding—including inductive sub-codes—were undertaken (David and Sutton 2011; King and Horrocks 2010).

Survey on Media Use

Little research exists on media use in Greenland. One of the few previous studies has shown that TV and radio are the population’s most important media sources, in particular the Greenlandic Broadcasting Corporation’s (KNR) programmes (Ravn-Højgaard et al. 2018). People living in Nuuk are, however, found to watch less TV and listen half as much to the radio than the general population. Meanwhile, the capital’s inhabitants use the internet more (68%) than the rest of the Greenlandic population (43%), and social media are used more in Nuuk (56% on a daily basis as compared to 43 % in the rest of the country). Also, younger Greenlanders are found to use the internet more, and TV and KNR’s services less. 35% of the population primarily receive news through online media, a trend which is growing.

To gain a deeper understanding of the current study’s interviewees’ differentiated media use in relation to general news and climate change specific news, all participants were asked to fill out a quantitative survey (David and Sutton 2011). The survey sought information on participants’ stated media use, sources of information on climate change, and their evaluation of the sources’ trustworthiness—information that would not have been fully uncovered in a focus group interview. By combining and comparing qualitative interview and quantitative survey data, the study carefully develops its understanding of how participants make sense of climate change through media and personal experience (David and Sutton 2011; Greene, Caracelli and Graham 1989).

The first half of the survey consisted of three parts, asking the interviewees about: (1) their media use related to news about Greenlandic and international affairs, (2) their media use related to information about climate change, and (3) which sources they would trust most to answer questions about climate change. The second half of the survey consisted of demographic questions about the interviewees’ gender, age, nationality, years lived in Nuuk, geographic heritage, civil status, education, employment situation, and type of employment. The survey was developed using elements of Jensen and Helles’ (2015) and Metag, Füchslin, and Schäfer’s (2015) surveys. The survey was given to the study’s participants upon finishing the focus group interview for practical reasons, and to avoid priming the focus groups in any direction.


The following analysis is structured around the study’s major research questions. Within each section, relevant themes are analyzed by exploring participants’ ways of objectifying and anchoring climate change through naming and distinctions. Since social representations are said to become accessible through “material from samples of conversations”, we seek to discover them in the interactions between focus group participants (Moscovici 2000: 62). The analysis pays close attention to both the groups’ collective and separate individuals’ patterns of sense-making. According to Moscovici (2000: 63), social representations are “revealed especially in times of crisis and upheaval, when a group or its images are undergoing a change”. Hence, special attention is paid to situations in which interviewees disagree, discuss, or contest with each other (Wibeck 2014b). At the same time, it is relevant if absolute agreement or a complete absence of tension is observed. This would suggest that social representations within an area are widely agreed upon to the extent that they are no longer consciously reflected on (Moscovici 2000).

Making Sense of Climate Change and its Impacts

The first part of the study’s findings explores the inhabitants of Nuuk’s immediate associations with and definitions of climate change. How do they relate the concept to the context of Greenland and Nuuk? In short, how do they make sense of the phenomenon?

Natural and Unnatural Local Weather Phenomena: Objectifications of Climate Change

The first interview started with the question, “What is the first thing that comes to your mind when someone mentions climate change?” The first images evoked in interviewees’ minds by such an open question can reveal which prior social representations of climate change interviewees draw on while they are still relatively uninfluenced by the researcher’s agenda (Wibeck 2014b). While the participants’ responses varied, many immediately related climate change to the local context of Greenland and changes therein that participants had seen or heard about. An illustration of this pattern is found in four high school students’ answer to the initial question:

Tanja: Global warming

David: That’s, that’s the same thing actually. [laughs]

Ivalu: Uhm, I think hunters, don’t know why, always hunters. Poor hunters.

David: Mmm, I think about shorter winter.

Tanja: Warmer summer.

Ivalu: Also, stormy weather. We have that often now, compared to before, like real storms.

Hansine: Really bad, bad weather in the winter.

Tanja: And the ice sheet, when it melts.

Ivalu: It’s alright if it melts. [all laugh]

Tanja: No... [continue laughing]. (FG 5: 3–13)

Associations with Greenlandic weather and changing seasons were present and prominent in all focus group discussions. In these immediate associations, climate change was equated with “weather” and objectified to become visible as a “warmer summer” and “the ice sheet, when it melts”. Also, among the three middle-aged women of FG 2, who work in a school, a kindergarten and in banking, respectively, the close, personal observations of climate change were prevalent and absorbed the group’s attention for much of the interview. Individual observations on changing seasons, drying areas of land, milder temperatures, less snow, stronger winds etc. were used to objectify climate change. Smith and Joffe’s (2013: 26) distinction between natural and unnatural is omnipresent here, as interviewees juxtaposed ideas about “how nature is expected to behave” with observations of it behaving in unfamiliar and unpredictable ways. Participants in all five focus groups continued circling around the impacts of climate change in Nuuk and the rest of Greenland—how they experienced climate change in their local context. This process of objectifying through local images and examples was a main theme of all the interviews.

The continuous references to weather phenomena and their perceived changes aligns with previous findings from Wibeck (2014b: 209) and Smith and Joffe (2013: 212–22), who identified “melting polar ice caps, endangered polar bears, warmer weather, floods, and droughts”, “melting ice”, and “weather” as the dominant associations of their Norwegian and British interviewees. However, the present study’s finding of strong contextual links to Greenland sets it apart from these earlier studies. While melting ice was mentioned, local experiences of weather change observed by the interviewees, themselves, or people they know took precedence in the interviews. Thus, personal experience appears to influence Nuuk’s inhabitants’ sense-making of climate change to a greater extent than what is concluded in studies of British and Norwegian laypeople’s sense-making (Wibeck 2014b; Smith and Joffe 2013).

Another interesting aspect of the excerpt above is how humor was used to downplay the urgency and severity of climate change. Melting ice was laughed off as “alright”. Along similar lines, Johannes elsewhere commented that in a couple of years, we will be able to come and visit “Costa del Nuuk” (FG 4: 183). I argue that this can be classified as a type of anchoring—inserting climate change in comical over-exaggerated representations, which makes it more tangible, less unsettling, and easier to talk about and make sense of. Bore and Reid (2014: 454) have previously explored how laughing at climate change can “promote active and positive engagement”.

Certainty and Uncertainty with Regard to Climate Change’s Anthropogenic Causes

Another significant finding was that all the interview participants reported having experienced climate change in Greenland, although they did not necessarily define this change as anthropogenic in origin. In interviews, the moderator consistently referred to the phenomenon as “climate change” but not as “anthropogenic” to avoid influencing participants’ sense-making. This uncertainty regarding the question of attribution (see Chapter 7, Attribution Science) is illustrated by how climate change is discussed among the three women Jonna, Nivi, and Karen. When asked whether they believe in climate change, Jonna replied:

Jonna: I do, really, I think there is change in so many things, also because you can also feel it on what you catch of whales and fish and other things. It is felt that, uhm, just now the cod has arrived much earlier than normal... (FG 2: 18)

These personal experiences, however, do not necessarily translate into a certainty that climate change has anthropogenic causes. To many interviewees, climate change is not necessarily ‘human induced’. To some, it simply means a change in the climate. Thus, later in the interview, Jonna commented on how climate change is framed in the media as anthropogenic.

Jonna: And then they used to say that it is the people themselves that are responsible for it. That we are—people. But I don’t believe in that. Several hundred years ago Europe was frozen. I certainly do not think that is the population’s fault.

Karen: No.

… Moderator: What do the rest of you think of that?

Karen: I have also had that thought: that the atmosphere takes care of itself, the earth, right. (FG 2: 106–10)

Although Jonna has no doubt about the existence of a phenomenon she calls climate change, she does not define it as anthropogenic. Participants in other focus groups similarly expressed a wavering between anthropogenic climate change as certain/uncertain. Thus, Johannes declared his opinion:

Johannes: ...And the media, they describe it as manmade, right. But... (laughs), it bloody isn’t all manmade. (FG 4: 4)

Diverging from Olausson’s (2011: 287) finding that “human-induced” climate change was taken to be “common sense” among Swedish laypeople, this study does not identify a solidified social representation of climate change as manmade. This conclusion, however, ties into Bjørst’s (2011: 239, author’s translation) previous findings from Greenland, in which she identifies a “mistrust in science” and stronger belief in “locally formulated climate theories”. It is, however, important to mention that the younger focus group participants clearly defined climate change as anthropogenic. Here, a common social representation of climate change as human induced seemed solidified to the extent that it was not necessary to discuss this further. In this study, it thus appears to be an age-dependent phenomenon: younger participants believe more strongly in anthropogenic climate change than do older participants.

Positive and Negative Impacts of Climate Change for the Self and the Other

Another major theme of the five focus group interviews was the evaluation of climate-change impacts as positive/negative. This was a divisive theme, dividing interviewees between worrying about the condition of nature and a pragmatic view focused on Greenland’s economic development. A couple of interviewees drew this distinction in response to the interview’s first question of what comes to mind when climate change is mentioned. Frederik, who works in an administrative position at a fish factory in Nuuk, began the interview as follows:

Frederik: Uhm, I think possibilities (chuckles). Because it might be that if you live somewhere else than here, then it isn’t possibilities, but what we see here is that things are changing a lot, I think, and that creates lots of possibilities for this country. (FG 1: 12)

When asked what he would write if asked to write an article about climate change later in the interview, Frederik answered:

Frederik: The more the better, I guess. Then we can sit outside and my strawberries will feel better and we could grow some more potatoes. (FG 1: 110)

Other answers show that Frederik’s evaluation of climate change as positive mainly relates to his profession and new possibilities for the fishery of e.g., cod, while an improved quality of life is typically added with a hint of humor. Other positive impacts of climate change mentioned in the focus groups are more climate tourists, agriculture, mining, longer summers, saving energy, and being able to sail wherever one wants. The positive evaluation of climate change as bringing “possibilities”, as they were labelled independently by two interviewees, contradicts the dominant view in the media that climate change is purely negative. When asked which issues related to climate change he saw as most prominent in the media, Frederik interrupted:

Frederik: Well, like I said, that is also why I said possibilities. Because everyone, almost everyone, focuses precisely on it being disasters this will bring, right? ... It is clear, if you live on some sort of island one and a half meters above the sea down in the Pacific Ocean, then reality might look a bit different. (FG 1: 67)

Thus, positive aspects of climate change were perceived as being in opposition to the dominant media representation of climate change as purely negative for local reasons. At the same time, Frederik’s quote exemplifies how interviewees were reluctant to embrace a “victim” role. Here, Smith and Joffe’s (2013: 23) distinction between self and other comes into play. Though some participants contemplated and worried about the negative impacts of climate change, the “self” was never regarded as a victim and an “other” very rarely as any form of “perpetrator” of climate change (Smith and Joffe 2013; Bjørst 2012). On the contrary, and as illustrated above, there was an inclination to cast others, such as the inhabitants of small islands threatened by sea level rise, as victims of climate change. This is also obvious in the following discussion between Frederik and his colleague Bjarne.

Moderator: ...Maybe it also has something to do with media coverage, that there is somehow a counter reaction?

Frederik: Yes, yes, exactly. That it becomes too much, that you think now it’s all doomsday around that again.

Bjarne: We can’t just think about ourselves here in Greenland though.

Frederik: No, that’s also true.

Bjarne: If it melts that much and it affects the oceans, right? You have to be very watchful about that. (FG 1: 111–16)

This focus group interview had only two participants, both working administratively at a fish factory in Nuuk. The contrasting view to media representations of climate change as inherently negative was highlighted again by Frederik’s annoyance with “doomsday” reports. When the discussion had centered on the potential positive impacts of climate change in Greenland, Bjarne interrupted to remind his colleague that Greenland is not alone in the world. This highlights an additional distinction beyond those identified by Smith and Joffe: the distinction between the local and global impacts of climate change. This theme recurs in interviewees’ discussions of their memories of media content outlined later in the analysis. In several interviews, the local level was accentuated through examples of the positive impacts of climate change in Greenland, showing how some interviewees did not adhere to the view that climate change is disastrous. The younger high school students also distinguished between local and global, albeit in a different form, as a demand for information about the de facto consequences of climate change for Greenland locally. This theme is also outlined below.

In other focus groups, climate change’s negative impacts were more prevalent. In the following exchange, four high school students discussed whether climate change affects anyone they know.

Ivalu: Hunters.

Moderator: Hunters. How so?

Ivalu: It’s harder, I’ve heard.

Hansine: They can’t go out sailing if it’s that kind of weather, then they just have to stay at home.

Ivalu: And the weather is bad often.

David: Mmm. (FG 5: 66–71)

Hunters and fishermen were mentioned here and in other focus groups as a segment of the population that is especially vulnerable to climate change. Interviewees who mostly view climate change as positive recognized that it may pose more dire obstacles for inhabitants of other parts of the country. There was, however, a strong recognition that Greenlanders have adapted to changes in climate throughout history. Thus, respondents may view climate change as “worrying”, but they do not use it to victimize themselves or other inhabitants of Greenland (FG 5: 112).

Environmental and Economic Sustainability: A Basic Distinction

The distinction between the positive and negative impacts of climate change underlines another distinction—between environmental and economic sustainability. Other researchers have touched on this theme, commenting on how Greenland is “warming to the idea of less snow and ice” due to its economic advantages (Nuttall 2009: 295). Ulrik outlined this view clearly in an evolving discussion with two other interviewees about how the country should behave in relation to new possibilities for mining.

Ulrik: Well, sustainable. The economy is simply also an important part of the sustainability, in my view. (FG 3: 140)

When asked if she sees any positive or negative impacts of climate change, Jonna, in another focus group, replied:

Jonna: Well, the positive is earnings. But who says that’s the most important thing anyway? Yes, we do have a lot of these luxury things. Well, is that really what you need? I mean, should we be thinking luxury or should we be thinking about our nature? (FG 2: 147)

Although arguments on both ends of the environment/economy spectrum were contemplated in all focus groups, there was a noticeable tendency to highlight the positive impacts and possibilities of climate change in Greenland in the three focus groups comprised of people employed by an airline, a fish factory, and within governance and tourism. By contrast, the female interviewees studying or employed in the education and banking sectors interpreted climate change as predominantly negative. On the basis of this study, it is not possible to say whether gender, age, profession or even media use as variables correlate with sense-making of climate change as either positive or negative. Nonetheless, it is a finding worth contemplating that the interviewed men, working in industries that presumably are somewhat positively affected by climate change, viewed the phenomenon as predominantly positive.

Media and Personal Experience as Sources of Information

This section analyzes how the media and personal experiences might influence the interviewees’ sense-making processes. It first looks at which information sources participants report using in the interviews and surveys. Second, it examines how they express and negotiate the trustworthiness of these sources.

The Media as a Source of Information on Climate Change

The media sources from which participants receive information about climate change varied within and across focus groups. In their survey responses, all participants except one reported hearing about climate change from national Greenlandic newspapers” “every week” or “every month”. In all focus groups except FG 3, participants similarly reported hearing about climate change from “local Greenlandic newspapers” “every week” or “every month”. The same is true for hearing about climate change from “TV”. According to survey responses, traditional media such as national and local papers and TV comprise many of the participants’ media use. Specific sources mentioned in interviews were the Greenlandic outlets Sermitsiaq, AG and KNR, the Danish newspaper Politiken, and television station TV 2, as well as the international news outlets CNN, The New York Times, The Guardian, Siberian Times, CBC, and the entertainment company Netflix.

In focus group interviews “anything from the local papers to the news on TV and, well, TV and written papers” to “Googling”, “local” and “foreign media”, and “radio” were mentioned as sources of information (FG 4: 48–50; FG 1: 52; FG 2: 104). Only the group of four high school students and the younger tourist guide Malthe stated that they mainly rely on articles from the internet, especially Facebook, coming from e.g., the Greenlandic news outlet Sermitsiaq. In their survey responses, however, Karen, Nivi, and Johannes also indicated that they hear about climate change through social media “every week”, while Pavia does so “every day”.

Memories of Media Content

Analyzing interviewees’ memories of media coverage provides insight into media-related images through which they make sense of climate change. When the moderator scrutinized the examples brought up during the interviews, it once again became evident that interviewees frequently use images of Greenland to make sense of the phenomenon. Thus, even when speaking of mediated images, local Greenlandic objectifications of climate change were common. These are not necessarily connected specifically to Nuuk, but often illustrate the melting of Greenland’s ice sheet. Thus, the interviewees often mentioned images from the news media including the “melting ice” and “melting polar ice caps” identified in Smith and Joffe’s (2013) as well as Wibeck’s (2014b) studies. The high school students David and Tanja recounted a time lapse video of the ice sheet’s melting, while Ivalu recalled a video of two people watching an iceberg break off; “that was pretty crazy to see that it is so big. We live in Greenland but we don’t see icebergs break off every day, you know (laughs)” (FG 5: 179).

In a second theme of memorized media images, interviewees recalled coverage of other populations affected by climate change through floods, which they recall as having made an impression on them. Both themes are illustrated well in an exchange between Nivi and Jonna.

Nivi: I also think of a programme I watched, I think this year or last year. It was a recording from the ice sheet where it has become rivers. Water just streamed down. Just think how much water comes out every day. I have a hard time imagining it. You almost can’t.

Jonna: There is so much water coming out.

Nivi: I wonder what’s below the ice! And then I am thinking of this scene where I saw a flood, I don’t quite remember where it was, but there were cars and everything is floating around, and men, people that had to be rescued. It is incomprehensible. (FG 2: 181–87)

Nivi and Jonna both remember media coverage showing the melting of the Greenlandic ice sheet. The images appeared to be vivid in their memory and seemed to affect them both. In the middle of this exchange, however, Nivi added an example of coverage of a flood in an unnamed place. A similar example is found in the exchange between Bjørn and Frederik. The latter remembered a news piece about an island state in the Pacific having bought new land to live on for when they become flooded. “That actually does make you think, okay, this really has a pretty big consequence for these people, right”, says Frederik (FG 1: 140). His and Nivi’s comments highlight how the participants, while mostly occupied with climate changes in their proximity, also objectify it through other people who experience its (negative) consequences. The remembered examples of media coverage related to Greenland usually objectify climate change through natural phenomena such as melting ice, while the examples related to other places that have made an impression mostly include direct negative consequences for people. Here, the distinction between local and global is drawn again, as interviewees supply examples of how other places are more affected by climate change. The distinction was present yet again as the focus group of high school students discussed how they do not know what will happen to Greenland when the ice melts.

Ivalu: We just know that Denmark will sink.

Hansine: We just know that Denmark will become flooded (laughs)

Ivalu: Then they will all have to move here.

David: Yeah.

Ivalu: Then we’ll get the queen (all laugh). (FG 5: 204–10)

Here, a distinction between Greenland and Denmark is drawn, describing how, even though climate change is vivid to interviewees, its most severe consequences are cast as affecting someone else.

Negotiating the Trustworthiness of Media and Personal Experiences

Exploring the information sources listed by participants in their survey responses and through focus group interviews, the main finding is that media and personal experience both appear to be important information sources. This is exemplified in the following exchange among four high school students, when asked where they get information on climate change:

Ivalu: The media.

Moderator: The media?

Ivalu: Yes.

David: Yeah, the media.

Tanja: Yes.

Moderator: Is it mostly media it comes from, do you think?

Ivalu: Yes, but also—for me also from people on the street, like local fishermen and hunters that talk about it, and old people.

Hansine: Mmm.

Ivalu: And for example my grandmother, everything like that.

Moderator: Yeah. What do they say?

Ivalu: How cold it was in the old times, before we were born. Back when the snow really squeaked in the winter and it was really cold so your ears turned red, and all that kind of stuff that my mum used to talk about.

David: Mmm.

Hansine: Yes. (FG 5: 80–92)

The above exchange shows how media and first-hand sources interact and are negotiated. Several exchanges across the different focus groups reveal how the interviewees alternate between using the media and personal experiences to make sense of climate changes. This was also exemplified in how some interviewees counter negative media representations using personal and locally contextualized evaluations of climate change as positive.

In the previous section, the four high school students started by mentioning the media as their primary source of information, and, after an intervention by the moderator, added elders, hunters and fishermen as sources. The following exchange indicates that this switch also implies that they trust first-hand sources more. When asked whether they trust the media or first-hand sources more, they replied:

Ivalu: I trust old people more (laughs). Because they know what they are talking about.

David: Yeah, that’s right.

Hansine: Yes.

Tanja: Mmm.

Ivalu: They really know what they’re talking about.

Moderator: Yeah. So in comparison with an article, then you would trust most..?

Hansine: The elders. (FG 5: 151–59)

The question about which sources are more trustworthy was negotiated through the interview, and thus is not a set or fossilized representation. When the moderator suggested that elders might just have a different perspective than the media, Ivalu replied, “I trust my grandmother more than I trust the media” (FG 5: 161). In general, although the media was mentioned as a source of information in all focus groups, its trustworthiness was scrutinized more than that of personal experiences and sources.

In their survey responses, all female participants except Jonna ranked “conversations with friends, family, colleagues etc.” as the source they rely on most for climate change information. But all three women in FG 2 also included either “local” or “national Greenlandic newspapers” in their list of trustworthy sources. These survey responses align closely with the three women’s collective sense-making of climate change through objectifications of local changes in weather in their focus group interview. Interestingly, in another part of the survey respondents (including the three airline employees and the Danish government officials Gorm and Ulrik) ranked “international newspapers” among the most reliable sources. This matches the focus in their discussions, which were more preoccupied with the positive and economically beneficial sides of climate change than its negative environmental consequences.

Media Representations Related to Personal Experience

This section assesses how interviewees negotiated and made sense of contradictions between mediated and personal experiences of climate change.

Criticism of “Doomsday” Coverage

First, the study explored what the interviewees believe the media focus on in their climate change coverage. A main theme in interviewees’ responses to this question was that the media focused too much on the negative aspects of climate change or incited fear and alarmism through their coverage. A clear example is Frederik’s persistent highlighting of the positive possibilities that climate change poses in Greenland, which he finds missing from the media’s “doomsday” coverage, as outlined above (FG 1: 112, 67). The theme is also clear in Malthe’s response to how he views media reporting on climate change.

Malthe: Fear mongering, I think. Honestly, I think so. It’s very, like, now you should only shower once a week and cycle to work or take the bus at least. Maybe the rest of you have a different view?

Malthe expressed the view that the media are overly focused on the catastrophic elements of climate change. The same view was expressed in several focus group interviews. For instance, Karen reported that the media sometimes “blows it out of proportion a little too much” (FG 2: 145). This type of “emotional fatigue” has been detected in other studies by, e.g., Olausson (2011: 292), whose focus group participants were “highly critical of the commercial conditions of the news media that generate this type of journalism”. The finding that emotional appeals, especially to fear, may have the opposite effect to increasing concern about climate change is supported in several other studies (Ryghaug, Sorensen, and Naess 2011; Wolf and Moser 2011; O’Neill and Nicholson Cole 2009).

A criticism of the media’s lack of alarmism set the high school students apart from the other interviewees. Their emphasis on how the media does not take climate change seriously enough is exemplified in the following exchange, when asked what they generally think about how the media covers the issue.

Ivalu: It’s very mild.

David: Yes, it’s mega mild. Really mild.

Tanja: Kindergarten.

Ivalu: It is not so much, we need to do something now and it is serious and it affects a lot of people, it affects the whole earth.

David: Mhm.

Moderator: So by “very mild”, you mean—what do you mean by “mild”?

Tanja: Kindergarten mild.

David: I mean it won’t affect anyone at all. That mild. (FG 5: 264–71)

Similar expressions of dissatisfaction with how seriously climate change is taken in the media were not found in any other focus group. As seen in the passage above, the students even collectively showed disdain for how “mildly” the media treats the topic of climate change, calling it “kindergarten mild”.

Lack of Local Voices

The high school students also criticized the lack of a local focus on climate change in the media.

David: The media, they cover Denmark’s consequences but there is not really anything about covering our consequences, if something should happen. (FG 5: 183)

This social representation of how the consequences of climate change for Greenland are missing from the media coverage seemed to develop over the course of the conversation, as Ivalu’s reply indicates, “yeah, that’s true actually... Yeah, wow” (FG 5: 184–86). Once the idea was conceived, however, it reoccurred several times throughout the interview. Thus, when asked what they would write about if they were to write an article about climate change, the students reply:

Ivalu: Listen to us. And to the elders. I mean listen to the locals. Listen to us who live here.

David: Yes.

Ivalu: Not necessarily Vittus but.. (all laugh)

Moderator: ...Who would you interview then?

Ivalu: Someone who is reasonable.

David: It’s the hunters, I think. The hunters and the locals.

Ivalu: Also the ones in smaller towns, settlements.

Tanja: Yeah. (FG 5: 329–40)

This idea seems linked to how the students claim to trust elders, fishermen, and hunters from Greenland more than the media on questions related to climate change. It is an example of precisely how focus group participants relate personal experiences to media representations and at times identify dissonances between the two. Here, the students employed the accounts they have collected through personal interactions to critique how media representations exclude important voices. This theme was only peripherally touched on in other focus groups, for example when Pavia declared that he thinks climate conferences are a waste of time, and should instead take into account the experiences of “real nature people.” (FG 4: 75)

This finding touches on the extent to which the media are seen to represent the local, contextual actualizations of climate change around the world. It aligns with the critique from other focus groups that find positive Greenlandic perspectives missing in, particularly non-Greenlandic, media accounts of the issue. It is interesting to note how the students highlighted personal, first-hand accounts and requested a stronger focus on local, Greenlandic accounts of climate change in the media, while at the same time highlighting the severity of climate change. In other focus groups, local perspectives were mainly used to exemplify the positive effects of climate change in Greenland and to criticize media representations for focusing only on its negative effects. This could be a generational difference, as the high school students are the group that most separated themselves from the four other focus groups in terms of their greater certainty regarding anthropogenic climate change and sense-making of the phenomenon as predominantly negative. This could, however, also be related to many other variables such as media use. Unfortunately, no survey responses were obtained from the high school students to investigate these issues.

Another negotiation of how local Greenlandic experiences of climate change are mirrored in media representations was present in the tourist guide Malthe’s proclamation that Greenland is sometimes represented as a victim “in others’ argumentation”. When asked to elaborate on this point, he replied:

Malthe: I think you often experience Greenland as this big ice cube that’s just melting and melting, melting and the water levels are rising and rising and rising. That’s mostly what I meant with that—in a way becoming a victim. Or positioned in this kind of victim role. Whereas if you ask the Greenlanders themselves, like me for example, then it’s a completely different picture one has. (FG 3: 182)

Malthe’s comments outline a dissonance between a common media representation of climate change and the local, contextual experiences of himself and other Greenlanders. In a sense, he distances himself from the common objectifying images of climate change, namely “melting ice” and rising “sea levels”—which studies have found are the most common images of climate change for many, at least Western, people (Wibeck 2014b; Smith and Joffe 2013; Leiserowitz 2006). Malthe’s comments illuminate another way through which interviewees related media representations to their personal experiences, thus negotiating established social representations and creating new ones in the process. It very explicitly underlines the need to include varied, local, contextualized experiences of even a phenomenon as global as climate change.

Climate Conferences and Politicians’ Visits

Another media focus, according to the interviewees, is stories about climate conferences and “high-profile climate tourists” visiting Greenland, as the participant Gorm calls them. This was also exemplified in Ulrik’s observation on media stories below.

Ulrik: Well, specifically, I would say, that when some big shot or other from somewhere comes up here to see it. And then it’s only to hear or read what they all say. (FG 3: 62)

These two types of stories, high-profile politicians at climate conferences or passing through Greenland, were brought up in several interviews. Interviewees also mentioned climate conferences as the most cited sources in climate change news coverage when asked directly. They discussed how climate conferences are held and widely covered, but expressed no particular trust in their effect. On the contrary, Malthe evoked a pejorative image of “grown up people with a long education honestly sitting and just talking about the weather” (FG 3: 26). The political negotiations on climate change were thus another representation by which interviewees made sense of the issue.


This study explores how fifteen inhabitants of the world’s northernmost capital, Nuuk, make sense of climate change through media exposure and personal experience. The three distinctions outlined in Smith and Joffe’s (2013) study (natural/unnatural, certainty/uncertainty and self/other) were identified in the focus group discussions, and were complemented by three additional distinctions based on the empirical data (local/global, positive/negative, and environment/economy). Together, they represent the main points of contention or organizing “opposites” that the fifteen interviewees used to make sense of climate change (Olausson 2011).


As is clear in their myriad objectifications of climate change, the distinction between natural and unnatural permeated interviewees’ sense-making of climate change. Smith and Joffe (2013: 26) describe this distinction as the juxtaposition of “how nature is expected to behave” with observations of it behaving in unfamiliar or unpredictable ways. Climate change was continuously represented as “weather”, which was perceived as stormier, more unreliable, warmer, etc. in comparison to before. This naming mechanism was also identified among participants in Olausson’s (2011: 289) study, allowing her to conclude that “the abstract and intangible risk acquire[d] familiar and comprehensible characteristics”.


Notably, none of the interviewees doubted the existence of climate change. The findings of the study, however, illuminate how perceptions of changes in the Greenlandic climate did not necessarily translate into a certainty with regard to anthropogenic climate change. Interviewees repeatedly discussed whether climate change is manmade by references to how “you can’t do anything against nature” and the notion that climate change should not be blamed on anyone. A social representation of climate change as manmade was not solidified among most participants. The distinction between certainty and uncertainty was thus an important sense-making device. In contrast, Olausson’s (2011: 287) study of Norwegian laypeople’s sense-making showed a high degree of certainty that climate change is manmade.

From Self/Other to Local/Global

The study’s findings showed how the study participants did not use the self/other distinction to portray an “other” as the perpetrator of climate change. Contrary to Smith and Joffe’s (2013) findings, the participants in Nuuk advocated against blaming anyone for climate change. Instead, they used the self/other distinction to explain how the impacts of climate change were felt more strongly by others—such as islanders in the Pacific Ocean and hunters in the more northern regions of Greenland. This finding confirms Ryghaug, Sorensen, and Naess’ (2011: 785) description of interviewees’ interpretation of climate change as “distant in time and space”, thereby giving it a “less stressful” meaning. This distinction parallels the more specific difference between local and global identified in the present study. To some interviewees, the realities of climate change on a global scale should of course not be ignored, but on a local level, the impacts were seen as mostly positive. Interviewees also observed differences between the focus in local vs. global media coverage. The distinction between local and global adds an important extra layer to the distinction of self versus other. In essence, it highlights how interviewees are able to make sense of climate change, as both a global phenomenon with mainly negative impacts, and on the local level, as the “possibility” of pleasantly warmer temperatures and new economic potential.


Throughout the focus groups, a new positive/negative distinction was identified. While there were “romanticized recollections” of snow up to one’s head in the past, romanticized imaginations of a future, warmer “Costa del Nuuk” were just as prevalent in the interviews (Smith and Joffe 2013). Positive impacts of climate change in Nuuk were often advanced in opposition to fear, inciting media representations of climate change as purely negative. Other studies, such as Ryghaug, Sorensen, and Naess’ (2011: 785), have illuminated how Norwegian citizens reason against the severity in media representations in order to “diminish the risks” of global warming and give it a “less agonizing meaning”. In this study, I would argue that the emphasis on the positive impacts of climate change also serves to underline one’s own, localized experiences of climate change when these are not recognized in media representations. Participants who experienced positive effects of climate change, such as through their profession, criticized the media for not sufficiently portraying these positive effects. Thus, the distinction between evaluating climate-change impacts as positive or negative was a central theme of the interviews, and a unique finding of this study. It illuminates a dissonance between personal experiences and media representations of climate change within a particularly climate-exposed population. It is interesting to note how this finding differs from the results of the nationally representative survey conducted by Minor et al. (2019), in which respondents saw climate change and its impacts in Greenland as mainly negative. A possible explanation could be their different methodologies, but also the time period that separates them is interesting to observe as climate change has received rising global political attention. The deviating findings clearly underline the need for further research in this area.


A classic distinction in ecological debates is the tension between the environment and the economy. Previous studies connect this distinction to that between positive/negative. Bjørst’s (2011: 243, author’s translation) finding that her informants in Greenland stressed “possibilities as well as problems” is thus confirmed with the findings among the laypeople of Nuuk. It is interesting to note that the participants closest to the economy end of the environment/economy continuum were first government officials and second employed in the tourism and fisheries industries, which can be seen to be positively affected by climate change. Those aligned with the environment end of the continuum were high school students and women working in “unaffected” positions in the education and banking sectors. This finding can be connected to Olausson’s (2011: 294) assumption that when social representations do not match our own “experiences, values, and opinions”, they are “likely to be transformed to resemble already established and familiar social representations, or even to be rejected to avoid any cognitive or emotional dissonance”. Future, larger-scale quantitative studies could focus, for example, on how inhabitants’ ages, professions, and educational backgrounds influence the sense-making of climate change in Greenland. Participants did not state that their preoccupation with the positive impacts of climate change emanated from or was inspired by media coverage—quite the contrary, these points were brought up in sharp contrast to mainstream media coverage. Nuttall, however, has argued that Greenlanders increasingly look more positively at climate change as politicians encourage the public to “think positively about the opportunities that climate change is bringing” (2009:47; 2008: 295).

Personal Experience and the Media as Information Sources

A crucial finding of this study is the participants’ reliance on personal experience in their sense-making of climate change. In objectifying climate change, interviewees drew to a great extent on unmediated, personal images. For example, when asked whether she believes in climate change, a young high school student replied, “I mean, I have experienced it my whole life” (FG 5: 35). The importance that participants placed on anecdotes and stories heard from elders and fishermen reveal how interpersonal communication permeates participants’ sense-making. In line with this, several previous studies have shown how “respondents make use of everyday experiences of the weather” to make sense of climate change in Sweden, Norway, and Britain (Olausson 2011; Ryghaug, Sorensen, and Naess 2011; Lorenzoni and Hulme 2009; Whitmarsh 2008). Interviewees also drew on mediated objectifications in their sense-making of climate change. These were often strongly connected to Greenland. These objectifications included vivid images of the melting ice sheet and rivers formed by thawing and large break offs of icebergs, as seen in videos on the internet. Climate change was also objectified through images from other parts of the world, such as island states in the Pacific. The mediated objectifications of climate change among Nuuk’s inhabitants therefore align somewhat with those identified among British and Swedish respondents in other studies (Wibeck 2014b; Smith and Joffe 2013). In those studies, “melting ice”, “weather”, “melting polar ice caps, endangered polar bears, warmer weather, floods, and droughts” dominated interviewees’ objectifications of climate change (Wibeck 2014b: 209; Smith and Joffe 2013: 21). This is an interesting finding, which suggests that a global set of images related to climate change has diffused through the media to Norwegians as well as Brits, Swedes, and Greenlanders.

Opposing Media Representations

As the analysis and discussion have so far revealed, media exposure and personal experiences of climate change form parts of a complex reception and sense-making process. Stamm, Clark, and Eblacas (2000: 220) conclude that studies in this field show that media coverage is “at least partly responsible for focusing people’s attention on environmental problems”. The current study demonstrates that residents of Nuuk also rely heavily on the media for information on climate change. This does not, however, mean that Nuuk’s inhabitants uncritically absorb media representations. Just as Olausson (2011: 294) concludes, media information was “negotiated and remolded in conversations and discussions with other people” throughout the course of the focus group interviews.

This study’s analysis has illuminated how participants were able to critically reflect on the information they received from the media. The most frequent criticisms of the media were related to the prevalence of emotional appeals and incitement of fear. By contrast, a minority of younger interviewees criticized the media for being too mild in its climate change reporting, and failing to communicate the urgency of the matter. Other participants missed local, Greenlandic accounts of climate change and its consequences. Overall, the participants from Nuuk cannot be seen as “passive recipients of powerful messages”, as they actively negotiated media representations (Jensen and Rosengren 1990).

Olausson (2011: 295) describes the role of the media in shaping sense-making of climate change as that of an “agenda-setter”, in the sense that it establishes an “overall framework” that is then “gradually filled with various elements, including personal and collectively deliberated experiences”. This account aligns well with the findings from Nuuk, showing how interviewees draw on personal observations to make sense of mediated concepts of climate change such as the threat of climate change. According to Olausson ‘s (2011: 295) use of the concept, agenda-setting cannot be reduced to focusing people’s attention or “making people talk about climate change”, but also encompasses “setting the limits for viable ways of talking about this global risk in terms of causes, consequences, and responsibility for solutions”. In this sense, although they may not be directly visible, established social representations of climate change, perpetuated by the media, set limits on sense-making of the phenomenon. Although this study has convincingly shown that the social representations of Nuuk’s inhabitants oppose media representations of climate change as purely negative, their reasoning about the positive aspects of climate change may also be grounded in media representations. Indeed, a couple of interviewees noted that the positive aspects of climate change are more prevalent in national Greenlandic media.


This chapter has explored how inhabitants of Greenland’s capital city make sense of climate change and its impacts through media and personal experiences. Social representations theory was used to analyze the processes through which the scientific phenomenon was made tangible and comprehensible by fifteen inhabitants of various ages, genders, professions and backgrounds.

In order to ensure a meaningful adaptation to the climatic changes experienced in Nuuk, we should learn from its inhabitants’ sense-making. This entails including their locally particular, geographically and culturally specific representations of climate change—for example, bringing Greenlanders’ positive experiences of climate change, although contradictory to dominant narratives—in broader media representations of climate change. These local representations challenge both international research and media to “create space for multiple and under-represented voices on the experience of climate change” (Farbotko and Lazrus 2012: 383). Otherwise, the voices and interests of populations at the heart of climate (crisis) discourses are in danger of being misrepresented or excluded. Thus, paying attention to local discourses on climate change is a crucial part of understanding the issue, its impacts, and ways to mitigate and adapt to it.

Future studies should incorporate larger national and cross-national perspectives of public views on climate change in Greenland and other parts of the Arctic region. The survey incorporated in this study can only illuminate the particular media use of the interviewees. A larger-scale study of climate change-related media use could further explore some of the perspectives analyzed in this study regarding how media use influences sense-making of climate change in Greenland. A study of national Greenlandic media coverage of climate change should also be undertaken to investigate whether the positive evaluations found in this study are grounded in the images and evaluations of national media coverage. Finally, future case studies should continue to explore how climate change is made sense of in local contexts around the world. While the Greenland that is “melting away” comprises an internationally recognized representation, its anticipated future capital “Costa del Nuuk” is—so far—less well known.


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1 This chapter is based on the author’s Master’s thesis, submitted in 2016 at Universität Hamburg.

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