Scientists’ Views about Public Engagement and Science Communication in the Context of Climate Change
John Besley and Anthony Dudo
Scientists who study issues such as climate change are often called on by both their colleagues and broader society to share what they know and why it matters. Many are willing to do so—and do it well—but others are either unwilling or may communicate without clear goals or in ways that may fail to achieve their goals. There are several central topics involved in the study of scientists as communicators. First, it is important to understand the evolving arguments behind why scientists are being called on to get involved in public engagement about contentious issues such as climate change. Second, it is also useful to consider the factors that social science suggests actually lead scientists to communicate about scientific issues. Last, it is important to consider what scientists are trying to achieve through their communication activities, and to consider to what extent we have evidence about whether scientists are achieving their desired goals.
Climate journalism is a moving target. Driven by its changing technological and economic contexts, challenged by the complex subject matter of climate change, and immersed in a polarized and politicized debate, climate journalism has shifted and diversified in recent decades. These transformations hint at the emergence of a more interpretive, sometimes advocacy-oriented journalism that explores new roles beyond that of the detached conduit of elite voices. At the same time, different patterns of doing climate journalism have evolved, because climate journalists are not a homogeneous group. Among the diversity of journalists covering the issue, a small group of expert science and environmental reporters stand out as opinion leaders and sources for other journalists covering climate change only occasionally. The former group’s expertise and specialization allow them to develop a more investigative and critical attitude toward both the deniers of anthropogenic climate change and toward climate science.
Daniel P. Aldrich, Courtney Page, and Christopher J. Paul
Anthropogenic climate change increasingly disrupts livelihoods, floods coastal urban cities and island nations, and exacerbates extreme weather events. There is near-universal consensus among scientists that in order to reverse or at least mitigate climate disruptions, limits must be imposed on anthropogenic sources of climate-forcing emissions and adaptation to changing global conditions will be necessary. Yet adaptation to current and future climate change at the individual, community, and national levels vary widely from merely coping, to engaging in adaptive change, to transformative shifts. Some of those affected simply cope with lower crop yields, flooded streets, and higher cooling bills. Others incrementally adapt to new environmental conditions, for example, by raising seawalls or shifting from one crop to another better suited for a hotter environment. The highest—and perhaps least likely—type of change involves transformation, radically altering practices with an eye toward the future. Transformative adaptation may involve a livelihood change or permanent migration; it might require shuttering whole industries and rethinking industrial policy at the national level. Entire island nations such as Fiji, for example, are considering relocating from vulnerable locations to areas better suited to rising sea levels.
A great deal of research has shown how social capital (the bonding, bridging, and linking connections to others) provides information on trustworthiness, facilitates collective action, and connects us to external resources during disasters and crises. We know far less about the relationship between social capital and adaptation behaviors in terms of the choices that people make to accommodate changing environmental conditions. A number of unanswered but critical questions remain: How precisely does social capital function in climate change adaptation? To what degree does strong bonding social capital substitute for successful adaptation behaviors for individuals or groups? Which combinations of social factors make coping, adapting, and transforming most likely? How can social capital help migrating populations maintain cultural identity under stress? How can local networks be integrated into higher-level policy interventions to improve adaptation? Which political and social networks contribute to transformative responses to climate change at local, regional, and international levels? This article serves as a comprehensive literature review, overview of empirical findings to date, and a research agenda for the future.
Climate change is often said to herald the anthropocene, where humans become active participants in the remaking of global geology. The corollary of the wide acceptance of a geological anthropocene is the emergence of a new form of self-aware climate agency. With awareness comes blame, invoking responsibility for action. What kind of social action arises from climate agency has become the critical question of our era. In the context of climate deterioration, the prevalence of inaction is itself an exercise of agency, creating in its path new fields of social struggle. The opening sphere of climate agency has the effect of subsuming other fields, reconfiguring established categories of human justice and ethical well-being. In this respect we can think of climate agency as having a distinctive, even revolutionary logic, which remains emergent, enveloping multiple aspects of social action.
From this perspective the question of climate change and social movement participation is centrally important. To what extent is something that we can characterize as “climate agency” emerging through social movement participation? What potential has this phenomenon to develop beyond ideological confinement and delimitation to make wider and transformative claims on society? A genuine social movement, we are taught from history, is indeed a transformative force capable of remaking social and political relations. It remains unclear, but what are the emergent dynamics of climate movement participation that depart from established systemic parameters, to offer such a challenge? How are such developments reconfiguring “climate change communication,” forcing an insurgent element into the polity?
Though scholarship addressing these questions on social movement participation and climate change exists, the field undoubtedly remains relatively underdeveloped. This reflects the extent to which inquiry into climate change has been dominated by scientific and economic discourses. It also reflects the difficulty that social science, and specifically political sociology, the “home” of social movement studies, has had in apprehending the scope of the challenge. Climate change can disrupt deeply sedimented assumptions about the relationship between social movements and capitalist modernity, and force a reconsideration of the role of social movements across developmentalist hierarchies. Such rethinking can be theoretically challenging, and force new approaches into view. These possibilities reflect the broader challenges to political culture posed by climate change.
Across many parts of the globe the relationship between journalists and news sources has been transformed by digital technologies, increased reliance on public relations practitioners, and the rise of citizen journalism. With fewer gatekeepers, and the growing influence of digital and social media, identifying whose voices are authoritative in making sense of complex climate science proves an increasing challenge. An increasing array of news sources are vying for their particular perspective to be established including scientists, government, industry, environmental NGOs, individual citizens and, more recently, celebrities. The boundaries between audience, consumer and producer are less defined and the distinction between ‘factual’ and ‘opinion-based’ reporting has become more blurred.
All these developments suggest the need for a more complex account of the myriad influences on journalistic decisions. More research needs to examine behind-the-scenes relations between sources and journalists, and the efforts of news sources to frame the issues or seek to silence news media attention. Also although we now know a great deal more about marginalized sources and their communication strategies we know relatively little about those of powerful multinational corporate organizations, governments and lobby groups. The shifting media environment and the networked nature of information demand a major rethinking of early media-centric approaches to examining journalist/source relations as applied to climate change. The metaphors of ‘network’ and field’ capture the diverse linkages across different spheres better than the Hierarchy of Influences model.
Toby Bolsen and Matthew A. Shapiro
The importance of framing as a concept is reflected by the massive amount of attention it has received from scholars across disciplines. As a communicative process, framing involves making certain considerations salient as a way to simplify or shape the way in which an audience understands a particular problem and its potential solutions. As recently as the early 2000s, social scientists began to examine how strategic frames in a communication affect both individuals’ beliefs about climate change and the actions they are willing to support to mitigate the likely effects. Research on the effects of how strategic frames influence the attitudes, beliefs, and preferences of individuals in this domain primarily builds on insights from framing theory, which explains that an individual’s attitude or preference in any given context depends on the available, accessible, and most applicable (i.e., perceived strongest) considerations. But it is much more than theory: frames related to the effects and potential solutions for climate change have been employed strategically by various actors in an effort to shape public opinion and public policy.
Perceptions of scientific consensus on climate change are thought to play an important role in determining support for policy actions. Consequently, strategic actors promote a particular agenda by accentuating the inherent uncertainty of climate science, thus casting doubt on the scientific consensus. This has contributed to partisan polarization on climate change and the rise of protective forms of information processing and reasoning in this domain. Strategic messages and frames that resonate with particular subgroups have no effect, or may even backfire, on other segments of the population. Additionally, as individuals who possess different partisan identities become more knowledgeable and numerate, they become increasingly likely to accept information and messages that bolster their existing group loyalties and to reject communications that challenge those identities. Science communicators are thus presented with a considerable barrier to building consensus among the public for action on climate change. In response, scholars have begun to identify strategies and approaches for addressing audiences with the kinds of messages that are most likely to resonate with individuals possessing a diverse range of values and political identities. Further research must identify ways to overcome partisan motivated reasoning on climate change and the persistent and deleterious effects that have resulted from the politicization of climate science.
R. Kelly Garrett
Misperceptions about climate change are widespread, and efforts to correct them must be grounded in an understanding of the factors, both individual and social, that contribute to them. These factors can be organized into four broad categories: motivated reasoning, non-motivated information processing biases, social dynamics, and the information environment. Each type of factor is associated with a host of related strategies for countering false information and beliefs. Motivated biases can be reduced with affirmations, by attempting to depoliticize the issue, and via an evidentiary “tipping point.” Other cognitive biases highlight the importance of clarity, simplicity, and repetition. When correcting errors that contain an inaccurate causal explanation, it is also important to provide an alternative account of the event in question. Message presentation techniques can also facilitate updating beliefs. Beliefs have an important social dimension. Attending to these factors shows the importance of strategies that include: ensuring that lay people consistently have the tools that help them evaluate experts; promoting confidence among those who hold accurate beliefs; facilitating diverse, unsegregated social networks; and providing corrections from unexpected sources. Finally, the prevalence of misinformation in the information environment is highly problematic. Strategies that news organizations can employ include avoiding false balance, adjudicating among contradictory claims, and encouraging accuracy on the part of political elites via fact checking. New technologies may also prove an important tool: search engines that give preferential treatment to accurate information and automated recommendations of accurate information following exposure to inaccuracies both have the potential to change how individuals learn about climate change.
Bridie McGreavy and David Hart
Direct experience, scientific reports, and international media coverage make clear that the breadth, severity, and multiple consequences from climate change are far-reaching and increasing. Like many places globally, the northeastern United States is already experiencing climate change, including one of the world’s highest rates of ocean warming, reduced durations of winter ice cover on lakes, a marked increase in the frequency of extreme precipitation events, and climate-mediated ecological disruptions of invasive species. Given current and projected changes in ecosystems, communities, and economies, it is essential to find ways to anticipate and reduce vulnerabilities to change and, at the same time, promote sustainable economic development and human well-being.
The emerging field of sustainability science offers a promising conceptual and analytic framework for accelerating progress towards sustainable development. Sustainability science aims to be use-inspired and to connect basic and applied knowledge with solutions for societal benefit. This approach draws from diverse disciplines, theories, and methods organized around the broad goal of maintaining and improving life support systems, ecosystem health, and human well-being. Partners in New England have been using sustainability science as a framework for stakeholder-engaged, interdisciplinary research that has generated use-inspired knowledge and multiple solutions for more than a decade. Sustainability science has helped produce a landscape-scale approach to wetland conservation; emergency response plans for invasive species that threaten livelihoods and cultures; decision support tools for improved water quality management and public health for beach use and shellfish consumption; and the development of robust partnership networks across disciplines and institutions. Understanding and reducing vulnerability to climate change is a central motivating factor in this portfolio of projects because linking knowledge about social-ecological systems with effective policy action requires a holistic view that addresses complex intersecting stressors.
One common theme in these varied efforts is the way that communication fundamentally shapes collaborative research and social, technical, and policy outcomes from sustainability science. Communication as a discipline has, for more than two thousand years, sought to understand how environments and symbols shape human life, forms of social organization, and collective decision making. The result is a body of scholarship and practical techniques that are diverse and well adapted to meet the complexity of contemporary sustainability challenges. The complexity of the issues that sustainability science aspires to solve requires diversity and flexibility to be able to adapt approaches to the specific needs of a situation. Long-term, cross-scale, and multi-institutional sustainability science collaborations show that communication research and practice can help build communities and networks, and advance technical and policy solutions to confront the challenges of climate change and promote sustainability now and in future.
Neil T. Gavin
Television and cable are two routes by which broadcasters reach the public. Citizens are known to rely on a variety of media sources; however, television is seen by people in a very wide range of geographical locales, as a main or major source of reliable and trusted information. The coverage of climate change by broadcasters is, however, modest relative to press coverage of the topic and reports on topics other than global warming. Journalists in the televisual media can struggle to justify the inclusion of climate change in programming because it can lack the “newsworthiness” that draws editors and reporters to other issues. A range of incentives and pressures have tended to ensure that commentary and claims that stand outside the scientific consensus are represented in “balanced” reporting. The literature on broadcast programming output on climate change is highly diverse and often country specific. Nevertheless, certain features do stand out across locales, notably a focus on alarming (and possibly alarmist) commentary, limited reporting on the causes and consequences of climate change, and widespread reproduction of climate sceptic claims. These common forms of coverage seem unlikely to prompt full understanding of, serious engagement with, or concern about the issue.
Edward Maibach, Bernadette Woods Placky, Joe Witte, Keith Seitter, Ned Gardiner, Teresa Myers, Sean Sublette, and Heidi Cullen
Global climate change is influencing the weather in every region of the United States, often in harmful ways. Yet, like people in many countries, most Americans view climate change as a threat that is distant in space (i.e., not here), time (i.e., not now), and species (i.e., not us). To manage risk and avoid harm, it is imperative that the public, professionals, and policy-makers make decisions with an informed understanding of our changing climate. In the United States, broadcast meteorologists are ideally positioned to educate Americans about the current and projected impacts of climate change in their community. They have tremendous reach, are trusted sources of climate information, and are highly skilled science communicators. When our project began in 2009, we learned that many U.S.-based TV weathercasters were potentially interested in reporting on climate change, but few actually were, citing significant barriers including a lack of time to prepare and air stories, and lack of access to high-quality content that can be rapidly used in their broadcasts, social media, and community presentations. To test the premise that TV weathercasters can be effective climate educators—if supported with high-quality localized climate communication content—in 2010 George Mason University, Climate Central, and WLTX-TV (Columbia, SC) developed and pilot-tested Climate Matters, a series of short on-air (and online) segments about the local impacts of climate change, delivered by the station’s chief meteorologist. During the first year, more than a dozen stories aired. To formally evaluate Climate Matters, we conducted pre- and post-test surveys of local TV news viewers in Columbia. After one year, WLTX viewers had developed a more science-based understanding of climate change than viewers of other local news stations, confirming our premise that when TV weathercasters report on the local implications of climate change, their viewers learn. Through a series of expansions, including the addition of important new partners—the American Meteorological Society, National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Yale University—Climate Matters has become a comprehensive nationwide climate communication resource program for American broadcast meteorologists. As of March 2016, 313 local weathercasters nationwide (at 202 stations in 111 media markets) are participating in the program, receiving new content on a weekly basis. Some leaders in the World Meteorological Organization are now promoting the concept of “TV weather presenters as climate change communicators,” and collaborative discussions are underway with Climate Central. In this article, we review the theoretical basis of the program, detail its development and national scale-up, and conclude with insights for how to develop climate communication initiatives for other professional communities of practice in the U.S. and other countries.