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Research Methods for Assessing Online Climate Change Communication, Social Media Discussion, and Behavior
Leona Yi-Fan Su, Heather Akin, and Dominique Brossard
In recent years, increased Internet access and new communication technologies have led to the development of online methods for gathering public opinion and behavioral data related to controversial issues like climate change. To help climate-change researchers better adapt to the new era of online-based research, a review of, and methodological applications for, prevailing Internet-based research methods are provided here. Online surveys have become more common in the last decade for several reasons, including their relatively low administration cost, the pervasiveness of Internet communication, and declining response rates associated with traditional survey methods. Experiments embedded within online surveys have also become a useful tool for examining the extent to which online communications influence publics’ attitudes and behaviors. Other research methods that have gained growing attention from scholars are content analyses of online communication using big data approaches. By mining the seemingly infinite amount of user-generated content extracted from different social media sites, researchers are able to analyze issue awareness, responses to instant news, and emerging sentiments. This article provides a detailed overview of these Internet-based research methods, including their potential advantages and pitfalls, their applications in the science-communication and climate-change research fields, as well as suggestions for future research.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. Please check back later for the full article.
Addressing climate resilience has become a political, economic, and ethical challenge of the 21st century. The threats posed by climate change along with associated stresses on water, land, and food security are expected to impact the lives and livelihoods of millions of people around the world. Social systems are also rapidly changing, influenced by aging populations, urbanization, population growth, and global markets. These changes pose major challenges to poverty eradication and livelihood security under a changing climate. In a world that is unpredictable, and consists of vulnerabilities and risks, many people remain poor, marginalized, discriminated against, and dependent on powerful elites.
Resilience is a complicated and evasive concept that has its roots in ecological theory. Increasingly, the concept is used to explore the interface between society and environment. Some consider that resilience is a process and sustainability is an outcome. Resilience is distinct to vulnerability and adaptation but needs to be defined in relation to these concepts. Resilience principles can be used to understand better how societies adapt and transform in the face of climate risk. Nevertheless, resilience is a contested concept. It is often criticized by scholars for the lack of a common definition. It is associated with systems thinking and considered devoid of describing power and agency. Measuring resilience is work still in progress.
Given the practical and conceptual challenges posed by climate change risks, how can resilience as a process help societies to better understand ways to continue to develop under stress for the benefit of societies and the environment? In particular, given that societies’ needs and environmental boundaries are often seen to be in conflict, can resilience be used as a way to reconcile these differences and help trigger ideas for creative transformations under a changing future climate?
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.
Judith L. Lean
Emergent in recent decades are robust specifications and understanding of connections between the Sun’s changing radiative energy and Earth’s changing climate and atmosphere. This follows more than a century of contentious debate about the reality of such connections, fueled by ambiguous observations, dubious correlations, and lack of plausible mechanisms. It derives from a new generation of observations of the Sun and the Earth made from space, and a new generation of physical climate models that integrate the Earth’s surface and ocean with the extended overlying atmosphere. Space-based observations now cover more than three decades and enable statistical attribution of climate change related to the Sun’s 11-year activity cycle on global scales, simultaneously with other natural and anthropogenic influences. Physical models that fully resolve the stratosphere and its embedded ozone layer better replicate the complex and subtle processes that couple the Sun and Earth.
An increase of ~0.1% in the Sun’s total irradiance, as observed near peak activity during recent 11-year solar cycles, is associated with an increase of ~0.1oC in Earth’s global surface temperature, with additional complex, time-dependent regional responses. The overlying atmosphere warms more, by 0.3oC near 20 km. Because solar radiation impinges primarily at low latitudes, the increased radiant energy alters equator-to-pole thermal gradients, initiating dynamical responses that produce regions of both warming and cooling at mid to high latitudes. Because solar energy deposition depends on altitude as a result of height-dependent atmospheric absorption, changing solar radiation establishes vertical thermal gradients that further alter dynamical motions within the Earth system.
It remains uncertain whether there are long-term changes in solar irradiance on multidecadal time scales other than due to the varying amplitude of the 11-year cycle. If so the magnitude of the additional change is expected to be comparable to that observed during the solar activity cycle. Were the Sun’s activity to become anomalously low, declining during the next century to levels of the Maunder Minimum (from 1645 to 1715), the expected global surface temperature cooling is less than a few tenths oC. In contrast, a scenario of moderate greenhouse gas increase with climate forcing of 2.6 W m−2 over the next century is expected to warm the globe 1.5 to 1.9oC, an order of magnitude more than the hypothesized solar-induced cooling over the same period.
Future challenges include the following: securing sufficiently robust observations of the Sun and Earth to elucidate changes on climatological time scales; advancing physical climate models to simulate realistic responses to changing solar radiation on decadal time scales, synergistically at the Earth’s surface and in the ocean and atmosphere; disentangling the Sun’s influence from that of other natural and anthropogenic influences as the climate and atmosphere evolve; projecting past and future changes in the Sun and Earth’s climate and atmosphere; and communicating new understanding across scientific disciplines, and to political and societal stakeholders.