John Wihbey and Bud Ward
The relationship between scientific experts and news media producers around issues of climate change has been a complicated and often contentious one, as the slow-moving and complex story has frequently challenged, and clashed with, journalistic norms of newsworthiness, speed, and narrative compression. Even as climate scientists have become more concerned by their evidence-based findings involving projected risks, doubts and confusion over communications addressing those risks have increased. Scientists increasingly have been called upon to speak more clearly and forcefully to the public through news media about evidence and risks—and to do so in the face of rapidly changing news media norms that only complicate those communications. Professional science and environment journalists—whose ranks have been thinned steadily by media industry financial pressures—have meanwhile come under more scrutiny in terms of their understanding; accuracy; and, at times, perceived bias.
A number of important organizations have recognized the need to educate and empower a broad range of scientists and journalists to be more effective at communicating about the complexities of climate science and about the societal and economic impacts of a warming climate. For example, organizations such as Climate Communication have been launched to support scientists in their dealings with media, while the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change itself has continued to focus on the communication of climate science. The Earth Journalism Network, Society of Environmental Journalists, Poynter Institute, and the International Center for Journalists have worked to build media capacity globally to cover climate change stories. Efforts at Stanford University, the University of Oxford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and the University of Rhode Island sponsor programming and fellowships that in part help bolster journalism in this area. Through face-to-face workshops and online efforts, The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication has sought to link the media and science communities. Meanwhile, powerful, widely read sites and blogs such as “Dot Earth,” hosted by the New York Times, Climate Central, Real Climate, The Conversation, and Climate Progress have fostered professional dialogue, greater awareness of science, and called attention to reporting and communications issues.
Journalists and scientists have had ongoing conversations as part of the regular publication and reporting processes, and professional conferences and events bring the two communities together. Issues that continue to animate these discussions include conveying the degree to which climate science can be said to be “settled” and how to address uncertainty.
Through some of these capacity-building efforts, news media have become increasingly aware of audience dynamics including how citizens respond to pessimistic reports, or “doom and gloom,” versus solutions-oriented reports. Professional dialogue has also revolved around the ethical dimensions of conveying a story at the level of global importance. Still, with issues of climate change communication on display for more than two decades now, certain tensions and dynamics persist. Notably, journalists seek clarity from scientists, while climate change experts and advocates for and against taking climate action often continue to demand that journalists resist the temptation to oversimplify or hype the latest empirical findings, while at the same time urging that journalists do not underestimate potential climate risks.
Ishani Mukherjee and Michael Howlett
Policy communication and the resulting influence that information has on policy decision-makers is an especially pertinent topic when it comes to problems of climate change. Notorious for its complexity, uncertainty, and divergence of viewpoints, climate change has earned the title of being the major “wicked” or “super-wicked” problem of our times. A proliferation of expertise, interests, and capacities mark the climate change policymaking landscape and this density of players warrants an advanced framework to understand the ways in which the variety of climate-pertinent knowledge is communicated to policymakers. Moving beyond undifferentiated “two-communities” models of knowledge utilization in policymaking which limit the discussion to the bilateral interactions between knowledge experts or “producers” and information “consumers” of the public sector, this article explores the concept of a policy advisory system, which embodies the different sets of influence that various policy actors can have during policy decision-making and how communication between and among actors is a significant aspect of climate change policymaking. The concept of policy advisory systems is an important new development in the policy studies literature and one that is analytically very applicable to climate policy contexts. Suitably generalizable across representative policy settings, policy advisory systems are comprised of distinct groups of actors who are engaged in the definition of policy problems, the articulation of policy solutions, or the matching of policy problems to solutions. We explore how individual members of these separate sets of actors—namely the epistemic community, which is occupied in discourses about policy problems; the instrument constituencies which define policy instruments; and the advocacy coalitions which compete to have their choice of policy alternatives adopted—interact and communicate with policymakers across climate change policy activities.
Eric Chu and Todd Schenk
Cities are important venues for climate change communication, where global rhetoric, national directives, local priorities, and media discourses interact to advance mitigation, adaptation, and resilience outcomes on the ground. Urban decision makers are often directly accountable to their electorates, responsible for the tasks most relevant to advancing concrete action on climate change, and flexible in pursuing various public engagement programs. However, many cities are designing climate policies without robust downscaled climate projections or clear capacity and support mechanisms. They are often constrained by fragmented governance arrangements, limited resources, and jurisdictional boundaries. Furthermore, policies often fall short in responding to the disparate needs of heterogeneous urban populations. Despite these constraints, cities across the global North and South are innovating with various communication tools to facilitate public awareness, political engagement, context-specific understanding, and action around climate change. These tools range from traditional popular media to innovative participatory processes that acknowledge the interests of different stakeholders, facilitate engagement across institutional boundaries, and address persistent scientific uncertainty through information coproduction and knowledge reflexivity. By selectively employing these tools, local governments and their partners are able to translate climate science into actionable mitigation, adaptation, and resilience plans; prioritize decision making while taking into account the multiscaled nature of urban infrastructures and service provisions; and design adaptable and flexible communication processes that are socially equitable and inclusive over the long term.
Emma Lundberg, Kevin Gardner, Caroline Gottschalk Druschke, Bridie McGreavy, Sara Randall, Tyler Quiring, Alison Fisher, Francesca Soluri, Hannah Dallas, and David Hart
As the global imperative for sustainable energy builds and with hydroelectricity proposed as one aspect of a sustainable energy profile, public discourse reflects the complex and competing discourses and social-ecological trade-offs surrounding hydropower and dams. Is hydropower “green”? Is it “sustainable”? Is it “renewable”? Does hydropower provide a necessary alternative to fossil fuel dependence? Can the ecological consequences of hydropower be mitigated? Is this the end of the hydropower era, or is it simply the beginning of a new chapter? These pressing questions circulate through discussions about hydropower in a time of changing climate, globally declining fisheries, and aging infrastructure, lending a sense of urgency to the many decisions to be made about the future of dams.
The United States and European Union (EU) saw an enduring trend of dam building from the Industrial Revolution through the mid-1970s. In these countries, contemporary media discussions about hydropower are largely focused on removing existing hydropower dams and retrofitting existing dams that offer hydropower potential. Outside of these contexts, increasing numbers of countries are debating the merits of building new large-scale hydropower dams that, in many developing countries, may have disproportionate impacts on indigenous communities that hold little political or economic power. As a result, news and social media attention to hydropower outside the United States/EU often focus on activist efforts to oppose hydropower and on its complex consequences for ecosystems and communities alike.
Despite hydropower’s wide range of ecological, economic, and social trade-offs, and the increasing urgency of global conversations about hydropower, relatively little work in communication studies explores news media, social media, or public debate in the context of hydropower and dam removal. In an effort to expand the scope of communication studies, after reviewing existing work the attention here shifts to research focused more broadly on human dimensions of hydropower. These dual bodies of work focus on small and large dams from Europe to the Americas to Asia and have applied a range of methods for analyzing media coverage of the hydropower debate. Those studies are reviewed here, with an emphasis on the key themes that emerge across studies—including trust, communication, local engagement, and a call to action for interdisciplinary approaches, intertwined with conflict, conflict resolution, and social and ecological resistance. The conclusion offers an original case brief that elucidates emerging themes from our ongoing research about hydropower and dam removal in the United States, and suggests future directions for research.
Shirley S. Ho
In comparison to fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gases, nuclear power plants are a cleaner energy source that could help to mitigate the problems of climate change. Despite this, the general public often associates nuclear energy with risks that include nuclear accidents, nuclear waste contamination, nuclear weapons proliferation, and many others. People’s experience with the 1979 Three Mile Island incident in Pennsylvania and the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine have caused a sharp decline in public support for nuclear energy over the past few decades. In addition, media images of the 2011 Fukushima-Daichii nuclear accident are still fresh in the minds of the public. These now iconic media images and portrayals have perpetuated a perception of nuclear energy as a risky technology.
Against these backdrops, scientists, communication practitioners and other key stakeholders increasingly face an uphill struggle to communicate about nuclear energy as a possible strategy for addressing climate change. Though the general public may reluctantly accept nuclear energy for climate change mitigation, research suggests that messages emphasizing the benefits of nuclear power for energy security and economic growth appear to have greater impact on public acceptance of the technology. Furthermore, public perception of nuclear energy is shaped by a host of other factors such as trust in nuclear governing institutions, knowledge, political inclinations, geographical proximity, and socio-demographic variables. At the same time, nuclear experts and the general public differ in their perceptions of risk, in nature and strength, relative to nuclear energy. Understanding these key differences between the experts and the public, and how beliefs, values, and perceptions influence public acceptance of nuclear energy is necessary to formulate effective public communication and engagement strategies.
Tarla Rai Peterson and Cristi C. Horton
Transitioning to renewable energy systems requires changing the ways people interact with energy as well as technological change. This shift involves social changes that include modifications in norms, policies, and governance. Multiple sociopolitical factors shape the likelihood that solar energy will emerge as a significant component in energy systems around the world. This article describes ways climate change communication may be strategically employed to encourage substantial deployment of solar installations and other renewable energy resources as part of the innovations that contribute to transition and transformation of current energy systems. Understanding how communication may contribute to integration of more solar power into energy systems begins with examining current public awareness of and engagement with solar energy, as well as other low-carbon energy resources. With this foundation, climate change communication can contribute to research, development, and deployment of solar energy installations, by facilitating strategic alignment of solar energy with existing interests and preferences of its stakeholders. These stakeholders include elites who fear that shifting the energy system away from fossil fuels threatens their political influence and financial profits, energy workers who fear it will bring further reductions in already reduced wages, and those who perceive fossil fuels as the only alternative to opportunistic mixtures of animal waste and biofuel. Climate change communicators have the unenviable task of helping all of these groups imagine and participate in transitioning energy systems toward greater reliance on renewable energy sources, such as Sun. This article briefly describes the development and implementation solar energy technologies, and suggests how strategic communication may contribute to further implementation. It concludes with examples of differential deployment trajectories of solar energy in the Navajo Nation and Germany. These cases demonstrate that neither the endowment of natural resources nor the material energy needs of a location fully explain energy decisions. Indeed, social dimensions such as culture, economics, and governance play equally important roles. This provides numerous opportunities for climate change communicators to strategically highlight the ways that solar energy responds to immediate needs and desires, while simultaneously contributing to climate change mitigation.
Graham Dixon and Yanni Ma
Addressing climate change requires attention to a variety of communication contexts. While attention has been paid to top-down approaches aimed at individual-level behavior and the beliefs of the public at large, organizations in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors are increasingly recognized as integral players in solving the climate change challenges that we face today. For instance, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) characterize the commercial sector as having the highest potential to reduce emissions by 2020, suggesting that meaningful actions aimed at climate change mitigation must come from within organizations. However, the diverse nature of organizational communication poses challenges toward effective climate change communication. On the one hand, climate change communication can occur within organizations, where members’ individual behaviors and beliefs can have a significant impact on an organization’s energy consumption. On the other hand, organizations can communicate environmental issues directly to stakeholders and the public at large—though communication can be complicated by the fact that some organizations benefit from instilling doubt in the science of climate change. The complex nature of organizational-based climate change communication allows members of the for-profit and nonprofit sectors to play an important role in cultivating divergent views of climate change. Future research can help promulgate climate change-related awareness and action within organizational contexts.
Susanne C. Moser
Communicating the impacts of climate change and possible adaptive responses is a relatively recent branch of the larger endeavor of climate change communication. This recent emergence, in large part, is driven by the fact that the impacts and policy/planning/practice responses have only recently emerged in more widespread public consciousness and discourse, and thus in scholarly treatment. This article will first describe the critical and precarious moment of when impacts and adaptation communication becomes important; it will then summarize proposed approaches to do so effectively; and discuss key challenges confronting climate change communication going forward. These challenges may well be unique in the field of communication, in that they either uniquely combine previously encountered difficulties into novel complexities or are truly unprecedented. To date, scholarship and experience in climate, environmental, or risk communication provide little guidance on how to meet these challenges of communicating effectively with diverse publics and decision makers in the face of long-term degradation of the life support system of humanity. The article will conclude with an attempt to offer research and practice directions, fit at least to serve as appropriately humble attitudes toward understanding and engaging fellow humans around the profound risks of an utterly uncertain and far-from-assured future.
Karen Akerlof, Michelle Covi, and Elizabeth Rohring
Three quarters of the world’s large cities are located on coasts. As climate change causes oceans to warm and expand, and triggers vast influxes of water from melting ice sheets and glaciers, by the end of the 21st century, as many as 650 million people globally may be below sea levels or subject to recurrent flooding. Human beings have always faced threats from coastal storms and flooding, but never have so many of us and so much of our societal infrastructure been in harm’s way. With entire nations facing forced emigration, international online media are framing sea-level rise as a human rights concern. Yet sea-level rise suffers from generally low media attention and salience as a public issue. Coastal communities tasked with developing adaptation strategies are approaching engagement through new forms of risk visualization and models of environmental decision making. As a subfield of climate communication that addresses a variety of other anthropogenic and natural phenomena, sea-level rise communication also calls upon the less politicized field of natural hazards risk communication. This review explores media analyses, audience research, and evaluation of communication outreach and engagement, finding many remaining gaps in our understanding of sea-level rise communication.
Melinda R. Weathers, Edward Maibach, and Mattthew Nisbet
Effective public communication and engagement have played important roles in ameliorating and managing a wide range of public health problems including tobacco and substance use, cardiovascular disease, HIV/AIDS, vaccine preventable diseases, sudden infant death syndrome, and automobile injuries and fatalities. The public health community must harness what has been learned about effective public communication to alert and engage the public and policy makers about the health threats of climate change. This need is driven by three main factors.
First, people’s health is already being harmed by climate change, and the magnitude of this harm is almost certain to get much worse if effective actions are not soon taken to limit climate change and to help communities successfully adapt to unavoidable changes in their climate. Therefore, public health organizations and professionals have a responsibility to inform communities about these risks and how they can be averted.
Second, historically, climate change public engagement efforts have focused primarily on the environmental dimensions of the threat. These efforts have mobilized an important but still relatively narrow range of the public and policy makers. In contrast, the public health community holds the potential to engage a broader range of people, thereby enhancing climate change understanding and decision-making capacity among members of the public, the business community, and government officials.
Third, many of the actions that slow or prevent climate change, and that protect human health from the harms associated with climate change, also benefit health and well-being in ways unrelated to climate change. These “cobenefits” to societal action on climate change include reduced air and water pollution, increased physical activity and decreased obesity, reduced motor-vehicle–related injuries and death, increased social capital in and connections across communities, and reduced levels of depression. Therefore, from a public health perspective, actions taken to address climate change are a “win-win” in that in addition to responsibly addressing climate change, they can help improve public health and well-being in other ways as well.
Over the past half decade, U.S.-based researchers have been investigating the factors that shape public views about the health risks associated with climate change, the communication strategies that motivate support for actions to reduce these risks, and the practical implications for public health organizations and professionals who seek to effectively engage individuals and their communities. This research serves as a model for similar work that can be conducted across country settings and international publics. Until only recently, the voices of public health experts have been largely absent from the public dialogue on climate change, a dialogue that is often erroneously framed as an “economy versus the environment” debate. Introducing the public health voice into the public dialogue can help communities see the issue in a new light, motivating and promoting more thoughtful decision making.