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.
Hartmut Wessler, Julia Lück, and Antal Wozniak
The annual United Nations Climate Change Conferences, officially called Conferences of the Parties (COPs), are the main drivers of media attention to climate change around the world. Even more so than the Rio and Rio+20 “Earth Summits” (1992 and 2012) and the meetings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the COPs offer multiple access points for the communicative engagement of all kinds of stakeholders. COPs convene up to 20,000 people in one place for two weeks, including national delegations, civil society and business representatives, scientific organizations, representatives from other international organizations, as well as journalists from around the world. While intergovernmental negotiation under the auspices of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) constitutes the core of COP business, these multifunctional events also offer arenas for civil society mobilization, economic lobbying, as well as expert communication and knowledge transfer.
The media image of the COPs emerges as a product of distinct networks of coproduction constituted by journalists, professional communicators from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and national delegations. Production structures at the COPs are relatively globalized with uniform access rules for journalists from all over the world, a few transnational news agencies dominating distribution of both basic information and news visuals, and dense localized interaction between public relations (PR) professionals and journalists. Photo opportunities created by globally coordinated environmental NGOs meet the selection of journalists much better than the visual strategies pursued by delegation spokespeople. This gives NGOs the upper hand in the visual framing contest, whereas in textual framing NGOs are sidelined and national politicians clearly dominate media coverage. The globalized production environment leads to relatively similar patterns of basic news framing in national media coverage of the COPs that reflect overarching ways of approaching the topic: through a focus on problems and victims; a perspective on civil society demands and solutions; an emphasis on conflict in negotiations; or a focus on the benefits of clean energy production. News narratives, on the other hand, give journalists from different countries more leeway in adapting COP news to national audiences’ presumed interests and preoccupations.
Even after the adoption of a new global treaty at COP21 in Paris in 2015 that specifies emission reduction targets for all participating countries, the annual UN Climate Change Conferences are likely to remain in the media spotlight. Future research could look more systematically at the impact of global civil society and media in monitoring the national contributions to climate change mitigation introduced in the Paris Agreement and shoring up even more ambitious commitments needed to reach the goal of keeping global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius as compared to pre-industrial levels.
Toby Bolsen and Matthew A. Shapiro
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.
Most of what people think about politics comes from information acquired via exposure to mass media. Media thus serve a vital role in democracy as a fundamental conduit of political information. Scholars study the factors that drive news coverage about political issues, including the rise of discourse on climate change and shifts in media coverage over time. Climate change first received sustained attention in the U.S. press in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As scientific consensus emerged on the issue, interest groups and other actors emerged who accentuated the inherent uncertainty of climate science as a way to cast doubt on the existence of scientific consensus. The politicization of climate science has resulted in uncertainty among the public about its existence, anxiety about the effects of a fundamental transformation of U.S. energy systems, and support for the status quo in terms of the use of traditional energy sources. Media coverage often magnified the voices of contrarian scientists and skeptics because journalistic norms provided equal space to all sides, a semblance of false balance in news coverage that has persisted through the mid 2000s. By this time, the U.S. public had fractured along partisan lines due to rhetoric employed to generate support by elites. Media fragmentation and the rise of partisan news outlets further contributed to polarization, especially given the tendency of individuals to seek political information about climate change from trusted and credible sources. More recently, new media has come to play an increasingly significant role in communicating information on climate change to the public. Ultimately, there is a need for knowledge-based journalism in communicating climate change and energy alternatives to all segments of the U.S. public, but doing this effectively requires engagement with a broader audience in the debate over how best to address climate change. “Honest brokers” must be referenced in the media as they are best equipped to discuss the issue with citizens of different political identities and cultural worldviews. The success of collective efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change requires not only scientific consensus but the ability to communicate the science in a way that generates greater consensus among the public.
Environmental organizations have been critically important in publicizing and supplying arguments about climate change, just as with the other environmental issues facing contemporary societies. In their campaigns and activism, environmental groups need to be able to make influential and widely circulated claims about the state of the natural world or the ecological impact of human activities. To do this, they have to “manage” their relationship to science. Environmentalists (in contrast to many other campaigners) are obliged to be science communicators because the convincingness of their message depends on the underlying presumption that their claims have a basis in factual, scientific accuracy.
Facing the science and communication challenges of climate change, environmentalists have often found their role to be an unusual one. Unlike in most other ecological campaign areas, they have been committed to defending or bolstering mainstream scientific opinion about the nature and causes of climate change. Nonetheless, they have sought ways of distancing themselves from some of the policy and technological options apparently favored by leading scientific figures. And they have pioneered approaches based more on long-term investment strategies and normative values which, to some degree, allow them to sidestep difficulties associated with the adoption of a subordinate role in the science communication arena.
Content analysis is one of the most frequently used methods in climate change communication research. Studies implementing content analysis investigate how climate change is presented in mass media or other communication content.
Quantitative content analysis develops a standardized codebook to code content systematically, which then allows for statistical analysis. Qualitative analysis relies on interpretative methods and a closer reading of the material, often using hermeneutic approaches and taking linguistic features of the text more into account than quantitative analysis. While quantitative analysis—particularly if conducted automatically—can comprise larger samples, qualitative analysis usually entails smaller samples, as it is more detailed. Different types of material—whether online content, campaign material, or climate change imagery—bring about different challenges when studied through content analysis that need to be considered when drawing samples of the material for content analysis. To evaluate the quality of a content analysis measures for reliability and validity are used.
Key themes in content analyses of climate change communication are the media’s attention to climate change and the different points of view on global warming as an issue being present in the media coverage. Challenges for content analysis as a method for assessing climate change communication arise from the lack of comparability of the various studies that exist. Multimodal approaches are developed to better adhere to both textual and visual content simultaneously in content analyses of climate change communication.
Scientific agreement on climate change has strengthened over the past few decades, with around 97% of publishing climate scientists agreeing that human activity is causing global warming. While scientific understanding has strengthened, a small but persistent proportion of the public actively opposes the mainstream scientific position. A number of factors contribute to this rejection of scientific evidence, with political ideology playing a key role. Conservative think tanks, supported with funding from vested interests, have been and continue to be a prolific source of misinformation about climate change. A major strategy by opponents of climate mitigation policies has been to cast doubt on the level of scientific agreement on climate change, contributing to the gap between public perception of scientific agreement and the 97% expert consensus. This “consensus gap” decreases public support for mitigation policies, demonstrating that misconceptions can have significant societal consequences. While scientists need to communicate the consensus, they also need to be aware of the fact that misinformation can interfere with the communication of accurate scientific information. As a consequence, neutralizing the influence of misinformation is necessary. Two approaches to neutralize misinformation involve refuting myths after they have been received by recipients (debunking) or preemptively inoculating people before they receive misinformation (prebunking). Research indicates preemptive refutation or “prebunking” is more effective than debunking in reducing the influence of misinformation. Guidelines to practically implement responses (both preemptive and reactive) can be found in educational research, cognitive psychology, and a branch of psychological research known as inoculation theory. Synthesizing these separate lines of research yields a coherent set of recommendations for educators and communicators. Clearly communicating scientific concepts, such as the scientific consensus, is important, but scientific explanations should be coupled with inoculating explanations of how that science can be distorted.