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Robyn S. Wilson, Sarah M. McCaffrey, and Eric Toman
Throughout the late 19th century and most of the 20th century, risks associated with wildfire were addressed by suppressing fires as quickly as possible. However, by the 1960s, it became clear that fire exclusion policies were having adverse effects on ecological health, as well as contributing to larger and more damaging wildfires over time. Although federal fire policy has changed to allow fire to be used as a management tool on the landscape, this change has been slow to take place, while the number of people living in high-risk wildland–urban interface communities continues to increase. Under a variety of climate scenarios, in particular for states in the western United States, it is expected that the frequency and severity of fires will continue to increase, posing even greater risks to local communities and regional economies.
Resource managers and public safety officials are increasingly aware of the need for strategic communication to both encourage appropriate risk mitigation behavior at the household level, as well as build continued public support for the use of fire as a management tool aimed at reducing future wildfire risk. Household decision making encompasses both proactively engaging in risk mitigation activities on private property, as well as taking appropriate action during a wildfire event to protect personal safety. Very little research has directly explored the connection between climate-related beliefs, wildfire risk perception, and action; however, the limited existing research suggests that climate-related beliefs have little direct effect on wildfire-related action. Instead, action appears to depend on understanding the benefits of different mitigation actions and in engaging the public in interactive, participatory communication programs that build trust between the public and natural resource managers. A relatively new line of research focuses on resource managers as critical decision makers in the risk management process, pointing to the need to thoughtfully engage audiences other than the lay public to improve risk management.
Ultimately, improving the decision making of both the public and managers charged with mitigating the risks associated with wildfire can be achieved by carefully addressing several common themes from the literature. These themes are to (1) promote increased efficacy through interactive learning, (2) build trust and capacity through social interaction, (3) account for behavioral constraints and barriers to action, and (4) facilitate thoughtful consideration of risk-benefit tradeoffs. Careful attention to these challenges will improve the likelihood of successfully managing the increasing risks that wildfire poses to the public and ecosystems alike in a changing climate.
Visual representation has been important in communicating and constructing the environment as a focus for public and political concern since the rise of environmentalism in the 1960s. As communications media have themselves become increasingly visual with the rise of digital media, so too has visual communication become key to public debate about environmental issues, no more so than in public debate and the politics of climate change.
This chapter surveys the methods, approaches, and frameworks deployed in emerging research on public-mediated visual communication about climate change. Research on the visual mediation of climate change is itself part of the emerging field of visual environmental communication research, defined as research concerned with theorizing and empirically examining how visual imagery contributes to the increasingly multimodal public communication of the environment. Focused on a sociological understanding of the contribution that visuals make to the social, political, and cultural construction of “the environment,” visual environmental communication research analytically requires a multimodal approach, which situates analysis of the semiotic, discursive, rhetorical, and narrative characteristics of visuals in relation to the communicative, cultural, and historical contexts and in relation to the three main sites—production, content, and audiences/consumption—of communication in the public sphere.
Jens Wolling and Dorothee Arlt
The annual climate summits (Conferences of the Parties, or COPs) are major political events that receive considerable media attention. In this way, the topic of climate change returns regularly to both the media and the political agenda. It makes sense, therefore, that communication research regards COPs as occasion to investigating how the media cover climate change. Nevertheless, this strategy has two shortcomings: On the one hand the focus on the conferences might provide a distorted picture—because of the political character of the conferences, the role of political actors and policy-related frames might be overestimated. On the other hand, the political character of the conferences is not always considered appropriately. Most research is mainly interested in the coverage on climate change in the context of the conferences and not in the political discussions taking place at the summits. Future research should address these discussions more intensively, giving more attention especially to the debates in the various online media.
Luis E. Hestres and Jill E. Hopke
The past two decades have transformed how interest groups, social movement organizations, and individuals engage in collective action. Meanwhile, the climate change advocacy landscape, previously dominated by well-established environmental organizations, now accommodates new ones focused exclusively on this issue. What binds these closely related trends is the rapid diffusion of communication technologies like the internet and portable devices such as smartphones and tablets. Before the diffusion of digital and mobile technologies, collective action, whether channeled through interest groups or social movement organizations, consisted of amassing and expending resources—money, staff, time, etc.—on behalf of a cause via top-down organizations. These resource expenditures often took the form of elite persuasion: media outreach, policy and scientific expertise, legal action, and lobbying.
But broad diffusion of digital technologies has enabled alternatives to this model to flourish. In some cases, digital communication technologies have simply made the collective action process faster and more cost-effective for organizations; in other cases, these same technologies now allow individuals to eschew traditional advocacy groups and instead rely on digital platforms to self-organize. New political organizations have also emerged whose scope and influence would not be possible without digital technologies. Journalism has also felt the impact of technological diffusion. Within networked environments, digital news platforms are reconfiguring traditional news production, giving rise to new paradigms of journalism. At the same time, climate change and related issues are increasingly becoming the backdrop to news stories on topics as varied as politics and international relations, science and the environment, economics and inequality, and popular culture.
Digital communication technologies have significantly reduced the barriers for collective action—a trend that in many cases has meant a reduced role for traditional brick-and-mortar advocacy organizations and their preferred strategies. This trend is already changing the types of advocacy efforts that reach decision-makers, which may help determine the policies that they are willing to consider and adopt on a range of issues—including climate change. In short, widespread adoption of digital media has fueled broad changes in both collective action and climate change advocacy. Examples of advocacy organizations and campaigns that embody this trend include 350.org, the Climate Reality Project, and the Guardian’s “Keep It in the Ground” campaign. 350.org was co-founded in 2007 by environmentalist and author Bill McKibben and several of his former students from Middlebury College in Vermont. The Climate Reality project was founded under another name by former U.S. Vice President and Nobel Prize winner Al Gore. The Guardian’s “Keep It in the Ground” fossil fuel divestment campaign, which is a partnership with 350.org and its Go Fossil Free Campaign, was launched in March 2015 at the behest of outgoing editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger.
Many publics remain divided about the existence and consequences of anthropogenic climate change despite scientific consensus. A popular approach to climate change communication, and science communication more generally, is the information deficit model. The deficit model assumes that gaps between scientists and the public are a result of a lack of information or knowledge. As a remedy for this gap, the deficit model is a one-way communication model where information flows from experts to publics in an effort to change individuals’ attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors. Approaches to climate change communication that reflect the deficit model include websites, social media, mobile applications, news media, documentaries and films, books, and scientific publications and technical reports. The deficit model has been highly criticized for being overly simplistic and inaccurately characterizing the relationship between knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, particularly for politically polarized issues like climate change. Even so, it continues to be an integral part of climate change communication research and practice. In an effort to address the inadequacies of the deficit model, scholars and practitioners often utilize alternative forms of public engagement, including the contextual model, the public engagement model, and the lay expertise model. Each approach to public engagement carries with it a unique set of opportunities and challenges. Future work in climate change communication should explore when and how to most effectively use the models of public engagement that are available.
Debbie Hopkins and Ezra M. Markowitz
Despite scientific consensus on the anthropogenic causation of climate change, and ever-growing knowledge on the biophysical impacts of climate change, there is large variability in public perceptions of and belief in climate change. Public support for national and international climate policy has a strong positive association with certainty that climate change is occurring, human caused, serious, and solvable. Thus to achieve greater acceptance of national climate policy and international agreements, it is important to raise public belief in climate change and understandings of personal climate risk.
Public understandings of climate change and associated risk perceptions have received significant academic attention. This research has been conducted across a range of spatial scales, with particular attention on large-scale, nationally representative surveys to gain insights into country-scale perceptions of climate change. Generalizability of nationally representative surveys allows some degree of national comparison; however, the ability to conduct such comparisons has been limited by the availability of comparative data sets. Consequently, empirical insights have been geographically biased toward Europe and North America, with less understanding of public perceptions of climate change in other geographical settings including the Global South. Moreover, a focus on quantitative surveying techniques can overlook the more nuanced, culturally determined factors that contribute to the construction of climate change perceptions.
The physical and human geographies of climate change are diverse. This is due to the complex spatial dimensions of climate change and includes both the observed and anticipated geographical differentiation in risks, impacts, and vulnerabilities. While country location and national climate can impact upon how climate change is understood, so too will sociocultural factors such as national identity and culture(s). Studies have reported high variability in climate change perceptions, the result of a complex interplay between personal experiences of climate, social norms, and worldviews. Exploring the development of national-scale analyses and their findings over time, and the comparability of national data sets, may provide some insights into the factors that influence public perceptions of climate change and identify national-scale interventions and communications to raise risk perception and understanding of climate change.
Mike S. Schäfer and Saffron O'Neill
Framing—selecting certain aspects of a given issue and making them more salient in communication in order to “frame” the issue in a specific way—is a key concept in the study of communication. At the same time, it has been used very differently in scholarship, leading some to declare it a “fractured paradigm,” or an idea whose usefulness has expired. In studies of climate change communication, frame analyses have been used numerous times and in various ways, from formal framing approaches (e.g., episodic vs. thematic framing) to topical frames (both generic and issue-specific). Using methodological approaches of frame analysis from content analysis over discourse analysis and qualitative studies to experimental research, this research has brought valuable insights into media portrayals of climate change in different countries and their effects on audiences—even though it still has limitations that should be remedied in future research.
Joseph P. Reser and Graham L. Bradley
There is a strong view among climate change researchers and communicators that the persuasive tactic of arousing fear in order to promote precautionary motivation and behavior is neither effective nor appropriate in the context of climate change communication and engagement. Yet the modest research evidence that exists with respect to the use of fear appeals in communicating climate change does not offer adequate empirical evidence—either for or against the efficacy of fear appeals in this context—nor would such evidence adequately address the issue of the appropriateness of fear appeals in climate change communication. Extensive research literatures addressing preparedness, prevention, and behavior change in the areas of public health, marketing, and risk communication generally nonetheless provide consistent empirical support for the qualified effectiveness of fear appeals in persuasive social influence communications and campaigns. It is also noteworthy that the language of climate change communication is typically that of “communication and engagement,” with little explicit reference to targeted social influence or behavior change, although this is clearly implied. Hence underlying and intertwined issues here are those of cogent arguments versus largely absent evidence, and effectiveness as distinct from appropriateness. These matters are enmeshed within the broader contours of the contested political, social, and environmental, issues status of climate change, which jostle for attention in a 24/7 media landscape of disturbing and frightening communications concerning the reality, nature, progression, and implications of global climate change. All of this is clearly a challenge for evaluation research attempting to examine the nature and effectiveness of fear appeals in the context of climate change communication, and for determining the appropriateness of designed fear appeals in climate change communications intended to both engage and influence individuals, communities, and “publics” with respect to the ongoing threat and risks of climate change. There is an urgent need to clearly and effectively communicate the full nature and implications of climate change, in the face of this profound risk and rapidly unfolding reality. All such communications are, inherently, frightening warning messages, quite apart from any intentional fear appeals. How then should we put these arguments, evidence, and challenges “on the table” in our considerations and recommendations for enhancing climate change communication—and addressing the daunting and existential implications of climate change?
Over the last decade, scholars have devoted significant attention to making climate change communication more effective but less attention to ensuring that it is ethical. This neglect risks blurring the distinction between persuasion and manipulation, generating distrust among audiences, and obscuring the conceptual resources needed to guide communicators.
Three prevailing approaches to moral philosophy can illuminate various ethical considerations involved in communicating climate change. Consequentialism, which evaluates actions as morally right or wrong according to their consequences, is the implicit moral framework shared by many social scientists and policymakers interested in climate change. While consequentialism rightly emphasizes the consequences of communication, its exclusive focus on the effectiveness of communication tends to obscure other moral considerations, such as what communicators owe to audiences as a matter of duty or respect. Deontology better captures these duties and provides grounds for communicating in ways that respect the rights of citizens to deliberate and decide how to act. But because deontology tends to cast ethics as an abstract set of universalizable principles, it often downplays the virtues of character needed to motivate action and apply principles across a variety of contexts. Virtue ethics seeks to overcome the limits of both consequentialism and deontology by focusing on the virtues that individuals and communities need to flourish. While virtue ethics is often criticized for failing to provide a concrete blueprint for action, its conception of moral development and thick vocabulary of virtues and vices offer a robust set of practical and conceptual resources for guiding the actions, attitudes, and relationships that characterize climate change communication. Ultimately, all three approaches highlight moral considerations that should inform the ethics of communicating climate change.
Anthony Dudo, Jacob Copple, and Lucy Atkinson
Although there is an abundance of social scientific research focused on public opinion and climate change, there remains much to learn about how individuals come to understand, feel, and behave relative to this issue. Efforts to understand these processes are commonly directed toward media depictions, because media represent a primary conduit through which people encounter information about climate change. The majority of research in this area has focused on news media portrayals of climate change. News media depictions, however, represent only a part of the media landscape, and a relatively small but growing body of work has focused on examining portrayals of climate change in entertainment media (i.e., films, television programs, etc.) and their implications. This article provides a comprehensive overview of this area of research, summarizing what is currently known about portrayals of climate change in entertainment media, the individual-level effects of these portrayals, and areas ripe for future research. Our overview suggests that the extant work has centered primarily on a small subset of high-profile climate change films. Examination of the content of these films has been mostly rhetorical and has often presumed negative audience effects. Studies that specifically set out to explore possible effects have often unearthed evidence suggesting short-term contributions to viewers’ perceptions of climate change, specifically in terms of heightened awareness, concern, and motivation. Improving the breadth and depth of research in this area, we contend, can stem from more robust theorizing, analyses that focus on a more diverse menu of entertainment media and the interactions among them, and increasingly complex analytical efforts to capture long-term effects.