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.
Deborah Lynn Guber
Despite an accumulation of scientific evidence on both the causes and consequences of climate change, U.S. public opinion on the subject has splintered sharply along party lines. While a vast majority of Democrats now believe that global warming is real, that its effects will happen within their lifetime, and that human activity is the dominant cause, Republicans have grown increasingly skeptical, creating a yawning gap that complicates efforts to communicate the urgency of the problem and the need for aggressive action.
When attitudes harden and diverge, it is often driven by the behavior of political elites, who shape the frames and mental models that people use to interpret events. Scholars have long observed that people resort instinctively to heuristics to ease the burden of making decisions, especially on issues like climate, where there is an obvious disconnect between scientific understanding and mass competence. Those cues, however, are often unreliable and prone to cognitive bias. When voters act upon signals provided by their preferred political party and by selective exposure to preferred media outlets, they may do so mechanically, with little regard for the accuracy of the evidence that they receive, or they may ignore and distort information in a way that reinforces preexisting assumptions.
In the end, beliefs about climate change are as complex as the issue itself, which suggests that awareness of the problem and an understanding of its effects will not translate automatically—or even easily—into increased concern, issue salience, or policy preferences. The “pictures in our heads,” to borrow Walter Lippmann’s famous phrase, are shaped less by factual knowledge than by a variety of other factors more difficult to control—by personal experience and assorted real-world cues (such as the weather), but also by opinion leaders, media narratives, and political rhetoric, each of which provides a competing frame of reference with the power to filter and mislead. Because climate change has become so heavily laden with values and so absorbed into partisan identity, it will be nearly impossible to build social consensus through conventional means. Once a “hard” issue for all, which seemed to demand sophisticated calculation or technical expertise, it has now become an “easy” one for many, where the reactions that it prompts are familiar, stable, and symbolic, increasingly polarized, immune to rational argument, and vulnerable to manipulation by elites.
Communication campaigns play a key role in shaping what people think, feel, and do about climate change, and help shape public agendas at the local, national, and international levels. As more people around the world gain regular access to the Internet, online and social media are becoming significant contexts in which they come into contact with—or fail to come into contact with—news, debates, action, and social input related to climate change. This makes it important to understand the campaigning that takes place online. Many actors make concerted efforts to engage publics on climate change and go online to do so. These include businesses; governments and international organizations; scientists and scientific institutions; organizations, groups and individuals in civil society; public intellectuals and political, religious and entertainment leaders. Not all are ultimately concerned with climate change or engaging publics as such. Nevertheless, most campaigns involve at least one of four goals: to inform, raise awareness, and shape public understanding about the science, problems, and politics of climate change; to change consumer and citizen behavior; to network and connect concerned publics; to visibly mobilize consumers or citizens to put pressure on decision-makers. Online climate change campaigns are an emerging phenomenon and field of study. The campaigns appeared on broad front around the turn of the millennium, and have since become increasingly complex. In addition to the elements that produce variance in offline campaigns, scholars examine the role of online and social media in how campaigners render the issues and pursue their campaigns, how publics respond, and what this means for the development of the broader public discourse. Core debates concern the capacity and impact of online campaigning in the areas of informing, activating and including publics, and the ambivalences inherent in leveraging technology to engage publics on climate change.
Mental models are the sets of causal beliefs we “run” in our minds to infer what will happen in a given event or situation. Mental models, like other models, are useful simplifications most of the time. They can, however, lead to mistaken or misleading inferences, for example, if the analogies that inform them are misleading in some regard. The coherence and consistency of mental models a person employs to solve a given problem are a function of that person’s expertise. The less familiar and central a problem is, the less coherent and consistent the mental models brought to bear on that problem are likely to be. For problems such as those posed by anthropogenic climate change, most people are likely to recruit multiple mental models to make judgments and decisions.
Common types of mental models of climate change and global warming include: (a) a carbon emissions model, in which global warming is a result of burning fossil fuels thereby emitting CO2, and of deforestation, which both releases sequestered CO2 and decreases the possible sinks that might take CO2 out of the atmosphere; (b) a stratospheric ozone depletion mental model, which conflates stratospheric ozone depletion with global warming; (c) an air pollution mental model, in which global warming is viewed as air pollution; and (d) a weather change model, in which weather and climate are conflated. As social discourse around global warming and climate change has increased, mental models of climate change have become more complex, although not always more coherent. One such complexity is the belief that climate changes according to natural cycles and due to factors beyond human control, in addition to changes resulting from human activities such as burning fossil fuels and releasing other greenhouse gases.
As our inference engines, mental models play a central role in problem solving and subjective projections and are hence at the heart of risk perceptions and risk decision-making. However, both perceiving and making decisions about climate change and the risks thereof are affective and social processes foremost.
Jill E. Hopke and Luis E. Hestres
Divestment is a socially responsible investing tactic to remove assets from a sector or industry based on moral objections to its business practices. It has historical roots in the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. The early-21st-century fossil fuel divestment movement began with climate activist and 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben’s Rolling Stone article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” McKibben’s argument centers on three numbers. The first is 2°C, the international target for limiting global warming that was agreed upon at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 2009 Copenhagen conference of parties (COP). The second is 565 Gigatons, the estimated upper limit of carbon dioxide that the world population can put into the atmosphere and reasonably expect to stay below 2°C. The third number is 2,795 Gigatons, which is the amount of proven fossil fuel reserves. That the amount of proven reserves is five times that which is allowable within the 2°C limit forms the basis for calls to divest.
The aggregation of individual divestment campaigns constitutes a movement with shared goals. Divestment can also function as “tactic” to indirectly apply pressure to targets of a movement, such as in the case of the movement to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline in the United States. Since 2012, the fossil fuel divestment movement has been gaining traction, first in the United States and United Kingdom, with student-led organizing focused on pressuring universities to divest endowment assets on moral grounds.
In partnership with 350.org, The Guardian launched its Keep it in the Ground campaign in March 2015 at the behest of outgoing editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger. Within its first year, the digital campaign garnered support from more than a quarter-million online petitioners and won a “campaign of the year” award in the Press Gazette’s British Journalism Awards. Since the launch of The Guardian’s campaign, “keep it in the ground” has become a dominant frame used by fossil fuel divestment activists.
Divestment campaigns seek to stigmatize the fossil fuel industry. The rationale for divestment rests on the idea that fossil fuel companies are financially valued based on their resource reserves and will not be able to extract these reserves with a 2°C or lower climate target. Thus, their valuation will be reduced and the financial holdings become “stranded assets.” Critics of divestment have cited the costs and risks to institutional endowments that divestment would entail, arguing that to divest would go against their fiduciary responsibility. Critics have also argued that divesting from fossil fuel assets would have little or no impact on the industry. Some higher education institutions, including Princeton and Harvard, have objected to divestment as a politicization of their endowments. Divestment advocates have responded to this concern by pointing out that not divesting is not a politically neutral act—it is, in fact, choosing the side of fossil fuel corporations.
Art Dewulf, Daan Boezeman, and Martinus Vink
Climate change communication in the Netherlands started in the 1950s, but it was not until the late 1970s that the issue earned a place on the public agenda, as an aspect of the energy problem, and in the shadow of controversy about nuclear energy. Driven largely by scientific reports and political initiatives, the first climate change wave can be observed in the period from 1987 to 1989, as part of a broader environmental consciousness wave. The Netherlands took an active role in international climate change initiatives at the time but struggled to achieve domestic emission reductions throughout the 1990s. The political turmoil in the early 2000s dominated Dutch public debate, until An Inconvenient Truth triggered the second climate change wave in 2006–2007, generating peak media attention and broad societal activity. The combination of COP15 and Climategate in late 2009 marked a turning point in Dutch climate change communication, with online communication and climate-sceptic voices gaining much more prominence. Climate change mitigation was pushed down on the societal and political agenda in the 2010s. Climate change adaptation had received much attention during the second climate change wave and had been firmly institutionalized with respect to flood defense and other water management issues. By 2015 a landmark climate change court case and the Paris Agreement at COP21 were fueling climate change communication once again.
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.
Student Perceptions, Textbook Presentations, and Communicating about Climate Change in the U.S. Science Classroom
Although future generations—starting with today’s youth—will bear the brunt of negative effects related to climate change, some research suggests that they have little concern about climate change nor much intention to take action to mitigate its impacts. One common explanation for this indifference and inaction is lack of scientific knowledge. It is often said that youth do not understand the science; therefore, they are not concerned. Indeed, in science educational research, numerous studies catalogue the many misunderstandings students have about climate science. However, this knowledge-deficit perspective is not particularly informative in charting a path forward for climate-change education. This path is important because climate science will be taught in more depth as states adopt the Next Generation Science Standards within the next few years. How do we go about creating the educational experiences that students need to be able to achieve climate-science literacy and feel as if they could take action? First, the literature base in communication, specifically about framing must be considered, to identify potentially more effective ways to craft personally relevant and empowering messages for students within their classrooms.
Julia B. Corbett and Brett Clark
The communication strategy of simply sharing more scientific information has not effectively engaged and connected people to climate change in ways that facilitate understanding and encourage action. In part, this is because climate change is a so-called wicked problem, given that it is socially complex, has many interdependencies, and lacks simple solutions. For many people, climate change is generally seen as something abstract and distant—something that they know about, but do not “feel.” The arts and humanities can play an important role in disrupting the social and cultural worldviews that filter climate information and separate the public from the reality of climate change. Whether it is the visual arts, dance, theater, literature, comedy, or film, the arts and humanities present engaging stories, corporally sensed and felt experiences, awareness of interdependency with the world, emotional meanings, and connection with place. Climate stories, especially those based on lived experiences, offer distinct ways to engage a variety of senses. They allow the “invisibility” of climate change to be seen, felt, and imagined in the past, present, and future. They connect global issues to conditions close to home and create space to grieve and experience loss. They encourage critical reflection of existing social structures and cultural and moral norms, thus facilitating engagement beyond the individual level. The arts and humanities hold great potential to help spur necessary social and cultural change, but research is needed on their reach and efficacy.
Luisa Fernanda Lema Vélez, Daniel Hermelin, María Margarita Fontecha, and Dunia H. Urrego
Colombia is in a privileged position to take advantage of international climate agreements to finance sustainable development initiatives. The country is a signatory of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the Kyoto Protocol, and the Paris Agreements. As a non-Annex I party to the UNFCCC, Colombia produces low emissions in relation to global numbers (0.46% of total global emissions for 2010) and exhibits biogeographical conditions that are ideal for mitigation of climate change through greenhouse gas sequestration and emission reductions. Simultaneously, recent extreme climatic events have harshly compromised the country’s economy, making Colombia’s vulnerability to climate change evident.
While these conditions should justify a strong approach to climate change communication that motivates decision making and leads to mitigation and adaptation, the majority of sectors still fall short of effectively communicating their climate change messages. Official information about climate change is often too technical and rarely includes a call for action. However, a few exceptions exist, including environmental education materials for children and a noteworthy recent strategy to deliver the Third Communication to the UNFCCC in a form that is more palatable to the general public. Despite strong research on climate change, particularly related to agricultural, environmental, and earth sciences, academic products are rarely communicated in a way that is easily understood by decision makers and has a clear impact on public policy. Messages from the mass media frequently confuse rather than inform the public. For instance, television news refers to weather-related disasters, climate variability, and climate change indiscriminately. This shapes an erroneous idea of climate change among the public and weakens the effectiveness of communications on the issue.
The authors contrast the practices of these sectors with those of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working in Colombia to show how they address the specific climate communication needs facing the country. These NGOs directly face the challenge of working with diverse population groups in this multicultural, multiethnic, and megadiverse country. NGOs customize languages, channels, and messages for different audiences and contexts, with the ultimate goal of building capacity in local communities, influencing policymakers, and sensitizing the private sector. Strategies that result from the work of interdisciplinary groups, involve feedback from the audiences, and incorporate adaptive management have proven to be particularly effective.