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 F. Lema Vélez, Daniel Hermelin, 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.
Social scientists and media critics have often been befuddled about how and why news coverage of important issues takes the shapes that it does. While some issues seem to behave according to well-established patterns, others don’t. The issue of climate change is one that has been explained in numerous ways, often from a cyclical perspective. This perspective suggests that news attention naturally varies up and down, often cued by certain focusing events that draw attention for a time, after which attention wanes again. These observations are usually matched with the perspective that attention should normatively not be cyclical, that the issue is one that deserves continuous attention until it is resolved.
All of this is in the context that there are significant doubts about the objective role of newsmakers in this process. Climate change is an issue that has cut across a period of news evolution in which objectively neutral news has become even less prominent than it once was, if it ever was. News outlets with specific ideological agendas, a plethora of bloggers and websites with an axe to grind, and a variety of conspiracy theories about climate have obscured how news can even hope to cover this issue. With “belief” in climate change now becoming an important token of how one identifies oneself politically, we can wonder whether the issue can ever receive a fair hearing from a scientific perspective.
Maria Ojala and Yuliya Lakew
One important group to include in efforts to combat climate change is young people. This group comprises the future leaders of society, besides being citizens of today, and they will be the ones handling the future negative consequences of this global problem. This article provides an overview of some research about climate change communication and young people. The aim is to gain a better understanding of how this group relates to and communicates about climate change in different contexts, and how to best promote knowledge, a sense of efficacy, and engagement concerning this problem. The focus is on young people who are between late childhood and young adulthood. Questions in focus are: How do media messages about climate change influence young people, and how do they themselves use media, for instance social networks, to engage with this issue? Can art-based and entertainment approaches to communication overcome the distant and complex character of climate change and make young people feel more empowered and engaged? Is it possible to communicate about climate change and raise awareness by promoting contact with nature and animals? How do young people cope with the negative emotions that are often evoked by information about this problem? In what way do young people communicate in everyday life with parents, peers, and teachers about climate change? Are participatory approaches to climate change communication a good way to prepare young people for future extreme climate events?
Neil T. Gavin
Television and cable are two routes by which broadcasters reach the public. Citizens are known to rely on a variety of media sources; however, television is seen by people in a very wide range of geographical locales, as a main or major source of reliable and trusted information. The coverage of climate change by broadcasters is, however, modest relative to press coverage of the topic and reports on topics other than global warming. Journalists in the televisual media can struggle to justify the inclusion of climate change in programming because it can lack the “newsworthiness” that draws editors and reporters to other issues. A range of incentives and pressures have tended to ensure that commentary and claims that stand outside the scientific consensus are represented in “balanced” reporting. The literature on broadcast programming output on climate change is highly diverse and often country specific. Nevertheless, certain features do stand out across locales, notably a focus on alarming (and possibly alarmist) commentary, limited reporting on the causes and consequences of climate change, and widespread reproduction of climate sceptic claims. These common forms of coverage seem unlikely to prompt full understanding of, serious engagement with, or concern about the issue.
Traditional and Shifting Roles of Science Journalists and Environmental Reporters Covering Climate Change
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.
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.
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.