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date: 24 March 2018

The Information Deficit Model and Climate Change Communication

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: deficit model, climate change, public opinion, science communication, public engagement

There is scientific consensus that climate change is happening (Anderegg, Prall, Harold, & Schneider, 2010; Oreskes et al., 2004). Scientific literature documents several risks from climate change, including rising sea levels (Moftakhari et al., 2015; Raper & Braithwaite, 2006), more severe storms (Woth, Weisse, & von Storch, 2006), destabilization of forest ecology (Dale et al., 2001), and reduced food availability (Lobell et al., 2008). Despite this scientific consensus and alarming risk assessments, many publics remain divided about the existence and consequences of climate change. Deficits in public understanding of and concern for climate change have been demonstrated around the world, including the United Kingdom (Lorenzoni, Nicholson-Cole, & Whitmarsh, 2007), the United States (Weber & Stern, 2011), Australia (Harriet & Bulkeley, 2000), and Spain (León & Erviti, 2017). These deficits are particularly evident in the United States, as less than half of Americans attribute climate change to human activity, and only one out of three Americans believe that scientists understand climate change “very well” (Funk & Kennedy, 2016). Considering these gaps between the scientific community and various publics, clearly communicating the scientific understanding of the causes, implications, and remedies of climate change is paramount.

Many popular approaches to communicating climate change rely on what science communication scholars call the “deficit model.” In practice, the deficit model is a linear model of public engagement where scientific information flows from experts to lay audiences with no feedback from those audiences (Miller, 2001; Sturgis & Allum, 2004; Trench, 2008). From a deficit model perspective, the goal of communication is the transmission of information, which then results in a change in audience cognition, affect, or behavior. Conceptually, the deficit model rests on the assumption that a lack of knowledge or information leads to science-inconsistent attitudes and behaviors, and, thus, the solution to science-inconsistent attitudes and behaviors is to supply publics with information in the hopes that this newfound knowledge will result in science-consistent attitudes and behaviors. In addition, the deficit model assumes the public to be inherently ignorant or hostile to science and technology (Bucchi, 2008). Importantly, it is not necessary that climate change communicators who mobilize the deficit model are cognizant of or embrace the underlying assumptions of the model. While the distinction between the deficit model as a practice and as a concept within communication scholarship deserves attention, that discussion is beyond the aims of this current article.

The deficit model has been heavily criticized, yet it remains an integral part of science communication research (Tøsse, 2013) and practice (Davies, 2008; Hetland, 2014) and is evident in a broad array of climate change communication activities. As such, exploring how the deficit model is used in climate change communication is an important piece of understanding the climate change communication landscape. The deficit model is evident within a wide array of climate change communication strategies, including websites, blogs, social media, smartphone applications, documentaries and films, books, television and print media, scientific publications, and technical reports. This article overviews popular approaches to climate change communication that reflect the deficit model, reviews alternative methods of public engagement, and ends with a discussion of the future of the deficit model in climate change communication.

The Deficit Model in Climate Change Communication

This section discusses the methods and approaches that reflect the deficit model in climate change communication. Importantly, it focuses primarily on the use of the deficit model in communication efforts that are accessible to a multitude publics. Each method is illustrated with select real-world examples, followed by a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of each approach. The examples provided represent a variety of different stakeholders, including government agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), activist organizations and individuals, journalists, researchers, professional science communicators, the energy industry, and policymakers. Notably, some of these communication mediums, like social media, can extend beyond the deficit model framework into more dialogic forms of public engagement. These instances are noted, and a more thorough discussion of the ways in which communication efforts extend beyond the deficit model is included in the section “Beyond the Deficit.” Of note, most climate change communication strategies do not sit exclusively in one communication approach, and many communication efforts mobilize the use of many of these mediums simultaneously.

Websites and Blogs

Websites and blogs aim to provide the public with information about climate change and can offer unique commentary or points of view on that information. Some sites combine providing information with influencing public affect, or encouraging the public to change their behavior or act in other ways. During the Obama administration in the United States, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency used their website to provide information on climate science, including greenhouse gas emissions data and climate change impacts and adaptation (United States Environmental Protection Agency, 2017). However, they also offered recommendations on how to best act to mitigate climate change, including the different activities the agency engages in and offering recommendations for the public about how they can change their behavior to benefit the environment. By contrast, the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) provides scientific data about climate change on their website, but they do not offer behavioral recommendation for mitigation (National Aeronautics and Space Agency, 2017). Other sites, like the one run by Australia’s Department of the Environment, provide instructions on the best way to understand and interpret scientific data (Australian Department of the Environment, 2017). Some websites are used to encourage public action and mobilize support for certain causes. For example, Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a non-profit based in the United States, uses their website to foster grassroots-level engagement, raise money to support their organization, and encourage publics to get involved in pressuring local and national representatives to draft and implement climate change policy (Citizens’ Climate Lobby, 2017).


There are multiple advantages in communicating about climate change through websites and blogs. First, websites make a diversity of in-depth information readily accessible to a large portion of the global population, and for those who have access to the Internet, websites allow the public to access information easily and without much effort. For example, connected publics have instant access to millions of websites about climate change from merely entering “climate change” into their favorite search engine. Second, the information contained in websites can be easily updated to reflect current trends and issues within climate change, including new scientific discoveries and new public policy surrounding climate change, something print media cannot do. Third, websites are generally inexpensive to create, maintain, and disseminate. This allows for a broader diversity of voices to contribute to the global conversation about climate change—voices who may not otherwise have had a platform or been able to afford mass dissemination of their message.


There are several disadvantages of using websites to communicate climate change by means of the deficit model. First, websites are a passive form of communicating with the public in that they rely on the public to actively seek information from a given source and thus suffer from selectivity bias. While one can certainly direct audiences to visit a website through other means (social media, television commercials, etc.), it is ultimately up to the public whether they will be exposed to the information contained on the site. Second, websites do not necessitate in-depth, central processing of climate change information, a key component to messaging that has been shown to aid in persuasion (Gass & Seiter, 2016). As such, websites are fairly weak in their ability to persuade audiences who do not already align with their message. Third, websites represent a one-size-fits-all approach to climate change communication in that they do not allow for targeted communication strategy across different groups. It is impossible, for example, to cleanly target a specific audience online and exclude those for which your message is not intended, as your audience is anyone who happens to visit the website you have created. Fourth and finally, websites are a free information environment—anyone can create a website and disseminate information, which can make it difficult for laypeople to distinguish credible scientific information from the rest of the information available. This creates an environment for communicating climate change that is diluted in quality and authenticity (Minol, Spelsberg, Schulte, & Morris, 2007).

Social Media

Climate change communication occurs on multiple social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Government agencies, NGOs, policymakers, activists, journalists, scientists, and various publics all utilize social media as a key avenue through which they communicate about climate change. The goal of communicating about climate change via social media varies and can include providing audiences with information, sharing news stories that relate to climate change, or encouraging audiences to take action. Importantly, social media sites do not exist solely to disseminate information ala a deficit model of communication, in that all social media sites allow for public dialogue and commentary between communicators. However, climate change communication on social media often exhibits the characteristics of the deficit model, as this kind of feedback and dialogue is not guaranteed.


The use of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to communicate about climate change has many strengths. First, it allows for almost instant communication with a broad array of audiences. As such, it can easily keep up with the latest developments in climate science and can effectively connect climate change to other current events (energy costs, severe weather, etc.). Second, social media allows for a broad dissemination and social amplification of a message (Moussaïd, Brighton, & Gaissmaier, 2015), in that it allows for audiences and publics to become active sharers and promoters of information to their networks, who can then share and promote information, and so on. Social amplification extends beyond social media platforms, as trending topics in Twitter, for example, are increasingly being used as the topic of news stories. Third, social media allows communicators to connect with conversations outside of climate change and connect climate change with those issues in real time, particularly through the use of hashtags. For example, if there is an outbreak of a disease that is carried by an insect, climate change communicators can jump into that conversation and discuss how a warming climate could increase the habitat for that insect and, ultimately, increase the spread of the disease. Fourth, like websites, social media is cost effective and, therefore, allows for the inclusion of voices who might not otherwise be heard. For example, the social media campaign Paddle to Paris allowed hundreds of indigenous peoples from Latin America, Africa, and Indonesia to connect on social media and present a unified message to world leaders about the role of indigenous people in addressing climate change during the Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris in 2015. Fifth, social media can sometimes function as a platform to create organizations to communicate about climate change. For example, a climate change communication institution called the Climate Council was created via crowdfunding support on social media in Australia (McLean & Fuller, 2016). Sixth and finally, social media provides a kind of window into public reception of climate change information for climate communicators, where communicators are able to see what ways of communicating about climate change are trending or gaining traction with their audiences via shares or likes and which ones are not being amplified or disseminated.


First, social media platforms like Twitter can limit the amount of content one is able to post. In doing so, it can force communicators to “boil down” their message in a manner that could be misleading, or lead to misinterpretations of the messenger’s intent. Second, because social media sites allow users to self-select whom they are connected with and the kind of information they are exposed to, social media suffers from selectivity bias and echo-chamber effects. As a result, the only social media users who are exposed to messages about climate change are likely users who already care about climate change to begin with. This weakness can be particularly challenging for individuals or organizations who are trying to persuade publics to accept climate science and develop climate change concern. Third, the amplification effect on social media can function to decentralize a message and remove it from the creator’s control, where a given message can be picked up, shared, and misrepresented by anyone who holds a social media account. As a result, social media can put messages at risk for lacking credibility, as the more time a message gets shared and the further away it gets from the original poster, attributions of credibility could be disrupted or misappropriated.

Mobile Applications

Mobile applications for smartphones and other devices are increasingly being used to provide connected publics with information and influence their attitudes and behavior (Reese Bomhold, 2013; Smith et al., 2014), and climate change communicators have begun to use this technique as well. The goals of these apps include informing users about climate change, using entertainment to engage users about climate change, and encouraging users to change their behavior to be more climate-friendly. For example, the app Skeptical Science allows users to browse facts and common myths about climate change and connects with social media sites so users can easily pair information they find on the app with their social media accounts. Earth Now by NASA and Climate Mobile allow users to explore satellite data and use climate change datasets to analyze climate trends. Some apps tailor climate change information to a user’s geographic location. For example, Voodoo Skies Normal or Not allows users to compare current weather in their region with previous weather trends. Entertainment-focused apps use the concept of edutainment to engage users and increase climate change concern, something that has been shown to increase climate literacy (Lappe et al., 2013). For example, PowerPup is a game users can load on their smartphone, where they get to play a sea lion pup that races against rising sea temperatures. Similarly, Painting with Time: Climate Change is a scratch-ticket style interactive app that allows you to compare before and after photos of famous landscapes to see how climate change has effected those landscapes. Other smartphone apps focus on altering user behavior. For example, Math Tappers allows users to calculate their carbon footprint, Commute Greener calculates user carbon emissions during their city travel, and Carbon Emissions Calculator calculates user emissions from air travel. Other apps encourage users to get involved in mitigating climate change. #Climate, for example, helps users discover and share climate change actions taking place across the globe.


Using smartphone applications to communicate about climate change has several advantages. First, apps allow information to be mobile, where communicators can send and receive information wherever they go. Second, like communicating online, smartphone apps can be continuously updated to reflect current trends and debates. Third, apps allow users to examine their own climate impact in a way that is tailored specifically to their own activities and lifestyles, something blogs and social media platforms are unable to do. Fourth, apps can easily integrate edutainment aspects into communicating about climate change and make learning about climate change an interactive and fun process for users. Fifth, like communicating about climate change online, apps are also fairly cost effective for producers and users and, in some cases, may even allow producers to make a profit. Sixth, mobile apps can easily move beyond the deficit model and integrate other models of public engagement if the creators choose to do so. For example, Secchi is a mobile app that encourages mariners to collect and upload data on phytoplankton so scientists can better understand the effect of climate change on marine habitats.


Despite these advantages, there are several disadvantages to note. First, like using social media to communicate about climate change, mobile applications face the challenge of the selectivity bias or the echo chamber, where communicators are only able to reach audiences who choose to be communicated with. Second, communicating about climate change in this manner ignores audiences without smartphones, tablets, or computers that are app-accessible. These audiences may be in lower socioeconomic classes and be particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change (Brouwer, Akter, Brander, & Haque, 2007). Third, like websites, smartphone apps do not allow for a great deal of tailored communication or audience segmentation. While they do allow for tailored communication based on geographic location and can be advertised to particular audiences, apps are not able to take into account other factors that have been shown to impact perceptions of scientific information, like cultural cognition (Kahan, Jenkins‐Smith, & Braman, 2011). Fourth and finally, engagement with mobile applications dedicated to climate change may decay over time given the singular focus of the apps, even for the most interested of users.

Television and Print News Media

The news media play a central role in communicating about climate change, and science more generally, and are a key example of the deficit model. Climate change communication experts and researchers routinely refer to and study the processes of news creation and decision-making (Boykoff & Boykoff, 2007; Smith, 2005), content and framing of news stories about climate change (Antilla, 2005), and consequences of newspaper and television coverage of climate change for public opinion (Myers, Nisbet, Maibach, & Leiserowitz, 2012). News coverage of climate change is incredibly diverse and covers topics including climate change trends (e.g., McGrath, 2017), how climate change impacts social systems (e.g., Johnston, 2017), the relationship between energy companies and climate change (e.g., Wattles, 2017), climate change impacts (e.g., Quaile, 2017), mitigation strategies (e.g., Nambudiri, 2017), and many more. Importantly, the extent to which climate change is covered and how climate change is framed by the news outlets can vary. For example, Billett (2010) analyzed four major newspapers in India and found that, in contrast to news coverage in other countries, climate change was largely divided along developmental and postcolonial lines. Other work has demonstrated that contextual factors including vulnerability to climate change effects, regulatory quality, and unemployment can have a significant impact on news coverage for different countries (Barkemeyer et al., 2017).


News agencies utilize a variety of communication outlets discussed in this article to communicate about climate change, including websites, social media, and smartphone applications, and thus share the strengths and weaknesses of these approaches. However, they also carry a unique set of advantages when compared to other deficit model efforts. First, the media hold substantial agenda-setting and -framing power over publics (Scheufele & Tewksbury, 2007) compared to other deficit model techniques, giving them a lot of control over the way (and how often) the public thinks about climate change. This power can, to some extent, be utilized by climate change communicators to keep climate change on the public agenda and in the public sphere, which can lead to public policy surrounding climate change. Second, media outlets enjoy broad audience bases and can have wide reach and are widely available to the majority of publics. Whether it be through television or print, many publics have access to news outlet communication. Third, the media tend to be skilled at communicating to broad publics in intelligible ways, in contrast to, say, publications and reports, and therefore may be more successful in making climate science accessible. Fourth and finally, because of its broad reach, media coverage in one country has the potential to shift media coverage in other countries (e.g., Tolan, 2007) and therefore has the potential to influence the global conversation about climate change.


There are several disadvantages of communicating about climate change through the media. First, journalistic norms of balance can bias coverage of climate change, leading the public to the impression that there is greater division within the scientific community (Boykoff & Boykoff, 2007) and greater debate in the public realm (Gavin & Marshall, 2011) than is actually there. Second, decreases in resources have resulted in journalists becoming increasingly generalized, with specialized reporters (e.g., science reporters) becoming somewhat of a rarity. As a result, journalists’ level of expert knowledge of climate change varies (Wilson, 2000) and may impact the efficacy of their reporting. Third, media are not necessarily trusted sources of information, particularly about climate change. In the United States, for example, approximately half of Americans say the news media does a poor job covering issues related to climate change, with some saying the media exaggerates the threat and others saying media doesn’t take the threat seriously enough (Funk & Kennedy, 2016). The same survey showed that only 5% of Americans trust the media “a great deal” to act in the public interest (Funk & Kennedy, 2016). Arguably, this lack of trust may be amplified in areas where popular media outlets do not operate independent of other entities. Overall, elements of distrust could serve to damage the efficacy of a climate change message. Fourth and finally, media outlets, like climate change itself, are increasingly polarized (Iyengar & Hahn, 2009), which can impact the way media frame climate change as an issue and, ultimately, impact the way their audiences understand climate change. For example, Fox News, a conservative media outlet in the United States, tends to take a more dismissive tone toward climate change compared to other outlets, and as a result Fox News viewership has a negative relationship with acceptance of climate science (Feldman, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, & Leiserowitz, 2012).

Documentaries and Films

There are dozens of documentaries and films about climate change. In general, documentaries and films aim not only to inform publics about climate change but to trigger affective responses as well. One of the most prolific and often-cited documentaries about climate change in the United States is An Inconvenient Truth (2006), which features former U.S.vice president and presidential candidate Al Gore on the lecture circuit as he informs audiences about the dangers of climate change and the need for mitigative action. Another climate change documentary, Chasing Ice (2012), features National Geographic photographer James Balog and combines providing information about climate change with stunning images of changing glacial landscapes. Importantly, not all documentaries about climate change aim to increase public acceptance or concern. An Inconsistent Truth (2012), for example, was created by conservative talk radio host Phil Valentine to counter the information provided in An Inconvenient Truth and argue that climate change is a hoax. Other documentaries about climate change include The Age of Stupid (2009), Merchants of Doubt (2014), The Great Warming (2006), and Carbon Nation (2010). The use of film to communicate about climate change is not limited to documentaries, as climate change communication bleeds over into popular culture as well. For example, The Day After Tomorrow (2004) is a science fiction film that5 features a climatologist who warns the United Nations about the catastrophic consequences of climate change, only to be ignored, and global natural disasters follow. Another film, Arctic Tale (2007), takes the perspective of a walrus and a polar bear who are forced to navigate the continuously warming Arctic climate, including melting ice and diminishing food supplies.


A key advantage to communicating about climate change through documentaries and films is that they can capture audience attention by combining information about climate change with eye-catching visuals, captivating audio, and the use of narrative. These elements are somewhat unique to documentaries and films and can be difficult to replicate in other mediums. By combining information with audiovisual effects and compelling narratives, documentaries and films can elicit intense emotional responses from audiences in a manner that pure information dissemination cannot. This kind of emotional response can lead to individual-level behavior change. For example, one study that evaluated the impact of An Inconvenient Truth found that areas where the film was shown experienced a 50% increase in the purchase of voluntary carbon offsets in the two months following its release (Jacobsen, 2011). Importantly, it is unclear how long observed behavior changes last. Beyond individual behavior, documentaries and films can put pressure on government and regulatory agencies to respond, either through publicly addressing concerns raised in the film or supporting climate action. For example, following the release of Under the Dome, a documentary produced by Chai Jing in China about air pollution and environmental degradation, the Chinese government initially responded by blocking access to the online film. When Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was asked about the film during a press conference, Li reiterated the Chinese government’s determination to tackle environmental pollution (Mufson, 2015). Finally, documentaries and films have the ability to shape popular culture and public dialogue about climate change and are capable of functioning as media agenda-setters (Hirsch & Nisbet, 2007).


There are several notable disadvantages of using documentaries and films to communicate about climate change. First, documentaries, like websites and smartphone applications, tend to have an audience that already aligns with their core message and therefore suffer from selectivity bias. Second, the audiences for documentary films in particular can be somewhat small and therefore are unlikely to produce broad shifts in public opinion. Third, films and documentaries can be extremely costly to produce and disseminate. Fourth and finally, while narrative engagement can be compelling, communicating about climate change through fictional films runs the risk of cognitively connecting climate change with something that is fantastical and fictional. This could reduce climate change concern among audiences in their daily lives. In a study on the effect of the film The Day After Tomorrow on viewers in the United Kingdom, for example, Lowe (2006) found that the film did indeed increase viewers’ climate change concern. However, they also found that viewers had difficulty distinguishing actual scientific understanding of climate change and the dramatized science fiction elements of the film, and their belief in the likelihood of climate change–induced extreme weather events decreased after viewing.

Books and Literature

Most of the books about climate change seek to provide readers some level of information about the different facets of climate change. These topics include, but are not limited to, the future impacts of climate change (e.g., Lynas, 2008), climate policy (Schneider, Rosencranz, Mastrandrea, & Kuntz-Duriseti, 2010; Wagner & Weitzman, 2016), climate change’s societal impacts and public opinion (Dryzek, Norgaard, & Schlosberg, 2011), the impact of climate change on biodiversity (Lovejoy & Hannah, 2005), and the rejection of climate change as a hoax (Inhofe, 2012). Importantly, books tend to attempt to persuade readers to think about and understand climate change in particular scientific, economic, political, or social ways. For example, in the book Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, environmental activist Mark Lynas attempts to distill scientific forecasts for a warming climate and describe to readers the impact of each projected degree increase (Lynas, 2008). By contrast, the book The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Save the World by Oliver Morton focuses on scientific and technical solutions to a warming planet, including the philosophical implications of implementing those solutions.


There are several advantages to communicating about climate change with books and literature. Unlike the use of mediums like social media, a lot of information can be included in a single text, making it an effective way to explore the complexities inherent in the causes and consequences of climate change and issues surrounding uncertainty in climate science. Consequently, books allow communicators the opportunity to meticulously frame climate change in any manner they choose, something they are less able to do using other communication mediums. For example, the book Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet extensively explores the economic forces that impact climate policy and frames climate change as a risk-calculation problem (Wagner & Weitzman, 2016). By contrast, the book The Global Warming Deception: How a Secret Elite Plans to Bankrupt America and Steal Your Freedom frames climate change as a hoax perpetrated by globalists in an effort to convince Western nations to forfeit their independence (Jeffrey, 2011).


There are several disadvantages to communicating about climate change through books. First, like other deficit model efforts, books suffer from selectivity bias and echo-chamber effects. Second, books require extensive cognitive effort from audiences and are not quickly consumed and understood. As a result, the audiences for books about climate change can be fairly small and selective. Third, books often represent the perspective of a single source but can still carry with them a weighty sense of credibility. As such, it can be difficult for readers to assess the credibility of book authors, and the existence of a book can lend credibility and legitimacy to sources that do not necessarily have expertise relevant to climate change. Fourth, while books about climate change by solo authors generally do not represent the opinions of the scientific community as a whole, they may give audiences a faulty perception of scientific opinion. For example, the book Lukewarming: The New Climate Science That Changes Everything, written by two climate scientists, advocates for a measured approach to climate change and claims that the potential impacts of climate change have been exaggerated (Michaels & Knappenberger, 2016). By contrast, Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity, also written by a climate scientist, argues that the earth is quickly headed toward a point of no return and advocates for swift and dramatic action (Hansen, 2011). These books in tandem may give the impression that scientists and experts are equally divided on climate change, even though meta-analyses of published scientific literature suggests they are not. Fifth, books can take a long time to create and are not easily updated, meaning they fall out of relevance quickly. Sixth and finally, books can be costly to write, print, and disseminate, particularly when compared with less expensive options for climate change communication, like the use of websites and other online platforms.

Scientific Publications and Technical Reports

Scientists, scientific organizations, and government agencies most often produce scientific publications and technical reports. Generally, scientific publications focus on the causes and impacts of climate change, while technical reports focus on mitigation strategies and public policy that ought to result from publications. Both publications and reports utilize the deficit model in that they focus almost exclusively on information dissemination to audiences who (presumably) lack that information. While the authors of the publications and reports may use other models of public engagement in their creation of the documents, the documents themselves rest solely on the shoulders of the deficit model. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) prepares the most prominent technical reports on climate change. These reports are extensive and include assessment reports of the full scientific and technical evaluation of climate change, special reports that follow the same structure as assessment reports but focus on a specific issue, and methodology reports that provide guidelines for the creation of greenhouse gas inventories.


Publications and reports have many advantages. First, they can fit a lot information in one document. For example, the IPPC’s Synthesis Report from 2014 has over 150 pages of text and includes observed changes in the climate and their causes, projected climate change risks and impacts, pathways for adaptation and mitigation, recommendations for sustainable development, and a summary of the report for policymakers (IPCC, 2014). Second, publications and reports are a useful way to organize the plethora of information available about climate change. Publications do this by having a (usually) narrow research focus with specific outcomes, and technical reports do this by organizing a large amount of information in meaningful and easily navigable ways. Third, publications and reports are useful tools to represent the opinion of a diverse set of stakeholders. Publications allow the accumulation of thousands of studies from different researchers, and technical reports usually reflect the collaborative efforts and authorship of multiple individuals and organizations. Relatedly, publications and reports have an advantage in that they (generally) represent the perspectives of experts and opinion leaders on climate change, something that functions to boost the credibility of the information, a key component in successful climate change communication (Nisbet & Kotcher, 2009).


There are three key disadvantages inherent in communicating about climate change ala the deficit model in publications and reports. First, while they can house a lot of complex information in one document, they can be difficult for lay audiences to read and understand. Relatedly, even for publics who are motivated to read publications and reports, they require substantial cognitive effort to process the information and might be particularly challenging to understand for those who are not trained to read and understand technical writing. Second, like books, scientific publications and technical reports can take a lot of time to compile and edit before it is disseminated to relevant publics. For example, the IPCC reports that are available to the public were compiled two years prior to their release. This means that any information that is provided to various publics is two years old and does not necessarily reflect the current understanding of climate change. Third and finally, like books, publications and reports can be costly to create and disseminate. They often require a diverse set of people to allocate excessive amounts of time and resources to their creation, editing, and dissemination.

Beyond the Deficit

Many science communication scholars have criticized the deficit model for being overly simplistic (Hansen, Holm, Frewer, Robinson, & Sandøe, 2003; Sturgis & Allum, 2004), ineffective (Holland et al., 2007; Nisbet & Mooney, 2007), and unfairly characterizing those opposed to scientific activities as necessarily lacking or ill-informed (Priest, 2001). For contested and politicized science topics like climate change, the deficit model is particularly insufficient, as the relationship between knowledge and cognition, attitudes, and behavior is anything but simple. A study in Britain, for example, found that climate skepticism is rooted more in people’s core values and worldviews than in a lack of information about climate change (Poortinga, Spence, Whitmarsh, Capstick, & Pidgeon, 2011). A similar study in the United States found that attitudes toward scientific consensus are not formed based on the presence or intake of information, but rather are based on identity protective cognition (Kahan et al., 2011). Other work in science communication suggests that communicating about climate change using the deficit model can have a boomerang effect among ideological opponents to climate change (Hart & Nisbet, 2012), which is particularly problematic given that communication efforts to inform the public are generally aimed toward those already skeptical publics. Similarly, some work suggests that increases in knowledge can actually increase polarization. For example, Kahan et al. (2012) found that individuals with high scientific literacy were not the most concerned about climate change compared to their lower literacy counterparts, and in fact were much more culturally polarized about climate science than those with low scientific literacy.

Taken together, this work suggests that utilizing the deficit model by simply providing publics with more information about climate change is unlikely to result in meaningful shifts in public opinion. As such, there are efforts in climate change communication, and science communication more generally, to advance more dialogic and participatory approaches to public communication and engagement. Scholars conceptualize these models of science communication in different ways and afford them various labels. For example, the terms “deficit” and “diffusion” are often used interchangeably. In addition, some are described using a three-model system—diffusion, dialogue, and participation (Bucchi, 2008; Hetland, 2014; Trench, 2008)—and others are described using a four-model system—deficit, contextual, public engagement, and lay expertise (Brossard & Lewenstein, 2010). This section follows Brossard and Lewenstein’s (2010) four-model system; references to competing labels are made where appropriate. While somewhat conceptually distinct, these models of science communication are not mutually exclusive, nor are they used in isolation in communication practice. For example, in 2016 the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine compiled a technical report on the scientific consensus of the risks and benefits of genetically modified food (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2016). A panel of experts, following a deficit model approach, created this report for the public. However, before its release, the panel opened up for public comment on the report, providing various publics the opportunity to voice their opinions and concerns. It is more useful to think of the models as existing on a communication continuum ranging from absolutely no audience feedback (i.e., the deficit model) to the public being integrally involved in the production and assessment of knowledge (i.e., the lay expertise model).

The Contextual Model

The contextual model is somewhat similar to the deficit model in that it prioritizes one-way communication; however, it differs in that it does not assume that the mere presence of information will have a meaningful impact on audiences. Rather, the contextual model recognizes that audiences process information according to “social and psychological schemas that have bene shaped by their previous experiences, cultural context, and personal circumstances” (Brossard & Lewenstein, 2010, pp. 13–14). The contextual model embraces one of the key tenets of effective communication strategy: know your audience and utilize what you know to construct appropriate messaging. This approach often includes audience analysis and segmentation, similar to techniques utilized in social marketing and public relations, and focuses on a kind of “selling” strategy for climate change ideas, policies, and behavioral recommendations.

The contextual model is most evident in climate change communication through attempts to segment audiences according to their level of concern about climate change (e.g., Maibach, Roser-Renouf, & Leiserowitz, 2009; Metag, Füchslin, & Schäfer, 2015) or how they make sense of climate science (e.g., Kempton, 1991; Ryghaug, Holtan Sorensen, & Naess, 2011). Maibach et al. (2011) set out to identify different audience segments that could be used for global warming public engagement campaigns. They categorized six segments of the American public according to their level of concern and motivation to address climate change: alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful, and dismissive. Those who are alarmed are convinced that climate change is occurring and are taking action to address it. Those who are concerned are convinced that climate change is happening but have yet to take any action. Cautious, disengaged, and doubtful individuals are less convinced that climate change is happening to varying degrees, and dismissive individuals are convinced that climate change is not real and are actively involved in opposing efforts that address climate change. Other work has expanded on the efforts to segment audiences in an effort to identify communication strategies that will be most effective for those audiences. Myers et al. (2012), for example, built on this work and tested the effect of different climate change frames on levels of engagement for the identified segments. They found that a public health frame was most effective across audience segments and that a national security frame had a boomerang effect for the doubtful and dismissive.

The evidentiary support for the social marketing approach is encouraging. Studies in health communication, for example, show convincing evidence that a social marketing approach that involves understanding different audiences, behavioral goals, and intervention strategies is an effective method of health-related behavior change (Armitage & Conner, 2001). Importantly, the contextual model is criticized within science communication for merely being a more sophisticated approach to the deficit model or merely an effort to make those models more effective. In doing so, the contextual model shares the drawbacks and limitations of the deficit model, in that the contextual model still prioritizes the dissemination of scientific information, does not focus on any sort of feedback from the public, and does not view public expertise as an essential component to the knowledge-production process. In addition, some have criticized the sufficiency of the contextual model as an effective strategy. In a review of social marketing and audience segmentation as a strategy to encourage public engagement with climate science, for example, Corner and Randall (2011) maintain that the contextual model is an insufficient approach to building support for the kind of ambitious policy changes and behavioral interventions climate change requires. They conclude that, while the contextual model is empirically well supported in other arenas and certainly has a place in a more comprehensive climate communication strategy, it is not sufficient on its own as it fails to recognize the plethora of goals in public engagement beyond the “selling” of climate change.

The Public Engagement Model

The public engagement model, sometimes referred to as the “dialogue” model, functions as a sort of response to the criticisms of one-way communication models like deficit and contextual. The public engagement model aims to make science a more democratic process (Brossard & Lewenstein, 2010) through allowing the public to comment on scientific information, directions, and implications. The public engagement model rests on the assumption that greater public participation and engagement will lead to more effective public policy (Burton & Mustelin, 2013). The public engagement model is most evident through the use of forums like consensus conferences (Dryzek & Tucker, 2008; Einsiedel & Eastlick, 2000; Joss & Durant, 2002) and science centers or museums (Bandelli & Konijn, 2013; Bell, 2008).

Previous work highlights the utility of these forums for public engagement with science, and some scholars argue that that science museums in particular can form an effective foundation for providing a forum for public dialogue and debate, providing social science contexts for science issues, and creating mechanisms through which public views can be made visible to scientists and policymakers (Bell, 2009). In a review on the use of the public engagement model for climate change adaptation in Australia, Burton and Mustelin (2013) conclude that while it is difficult to meaningfully engage the public regarding complex policy questions where there is substantial uncertainty and political disagreement, the utility of the public engagement model in other arenas gives cause for optimism. Importantly, there are several challenges when using this model. For example, while there is great enthusiasm for the public engagement model, there is often little guidance on how to use it effectively or evaluate its benefits within the context of climate change (Burton & Mustelin, 2013). Other work has explored the barriers to this approach, particularly for museums and science centers, and found that institutional barriers, lack of professional guidance for museum and center staff, difficulty in reaching specific publics, and fear of public controversy all function to inhibit public participation (Bandelli & Konijn, 2013).

Similar to the deficit and contextual models, the public engagement model is not without its critics (Smallman, 2014). For climate change as a specific issue within which to use the model, the public engagement model is time-consuming, and it can be very difficult to use it effectively. Few, Brown, and Tompkins (2007) discuss the complexity of using the public engagement model within the context of climate change adaptation. They explain that, for this model to be effective, it is imperative that all relevant stakeholders be included. Identifying and including relevant stakeholders can be time-consuming and costly, and the ramifications for excluding key stakeholder groups can be extreme. In addition, they explain that it is important that identified stakeholders have a genuine opportunity to construct, discuss, and promote alternative options for action, even if those options go against institutionalized and scientific perspectives. That is, the public engagement model requires that institutions go “beyond a minimalist ‘consultative’ approach of staging a meeting, presenting proposals, and asking for comment” (Few et al., 2007, p. 54). This can be quite a difficult, and expensive, task, particularly for climate change where the ramifications of inaction, or action unguided by available data, can be severe.

The Lay Expertise Model

The lay expertise model moves beyond one-way communication models, like the deficit and contextual, and embraces non-scientific knowledge, or lay expertise, as equal to scientific expertise within the process of public engagement. The lay expertise model functions as a response to the criticism of the deficit and contextual models’ privileging of scientific knowledge and advocates for the utilization of knowledge “based in the lives and histories of real communities” (Brossard & Lewenstein, 2010, p. 14). The lay expertise model holds the perspective that “science is certainly not the only venue in which climate change knowledges are made or through which they are circulated” (Brace & Geoghegan, 2011, p. 294). The lay expertise model, sometimes referred to as “participation” or “knowledge co-production,” is evident in a plethora of public engagement strategies and climate change communication research, for example, gaining insights into the impacts of climate change on sea ice from Inuit communities (Laidler, 2006) or documenting native communities’ attempts to adapt to climate change to create international adaptive capacity to climate impacts (Berkes & Jolly, 2002).

In climate change communication, this model is most evident in approaches to climate change mitigation and adaptation. In a study on climate change mitigation in the African Sahel, for example, Nyong, Adesina, and Osman Elasha (2007) illustrate how local populations have used lay knowledge to develop and implement mitigation and adaptation strategies, including emission reduction and carbon substitution. They argue that climate scientists and researchers ought to integrate these practices into climate change mitigation and adaptation on larger scales and argue that the integration of scientific and lay expertise can “create a mechanism of dialogue between local populations and climate change professionals” (Nyong et al., 2007, p. 795). Similarly, Brace and Geoghegan (2011) argue that incorporating lay knowledge and experiences is necessary in order to have a complete understanding of localized manifestations of climate change.

The lay expertise model has evidentiary support in favor of its utility, in that studies show climate change concern is a function of personal experience and is more effective when situated in relation to one’s lived experiences (Lorenzoni & Pidgeon, 2006). The lay expertise model, compared to the deficit model, is arguably more effective in engaging with and validating those lived experiences. The utility of the lay expertise model is particularly well documented in natural resource management (Olsson & Folke, 2001; Wiber, Young, & Wilson, 2012) and is particularly appropriate for issues like climate change, where facts can be unclear, values clash, risks are high, and decision-making is urgent (Kloprogge & Sluijs, 2006). In addition, for climate change in particular, the lay expertise model is advantageous in that it can enhance the quality of science–society discussions surrounding climate change and increase public support and perceived legitimacy of climate change science (Kloprogge & Sluijs, 2006).

However, the lay expertise model has been criticized for being anti-science in that, depending on how boundaries are negotiated, it can privilege non-scientific perspectives over the reliable scientific system of knowledge production (Brossard & Lewenstein, 2010). Within the lay expertise model, the boundaries between scientific and lay expertise are often contested, and “the boundaries between the domains of competence involved in a debate usually remain subject to continuous re-negotiations” (Kloprogge & Sluijs, 2006, p. 361). On the one hand, privileging local expertise can create an environment where decisions are based on scientifically unreliable or insufficient knowledge. For example, in a study on the use of local ecological knowledge in management of migratory birds, Gilchrist, Mallory, and Merkel (2005) conclude that, while local knowledge can be a useful source of information, natural resource managers should be cautious about making management decisions based on local knowledge in the absence of scientific examination. On the other hand, attempting to “correct” for this deficiency by evaluating local expertise using a scientific rubric is also problematic and introduces a variety of ethical and methodological challenges (Chalmers & Fabricius, 2007). In addition to the complexity of negotiating the boundary between scientific and lay expertise, the lay expertise model can be challenging in that identifying relevant lay experts is often difficult and time consuming (Davis & Wagner, 2003).

The Future of the Deficit Model

There are many disadvantages to using the deficit model when communicating with publics about climate change, particularly given the complex relationship between information and belief formation. Even so, it remains an integral piece of climate change communication strategy. This final section discusses why the deficit model persists in science communication more generall, and considers opportunities for future research and public engagement that can aid in using the deficit model more effectively within climate change communication.

Why the Deficit Model Persists

There is substantial discussion within science communication regarding why the deficit model persists despite the longstanding theoretical and pragmatic criticisms against its use. The journal Public Understanding of Science, for example, published a collection of articles focused on the persistence of the deficit model in science communication. In this issue, scholars discuss many different issues that support the persistence of the deficit model in science communication more generally. One key issue is the history of the public understanding of science endeavor. For example, Cortassa (2016) argues that the inaugural efforts to study the public understanding of science in the 1950s heavily utilized the deficit model, which then formed the bedrock of public understanding of science and influenced the field as it grew and expanded. The history of science communication as a support for the deficit model is echoed by Meyer (2016), who explains that in science, communication has historically been perceived as a didactic exercise, a model that only makes sense within the context of a knowledge deficit (Meyer, 2016). Suldovsky (2016) also touches on the impact of the history of public understanding of science as a field and argues that insofar as the purpose of communicating science is to promote science within the public sphere, the deficit model is an intuitive approach to conceptualizing the relationship between science and society, particularly when we afford science absolute epistemic privilege.

The deficit model also persists because of the goals of communicating science and the ways in which science communicators conceptualize communication. Cortassa (2016), for example, argues that the deficit model persists because it is an optimistic perspective for science communicators in that it provides a simple solution to the science–society disconnect: all one has to do to remedy the gaps that exist is to provide the public with more information. Others echo this sentiment and assert that the persistence of the deficit model is, in part, due to the tendency of science communicators to conceptualize communication as a process of diffusion, where new ideas are disseminated from experts to lay audiences (Suldovsky, 2016). This issue is accentuated given that there is generally a lack of formal training for graduate students and faculty regarding public communication of science (Simis, Madden, Cacciatore, & Yeo, 2016), which means that many scientists are not equipped with an understanding of the different models of public engagement that extend beyond the deficit model. This lack of communication training for graduate students and scientists is particularly problematic given that, as highlighted by Simis et al. (2016), scientists are trained to process information rationally and therefore have the impression that the public is rational and will process the information in the same way, which further supports a deficit perspective where information alone will impact attitudes and behavior.

Finally, the deficit model persists because, on its surface, it is an intuitive approach to communication, especially given how “the public” and “science” are conceptualized. The deficit model seems particularly fitting for an issue like climate change, where there are routinely demonstrated gaps between scientific consensus and public understanding (Funk & Kennedy, 2016). The idea of the ignorant public has an unintended consequence: as discussed by Simis et al. (2016), research suggests that scientists largely see the public as a homogeneous body wherein individuals share a similar level of ignorance toward science. This homogeneous body, it follows, ought to be communicated with in a uniform manner, presumably using the deficit model perspective so many scientists, as discussed, are not adequately equipped to contest. Regarding the nature of science, insofar as science is a mechanism to create new knowledge that the public does not already possess, the deficit model is a necessary component of communicating that knowledge (Miller, 2010; Suldovsky, 2016). Wright and Nerlich (2006, p. 333) extend this sentiment to how science is situated in relation to publics and argue that insofar as “science lies outside of society, inhabited by professional scientists with whom lines of communication need to be built,” the deficit model is sure to follow.

Opportunities for Future Work

While heavily criticized, the deficit model is and will remain an integral component to climate change communication. There are several opportunities for future work regarding how to best communicate climate change in ways that can include, but are not limited to, the deficit model. First, there is an opportunity to break apart communicating the different aspects of climate change (e.g., existence, causes, impacts, mitigation) utilizing different public engagement strategies to explore whether there are differences in the efficacy of those strategies for those aspects. It might be the case, for example, that the deficit model is ill-suited to convince publics of the existence of climate change but is effective in communicating impacts and mitigation strategies for publics who already accept that existence. Second and relatedly, existing work on the impact of framing on climate change communication is promising (Nisbet, 2009; Spence & Pidgeon, 2010) and not inconsistent with a deficit model approach. As such, more work should explore how to frame the different aspects of climate change most effectively and what can (and cannot) be accomplished using the deficit model guided by framing. Third, there is an opportunity to explore the factors that relate to the use of the deficit model in practice (e.g., Suldovsky, McGreavy, & Lindenfeld, 2017) and how those factors can be used to characterize communication contexts. Fourth, some work has begun to explore the use of affective cues like humor and satire to communicate climate change (Brewer & McKnight, 2015). This approach, like framing, is consistent with a deficit perspective and could serve to increase the efficacy of the deficit model. Fifth and finally, there is a need to develop and evaluate communication training to climate change communicators, particularly graduate students and faculty, so they are better equipped to approach the public communication of science in theoretically nuanced and empirically vetted ways (Besley & Tanner, 2011; Brownell, Price, & Steinman, 2013; Simis et al., 2016).

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