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date: 12 November 2018

Narrative Persuasion and Storytelling as Climate Communication Strategies

Summary and Keywords

Despite scientific consensus about anthropogenic climate change and its potentially devastating effects on the earth, public perceptions remain resistant to some of the most important climate change science messages. Science communicators may help the public better understand, accept, and discuss climate change information by incorporating recent findings in narrative scholarship from the academic field of public policy. Narratives help people understand and communicate information by organizing information in a way that is conducive to human cognition. Through integrating research findings from the climate change science communication literature with those from the narrative policy framework’s (NPF) empirical climate change studies, five distinct suggestions for writing effective climate change stories emerge. For the NPF, policy narratives necessarily include characters and policy referents, but may also include plot, setting, policy solutions, as well as other yet-to-be identified components. The five suggestions for writing climate change stories are as follow. First, use narrative form and content when communicating climate change science. Second, identify audience characteristics and articulate the setting of the story (problem, cause, context) in specific, recent, and audience-relevant language. Third, using knowledge about audience beliefs and values, choose characters (heroes, villains, or victims) whom the audience can relate to and will care about. When casting characters, focus on relaying positive emotions associated with motivation and personal control instead of negative emotions associated with futility. Fourth, temporally link narrative components together with specific information about causality, risk, and human agency. Fifth, clearly identify the point of the story in terms of risks and benefits, emphasizing gains instead of losses, and referencing policy solutions with wide support if relevant. Employing such techniques may help correct suboptimal messaging structures that encourage cognitive resistance to scientific information, thereby facilitating information transmission to a larger segment of the population. Additionally, these techniques offer avenues for replicable research designs that may help to further advance the scientific understanding of climate change communication.

Keywords: narrative policy framework, NPF, policy process theory, climate change, science communication, framing


Accurate climate change communication that promotes action is needed because anthropogenic global warming may have human solutions. Early attempts at such communication assumed that a lack of accurate information drove public disinterest and disbelief (Boykoff & Boykoff, 2007; Kellstedt, Zahran, & Vedlitz, 2008). Public opinion has since moved more in line with scientific consensus (Nisbet & Myers, 2007) and many studies now note the limits of addressing lack of knowledge, media bias, and attempts at objectivity in communicating climate change (Kahan et al., 2012, 2015; Nisbet, 2005; Nisbet & Goidel, 2007). However, despite these efforts, “a non-trivial modicum of doubt and skepticism linger in various sectors of society” (Moser, 2010, p. 32).

Further illustrating the need for better communication, more effective climate change communication has been deemed a top research priority in the United States (National Research Council, 2010). To address this need, researchers have made a host of recommendations to improve the clarity and motivation of climate change communications, including best practices (van der Linden et al., 2015), marketing techniques (Maibach et al., 2008), segmenting audiences (Akerlof et al., 2011), and various framing techniques (Spence & Pidgeon, 2010). Other research addressing more effective climate change communication has focused on the use of narrative, which is needed to better account for obstacles to cognition.

This article proceeds by first situating narrative policy studies within the climate change communication literature. The discussion of this literature culminates in an overview of a recent collection of studies applying the narrative policy framework (NPF) to climate communication. Findings from NPF studies help illuminate specific narrative strategies likely to lead to more effective communication. Finally, the article concludes by offering five storytelling steps that provide advice about climate narratives that are likely to resonate with both experts and the public.

Climate Change Communication

To illustrate and to set up the discussion of climate change narrative communication, select climate change communication findings are placed in two general categories: findings internal to individuals and findings external to individuals.1 The first category focuses on specific characteristics of individuals and how the characteristics work to shape how people understand, communicate, and process information about climate change. The second category addresses factors external to individuals, but specifically focuses on the concept of framing.

Individual Characteristics


Research has identified much about how demographics affect climate change perceptions and actions. For example, higher income (Kahn & Kotchen, 2010, p. 11) and increased age (Semenza et al., 2008) are related to less support for global warming mitigation (Kahn & Kotchen, 2010, p. 11). Gender is also found to play a prominent role, as women are more likely than men to engage in voluntary action to address climate change (McCright, 2010; O’Connor, Bord, & Fisher, 1999). While there is some nuance regarding the relationship between minority populations and climate change–related dependent variables, nonwhites are more likely to express concern and willingness to do something about climate change than are their white counterparts (McCright & Dunlap, 2011; Wood & Vedlitz, 2007).

Belief Systems

Another category of individual characteristics—belief characteristics—has emerged as an explanatory concept in climate change communications, especially in light of the failure alluded to earlier of the knowledge-deficit approaches. For example, the more liberal a person is, the more willing they are to accept that climate change is real, that it is a threat, and that something should be done about it; also, the inverse is true of conservatives (Jones, 2011). Additionally, approaches like the New Ecological Paradigm scale (NEP) assess environmental beliefs directly (Dunlap, 1978; Dunlap et al., 2000): as respondents’ scores increase on the NEP scale, so, too, does their general concern about climate change and climate change–related phenomena (Bord, O’Connor, & Fisher, 2000).

Several approaches to assessing belief systems in the realm of climate change attempt to capture the culture of investigated populations (O’Brien, 2009). One such approach—termed cultural theory (CT; Thompson, Ellis, & Wildavsky, 1990)—has proven quite useful in assessing the relationship between culture and concern about climate change. CT research finds a positive correlation between egalitarianism and risk perceptions related to climate change (Leiserowitz, 2006), and egalitarians and hierarchs are more likely to believe climate change is real, that it is a threat, and that something should be done about it (Jones, 2011). However, Jones (2011) also found a negative relationship between individualism and the same variables. Similarly, the Cultural Cognition Center at Yale University (applying a variant of CT) found that crafting messages strategically to affirm audiences’ cultural identities may help mitigate resistance to scientific messages that might otherwise be interpreted as identity-threatening (Kahan et al., 2015; and also see Kahan et al., 2012).

Education and Knowledge

Concepts that look at either the education of individuals in general or, more specifically, their knowledge about climate change have proven meaningful for climate change communication. While some studies show the merits of simply providing information to the public about climate change (Doble, 1995; Reynolds et al., 2010), after examining aggregate opinion measures from 2002 to 2010, Brulle et al. (2012) concluded that increasing information availability to the public had minimal effect on concerns about climate change. Indeed, Kahan et al. (2012) found that respondents with the highest levels of science literacy and technical reasoning were the most likely to take culturally polarized positions.

Discussing these individual characteristics independently of one another does somewhat of a disservice, because many are frequently interrelated. There are many studies that unpack the nuances of these interactions. For example, McCright and Dunlap (2011) found that, in the United States, conservative white males are much more likely to fall into the climate-denier category than other examined populations and subpopulations. McCright (2010) found that women show higher levels of climate knowledge than men, which of course complicates any interpretation of either knowledge or gender without considering both. Hamilton (2008) showed that if one looks at climate change knowledge through the lens of ideology, climate change knowledge is positively related to climate change concern for liberal populations and negatively related for conservatives. Thus, it is important to remember that many of the individual characteristics discussed in this brief review are interrelated in important ways.

In any case, many of the findings summarized previously have been helpful when thinking about how best to communicate climate change and have played an important role in developing new climate change communication strategies. For example, recent research (Akerlof, Bruff, & Witte, 2011) has suggested that segmenting target populations by demarcations like the six Americas and tailoring communications to those individuals is likely to be a successful climate change communication strategy (Roser-Renouf et al., 2015).

Factors External to the Individual

Many factors external to the individual have been found to influence opinions and concern about climate change. For example, research has shown geographic location (Zahran et al., 2006), local weather patterns (Egan & Mullin, 2012), extreme weather (Goebbert et al., 2012), and personal experience (Myers et al., 2013), as well as many other external factors (see Marquart-Pyatt et al., 2011), influence climate change perceptions. However, for purposes of situating the concept of narrative within this literature, attention should focus on studies about climate communication directly, which is usually understood in the academic literature in terms of communication frames.

While there is no one single authoritative definition of a frame, Chong and Druckman define the concept broadly and simply as “the set of dimensions that effect an individual’s evaluations” (2007, p. 105). In this sense, framing is a conceptual means for scholars to understand how phenomena are talked about and to what effect. Among a myriad of possibilities relating to what individuals do when they receive a frame and how they go about passing the frames to others, frames may motivate interest; they may shape, influence, and unite publics; they may define policy options; and they may rally scientists to common goals (Nisbet, 2009).

Climate change framing studies are ubiquitous. For example, public health frames have been found to be persuasive in orientating public support toward climate change adaptation and mitigation policies (Maibach et al., 2010; Myer et al., 2012). Similarly, but more broadly, both economic development and morality/ethics frames have been shown to increase an audience’s attentiveness (Nisbet, 2009). In 2010, Spence and Pidgeon published a study demonstrating that “gains” frames are more effective than “losses” frames—describing outcomes in terms of benefits or risks to others, respectively2—in increasing positive attitudes toward climate change mitigation. Additionally, their study demonstrated that characterization of climate change impacts as occurring in some distant future caused respondents to rate the impacts as more severe (Spence & Pidgeon, 2010). The framing literature has also provided the concept of “boomeranging” (Hart & Nisbet, 2012; O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole, 2009). Boomeranging describes how frames may reinforce preexisting beliefs or policy preferences after an individual’s exposure to framing that advocates a position the individual already opposes. Boomeranging has been identified in a handful of climate change communication publications (Hart & Nisbet, 2012; Myers et al., 2012).

According to Nisbet (2009), people may share the same frame type (e.g., economic development) while having opposite opinions regarding policy issues like climate change. Nisbet (2009) suggested that sometimes groups strategically employ the same frame type as their opponents, but use it to argue for rival policy core beliefs, hoping to subvert their opponents’ hold on the frame. Successful cooption of a frame type may provide an advocacy group with a means of gaining the attention of an otherwise closed-off segment of the public, who, while disagreeing about deeply held core beliefs like the role of humans in nature, might agree with more instrumental policy beliefs, like the need to increase energy independence or support for new industry in the United States.

Different framing techniques are more useful in certain contexts (Druckman & Lupia, 2017). Specifically, Druckman and Lupia (2017) suggested that in information-rich environments, science communicators appeal to cognitive heuristics that rely on more recent information or experiences to help process new information. One possible example of this “short term” climate change heuristic is found in Druckman’s (2015) finding that respondents who are questioned about climate change beliefs on abnormally warm days are found to be more likely to affirm scientific consensus. This effect is termed the “local warming effect”; however, its effects may be counteracted (Druckman & Lupia, 2017), and further research suggests the local warming effect is likely short lived (Druckman & Shafranek, 2016). While science communicators cannot alter the weather or audiences’ personal experiences to suit messaging purposes, they may be cognizant of the effects of memory heuristics, embedding them as devices within strategically chosen frame types when providence allows.

As discussed in the section on factors internal to the individual, different segments of the population reliably respond to prompts within frames that tap particular beliefs, risk predispositions, and ideologies. For example, recall that Kahan et al. (2015) demonstrated that crafting communications strategically in order to prevent challenging an audience’s cultural identity mitigated the effect of motivated reasoning—reasoning that accords with prior beliefs and identity—in the processing of climate change information. This finding suggests that belief system interactions are important to account for within frames. Similarly, Jones (2011) found that although certain cultural groups prefer different policy solutions regarding climate change, they may have proclivities in beliefs allowing for support of a single tailored solution. This information is valuable in light of other framing strategies. For instance, since different cultural groups may support a single climate change policy solution, reference to that solution may be persuasive by affirming identity. Similarly, some research has found that identifying local effects of climate change is persuasive for a variety of science-belief and policy-support indicators (Scannell & Gifford, 2013; Wiest, Raymond, & Clawson, 2015). Identifying local risks conforms to more general advice about risk communication offered by Pidgeon and Fischhoff (2011).

According to Pidgeon and Fischhoff (2011), science communicators should define the risks associated with climate change in terms of at-risk groups their target audiences care about and they should emphasize human agency. Some audiences may be primarily concerned with human life, while others care more strongly about animal life (Dickinson et al., 2013) or the age of those at risk (Pidgeon & Fischhoff, 2011). According to these researchers, audiences will become more open to climate change communication if they are provided with specific information about risks and benefits of policy options, such as the degree to which humans can influence likely risks, the severity of the risks, and mental models of the processes surrounding the risks (Pidgeon & Fischhoff, 2011). Mental models in this context are abstract understandings of causal linkages regarding risks, which may facilitate understanding and feelings of control, which may also benefit from specificity. For instance, Pidgeon and Fischhoff (2011) recommended providing information about ecological ocean processes and how they impact a variety of other important climate components. The authors noted that providing audiences with this information prevents the audience from being “blindsided” in the future with unfamiliar information, which may limit their willingness to act (Pidgeon & Fischhoff, 2011). Additionally, Pidgeon and Fischhoff (2011) emphasized the role of positive emotions in inspiring action in audiences, noting that messages highlighting viable action and support for others are helpful, while also cautioning against emphasizing negative or destructive emotions. By encouraging their understanding, familiarity, and positive emotions, messages can help people understand the problem as one amenable to human action, encouraging feelings of agency (Stone, 1989).

As demonstrated in this brief review of select climate change communication publications, the framing literature is host to a variety of approaches and findings.

Climate Change Narrative Findings

Drawing upon empirical work that began emerging in the 2000s (see McBeth et al., 2014) regarding a much older notion that narrative plays an important role in how people understand policy-relevant information (Bruner, 1986; Lyotard, 1984), recent narrative research has applied the narrative policy framework (NPF) to climate change communication within the academic subfield of public policy (Jones, 2010, 2011, 2014a). The NPF is a theoretical framework designed for empirical exploration of narrative in the policy process as it was inspired by foundational works on narrative (e.g., Lyotard, 1984 Stone, 1989) as well as developments in policy studies aiming to explain the policy process in a comparable and replicable fashion (e.g., Sabatier, 1999). Motivated by the notion that narrative is a primary mechanism used by people to communicate and think, this framework provides general operationalization of narrative components, as well as theory development regarding the expected causal relationships of narrative and policymaking. The NPF spans three levels of analysis—positing that narratives have important policymaking effects occurring simultaneously at individual, group, and cultural levels.

The NPF suggests that narratives contain four structural elements—setting, plot, characters, and moral of the story. The theoretical traction the NPF offers regarding public policy is directly attributable to the utility of these elements, which are supported by some empirical tests (Jones et al., 2014). In operationalizing these narrative elements, different aspects of narratives can be counted (e.g., content analysis) or manipulated within experimental designs to assess their effect on important dependent variables, all of which are amenable to quantitative and qualitative methodologies (Gray & Jones, 2016; Jones & Radaelli, 2015). Setting refers to the context in which the policy issue takes place. This frequently includes geography, commonly accepted facts, institutional rules, laws, and other factors. Plot refers to causal relationships over time, often employing a past-present-future chronology. For example: The climate once was predictably variable in a largely inert manner, but after years of fossil fuel use that did not account for pollutant effects, humans have irrevocably altered the climate in ways that will have serious consequences for all ecosystems. Heroes are characters proffering helpful alternatives, sometimes fighting characters who cause harm (villains), or helping characters who have been or may be hurt (victims). In the previous illustration, humans are cast as villains and ecosystems as victims.3 The moral of the story is the policy solution present within the narrative. In the previous example, one might include a moral like the following: Although we may not reverse the effects of climate change, adaptation strategies hold much hope for the future, but require strong policy efforts before it is too late (Peterson et al., 2015).

Applications of the NPF exploring climate change communication thus far have all relied upon experimental survey designs. In the earliest of these studies, Jones (2010) found (n = 1,450) narrative had a meaningful effect on people’s opinions about climate change through the hero character. He also found that as peoples’ positive feeling for the hero increases, they are more likely to agree with the position proffered in the narrative. This research supports the idea that the hero character in climate change narratives is persuasive. Similarly, in another of these designs (n = 1,581), Jones (2014a) found that exposure to narratives reduces uncertain feelings about policy actors and increases positive feelings for heroes and negative feelings about villains, further supporting the role of heroes in persuasive climate change communication narratives and suggesting a role for villains. Casting an actor whose opponent is well known may have persuasion effects for the opponent, even if they are not mentioned in the narrative, further illustrating the way narrative influences cognitive processes (Jones et al., 2014).

Jones and Song (2014) found evidence of these cognitive processes in yet another NPF experimental survey (n = 1,711) analyzing climate change communication. They found exposure to narratives created to match their CT type caused people to organize climate change information in terms of NPF narrative elements (Jones & Song, 2014), suggesting an important role for narrative in how people think about climate change. However, in another survey (n = 1,711), Jones (2014b) found policy narratives were no more likely than fact lists to change policy preferences. Interestingly, he did find that narrative transportation (distracting attention from the world to the story) increases positive feelings for the hero (Jones, 2014b). The hero has been linked to persuasion of policy preferences and narrative has been linked to the effects of the hero character. Thus, findings from these experimental surveys suggest that narrative is likely an important component in climate change communication, especially regarding the effects of the hero and villain characters and narrative transportation.

Telling the Climate Change Story

Based on the discussions so far, guidelines for building more meaningful climate change stories can be derived. In combining more general climate change communication science with more specific climate change narrative scholarship, steps for successful climate stories can be proposed. This section essentially lays the NPF narrative template over some of the reviewed climate change communication literature and supplements that discussion with NPF findings. This is not an exhaustive exercise that integrates all climate communication findings, but it is illustrative. Figure 1 summarizes the emergent story-building steps derived from this process.

Narrative Persuasion and Storytelling as Climate Communication StrategiesClick to view larger

Figure 1. A path to climate change storytelling.

Step 1: Tell a Story

The idea of telling a story seems obvious, but many of those who communicate climate change have embraced the idea that people only need more accurate information for so long that maybe it is not obvious. And while it would be a mistake to argue that stories always work (see Jones, 2014b), they do often enough (Jones, 2010, 2014a; Jones & Song, 2014) to suggest that they might work better when focused specifically toward a communication goal. Fortunately, there is a wealth of research about how to best communicate climate change science. This information can facilitate more appropriate stories, given the environment, audience, relevant experts or decision makers, time span, policy solutions, and strategic resources available. Stories are an excellent vehicle for making information pliant to cognition by targeting specific audiences contingent upon demographics, beliefs, education or knowledge, geographic location, polarizing ideas, information environment, cultural inclination, subjects of interest, risk profile, or a variety of other factors not discussed here.

Step 2: Set the Stage

The first step in understanding the communication literature in terms of communicating via narrative is determining what constitutes the setting. This includes defining the problem, often what is causing it, and what elements of the environment are relevant to the problem, as it is defined.

Know the Audience

Before developing the setting, casting characters, plotting out the elements of the story in time, choosing the moral of the story, or deciding which narrative strategies to employ, it is of upmost importance to identify the consumers of the story. Understanding the characteristics of the audience is necessary for targeting crafted climate change messages (Roser-Renouf et al., 2015). Recall that demographic factors like income (Kahn & Kotchen, 2010), age (Semenza et al., 2008), gender (McCright, 2010; O’Connor, Bord, & Fisher, 1999), and race (McCright & Dunlap, 2011; Wood & Vedlitz, 2007) may affect opinions, beliefs, and actions regarding climate change information. Similarly, knowledge and education factors like science literacy, technical reasoning capabilities (Kahan et al., 2012), and climate change knowledge (Hamilton, 2008) can have important influences, although sometimes contingent upon demographic factors like gender (McCright, 2010) or combinations of demographic and belief indicators like race and ideology (McCright & Dunlap, 2011). Furthermore, beliefs—including ideology (Hamilton, 2008; Jones, 2011; Wood & Vedlitz, 2007), environmental concern (Bord, O’Connor, & Fisher, 2000), and risk orientations (Leiserowitz, 2006)—have also been shown to matter regarding climate change belief, concern, and action variables.

According to a variety of both NPF and climate change communication studies, incorporating audiences’ pre-existing beliefs may increase the persuasion of communications (Jones, 2010, 2011, 2014a; Jones & Song, 2014; Kahan et al., 2012; Roser-Renouf et al., 2015). Drawing upon audience beliefs in narrative affirms identity (Kahan et al., 2015) and provides heuristic cues (McBeth et al., 2014), while relying on the power of narrative form to ease information processing (Jones & Song, 2014). Additionally, exploring beliefs within a target audience may identify groups that are less likely to respond to common framing techniques (Roser-Renouf et al., 2015), thereby justifying the use of strategic communication tactics aimed specifically at this audience segment, while cautioning against the use of others to avoid effects like the boomerang effect (Hart & Nisbet, 2012; Myers et al., 2012).

Describe the Context

Once the audience is known, authors should craft the narrative setting with them in mind. NPF experiments include audience beliefs in narrative construction quite frequently, and therefore they may serve as an example of one way to account for audience characteristics within a narrative setting. Recall that Pidgeon and Fischhoff (2011), while also recommending communicators account for audience interests, noted the importance of defining specific facts or phenomena in climate change communications. Jones (2010, 2014a, 2014b) and Jones and Song (2014) created narrative settings crafted both to include specific facts about climate change and also to account for audience risk orientation (e.g., beliefs) in order to target audience risk interests. To account for both specific facts about climate change and differing beliefs about the nature of the world, the authors communicated the climate change problem exactly the same across target group narratives, only varying other parts of the setting for specific audience segments.

For example, Jones and Song (2014) pointed to the portrayal of a negative role for government in maintaining the unequal power status quo as a significant contextual factor in a climate change narrative targeting an audience concerned with equality. This contextual information is altered for the narrative targeting an audience concerned with hierarchy, which instead negatively portrays interest groups dismissing science in the pursuit of “communal solutions.” Both narratives share the same explanation of climate change based in specific facts, yet the contextual messages about the environment are tailored to targeted audiences. Climate change communicators should also consider harnessing the power of frames for fitting the setting of their climate change story to their audience. Recall that public health (Maibach et al., 2010; Myer et al., 2012), morality/ethics, and economic development (Nisbet, 2009) frames appeal to wide segments in the United States. Climate change stories should leverage these frames where appropriate.

In addition to frame types, integration of framing devices and narrative is also suggested. For example, framing research suggests allusions to recent phenomena could be used within a narrative to help communicate information about climate change (Druckman & Lupia, 2017). One specific example is local effects (Scannell & Gifford, 2013; Wiest, Raymond, & Clawson, 2015), such as warming effects (Druckman, 2015), which may be especially effective, given the many heat records broken in recent years. In addition to helping to focus attention in areas where a lot of information is available, like the topic of climate change, local references have the added benefit of also incorporating specifics about the policy context (Pidgeon & Fischhoff, 2011). Expert consensus of climate change information appears to work in a similar fashion, increasing respondents’ estimates of the consensus after exposure to the information (van der Linden et al., 2015). As the setting of a narrative frequently includes uncontested information, it will likely be helpful to include such recent and specific information about the setting of the climate change information that is targeted to the audience being communicated, in addition to specific information about risks associated with the policy solution. The point here is that settings—or “facts”—are not fixed per se. Rather, many are selected strategically, and given the plethora of facts in any policy setting, it is usually not an incredibly difficult task to find facts supporting your position. Some parts of the setting will be seemingly fixed, but others are quite malleable.

Step 3: Cast Characters

Once the audience has been identified and understood, and the setting of the climate change story being told has been tailored to the audience, the story’s characters should be cast. Recall that characters play an essential role in policy narratives and that NPF studies consistently find them to be the most important narrative element in communicating climate change science (Jones, 2010, 2014a, 2014b). Drawing again on the work of Pidgeon and Fischhoff (2011), who note the importance of positive emotions and feelings of control in the audience, it is likely that heroes may motivate behavior change and information acceptance and increase concern partly by presenting viable policy solutions in a positive emotional manner. To increase the effectiveness of heroes, authors may wish to rely on knowledge about their audience when choosing their particular hero. For instance, ideology, risk orientation, or other belief measurements may be considered when selecting a hero. It may not be wise to choose Newt Gingrich as a purveyor of climate change solutions to a liberal. However, it is possible such a choice might take advantage of the unexpected component that a breach narrative relies upon, but this would be a risky choice and should be vetted first. Additionally, authors should note specific interests of audiences in character choice when the information is available. For example, recall that some studies have found that respondents are more likely to report concern about climate change when presented with animal subjects (Dickinson et al., 2013) or depending upon a human subjects’ age (Pidgeon & Fischhoff, 2011).

Despite mixed findings from NPF studies (Jones, 2014a), and extending the thinking of Pidgeon and Fischhoff (2011), authors should be wary of too great a focus on villains as powerful factors, or too much elicitation of strong negative emotion associated with villains in a policy narrative, as they may dampen behavioral motivation. Such allusions may convey messages of futility (Pidgeon & Fischhoff, 2011). More research could help clarify the role of villains, particularly given the policy-debating technique identified as “the devil-shift,” which exaggerates the negative characteristics and power of opponents (Jenkins-Smith et al., 2014). Conversely, articulation of victims within narratives so that they elicit feelings of empathy and personal control may inspire behavioral motivation (Pidgeon & Fischhoff, 2011). Victims should also be chosen with the target audience in mind, as the framing literature has demonstrated (Dickinson et al., 2013).

The roles of characters in policy narratives are closely linked to how a narrative communicates essential information about the policy problem and solution. This information is likely helpful in motivating audiences, and drawing upon the moral of the story (the policy solution) further clarifies this information. Narrative elements work in concert to form information in a way that facilitates understanding and communication despite the various hurdles presented by the factors already described. In order for these elements to most usefully relate to one another, they should be associated in a fluid manner.

Step 4: Plot the Elements

Plot connects characters to their environment temporally, often establishing a beginning, a middle, and an end (but not necessarily depicted in that order). The climate communication literature has shown that even this simple temporal dimension of plot is of consequence. Recall that characterizing climate change impacts as occurring in the future increased belief in the severity of the impacts (Spence & Pidgeon, 2010). In terms of public policy generally (Jones et al., 2014), plot is more than temporality and is often also deeply intertwined with defining the problem in a story, because it establishes blame, situates the problem in both time and space, and often culminates in some moral. Like setting, plot should include specific information; however, the plot should focus on the role of human agency, possible risks, severity of those risks, and the causal model of such risks (Pidgeon & Fischhoff, 2011). Including specific (even specialized) climate change information in this narrative element may help inspire behavior change and protect against the effects of new information being presented in an opposing or confusing manner (Pidgeon & Fischhoff, 2011).

Although NPF climate change research has not extensively tested plot, it has been used chronologically in NPF experimental surveys and in creating mental models of causality that attribute blame to villains who intentionally cause problems (Jones, 2010; Jones & Song, 2014), often in order to achieve benefits for themselves. This explanation of blame (see Stone, 1989) has been used in NPF studies outside of climate change studies with mixed results. Climate change communicators considering this device should recall the potential problems with involving negative emotions, which have a tendency to limit the bounds of human agency in their explanations (Pidgeon & Fischhoff, 2011). Regarding the plot component, plots including information about the role of human agency, possible risks, severity of those risks, and the causal model of such risks will help people process the information being transmitted by the narrative (Pidgeon & Fischhoff, 2011).

Step 5: Write the Moral

In public policy, the academic field from which the NPF originates, the moral of the story is frequently spoken about in terms of policy solutions. However, for purposes of climate change communication, it is probably useful to begin simply with a question: what is the point of the story? Recall that Pidgeon and Fischhoff (2011) posited that people respond best to information that includes risks and benefits associated with policy solutions and that Spence and Pidgeon (2010) found that individuals respond more to climate change policy solutions framed in terms of gains instead of losses. Based on these works, it is suggested that the solution, or point, of the climate change story be presented in terms of risks and benefits, with an emphasis on gains, whenever possible. Additionally, when possible, employ policy solutions that garner support across different audience segments (Jones, 2011; Kahan et al., 2015).


There is an important and twofold role for narrative in climate change communication research and initiatives. Narrative is a primary factor in human cognition—a stance that has enjoyed both philosophical justification (Bruner, 1986; Lyotard, 1984) and empirical support (Jones & Song, 2014). Therefore, narrative is helpful for those studying climate change communication both in its ability to facilitate learning about how narratives are involved with effective climate change communication as well as in their ability to deploy many of the diverse findings from non-narrative-related climate change communication research. To support these arguments, select climate change communication studies are reviewed. Next, recent NPF climate change communication research is reviewed. Lastly, the two reviews are integrated by organizing findings from the broader literature in terms of NPF theory that allow recommending a general narrative organization that is likely to facilitate more effective communication of climate change information. Five general steps are offered: 1) write a story using narrative form; 2) set the stage, drawing upon audience preferences to choose specific recent information about climate change; 3) cast the characters, with audience beliefs and interest focusing on heroes and victims that inspire positive emotions, 4) plot the elements, including specific causation and time dimensions, and 5) write the moral by articulating a specific solution in terms of gains.


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(1.) See, for example, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, and Leiserowitz (2008) and Schäfer (2012) for excellent reviews of some of this literature.

(2.) For example, Spence and Pidgeon (2010) use this as a gain frame: “By mitigating climate change, we can prevent further increases in winter floods in maritime regions and flash floods throughout Europe”; and this as a loss frame: “Without mitigating climate change, we will see further increases in winter floods in maritime regions and flash floods throughout Europe.”

(3.) Disagreement exists over whether nonhuman actors make sense to use as characters (Weible et al., 2016), but recent applications of the NPF have found them useful (Smith-Walter et al., 2016).