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date: 24 April 2017

Narrative Persuasion and Storytelling as Climate Communication Strategies

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. Please check back later for the full article.

Despite widespread 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. Climate change science communicators may help the public better understand, accept, and discuss their messages by incorporating some findings of narrative scholarship from the academic field of public policy. Narratives help people understand and communicate information by organizing that 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 empirical climate change studies, five suggestions for writing effective climate change stories emerge.

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. For example, setting is an ideal place to employ audience-relevant frames. Third, using knowledge about audience cultural orientations, choose characters (heroes, villains, or victims) to whom the audience can relate 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, temporarily link narrative components together (chronologically, perhaps) with specific information about causality, risk, and human agency. Fifth, clearly identify the point of the story (a policy solution, perhaps) 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.