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date: 23 April 2018

Communicating About Climate Change with Urban Populations and Decision-Makers

Summary and Keywords

Cities are important venues for climate change communication, where global rhetoric, national directives, local priorities, and media discourses interact to advance mitigation, adaptation, and resilience outcomes on the ground. Urban decision makers are often directly accountable to their electorates, responsible for the tasks most relevant to advancing concrete action on climate change, and flexible in pursuing various public engagement programs. However, many cities are designing climate policies without robust downscaled climate projections or clear capacity and support mechanisms. They are often constrained by fragmented governance arrangements, limited resources, and jurisdictional boundaries. Furthermore, policies often fall short in responding to the disparate needs of heterogeneous urban populations. Despite these constraints, cities across the global North and South are innovating with various communication tools to facilitate public awareness, political engagement, context-specific understanding, and action around climate change. These tools range from traditional popular media to innovative participatory processes that acknowledge the interests of different stakeholders, facilitate engagement across institutional boundaries, and address persistent scientific uncertainty through information coproduction and knowledge reflexivity. By selectively employing these tools, local governments and their partners are able to translate climate science into actionable mitigation, adaptation, and resilience plans; prioritize decision making while taking into account the multiscaled nature of urban infrastructures and service provisions; and design adaptable and flexible communication processes that are socially equitable and inclusive over the long term.

Keywords: climate change communication, urban policy, governance, urban planning, decision-making tools, cities, collaborative planning


Cities are critical nodes of climate change action and decision making. Municipalities across the global North and South are assuming greater responsibility for planning, designing, and implementing climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies (Bulkeley, 2010). Often operating under extreme pressure—for example, budget austerity in European cities after the 2009 sovereign debt crisis or in response to catastrophic events like Hurricane Sandy in New York City in 2012—cities face a variety of structural constraints to their ability to communicate the risks associated with climate change to their citizens. Scholars of urban climate change governance have noted that the urban arena is increasingly important (Betsill & Bulkeley, 2006; Moser, 2006; Rosenzweig, Solecki, Hammer, & Mehrotra, 2010). Yet, important questions remain, including: how do we make sense of the tension between constrained governance capacities and the push for more comprehensive climate change action at the local and regional scale? What are the implications of this tension as municipal authorities design communication strategies? And finally, to what extent is climate change—including both its impacts and actions taken in response to them across scales, spaces, and populations—transforming the nature and substance of communication in our urban environments?

Drawing on earlier work on urban environmental sustainability, the field of urban climate change communication emerged more than a decade ago, with a focus on identifying key audiences, appropriate messengers, framings, and messages, as well as communication channels to achieve public engagement goals (Moser, 2006). This was timely and important because public understanding and acceptance of climate change was relatively low (Sterman, 2011). For instance, entrenched ideological differences shaped the media’s climate change message in the United States (McCright & Dunlap, 2011), while the public in the United Kingdom pitted greenhouse gas reduction targets and economic development priorities as zero-sum tradeoffs (Lorenzoni, Nicholson-Cole, & Whitmarsh, 2007). There was an urgent need to improve public awareness and relate climate change information to personal experience, knowledge, and the balance of benefits and costs (Lorenzoni & Pidgeon, 2006). Corresponding public policies subsequently emphasized the persistent risks posed by climate change and the likely implications of those risks, as well as appealing to societal values of ecological integrity and long-term well-being (van der Linden, Maibach, & Leiserowitz, 2015).

Tools employed by the media, activists, and municipal authorities have largely focused on this need to improve public awareness and knowledge. Communication involves any form of public engagement that facilitates behavioral, organizational, political, and other types of social change consistent with identified climate change mitigation and adaptation goals (Moser, 2014). The objective is not only to facilitate awareness, but also to encourage more fundamental shifts in people’s attitudes (Moser, 2006; Newig, 2011). However, since climate change is a deeply politicized issue across many contexts (McCright & Dunlap, 2011), changing public opinion and attitudes requires paying sustained attention to larger political and economic constructs, deeply held value systems, pervasive behavioral patterns, and entrenched interests in contemporary society. This includes acknowledging real or perceived tradeoffs between economic development and environmental sustainability, individual choice and collective action, consumption and conservation, and variable degrees of risk tolerance. Communication processes, if effectively and equitably deployed, can play a critical role in bridging these discourses to facilitate collective visions of a more sustainable and climate-resilient future.

In this article, we comprehensively review the foundational knowledge of climate change communication, but with a focus on assessing communication—and communicative action in particular—in urban settings across the global North and South. Challenges associated with identifying key audiences, communication channels, and appropriate or resonant issue frames still hold true for achieving public support and awareness, but cities are also microcosms of the institutional, socioeconomic, and spatial heterogeneity that necessitate new theories and approaches to communicating climate change at scale. Calls for urbanizing climate change communication have advocated for understanding the internal urban governance structures that constrain issue uptake, as well as the tools, techniques, and pathways of public engagement—i.e., between public authorities and private or civil society actors—to co-create or construct appropriate visions of urban futures despite continued climate risks and uncertain climate projections.

This review builds on that work through two broad sections. First, we trace the genealogy of urban climate change communication. This section diagnoses the unique institutional, spatial, and social heterogeneities that make communicating climate change in urban contexts especially challenging. This is done by juxtaposing current theories on the communication of climate change values, risks, and uncertainties against research on urban climate change planning and governance. Second, we assess the current state of knowledge about the tools and techniques of constructing and communicating climate-resilient urban futures. This section highlights how scientists, activists, and the media have framed and translated climate change priorities in ways that allow acceptance, buy-in, and (at times) leadership from urban authorities and citizens. We highlight some innovative examples of communicative action in practice and conclude by offering a research agenda that places urban politics, populations, and places at the center of theories on climate change communication.

Theories of Urban Climate Change Communication

The rise of climate change as a global policy issue in the late 1990s corresponded with a resurgence of cities as a unit of analysis in the fields of public policy, governance, and international development. In cities across North America and Europe, economic restructuring in the post-Reagan/Thatcher era, combined with the growing influence of globalized trade and investment, elevated private capital as the primary driving force behind municipal politics, planning action, and spatial development (Friedmann, 1986; Harvey, 1989; Lefebvre, 1991). In the global South, trends in democratization meant that many cities were increasingly beneficiaries of devolved budgetary, legislative, and infrastructural powers, but were hamstrung by capacity and governance deficits that were symptomatic of the postcolonial condition (Robinson, 2011; Roy, 2011; Watson, 2009). Despite these divergent experiences, both speak to cities as sites of capital accumulation, contentious politics, and the spatial manifestations of the interaction between the two (Brenner & Theodore, 2005). Environmental sustainability and climate change discourses arose from this backdrop of concentrated power among small numbers of urban economic elites, structural biases toward decentralized network governance approaches, and a persistent unraveling of public sector planning and decision-making authorities (Swyngedouw, 2004; Himley, 2008).

Under these conditions, effectively communicating climate change information and priorities in cities often required overcoming countervailing forces and deficits in planning authority. These conditions have, in large part, persisted. In this section, we address the following question: How do we make sense of the tension between constrained governance capacities and the push for more comprehensive climate change action in cities? Here, we highlight via examples why climate change communication must be pursued at scale. Current theories of climate change communication note the centrality of public authorities for setting agendas, imposing regulation or incentives, and designing instruments to solve collective action problems (Weingart, Engels, & Pansegrau, 2000; Nerlich, Koteyko, & Brown, 2010). However, as we discuss, the institutional, spatial, and social heterogeneities and constraints found within and across cities make climate change communication especially challenging.

Institutional Heterogeneity and Disparity

In terms of messaging, cities are confronted with substantial uncertainty around the nature and degree of risks that they face, which then affects their ability to identify the most appropriate mitigation and adaptation actions (Weingart et al., 2000; Ruth & Coelho, 2007; Rahman, Walker, & Marchau, 2008). External climatic uncertainties are compounded by entrenched urban political dynamics, funding pressures, and economic interests that constrain the structure of any public sector-driven communication process (Moser & Ekstrom, 2010; Shi, Chu, & Carmin, 2016b). Institutional heterogeneities and disparities, which manifest as diverging sectoral interests, uneven governance capacities, and conflicting policy mandates, shape the ad hoc nature of urban climate change planning and policy making. These internal constraints then shape the context within which communication programs are conceived of and implemented.

Scholars have long noted that any discussion of the communicative turn in urban planning also must include analyses of power, the state, and political economy (Healey, 1996; Huxley & Yiftachel, 2000). These power differentials are particularly visible when science is driving public policy debates because science itself is so often contested and value-laden (Sarewitz, 2004; Layzer, 2011). In many instances, perceptions of climate change are highly dependent on personal values (Whitmarsh, 2011), which in turn affect how issues are framed and discussed in democratic political systems (Weingart et al., 2000). Although the literature suggests that communicative processes can help address both scientific and political uncertainty (Innes & Booher, 2010; Morton, Rabinovich, Marshall, & Bretschneider, 2011), many public discourses have been subsumed by powerful actors that hold their own vested interests and are framing and reshaping climate change debates to fit their own interests and perspectives (Feindt & Oels, 2005; Newig, 2011). Cities are frequently where such debates surface. For example, a study of several Australian cities highlighted the disproportionate role private property developers played in driving local climate change policies (Taylor, Wallington, Heyenga, & Harman, 2014). Similarly, in the United States, cities in Florida, North Carolina, and elsewhere are discouraged from using language referring to climate change due to ideologically driven state mandates (Haywood, Brennan, Dow, Kettle, & Lackstrom, 2014; Shi, Chu, & Debats, 2015). In these cases, climate change is susceptible to miscommunication due to differences in internal political, economic, and social interests.

The socioeconomic restructuring of cities—including through globalization, austerity, and political devolution—has increasingly led to the creation of powerful urban regimes and special interest groups that prevent municipal governments from effectively accounting for collective interests and benefits (Pierre, 1999; Kearns & Paddison, 2000). The shift from talking about “local government” to “local governance” entails more democratic power, accountability, and transparency (Cheema, 2007), but also can lead to the consolidation of decision making within small groups of technocrats or other elite groups (Swyngedouw, 2005). Many cities struggle to form coherent climate change mandates when confronted by powerful development interests. Although cities like Durban, South Africa, and Toronto, Canada, have long been considered early adopters of climate change policies, they continue to face push-back from infrastructure developers, property speculators, unsupportive legal environments, and occasional climate denialism among their local leadership (Carmin, Dodman, & Chu, 2013). Ambiguities around how to frame environmental discourses against powerful local interests have constrained the degree to which existing interinstitutional communication channels can be adapted to engage emerging contentious issues like climate change.

In many cities, priorities across municipal government agencies are vastly divergent and often not conducive to cooperation on large multiscalar and transboundary issues like climate change (Westerhoff, Keskitalo, & Juhola, 2011; Carmin et al., 2013). In Durban, climate change priorities are spearheaded by the Environmental Planning and Climate Protection Department (EPCPD), which began seriously thinking about mitigation and adaptation actions—ranging from a renewable energy portfolio to ecosystem-based adaptation in the local Umgeni River watershed—starting in the early 2000s (Roberts, 2008). However, many projects have been constrained by conflicts within and across departments, particularly when communication channels and lines of influence were tenuous between a relatively minor department such as the EPCPD and more prominent energy, infrastructure, public health, and economic development departments (Carmin, Anguelovski, & Roberts, 2012; Roberts & O’Donoghue, 2013; Roberts et al., 2016). These challenges reflect the prioritization of economic development and infrastructure provision over environmental sustainability and climate protection. Although this discourse of “climate versus development” has subsided somewhat—as exemplified by the proliferation of projects with mitigation-adaptation co-benefits ranging from small-scale urban greening pilot programs to large megaprojects like the construction of the 2010 FIFATM World Cup stadium in Durban (Diederichs & Roberts, 2016; Chu, Anguelovski, & Roberts, 2017)—stand-alone climate change priorities continue to encounter resistance to internal political acceptance.

A final source of institutional disparity relates to human capacity deficiencies found in many municipalities. Studies emphasize how uncertain climate projections—such as sea level rise scenarios and urban heat and disease vector maps—impede the coherence of climate change messages aimed at redirecting public opinion and decision making (Patt & Dessai, 2005; Whitmarsh, 2011; Sterman, 2011). This research assumes that municipalities have direct access to locally meaningful, downscaled climate projections, and the internal staffing capacities to translate these assessments into policy action steps. In fact, adequate downscaled models showing climate change risks and vulnerabilities have been quite rare outside major cities like New York, Bangkok, and Rotterdam. When such models are available, this information is often supplemented by alternative sources, such as citizen science and the products of stakeholder deliberations (Carlsen, Dreborg, & Wikman-Svahn, 2012; Larsen & Gunnarsson-Östling, 2009; Susskind, Rumore, Hulet, & Field, 2015). Furthermore, municipal environmental and planning departments often face substantial deficiencies in financing, technical skills, staffing capacity, and legal provisions, which constrain their abilities to work beyond day-to-day operational tasks (Carmin et al., 2013). In some cases, cities have rejected new sources of climate data, and even financial support to address climate change, because of the anticipated additional paperwork, reporting burdens, or expertise that would be required. The main challenge, therefore, is often not the availability of climate science, but internal limitations, skepticism, and mismatches in capacity, funding, and institutional responsibility that prevent cities from acting on climate change (Carmin & Dodman, 2013; Hughes & Romero-Lankao, 2014; Mearns, 2010).

Space and Scale

A unique aspect of communicating climate change in urban settings is the fact that cities fill particular niches across space and scale. As highlighted earlier in this article, cities are at the forefront of climate change action because they oversee infrastructure and public services, are directly accountable to local electorates, and are first-responders during most hazard events (Rosenzweig et al., 2010). Despite having high overall levels of greenhouse gas emissions, per-capita emissions in cities can be quite low (Dodman, 2009). Nonetheless, in the context of climate change communication, the spatial concentration of production and consumption behaviors in cities—together with higher population densities—presents many opportunities for influencing action (Hoornweg, Sugar, & Trejos Gomez, 2011). For example, the literature on low-carbon transitions shows that the concentration of populations and infrastructure in cities can foster innovative and collaborative approaches to renewable energy consumption and other grassroots climate mitigation technologies (Bulkeley, Castán Broto, Hodson, & Marvin, 2011). However, such innovations are rarely straightforward due to mismatches between jurisdictional and ecological boundaries (Bai, McAllister, Beaty, & Taylor, 2010).

Spatially, many cities are fragmented, with municipal boundaries dividing what are otherwise contiguous urban regions. Cities have unique ecologies—including their ecosystems, built environments, and human communities—that are not clearly bounded and often spatially mismatched (Albrechts, 2004). Furthermore, cities are typically embedded within wider governance regimes, with responsibilities divided across levels of government. The delineation of decision-making responsibilities at the global, national, regional, and local levels raises scale issues (Brenner, 1999; Macleod & Goodwin, 1999). Theories of urban and environmental governance note that coordinating climate change actions across diverse landscapes and populations is challenging due to geographically specific climate risks and impacts, which are determined by particular sociocultural contexts, political or legal jurisdictions, and ecological conditions (Adger, Barnett, Brown, Marshall, & O’Brien, 2013). Similarly, the effectiveness of many climate adaptation programs hinges on the ability to coordinate across political jurisdictions due to the presence of transboundary risks—such as sea level rise and storm surges—that span ecosystems and infrastructure networks (Bollinger et al., 2014; Corfee-Morlot, Cochran, Hallegatte, & Teasdale, 2010). The complexities around scale and space have profound implications for urban climate change communication, especially since the effectiveness and legitimacy of communicative processes depend on who actually has control over relevant mitigation or adaptation decisions (Moser, 2006). In order to design programs that are appropriately sized and scaled, cities must be able to bridge the transboundary and multiscalar nature of climate change actions.

Many climate change actions require collaboration across jurisdictional boundaries. For example, changing urban mobility behaviors by incentivizing public transportation usage or transit-oriented development is critical for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but such actions rely on coordinated policies and planning across regions, as transportation networks and urban agglomerations transcend political boundaries (Bollinger et al., 2014). In the Boston metropolitan region in the United States, a state agency is responsible for the public transportation system, while different local and state agencies are responsible for the road network, which traverses more than 100 separate but intertwined municipalities. The historical role of metropolitan or regional planning agencies and the influence of funds from the U.S. federal government complicate the picture even further (Schenk, 2017a). Moreover, the way that communities are spread across space—which involves issues of housing density, zoning and land use planning, and employment opportunities—affects travel demands, motor vehicle dependency, and greenhouse gas emission levels (Dulal, Brodnig, & Onoriose, 2011). As a result, any communication process designed to change transportation behaviors must address larger patterns of mobility and settlement across city-regions, together with individual behaviors and consumption preferences (Bertolini, le Clercq, & Kapoen, 2005; Chapman, 2007; Banister, 2011).

The transboundary nature of infrastructure networks also influences the ability of cities to coordinate climate adaptation and risk management across space (Davoudi, Crawford, & Mehmood, 2009; Zimmerman & Faris, 2010). For example, Surat, India, is particularly vulnerable to river flooding and inundation during monsoon seasons, which are projected to worsen under climate change (Chu, 2016a). In the early 2010s, Surat built several large-scale flood management infrastructures—including new water distribution pipelines, river embankments, and weirs—to reduce climate risks; however, this infrastructure is functional only if coordinated with the upstream dams managing discharge from the larger regional watershed (Bhat, Karanth, Dashora, & Rajasekar, 2013). In another example, Medellin, Colombia, is building a 46-mile-long metropolitan cinturón verde (green belt) to manage urban growth while also protecting urban forests, providing access to green spaces, and reducing urban heat island effects (Anguelovski et al., 2016b). Such a large-scale “green” infrastructure project requires coordination between regional transport authorities and the different municipal jurisdictions in charge of housing and public services (Viguié & Hallegatte, 2012; Chu, Anguelovski, & Roberts, 2017).

These examples from Surat and Medellin highlight the challenges of communicating climate change, given that cities cannot tackle these issues as stand-alone stressors in specific locations (Hallegatte, 2009), but rather as portfolios of systemic risks in infrastructure networks that stretch across political boundaries. Beyond transboundary infrastructure, addressing other issues—including land use, biodiversity conservation, and solid waste management networks—is key to facilitating climate action, yet they are similarly hobbled by fragmented governance (Grimm et al., 2008).

Scholars of multilevel governance argue that this stretching of planning and policy-making authority happens horizontally—i.e., across jurisdictional boundaries in space—and vertically among local, regional, national, and global levels of government (Hooghe & Marks, 2003). For example, climate change action around water issues in Dutch cities is largely the responsibility of the 22 regional waterschappen (water boards), but municipalities are responsible for interrelated land-use planning decisions, and provincial and national agencies, including the Rijkswaterstaat, for higher-level water system planning and decision making (Uittenbroek, Janssen-Jansen, & Runhaar, 2013). In another case, energy production and consumption policies in cities in the United Kingdom and Germany are contingent upon directives from national and European Union (EU) authorities, while local and regional authorities often manage incentive programs (Kern & Bulkeley, 2009). At a more local level, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government in Japan must coordinate climate change actions across the 23 separate municipalities—or “special wards”—that are functionally separate from each other (Hijioka et al., 2016). Conversely, at the global level, the success of many renewable energy incentives enacted in cities and regions are contingent on supply and pricing factors dictated in large part by global market forces (Newman, Beatley, & Boyer, 2009).

In general, in an era of urban political and economic restructuring, control over many urban planning and policy-making responsibilities is increasingly devolved to nonstate, network, or extralocal actors and forces (Harvey, 1989; McFarlane, 2009). For many cities in the global South, transnational networks provide the necessary capacity and resource support for urban climate change actions. Examples of such networks include the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, ICLEI–Local Governments for Sustainability, and the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities, all of which have their own institutional agendas and interests that shape their engagements with city governments (Andonova, Betsill, & Bulkeley, 2009; Bulkeley, 2010; Bulkeley & Betsill, 2013). Global environmental and climate change agreements—such as the Paris Agreement from COP21 in December 2015, the New Urban Agenda agreed at Habitat III of the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development in October 2016, and the Sustainable Development Goals—all have a strong bearing on local-level actions (Barnett & Parnell, 2016; Parnell, 2016). Private and informal sectors also play a variety of key roles. For example, water and electricity systems are often privately owned or managed, and yet they are both integral to communities and intertwined with other infrastructure systems. In the case of Mumbai, India, and Lagos, Nigeria, a number of informal or private neighborhood tankers help supply clean water to rapidly growing communities that are yet to be served by formal municipal pipelines (Gandy, 2006; Graham, Desai, & McFarlane, 2013).

The multiple scales of governance and decision making add layers of actors, networks, and institutions to any urban communication program (van Asselt & Renn, 2011). The interconnectedness of various infrastructure networks across space is compounded by the fragmentation of governance scales and jurisdictions, resulting in numerous agencies and authorities with distinct yet highly interconnected roles and responsibilities. In order to design effective communication programs, public-sector authorities must share communication arenas with equally powerful and informed actors, ranging from private actors to transnational networks. Within this cacophony of competing interests, cities also must find ways to appropriately balance the scope—in terms of both space and scale—of any climate change action and communication.

Equity and Inclusiveness

Governments often rely on mass communication efforts that heavily focus on the science or impacts of climate change writ large and are not tailored to particular audiences (Moser, 2006). Many have critiqued this approach because it neglects to take into account the differentiated impacts of climate change and how different communities might process and use that information (Anguelovski & Carmin, 2011). Since many downscaled climate change models and scenarios are uncertain, the degree to which such data are actually employed in policy formation is also unclear (Carmin & Dodman, 2013; Hughes & Romero-Lankao, 2014). To bridge these information gaps, more recent climate change communication approaches have relied on participatory, collaborative, or multistakeholder approaches to knowledge generation (Larsen & Gunnarsson-Östling, 2009; Aylett, 2010; Newig, 2011), while assuming that citizen experiences with climate change will help inform locally appropriate actions (Leiserowitz, 2006; Weber, 2006; Marx et al., 2007). In this section, we examine how urban climate change communication can neglect to account for entrenched power differentials that affect the inclusiveness and justice of the outcomes.

We noted earlier that city governments must contend with institutional disparities attributed to differences in internal policy priorities and external socioeconomic interests. To bridge these differences, there have been calls for more participatory approaches to climate change action to ensure adequate representation of divergent interests (Susskind, 2010; Chu, Anguelovski, & Carmin, 2016). In fact, many argue that given the dominant role of science in climate change discourse, participation can be important both to connect science with policy making and to encourage interaction between policy makers and the public (van den Hove, 2000; Newig, 2011). This mirrors trends over the past several decades in urban and environmental governance, where there has been a general push toward participatory processes to address complex societal issues (Susskind & Cruikshank, 1987; Forester, 1999; Fung & Wright, 2003; Innes & Booher, 2010).

Scholars of public participation note that integrating scientific analysis into public deliberation in an iterative manner can enhance decision making to deal with complex disputes and uncertainty around both facts and values (Forester, 1999; Newman, 2005; Dietz, 2013; Schenk & Matsuura, 2017). Well-designed communicative planning and policy processes can facilitate appropriate, shared knowledge—i.e., a communicative or collaborative rationality—and lead to appropriate actions (Habermas, 1991; Healey, 1996; Flyvbjerg, 1998; Innes, 1998). However, the combination of high levels of public indecisiveness, apathy, uncertainty over sources of scientific data, and the intransigence of many economic and political interests can also result in significant differences and disagreement within cities (Hagen, Middel, & Pijawka, 2016). Intractability and the absence of many voices—combined with a plethora of opportunities for capture by elite actors and interests—can exacerbate inequity and injustice (Feindt & Oels, 2005; Few, Brown, & Tompkins, 2007; Newig, 2011).

Communicative approaches to climate change policy making in cities emphasize the representation of divergent voices and interests. Procedural inclusiveness entails the consideration of traditionally marginalized communities—such as those based on class, race, ethnicity, or gender—in the policy process (Rawls, 1971; Young, 1990). For example, in the late 2000s, Quito, Ecuador, established a citizen’s climate change panel with representation from youth groups, indigenous communities, and local women’s associations. This panel advocated for a set of guiding principles to prioritize actions that balanced mitigation, adaptation, and sustainable development needs (Carmin et al., 2012; Anguelovski, Chu, & Carmin, 2014). Similarly, cities in South and Southeast Asia that participated in the Rockefeller Foundation’s Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN) facilitated a series of “shared learning dialogue” workshops that brought diverse stakeholders together to envision appropriate actions to improve urban climate resilience (Sharma, Singh, & Singh, 2014; Kernaghan & da Silva, 2014). Such inclusive programs have been prevalent in the United States as well, where climate change plans in New York City (Rosenzweig & Solecki, 2010), Chicago (Coffee, Parzen, Wagstaff, & Lewis, 2010), and San Francisco (Ekstrom & Moser, 2014) all advocated for broadly representative risk and vulnerability assessment approaches. The objectives of these programs were to improve citizen awareness of and action on issues—i.e., to develop civic capacity and knowledge to deal with uncertainty—as well as to legitimize eventual climate change policy and planning decisions and their outcomes.

Even though broadly inclusive processes that communicate the importance of climate change to elected officials, the public, and the business community are critical (Brulle, Carmichael, & Jenkins, 2012; Howe, Mildenberger, Marlon, & Leiserowitz, 2015; McCright & Dunlap, 2011), their success will be diminished if they are not accompanied by a recognition that facilitating equitable outcomes of climate actions is equally important (Shi et al., 2016a; Meerow & Newell, 2016)—that is, that distributional concerns must also be addressed. Some scholarship suggests that targeted political mobilization from powerful elites and advocacy groups is often more influential in addressing climate change concerns than broad participatory processes (Brulle et al., 2012).

However, even if this is the case, one can question the legitimacy of such targeted advocacy approaches, as the link between public participation and social justice becomes unclear (Fung, 2015). The issue of who has power over the process is critical because it ultimately affects the shape and context upon which climate change priorities enter the public consciousness (Lahsen, 2007; Callison, 2014). For example, climate change planning in Santiago, Chile, was led by scientific and technical experts from external development aid agencies and consulting firms (Krellenberg & Katrin, 2014). Similarly, large transnational engineering firms based outside the country guided much of the decision making around the construction of large-scale climate infrastructure in Jakarta, Indonesia (Anguelovski et al., 2016b). In both cases, external economic and political interests dominated the discourse, and although climate concerns were ostensibly integrated into the urban development agenda, most local socioeconomic priorities—particularly those concerning more vulnerable sections of society—were neglected in the process.

The decentralization of decision making in cities has led to a proliferation of arenas for public participation and deliberation, especially for addressing scientific complexity and uncertainty (Fung, 2006; Innes & Booher, 2010). However, this political restructuring has uncovered more fundamental questions about who has control over the strategies and outcomes of urban climate change communication processes. In this section, we highlighted corresponding procedural and distributive equity concerns, which, when combined with earlier discussions of institutional heterogeneity and issues of space and scale, point to the complexities of facts, values, ideologies, discourses, and practices that characterize climate change communication in cities. In response, some have argued that communication programs must move beyond simply addressing citizen attitudes and choices (Shove, 2010) into the realm of mobilizing broader social change and empowerment (Nerlich, Koteyko, & Brown, 2010; Jasanoff, 2010; Johnson, 2012; Stoknes, 2014). The dilemma, then, is how local governments can mobilize when confronted with constraining local jurisdictional authorities and the increasing role of special interests. In the next section, we tackle this conundrum by assessing the different ways cities (and citizens) can deliberate, construct, and communicate broader visions of climate-resilient urban futures, as well as how various urban actors are translating climate change priorities in ways that allow issue acceptance, buy-in, and (at times) leadership.

Tools and Techniques of Urban Climate Change Communication

The public’s fluctuating interest in climate change is well documented (Ratter, Philipp, & von Storch, 2012; Howe et al., 2015). Urban communication processes deal with changing values and attitudes by deploying diverse techniques, including verbal and visual methods, digital messaging, and multistakeholder, deliberative approaches (Nerlich et al., 2010). Many of the messages then get transformed into recognizable and promotable sound bites by the popular media (Anderson, 2009). The assumption is that climate change agendas are established as public policies, and are thus through political decision- making (Weingart et al., 2000). However, we argue that since the centrality of government is being eroded in an era of governance restructuring, we must revisit our definition of politics to include the role of nonstate actors, epistemic communities, and transboundary networks in articulating climate change priorities (Knorr Cetina, 1999; Jasanoff, 2004).

The management of complex webs of state and nonstate actors requires extensive collaboration among stakeholders. While existing institutional arrangements can provide valuable scaffolding, new relationships and arrangements that bridge institutions and foster wider consensus are required. Quick and Feldman (2014) refer to this as productive boundary work, and highlight the value of boundaries as junctures—rather than barriers, as they are traditionally considered—for translating across, aligning among, and decentering differences. Theoretically, productive boundary work involves the pursuit of an intersubjective, collaborative rationality arrived at through locally appropriate, co-constructed, and broadly accepted deliberation (Habermas, 1991; Innes & Booher, 2010). Specific to urban climate change action, boundary work can facilitate interinstitutional arrangements for sharing information, reassembling capacities and resources, and articulating distinct climate change needs and actions.

The following section on the tools and techniques of communicating climate change is divided into two parts. First, we answer the second question posed at the beginning of this article by highlighting variations in how climate change is framed in cities across the global North and South. We apply a comparative lens because most scholarship on public perception and risk communication has focused on the North (Capstick, Whitmarsh, Poortinga, Pidgeon, & Upham, 2015). Southern cities are increasingly nodes of population and economic growth (Miraftab, 2009; Parnell & Robinson, 2012; Watson, 2013), but at the same time, they operate under different sociopolitical contexts that either promote or constrain the application of particular communication tools. Second, we survey four broad categories of communication in cities, which include popular media channels, consultative science-policy dialogues, cocreative and reflexive participatory learning systems, and the use of decision-support tools such as joint fact-finding, scenario planning, and “serious games” (defined later in this article). Experiences suggest that the selective implementation of these tools can help urban actors to shape priorities collectively in ways that facilitate political acceptance, buy-in, and leadership, while simultaneously overcoming governance constraints to devise shared visions of climate-resilient urban futures.

Framing the Climate Change Challenge

Studies of how climate change priorities are framed focus on strategies to improve issue resonance among politicians, citizens, the media, and business interests (Nisbet, 2009; Moser, 2014). Climate change is often communicated as a negative or loss (Morton, Rabinovich, Marshall, & Bretschneider, 2011). Critiques of how climate change is communicated include the paradoxical threats of downplaying or, conversely, exaggerating risks; pandering to sensationalism; the use of so-called bad science; the potential risk of inciting public hysteria; and even accusations of conspiracy (Weingart et al., 2000). In response to these concerns, some have focused on providing simple and clear messages, relying on metaphors and analogies, and appealing to emotions, experiences, and normative beliefs (Newig, 2011; Gifford, Kormos, & McIntyre, 2011; Roeser, 2012; Moser, 2014). In the United States, for example, evidence suggests that public risk perceptions and policy support are strongly influenced by experiential factors (including affect, imagery, and values), demonstrating that public responses are dictated by both psychological and sociocultural factors (Leiserowitz, 2006; Weber & Stern, 2011). These emotional or experiential frames are complicated when communicating about future, slow-onset climate risk (Pidgeon & Fischhoff, 2011; Pidgeon, 2012). Regardless of the framing and challenges, local governments play a critical role in shaping communication processes in any potential solution space (Patt & Weber, 2014).

Processes for communicating the need for climate change mitigation differ from those for adaptation, resilience, and risk management (Russill & Nyssa, 2009; Moser, 2014). Mitigation goals—whether renewable energy uptake or automobile emissions reductions—are heavily dependent on financial incentives, persuasive regulatory tools, and/or public awareness programs aimed at changing production and consumption behaviors (Johnson, 2012; Tobler, Visschers, & Siegrist, 2012). Many of these approaches rely on social marketing (Corner et al., 2011; McKenzie-Mohr & Schultz, 2014), and on governments’ ability to manipulate the choice architecture (Nerlich et al., 2010). Adaptation actions, on the other hand, build on growing experience with the impacts or perceptions of risk (Akerlof, Maibach, Fitzgerald, Cedeno, & Neuman, 2013), as well as on policies and associated technological advancements needed to address these risks and vulnerabilities (Patt & Weber, 2014). How climate adaptation actions are justified and contextualized is determined by how risks are defined, priorities are understood by the public, and potential policy options are considered (Paschen & Ison, 2014; Hagen et al., 2016). Despite these differences between mitigation and adaptation, communication processes in cities can foster a personal connection to climate change, raise awareness and concern, and increase the level of public support for and willingness to engage in more sustainable behavior (Hagen et al., 2016).

Complementary to a procedural framing of equity and inclusiveness, cities can substantively embed climate change priorities into different urban development paradigms. Many note that framing climate change as a development priority—both in terms of economic growth and scientific innovation—motivates public, private, and financial actions (Leichenko, 2011; Anguelovski et al., 2014; Bain et al., 2016). Others frame climate change in terms of public health or national security (Myers, Nisbet, Maibach, & Leiserowitz, 2012), mobility and infrastructure development (Woodcock et al., 2009), or disaster risk management (Solecki, Leichenko, & O’Brien, 2011). In the latter case, natural disasters often trigger greater public awareness and political impetus for urban climate adaptation planning (Birkmann, Garschagen, Kraas, & Quang, 2010). For example, after Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012, New York City supported retrofitting or constructing new infrastructures that could better handle future risks (Rosenzweig & Solecki, 2014). Communicating the sectoral co-benefits of responding to climate change can increase issue resonance by explicitly connecting mitigation, adaptation, and risk management priorities to other social, economic, and political priorities (Puppim de Oliveira, 2013; Mayrhofer & Gupta, 2016). For cities in the global South, a connection between climate change and development may yield further buy-in from politicians, civil society, and other stakeholders (Kok, Metz, Verhagen, & Van Rooijen, 2008).

In terms of both procedural and substantive justice, cities are arenas in which to contest and deliberate climate change needs and potential mitigation and adaptation interventions. Since different urban actors frame the challenge differently—i.e., are involved in producing different linguistic repertoires (Nerlich et al., 2010)—cities must reconcile divergent interests and ideals, as well as opportunities for and constraints to communicative action. The Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) noted that cities can lead climate-resilient transitions and the sustainable transformation of societies (IPCC, 2014). The question is, how are municipal authorities actually designing communication strategies to facilitate transformative climate change action on the ground? In the following sections, we assess the tools and techniques of constructing and communicating climate-resilient urban futures. Next, we highlight four different approaches to communication—media, consultative, reflexive, and experimental—to show how municipal leaders, activists, scientists, the press, and other stakeholders have framed and translated climate change priorities in ways that allow acceptance, buy in, and leadership.

Media Approaches

The construction of climate-resilient urban futures requires extensive interaction and buy-in among various public, private, and civil society stakeholders. The media can play important roles not only in disseminating messages, but also in bridging value and behavioral differences in cities. Media approaches involve the use of newspapers, radio and television programming, pamphlets or mailers, Internet websites, social media, billboards, and posters. The emphasis is on the (largely) one-way mass communication of messages to target audiences. The popular media have been particularly active in advocating for climate change mitigation, which often involves simple messages about energy conservation, carbon footprints, renewable energy usage, alternative transportation options, sustainable consumption behaviors, food and agricultural waste, and environmental conservation (Ockwell, Whitmarsh, & O’Neill, 2009). Agencies, including local governments, have employed these direct communication channels because they are simple to design, to the point, and relatively cost effective to implement. For example, many cities around the world—ranging from Vancouver, Canada, to Ghent, Belgium, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia—advertise “car-free days” that seek to model and incentivize alternative modes of transportation. In the case of climate adaptation, however, traditional mass media approaches have less impact because the messages tend to involve more uncertainty and complexity and are more locally specific (Moser, 2014). Responding to the need for locally specific content that the mass media is unable to fill, many communities have turned to civic media approaches implemented by civil society groups to communicate climate priorities (Segerberg & Bennett, 2011). After Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in 2012, for example, community members in the Red Hook district of Brooklyn came together to disseminate risk response and management strategies through local radio programs and newspapers (Anguelovski et al., 2016a). Other notable examples of civic media interventions can be found in the cases of Tacloban City, the Philippines, after Typhoon Haiyan (2013) and in Bhubaneswar, India, after Cyclone Phailin (2013). Such methods not only support community rebuilding after disasters (Bäckstrand, 2003), but also help to instill adaptive and resilient practices in the public consciousness in preparation for future climate impacts.

Beyond individual cities, civic media communication approaches are popular among transnational municipal networks for disseminating best practices and institutional knowledge. Networks such as the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, ICLEI, the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, the Durban Adaptation Charter, the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Center, and the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities all operate sophisticated Internet platforms, complemented by email newsletters and blogs. Similarly, the American Society of Adaptation Professionals (ASAP) regularly organizes webinars that showcase actions in particular cities. These network communication channels are particularly useful for launching leadership and awareness campaigns, but the degree to which they further incentivize policy and planning action is unclear. Networks such as ICLEI and ASAP are membership-based, which means that cities must be paid subscribers in order to receive newsletters and benefit from peer-to-peer opportunities.

A critical challenge to the use of traditional mass media approaches to communicate important information on climate change is the increasingly fragmented nature of media environments. Research suggests that societies are increasingly polarizing, arranging themselves in groups that look to different—but equally polarized—media sources for their information, gravitating to those that reinforce their beliefs and disregarding those that challenge them (Coe et al., 2008; Holbert, Hmielowski, & Weeks, 2012; Howe et al., 2015). The Internet may be enhancing and accelerating this trend by facilitating media filtering and creating opportunities for further fragmentation into ever-more-specific communities that speak and listen largely to themselves at the cost of hearing alternative voices. For example, in the United States, consumption of conservative as opposed to liberal media correlates negatively with belief in climate change and support for mitigation policies in reinforcing spirals (Feldman, Myers, Hmielowski, & Leiserowitz, 2014; Sunstein, 2001). A segmentation of the population into “six Americas”, with discrete views on climate change has been proposed, suggesting that different communication strategies are required to reach each (Roser-Renouf, Stenhouse, Rolfe-Redding, Maibach, & Leiserowitz, 2015). In an attempt to overcome the typical one-way nature of many communication efforts and foster a wider consensus, many local governments are seeking to improve awareness of complex and uncertain climate risks by more intently considering and addressing the concerns and interests of various communities. Many have subsequently chosen to pursue consultative strategies to uncover local needs and design appropriate interventions.

Consultative Approaches

Consultative approaches to climate change communication can help bridge space and scale by explicitly involving various stakeholders in defining and addressing complex problems (Quick & Feldman, 2011). Climate change priorities within cities are commonly communicated via consultative mechanisms that involve strategic partnerships, the establishment of networks, the forming of alliances, expert committees, citizen coalitions, consortia, and different political councils. These forums bring together public demands with government agencies, nonprofit associations, private entities, and other civil society actors (Agranoff & McGuire, 2004). Many of these partnerships are ad hoc and temporary, such as in the case of climate adaptation planning in the Bergpolder Zuid neighborhood of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, where local communities and relevant stakeholders came together to synthesize climate projections, bridge divergent sectoral interests, and uncover suitable governance arrangements to facilitate action (Groot, Bosch, Buijs, Jacobs, & Moors, 2015). Similarly, the Cambridge Climate Emergency Congress in Cambridge, Massachusetts, brought together a wide cross section of citizens and officials for a discrete series of three meetings to devise a set of recommendations (Edelenbos, van Meerkerk, & Schenk, 2016). Ad hoc processes such as these reflect particular strategic needs and are goal oriented.

Some consultative forums and networks have also been institutionalized into overall municipal decision making. A good example of this is the New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC2), which was established in 2013 to provide scientific projections and scenarios of climate change risks and vulnerabilities. The NPCC2 has published several reports on future temperature, precipitation, and sea level change and provided future coastal flood risk maps (Rosenzweig & Solecki, 2014, 2015). Technical reports were devised by scientists, decision makers, and other stakeholders, working through various thematic working groups that met in a series of stakeholder meetings and workshops throughout the planning process (Rosenzweig & Solecki, 2015). Not only were these policy deliverables further integrated into urban policies, many of the relationships established through the NPCC2 have subsequently been drawn upon for other planning purposes. Similar examples of institutionalized climate change policy panels include the London Climate Change Partnership, the Toronto Climate Change Network, the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, the San Diego Regional Climate Collaborative, and, in the global South, the Quito Panel on Climate Change in Ecuador and the Surat Climate Change Trust in India. Still others are affiliated with academic research institutions, such as the African Climate and Development Institute, housed at the University of Cape Town in South Africa (Pasquini & Shearing, 2014). These consultative approaches focus on formalizing cross-sector collaborations and help to improve learning and capacity development within and across municipal boundaries (Bryson, Crosby, & Stone, 2006; Emerson, Nabatchi, & Balogh, 2012; Anguelovski, Chu, & Carmin, 2014).

A significant challenge with many consultative approaches is that they assume adequate representation and that all participants have an equal say. Another is that the links between consultation and decision making are often tenuous. Furthermore, planning is susceptible to elite capture, including disproportionate influence from private development interests that may have divergent interests from other citizens and stakeholders. The convening of consultative panels does not guarantee inclusive outcomes, social empowerment, or the expression of democratic citizenship (Cooke & Kothari, 2001; Few et al., 2007; Burton & Mustelin, 2013). For example, in many Southern cities that receive external capacity and financial support for climate change actions, participation is an item on a donor checklist rather than a genuine social learning process that builds local awareness and capacity (Carmin et al., 2013; Ensor & Harvey, 2015). There are growing calls for more open-source, deliberative, cocreative, or multidimensional communication approaches that both procedurally and substantively engage urban actors, particularly those more vulnerable to climate change impacts (Nerlich et al., 2010; Chu et al., 2016). These calls often focus on moving beyond expert versus lay knowledge (Nerlich et al., 2010) and toward building overall urban citizenship (Cooper et al. 2006).

Co-Creative and Reflexive Participatory Approaches

Climate change is a technically complex issue, so many assume that understanding and addressing it is best left to the experts, with relatively limited consultation. However, many of the barriers to climate change are not scientific in nature, but rather are political and policy challenges (Mearns, 2010; Moser & Ekstrom, 2010). Issue framing, risk assessment, and the evaluation of options are all value-laden and influenced by participants’ interests. This makes the engagement of the diverse suite of stakeholders critical. Participatory processes can also support adaptive governance, learning, and consensus building (Folke, Hahn, Olsson, & Norberg, 2005; Pahl-Wostl, 2009; Preston, Rickards, Fünfgeld, & Keenan, 2015; Susskind, 2010). In this section, we focus on the opportunities of co-creative communication processes to address uncertain future risks, local vulnerabilities, and low awareness.

Fortunately, there is a rich history of multi-stakeholder collaborative planning in the public sector, including with sustainability and environmental issues, from which participatory approaches to climate change can learn (Schreuder, 2001; Susskind & Crump, 2008; Innes & Booher, 2010). Well-organized collaborative processes bring key stakeholders together to collectively define the problem, assess the situation, collect and evaluate information, and identify creative solutions that are “fair, efficient, stable, and wise” (Susskind & Cruikshank, 1987). They can help to bridge and build institutions across both space and scale and integrate diverse communities, including those that are often marginalized. Participatory approaches can take a variety of forms. One model, called the consensus building approach, focuses on the formal convening of representatives from the various stakeholder groups in face-to-face meetings (Susskind, McKearnan, & Thomas-Larmer, 1999). This approach typically involves neutral facilitators that provide process support and help parties maximize their deliberative potential. The goal is usually achieving a broad consensus around how to move forward on the policy or planning challenge in question. Most other approaches to collaborative planning are similar to the consensus building approach, emphasizing broad engagement, rich deliberation, and the pursuit of collaboratively rational outcomes that all—or at least most—support.

There is evidence that deliberative processes can foster new discourses to advance adaptive action on climate change, including in urban environments (Hobson & Niemeyer, 2011; Schenk, 2017a). Co-creative approaches to designing, implementing, and monitoring climate change interventions are inherently responsive to the unique interests, priorities, and vulnerabilities of each population (Ebi & Semenza, 2008; Ebi, 2009). A society’s worldview, culture, social norms, geography, and local institutional contexts strongly determine the kinds of strategies that its members deem appropriate (Crate & Nuttal, 2009; Nelson, West, & Finan, 2009; Agrawal, 2010; Crate, 2011; Adger et al., 2013). In addition to harnessing local knowledge that is invaluable for decision making, co-creative communication processes are tools for strengthening the knowledge and awareness that are necessary to achieve a sense of citizenship. This citizenship can further strengthen the practice and efficacy of participation, the transfer of skills across issues and arenas, and the thickening of alliances and networks (Baiocchi, 2003; Gaventa & Barrett, 2012). In the end, a strong sense of ownership over climate change decision making and implementation processes will likely facilitate program effectiveness (Shaw, 2006; Ebi & Semenza, 2008), increase the probability of more equitable and just outcomes, and provide opportunities for local social innovation (Rodima-Taylor, 2012). In many cities across the global South, community-based climate change adaptation is one important form of reflexive communication that simultaneously addresses local climate impacts, improves livelihoods, reduces social inequities, and facilitates local development (Ayers & Forsyth, 2009).

The primary aim of community-based adaptation is to enhance the adaptive capacity of communities and reduce their vulnerability to climate change (Ebi & Semenza, 2008; Ensor & Berger, 2009; Dumaru, 2010). While communities have intimate knowledge of local environmental changes, they are often less aware of the wider causes and effects of climate change. Hence, community-based adaptation initiatives use co-learning approaches, in which local and external scientific knowledge about climate change complement each other. This often involves processes of knowledge sharing among communities, scientists, and development workers. Examples of this include the formation of climate-oriented community water supply collectives, microfinance and credit mechanisms, youth associations, and social support systems (Ayers & Forsyth, 2009; Magee, 2013; Reid & Huq, 2014).

For instance, in Indore, India, a city vulnerable to water scarcity during drought seasons, the municipality—through a “shared learning dialogue” exercise—has proactively engaged local women’s groups and slum-dwellers’ associations to promote awareness and envision alternative ways to manage scarce water resources in low-income neighborhoods (Chu, 2016b). In other cities, community-based approaches promote social empowerment by devolving environmental monitoring, mapping, and project evaluation responsibilities to civil society actors (Conrad & Hilchey, 2011; Pfeffer, Baud, Denis, Scott, & Sydenstricker-Neto, 2013; Sieber, 2006). In the case of Bergrivier Municipality, South Africa, community-based interventions spearheaded by unemployed urban youth brought renewed awareness of the connections between ecology, social networks, and economic livelihood opportunities (Ziervogel, Cowen, & Ziniades, 2016). Such examples show that promoting risk management and resilience to climate impacts through knowledge cogeneration and sharing can engage stakeholders in a proactive problem-solving process to enhance social capital (Ebi & Semenza, 2008; Ayers & Forsyth, 2009; Welsh, 2013).

In the global North, co-learning forums tend to be referred to as collaboratives. Multi-stakeholder, collaborative governance approaches provide a powerful means of engaging both decision makers and the gamut of other stakeholders through a collective process of analyzing and framing the situation, collecting and evaluating information, and identifying and evaluating possible solutions in the pursuit of those that are both robust and widely supported (Susskind & Cruikshank, 1987; Ansell & Gash, 2007; Innes & Booher, 2010; Margerum, 2011). In order to tailor them to local needs and preferences, collaborative approaches tend to include assessments of stakeholder interests, face-to-face “active inquiry” sessions, a pursuit of consensus-based pathways, and a reliance on professional neutral parties to provide process support (Healey, 1996; Forester, 1999; Susskind et al., 1999; Innes & Booher, 2010). There is substantial evidence demonstrating that collaborative processes can lead to better outcomes when the conditions are right, as well as enhance adaptive capacities of cities (Ansell & Gash, 2007; Innes & Booher, 2010; Margerum, 2011; Hobson & Niemeyer, 2011). For example, experiences with coastal communities in the northeastern United States suggest that collaborative approaches can help groups engage in smarter and more effective deliberation around climate change priorities (Susskind et al., 2015).

In terms of addressing social inequities, reflexive approaches to communication often involve community-level exercises that address differential capabilities so that grass-roots citizen discourse and deliberation play central roles in helping to define impacts and prioritize responses (Schlosberg, 2012). Peer-to-peer or citizen-led communication techniques can create and facilitate novel partnerships that focus on locally appropriate climate change solutions (Lyytimäki et al., 2013; Ostrander, 2013). However, public deliberation in a decentralized political sphere is messy and often driven by dynamic and contentious streams of local knowledge (Heller, 2001; Cheema, 2007; Sheppard et al., 2011), which are all striving to simultaneously influence institutional change (Evans, 2004; Fischer, 2006; Innes & Booher, 2010; Hobson & Niemeyer, 2011). The production of community-generated knowledge is an arduous and time-consuming process, especially when it involves significant scientific complexity and uncertainty. As a result, some citizen-initiated processes fail to achieve their goals. For example, the Cambridge Climate Emergency Congress (discussed earlier in this article) struggled to balance its advocacy role, maintain legitimacy in the eyes of public authorities, reflect a diverse range of public interests, and bring about concrete change in the community’s responses to climate change (Edelenbos et al., 2016). These challenges notwithstanding, community-generated knowledge can ultimately increase the legitimacy of decisions, redress socioeconomic inequalities, and improve the likelihood of achieving locally appropriate adaptation outcomes (Ensor & Berger, 2009; Forsyth, 2013).

Decision-Support Tools and Approaches

While multi-stakeholder approaches can generate better outcomes and improve collaborative capacities, they are not always well equipped to deal with significant amounts of scientific and technical information. In this section, we introduce three different decision-support tools and approaches that can be employed to advance urban climate change communication, enhancing the co-creative and reflexive approaches discussed in the previous section. This is not a comprehensive survey of the suite of possible tools and approaches, but rather an introduction to three distinct and viable options. We draw on participatory action research and citizen science to show that climate change communication can be improved through cycles of action and reflection (Irwin, 1995; Reason & Bradbury, 2001; Irwin, 2001). Since many climate change risks are uncertain, urban actors can benefit from the provision of safe spaces in which they can explore issues and experiment with tools, approaches, and options for moving forward before taking action in the real world. Here, we survey policy experiments, joint fact-finding, and role-play simulation (RPS) exercises as vehicles for communicating climate change in cities. In all these approaches, urban policy makers and other stakeholders are partners in the communication process, collectively analyzing and interpreting knowledge and its implications for potential interventions. These processes can address knowledge deficits by focusing on joint knowledge production, building trust in science, clarifying uncertainties, bridging diverse values, and facilitating co-learning among communities, scientists, and policy makers (Collins & Ison, 2009; Corner & Groves, 2014; Dietz, 2013; Forsyth, 2013; Karl, Susskind, & Wallace, 2007; Nay, Abkowitz, Chu, Gallagher, & Wright, 2014; Susskind, 2010).

Many cities have pursued experimental approaches to climate change communication in order to bridge local information and knowledge deficits (Bulkeley et al., 2015; Chu, 2016c). Experiments involve short-term, relatively low cost initiatives performed in order to test approaches and tools before they are adopted more widely. Increasingly applied to low-carbon transition policies in cities, experiments promote innovative thinking by honing overall decision-making efficiency, effectiveness, and responsiveness (Moore & Hartley, 2008), and thus help to generate new governance capacities (Healey, 2004). Experiments build on theories of learning, networks of actor interactions, and opportunities for restructuring decision-making systems (Argyris & Schön, 1978; Rondinelli, 1983; Healey, 2006), as well as ideas of niches of expertise and creativity as sites for testing innovative practices for technological change (Geels, 2002; Smith, Stirling, & Berkhout, 2005; Geels & Schot, 2007). Methodologically, experiments are able to support evidence-based policy making by supplying robust and timely evaluations and ample opportunities to redesign existing approaches (Stoker & John, 2009). In this sense, experiments can be seen as “laboratories” of communication, learning, and sharing best practices (Karvonen & van Heur, 2014; Nevens, Frantzeskaki, Gorissen, & Loorbach, 2013), which allow diverse actors, networks, and policy pathways to embed emerging needs and priorities into urban policies and plans (Evans, 2011).

In practice, experiments allow stakeholders to flexibly reframe climate objectives, implement trials and pilot projects, and monitor and evaluate project outcomes (Cárdenas, 2009). For example, in advocating for low-carbon energy infrastructure networks in London, communities designed experiments that allowed various urban actors to contest their own needs and interests in a structured but manageable manner (Bulkeley et al., 2014). In another example, low-income communities in Indore, India, that lacked adequate access to clean water were able to use experiments to test implementation pathways, help prioritize climate adaption options, and evaluate overall project benefits in the face of uncertain climate risks (Chu, 2016b). Although some have challenged the external validity and replicability of experiments, this method has been shown to be a good approach for encouraging intensive dialogue and small-scale innovation (Stoker & John, 2009). The interactive quality of many experiments facilitates deliberative processes (Forester, 1999; Hajer & Wagenaar, 2003; Fischer, 2006) that may improve the social inclusiveness of policy outcomes or solve intractable conflicts (Schön & Rein, 1994; González & Healey, 2005; Feola & Nunes, 2014).

In addition to experimentation, joint fact-finding is another process of knowledge production that engages stakeholders with the aim of arriving at a shared set of acceptable data for the purposes of planning and decision making. The process is structured to identify stakeholder information needs; engage a neutral facilitator to support and facilitate; translate information needs into research questions and devise a research plan; engage scientific, technical, and other experts to help conduct the necessary research; integrate and collaboratively interpret results; and disseminate the results and use them to inform planning and policy making (Ehrmann & Stinson, 1999; Karl et al., 2007; Schenk & Matsuura, 2017). Joint fact-finding is used in the context of climate change to help stakeholders make sense of the risks (and opportunities) posed, as well as to seek consensus around how to respond. In Boston, for example, the development of the city’s Climate Action Plan involved a series of facilitated stakeholder and wider citizen engagement workshops that employed joint fact-finding to come to a shared understanding of the sources of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as to devise shared goals and evaluate options for meeting those goals (Raab, 2017). When groups recognize the dynamic and persistently uncertain nature of the “facts” in complex situations like tackling climate change, joint fact-finding can help them to devise “facts for now” and “facts for use”; that is, employing tools like the use of scenarios, this can become a vehicle for collaborative adaptive management and satisficing (Schenk, 2017b).

Uncertainty, cost, and reluctance to take action proactively can limit real-world experimentation with potential climate actions. In addition, urban stakeholders often have an imperfect understanding of the situation in which they find themselves. Role-play simulation (RPS) exercises can provide safe and inexpensive sandbox-like environments for introducing and fostering discussion around various climate change scenarios and potential responses (Schenk, 2014; Schenk & Susskind, 2014). RPS exercises are a form of serious game, within which stakeholders are asked to take on roles other than those they have in the real world and solve fictional challenges within clear parameters (Susskind, 2010; Rumore, Schenk, & Susskind, 2016).

Such exercises played a prominent role in the New England Climate Adaptation Project, which was a partnership involving the MIT Science Impact Collaborative, the Consensus Building Institute, the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, and four coastal communities in the northeastern United States. By providing a lens through which they could assess their own situations, RPS exercises helped local communities identify future risks and build public support for collaborative efforts to manage them (Susskind et al., 2015). In another example, the Dutch government–sponsored “Institutionalizing Uncertainty” project used an exercise to engage government officials and other stakeholders in Singapore, Rotterdam, and Boston to consider how they might integrate uncertain climate risks into their infrastructure planning (Schenk & Susskind, 2014; Schenk, 2017a). The exercise provided a low-cost way to foster reflection on the use of multiple scenarios, multistakeholder decision making, and climate change uncertainty.

RPS exercises and other forms of serious games can introduce concepts and approaches, foster perspective taking, and help cities to engender support even in the face of substantial financial, capacity, and climatic uncertainty (Schenk & Susskind, 2014; Rumore et al., 2016). They also can highlight obstacles likely to inhibit collective risk management efforts in the long term. Participants in simulated situations do not just increase their own understanding of climate change; they increase their appreciation for the multidimensional nature of decision making in complex environments, and thus their ability to work with other stakeholders (Schenk & Susskind, 2014). The use of serious games is becoming increasingly popular in various contexts and at various scales. For example, the Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Centre is using games to convey sophisticated climate information in simple and powerful formats to wider audiences around the world (Mendler de Suarez et al., 2012).

To summarize, experimentation, joint fact-finding, simulations, and other forms of serious games are approaches that can enhance climate communication efforts in cities, especially when stakeholders are just beginning to explore the risks that they face. The emergence of these various methodologies to promote multidimensional dialogue between urban policy makers and citizens is effectively transforming the climate change communication arena in cities across both the global North and South. Ultimately, however, the degree to which experiments, serious games, and other tools and approaches like joint fact-finding will be successful often depends on the actors involved, contents of dominant discourses, presence of rules, and availability of resources. As a result, such tools require careful design, prior planning, and execution in order to harness their transformative potential, as well as to synchronize their benefits with more traditional media, consultative, and reflexive communication approaches.

Conclusion and Research Agenda

This article has described a suite of approaches to climate change communication; a variety of governance constraints, including those stemming from discordant boundaries in space and scale; and finally, a range of tools and techniques that citizens and local governments can employ to bridge these communication challenges. The main messages can be summarized as follows: First, in an era of political and socioeconomic restructuring, the ability to communicate climate change knowledge and priorities in cities means being able to mobilize across sectoral, spatial, and other boundaries. Second, we must revisit our concept of urban communication to emphasize the role of nonstate actors, transboundary networks, science-policy epistemic communities, and civil society organizations. This expansion of the urban communication arena has profound implications on how issue frames are generated, how such frames lead to actions, and the extent to which these actions facilitate inclusive and equitable outcomes. Third, despite their multiple stressors, cities can choose from a range of communication tools and techniques to facilitate climate mitigation, adaptation, and resilient development actions. The question, then, is how cities can selectively employ traditional media, consultative, cocreative, and decision-support or experimental tools to translate climate science into policy, prioritize interventions based on local contexts, and design flexible and adaptable communication processes for the long term.

To support a more distinct focus on urban politics, places, and populations in climate change communication, we propose a research agenda that unpacks both the structures of urban governance that either promote or constrain particular modes of communicative action and the lessons learned from testing, monitoring, and evaluating particular communication interventions across cities. To do this, we suggest further research along these three key dimensions:

  • Critical theories of governing urban climate change communication. We have noted that changing public opinion and attitudes requires sustained attention to larger political economic constructs in contemporary society, including entrenched interests around development and sustainability, deeply held value systems around individual choice and collective action, and pervasive behavioral patterns around consumption and risk tolerance (Anderson, 2009; Moser, 2014). The key questions are: Through what mechanisms do various political, socioeconomic, spatial, or cultural factors affect how communication processes are conceived, implemented, and evaluated in cities? What are the implications of an increasingly fragmented media environment on urban climate communication? Furthermore, in response to the growing literature on climate transformations (Pelling, 2010; O’Brien, 2011; Pelling, O’Brien, & Matyas, 2015), how can communication provide the tools and the means for cities to pursue more transformative, climate resilient futures?

  • Assessing empirical data on climate change knowledge translation and uptake in cities. Although cities struggle to access useful scientific data on climate change (Shi et al., 2015), and confront persistent uncertainty and dynamic conditions (Schenk, 2017b), they nonetheless must act now to stimulate low-carbon transitions, adapt to projected impacts, or both. Given these emerging priorities, what kinds of scientific information, scenarios, models, or data can contribute meaningfully to informed, multi-stakeholder communication processes? How can cities harness their disparate capacities to generate information on climate change that is actionable for planning and decision making? How can urban actors acknowledge that they will never have a perfect understanding, and find ways to satisfice? Can they find ways to remain flexible as conditions change and new information emerges?

  • Uncovering innovative strategies for open-source, co-creative, deliberative, and multidimensional communication. This article has discussed a variety of communication tools and technologies that cities have tested or used for public engagement and awareness generation. What is missing here is a robust decision-support mechanism that helps cities strategically evaluate which tool—or combination of tools—can yield the most impactful and inclusive result according to their own internal governance opportunities or constraints (Styczynski, Wolf, Tah, & Bose, 2014). Is it possible to build such a decision-support mechanism? If so, what variables, metrics, indicators, or technologies should be considered, and who should have authority over their respective sources and content? Alternatively, what does an appropriate “tool kit” look like, and how can one be equipped adequately in cities with significant resource constraints? How can we use simulations, games, experiments, and other smart/digital tools and approaches to facilitate low-cost communicative pathways?

In conclusion, global climate change presents both a dilemma and an opportunity for urban communication. It is a dilemma because cities must balance day-to-day operational mandates and structural constraints with these emerging environmental risks and uncertainties. However, it is also an opportunity because the expansion of the urban communication arena can promote more innovative ideas, tools, and techniques for communicating the need for low carbon transitions, risk management strategies, and overall visions of resilient and inclusive development across disparate scales, spaces, and citizen interests. These innovations can then be harnessed to structure more transformative approaches to governing cities in the future. If designed accountably and equitably, communication processes can lay the foundation for more broad-based citizen support, informed policy action, and collective visions of urban resilience.


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