Scientific agreement on climate change has strengthened over the past few decades, with around 97% of publishing climate scientists agreeing that human activity is causing global warming. While scientific understanding has strengthened, a small but persistent proportion of the public actively opposes the mainstream scientific position. A number of factors contribute to this rejection of scientific evidence, with political ideology playing a key role. Conservative think tanks, supported with funding from vested interests, have been and continue to be a prolific source of misinformation about climate change. A major strategy by opponents of climate mitigation policies has been to cast doubt on the level of scientific agreement on climate change, contributing to the gap between public perception of scientific agreement and the 97% expert consensus. This “consensus gap” decreases public support for mitigation policies, demonstrating that misconceptions can have significant societal consequences. While scientists need to communicate the consensus, they also need to be aware of the fact that misinformation can interfere with the communication of accurate scientific information. As a consequence, neutralizing the influence of misinformation is necessary. Two approaches to neutralize misinformation involve refuting myths after they have been received by recipients (debunking) or preemptively inoculating people before they receive misinformation (prebunking). Research indicates preemptive refutation or “prebunking” is more effective than debunking in reducing the influence of misinformation. Guidelines to practically implement responses (both preemptive and reactive) can be found in educational research, cognitive psychology, and a branch of psychological research known as inoculation theory. Synthesizing these separate lines of research yields a coherent set of recommendations for educators and communicators. Clearly communicating scientific concepts, such as the scientific consensus, is important, but scientific explanations should be coupled with inoculating explanations of how that science can be distorted.
Sander van der Linden
Individuals, both within and between different countries, vary substantially in the extent to which they view climate change as a risk. What could explain such variation in climate change risk perception around the world? Climate change is relatively unique as a risk in the sense that it is difficult for people to experience directly or even detect on a purely perceptual or sensory level. In fact, research across the social and behavioral sciences has shown that although people might correctly perceive some changes in long-term climate conditions, psychological factors are often much more influential in determining how the public perceives the risk of climate change. Indeed, decades of research has shown that cognitive, affective, social, and cultural factors all greatly influence the public’s perception of risk, and that these factors, in turn, often interact with each other in complex ways. Yet, although a wide variety of cognitive, experiential, socio-cultural and demographic characteristics have all proven to be relevant, are there certain factors that systematically stand out in explaining and predicting climate change risk perception around the world? And even if so, what do we mean, exactly, by the term “risk perception” and to what extent does the way in which risk perception is measured influence the outcome? Last but certainly not least, how important is public concern about climate change in determining people’s level of behavioral engagement and policy-support for the issue?
Nelya Koteyko and Dimitrinka Atanasova
Discourse analysis is an interdisciplinary field of inquiry that has been increasingly used by climate change communication scholars since the late 1990s. In its broadest sense, discourse analysis is the study of the social through analysis of language, including face-to-face talk, written media texts, and documents, as well as images and symbols. Studies in this field encompass a broad range of theories and analytic approaches for investigating meaning. Due to its focus on the sociocultural and political context in which text and talk occur, discourse analysis is pertinent to the concerns of climate change communication scholars as it has the potential to reveal the ideological dimensions of stakeholder beliefs and the dissemination of climate change-related information in the media. In contrast to studies under the rubric of frame analysis and survey-based analyses of public perceptions, this research places emphasis on the situated study of different stakeholders involved in climate change communication. Here attention is paid not only to the content being communicated (e.g., themes) but also to the linguistic forms and contexts that shape language and interaction. Both of these require an understanding of audiences’ cultural, political, and socioeconomic conditions. From the participatory perspective, discourse analysis can therefore illuminate the moral, ethical, and cultural dimensions of the climate change issue.
Kathryn E. Cooper and Erik C. Nisbet
As climate change becomes an increasingly serious problem, mass media are tasked with educating the public. Documentary films and television shows (also called “edutainment”) have been used for decades to communicate about the natural world so that the public may hopefully become informed about science in a simplified, easy-to-understand way. Although producers ostensibly create environmental documentaries in order to inform and/or advocate, theory development and empirical research is limited and insufficient in explaining how this genre influences audiences and why this genre may or may not be an effective means of science communication.
Environmental documentaries have the potential to deeply impact audiences because these films promote learning while viewers are entertained, because engagement with the documentary narrative (story) can overcome biases such as politically driven motivated reasoning (conforming new evidence to existing beliefs) and can leverage biases such as the tendency to rely on affect (emotions) when estimating risks. Documentary storytelling can also enhance learning by connecting the causes and consequences of climate change in a sequential narrative.
Climate change is a highly contentious political issue, which is reflected in the diversity of viewpoints found in climate change documentaries despite scientific consensus about the issue. While many of these films serve an educational purpose, others are geared toward advocacy. These advocacy programs aim to mobilize value-congruent audiences to engage in personal and collective action and/or to demand policy change. However, people prefer messages that align with their preexisting values, and so the belief disparity between climate change advocates and deniers grows with increasing media exposure as audiences with different beliefs watch and receive climate change messages in very different ways. Filmmakers and scientists must focus future efforts on creating visually engaging narratives within documentaries to promote both education and advocacy to diverse audiences.
Salil Benegal and Lyle Scruggs
How do economic conditions affect public opinion about climate change? Since the early days of the modern environmental movement, people have debated three main perspectives on how economic conditions impact environmental attitudes. The post-materialism perspective suggests that social and individual affluence leads to increasing concern and demands for action on climate change through long-run cultural change. A second view suggests that attitudes about climate change are shaped largely independently of economic conditions and reflect the emergence of a new environmental paradigm. A third view, associated with ecological modernization theory, suggests that attitudes about climate change are shaped in important ways by short-term economic factors, such as economic self-interest, and are likely to vary among citizens over time. While all of these perspectives have merit, we emphasize the impact of macroeconomic risk and business cycle fluctuations in shaping public attitudes toward climate change and more general aspects of environmental policy. Rising unemployment rates, for example, tend to be associated with declines in concern about environmental problems. This is a trend that is repeated across more than four decades and multiple recessions and recoveries dating back to the 1970s.
Although it is obviously a more recently recognized environmental problem, public attitudes about climate change are also affected considerably by short-run economic conditions. This fact can influence the possibilities for policy reform. Through a process of motivated reasoning, in which immediate concerns and preferences to address economic risk lead individuals to adjust other attitudes about the environment, public concerns about climate change have ebbed and flowed with the business cycle. Other economic factors—such as societal affluence, personal employment status, or income—have more limited effects on attitudes about climate change, at least in most developed countries.
The impact of economic risk on public attitudes about climate change has important implications for policy reform in democratic societies, because public support matters. While partisanship and ideology are frequently cited as explanations for fluctuating public opinion about climate change, macroeconomic risk offers a complementary explanation, which suggests that the framing and timing of environmental policy initiatives is as important as ideological acceptability. Positioning environmental actions or initiatives in better economic conditions, emphasizing immediate economic benefits, and countering unwarranted beliefs about personal costs, especially during challenging economic circumstances, should improve the prospects for efforts to address climate change.
Timothy A. Gibson
Over the past two decades, the global news industry has embarked upon a major project of economic, organizational, and technological restructuring. In organizational terms, successive waves of mergers and buyouts have yielded a global news landscape where most of the larger firms are owned by shareholders and run by executives whose singular focus is on rationalizing news production and improving profitability. Although in some cases, these shareholders and executives have used their authority to influence climate coverage directly, more often their goals are non-ideological: reducing labor costs and increasing revenues. At the same time, in a parallel development, the digital media revolution not only has spawned a host of new online competitors but also has cut deeply into the advertising revenue once enjoyed by traditional media firms.
Within legacy news organizations, these industrial and technological trends have converged to dramatically intensify the work pressures facing environmental journalists. For example, in an effort to reduce costs, many firms have reduced newsroom staff to a small core of multi-tasking reporters, supported by a wider web of part-time freelancers. In this process, the science and environment beat is often the first to go, with environmental specialists among the first to be reassigned or downsized (and pushed into freelance work). For all reporters, there is increased pressure to produce more stories in less time on multiple media platforms, a trend that, in turn, enhances the power of special interests to influence climate coverage through public relations and other external information subsidies.
Due to these converging industrial and technological trends, environmental reporters now work in a new media ecosystem that is complex, subject to contradictory pressures, and in many ways hostile to the production of high-quality climate news. When the environmental beat is cut, climate change often becomes the purview of general assignment reporters who lack experience and expertise. For their part, freelance specialists continue to cover climate news, but their ability to sustain this coverage over the long term is constrained by their part-time status. Finally, although niche climate blogs have provided welcome spaces for environmental journalists to produce in-depth coverage, these outlets usually reach only tiny audiences composed of the already-engaged.
In short, without significant action, the regrettable status quo of climate news—that is, an episodic sprinkling of climate coverage scattered across the media ecosystem—will continue indefinitely. Policy-makers should therefore restore long-term institutional and economic support for environmental journalists specializing in climate science and policy.
Courtney Plante, Johnie J. Allen, and Craig A. Anderson
Given the dire nature of many researchers’ predictions about the effects of global climate change (e.g., rising sea levels, droughts, more extreme weather), it comes as little surprise that less attention has been paid to the subtler, less direct outcomes of rapid climate change: psychological, sociological, political, and economic effects. In this chapter we explore one such outcome in particular: the effects of rapid climate change on aggression. We begin by exploring the potential for climate change to directly affect aggression in individuals, focusing on research showing the relationship between uncomfortably hot ambient temperature and aggression. Next, we review several lines of research illustrating ways that climate change can indirectly increase aggression in individuals. We then shift our focus from individuals to the effects of climate change on group-level aggression. We finish by addressing points of contention, including the challenge that the effects of climate change on aggression are too remote and too small to be considered relevant.
Ashley A. Anderson
Early research on the relationship between social media use and its relationship to climate change opinion, knowledge, and behavior suggests several positive impacts. Social media encourages greater knowledge of climate change, mobilization of climate change activists, space for discussing the issue with others, and online discussions that frame climate change as a negative for society. Social media, however, does provide space for framing climate change skeptically and activating those with a skeptical perspective of climate change. Further examination of the relationship between social media use and climate change perceptions is warranted.
For the general public, the news media are an important source of information about climate change. They have significant potential to influence public understanding and perceptions of the issue. Television news, because of its visual immediacy and authoritative presentation, is likely to be particularly influential. Numerous studies have shown that television news can affect public opinion directly and indirectly through processes such as agenda setting and framing. Moreover, even in a fragmented media environment largely dominated by online communication, television remains a prominent medium through which citizens follow news about science issues. Given this, scholars over the last several decades have endeavored to map the content of television news reporting on climate change and its effects on public opinion and knowledge. Results from this research suggest that journalists’ adherence to professional norms such as balance, novelty, dramatization, and personalization, along with economic pressures and sociopolitical influences, have produced inaccuracies and distortions in television news coverage of climate change. For example, content analyses have found that U.S. network television news stories tend to over-emphasize dramatic impacts and imagery, conflicts between political groups and personalities, and the uncertainty surrounding climate science and policy. At the same time, those skeptical of climate change have been able to exploit journalists’ norms of balance and objectivity to amplify their voices in television coverage of climate change. In particular, the increasingly opinionated 24-hour cable news networks have become a megaphone for ideological viewpoints on climate change. In the United States, a coordinated climate denial movement has used Fox News to effectively spread its message discrediting climate science. Coverage on Fox News is overwhelmingly dismissive of climate change and disparaging toward climate science and scientists. Coverage on CNN and MSNBC is more accepting of climate change; however, while MSNBC tends to vilify the conservative opposition to climate science and policy, and occasionally exaggerates the impacts of climate change, CNN sends more mixed signals. Survey and experimental analyses indicate that these trends in television news coverage of climate change have important effects on public opinion and may, in particular, fuel confusion and apathy among the general U.S. public and foster opinion extremity among strong partisans.
Maxwell Boykoff and Gesa Luedecke
During the past three decades, elite news media have become influential translators of climate change linking science, policy, and the citizenry. Historical trends in public discourse—shaped in significant part by elite media—demonstrate news media’s critical role in shaping public perception and the level of concern towards climate change. Media representations of climate change and global warming are embedded in social, cultural, political, and economic dimensions that influence individual-level processes such as everyday journalistic practices. Media have a strong influence on policy decision-making, attitudes, perspectives, intentions, and behavioral change, but those connections can be challenging to pinpoint; consequently, examinations of elite news coverage of climate change, particularly in recent decades, have sought to gain a stronger understanding of these complex and dynamic webs of interactions. In so doing, research has more effectively traced how media have taken on varied roles in the climate change debate, from watch dogs to lap dogs to guard dogs in the public sphere. Within these areas of research, psychological aspects of media influence have been relatively underemphasized. However, interdisciplinary and problem-focused research investigations of elite media coverage stand to advance considerations of public awareness, discourse, and engagement. Elite news media critically contribute to public discourse and policy priorities through their “mediating” and interpretative influences. Therefore, a review of examinations of these dynamics illuminate the bridging role of elite news coverage of climate change between formal science and policy, and everyday citizens in the public sphere.
Images are a key part of the climate change communication process. The diverse and interdisciplinary literature on how people engage with visual representations of climate change is reviewed. Images hold particular power for engaging people, as they hold three qualities that differ from other communication devices (such as words or text): they are analogical, they lack an explicit propositional syntax, and they are indexical. These qualities are explored in relation to climate change imagery. A number of visual tropes common to climate change communication (identifiable people; climate change impacts; energy, emissions and pollution; protest; scientific imagery) are examined and the evidence for each of these visual tropes in terms of how they engage particular audiences is reviewed. Two case studies, of polar bear imagery and the “hockey stick” graph image, critically examine iconic imagery associated with climate change, and how and why these types of images may (dis)engage audiences. Six best-practice guidelines for visual climate change communication are presented and three areas for further research in this nascent field are suggested.
Anthony Dudo, Jacob Copple, and Lucy Atkinson
Although there is an abundance of social scientific research focused on public opinion and climate change, there remains much to learn about how individuals come to understand, feel, and behave relative to this issue. Efforts to understand these processes are commonly directed toward media depictions, because media represent a primary conduit through which people encounter information about climate change. The majority of research in this area has focused on news media portrayals of climate change. News media depictions, however, represent only a part of the media landscape, and a relatively small but growing body of work has focused on examining portrayals of climate change in entertainment media (i.e., films, television programs, etc.) and their implications. This article provides a comprehensive overview of this area of research, summarizing what is currently known about portrayals of climate change in entertainment media, the individual-level effects of these portrayals, and areas ripe for future research. Our overview suggests that the extant work has centered primarily on a small subset of high-profile climate change films. Examination of the content of these films has been mostly rhetorical and has often presumed negative audience effects. Studies that specifically set out to explore possible effects have often unearthed evidence suggesting short-term contributions to viewers’ perceptions of climate change, specifically in terms of heightened awareness, concern, and motivation. Improving the breadth and depth of research in this area, we contend, can stem from more robust theorizing, analyses that focus on a more diverse menu of entertainment media and the interactions among them, and increasingly complex analytical efforts to capture long-term effects.
Over the last decade, scholars have devoted significant attention to making climate change communication more effective but less attention to ensuring that it is ethical. This neglect risks blurring the distinction between persuasion and manipulation, generating distrust among audiences, and obscuring the conceptual resources needed to guide communicators.
Three prevailing approaches to moral philosophy can illuminate various ethical considerations involved in communicating climate change. Consequentialism, which evaluates actions as morally right or wrong according to their consequences, is the implicit moral framework shared by many social scientists and policymakers interested in climate change. While consequentialism rightly emphasizes the consequences of communication, its exclusive focus on the effectiveness of communication tends to obscure other moral considerations, such as what communicators owe to audiences as a matter of duty or respect. Deontology better captures these duties and provides grounds for communicating in ways that respect the rights of citizens to deliberate and decide how to act. But because deontology tends to cast ethics as an abstract set of universalizable principles, it often downplays the virtues of character needed to motivate action and apply principles across a variety of contexts. Virtue ethics seeks to overcome the limits of both consequentialism and deontology by focusing on the virtues that individuals and communities need to flourish. While virtue ethics is often criticized for failing to provide a concrete blueprint for action, its conception of moral development and thick vocabulary of virtues and vices offer a robust set of practical and conceptual resources for guiding the actions, attitudes, and relationships that characterize climate change communication. Ultimately, all three approaches highlight moral considerations that should inform the ethics of communicating climate change.
Joseph P. Reser and Graham L. Bradley
There is a strong view among climate change researchers and communicators that the persuasive tactic of arousing fear in order to promote precautionary motivation and behavior is neither effective nor appropriate in the context of climate change communication and engagement. Yet the modest research evidence that exists with respect to the use of fear appeals in communicating climate change does not offer adequate empirical evidence—either for or against the efficacy of fear appeals in this context—nor would such evidence adequately address the issue of the appropriateness of fear appeals in climate change communication. Extensive research literatures addressing preparedness, prevention, and behavior change in the areas of public health, marketing, and risk communication generally nonetheless provide consistent empirical support for the qualified effectiveness of fear appeals in persuasive social influence communications and campaigns. It is also noteworthy that the language of climate change communication is typically that of “communication and engagement,” with little explicit reference to targeted social influence or behavior change, although this is clearly implied. Hence underlying and intertwined issues here are those of cogent arguments versus largely absent evidence, and effectiveness as distinct from appropriateness. These matters are enmeshed within the broader contours of the contested political, social, and environmental, issues status of climate change, which jostle for attention in a 24/7 media landscape of disturbing and frightening communications concerning the reality, nature, progression, and implications of global climate change. All of this is clearly a challenge for evaluation research attempting to examine the nature and effectiveness of fear appeals in the context of climate change communication, and for determining the appropriateness of designed fear appeals in climate change communications intended to both engage and influence individuals, communities, and “publics” with respect to the ongoing threat and risks of climate change. There is an urgent need to clearly and effectively communicate the full nature and implications of climate change, in the face of this profound risk and rapidly unfolding reality. All such communications are, inherently, frightening warning messages, quite apart from any intentional fear appeals. How then should we put these arguments, evidence, and challenges “on the table” in our considerations and recommendations for enhancing climate change communication—and addressing the daunting and existential implications of climate change?
Mike S. Schäfer and Saffron O'Neill
Framing—selecting certain aspects of a given issue and making them more salient in communication in order to “frame” the issue in a specific way—is a key concept in the study of communication. At the same time, it has been used very differently in scholarship, leading some to declare it a “fractured paradigm,” or an idea whose usefulness has expired. In studies of climate change communication, frame analyses have been used numerous times and in various ways, from formal framing approaches (e.g., episodic vs. thematic framing) to topical frames (both generic and issue-specific). Using methodological approaches of frame analysis from content analysis over discourse analysis and qualitative studies to experimental research, this research has brought valuable insights into media portrayals of climate change in different countries and their effects on audiences—even though it still has limitations that should be remedied in future research.
Although future generations—starting with today’s youth—will bear the brunt of negative effects related to climate change, some research suggests that they have little concern about climate change nor much intention to take action to mitigate its impacts. One common explanation for this indifference and inaction is lack of scientific knowledge. It is often said that youth do not understand the science; therefore, they are not concerned. Indeed, in science educational research, numerous studies catalogue the many misunderstandings students have about climate science. However, this knowledge-deficit perspective is not particularly informative in charting a path forward for climate-change education. This path is important because climate science will be taught in more depth as states adopt the Next Generation Science Standards within the next few years. How do we go about creating the educational experiences that students need to be able to achieve climate-science literacy and feel as if they could take action? First, the literature base in communication, specifically about framing must be considered, to identify potentially more effective ways to craft personally relevant and empowering messages for students within their classrooms.
Debbie Hopkins and Ezra M. Markowitz
Despite scientific consensus on the anthropogenic causation of climate change, and ever-growing knowledge on the biophysical impacts of climate change, there is large variability in public perceptions of and belief in climate change. Public support for national and international climate policy has a strong positive association with certainty that climate change is occurring, human caused, serious, and solvable. Thus to achieve greater acceptance of national climate policy and international agreements, it is important to raise public belief in climate change and understandings of personal climate risk.
Public understandings of climate change and associated risk perceptions have received significant academic attention. This research has been conducted across a range of spatial scales, with particular attention on large-scale, nationally representative surveys to gain insights into country-scale perceptions of climate change. Generalizability of nationally representative surveys allows some degree of national comparison; however, the ability to conduct such comparisons has been limited by the availability of comparative data sets. Consequently, empirical insights have been geographically biased toward Europe and North America, with less understanding of public perceptions of climate change in other geographical settings including the Global South. Moreover, a focus on quantitative surveying techniques can overlook the more nuanced, culturally determined factors that contribute to the construction of climate change perceptions.
The physical and human geographies of climate change are diverse. This is due to the complex spatial dimensions of climate change and includes both the observed and anticipated geographical differentiation in risks, impacts, and vulnerabilities. While country location and national climate can impact upon how climate change is understood, so too will sociocultural factors such as national identity and culture(s). Studies have reported high variability in climate change perceptions, the result of a complex interplay between personal experiences of climate, social norms, and worldviews. Exploring the development of national-scale analyses and their findings over time, and the comparability of national data sets, may provide some insights into the factors that influence public perceptions of climate change and identify national-scale interventions and communications to raise risk perception and understanding of climate change.
Jonathon P. Schuldt
Communicating about climate change involves more than choices about which content to convey and how to convey it. It also involves a choice about how to label the issue itself, given the various terms used to represent the issue in public discourse—including “global warming,” “climate change,” and “global environmental change,” among others. An emerging literature in climate change communication and survey methodology has begun to examine the influence of labeling on public perceptions, including the cognitive accessibility of climate-related knowledge, affective responses and related judgments (problem seriousness and personal concern), and certainty that the phenomenon exists. The present article reviews this emerging work, drawing on framing theory and related social-cognitive models of information processing to shed light on the possible mechanisms that underlie labeling effects. In doing so, the article highlights the value of distinguishing between labeling and framing effects in communication research and theory, and calls for additional research into the boundary conditions of these and other labeling effects in science communication.
Some of the major misconceptions in the United States about climate change—such as the focus on scientific uncertainty, the “debate” over whether climate change is caused by humans, and pushback about how severe the consequences might be—can be seen as communications battles. An interesting area within communications is the contrasting use of guilt and shame for climate-related issues. Guilt and shame are social emotions (along with embarrassment, pride, and others), but guilt and shame are also distinct tools. On the one hand, guilt regulates personal behavior, and because it requires a conscience, guilt can be used only against individuals. Shame, on the other hand, can be used against both individuals and groups by calling their behavior out to an audience. Shaming allows citizens to express criticism and social sanctions, attempting to change behavior through social pressure, often because the formal legal system is not holding transgressors accountable. Through the use of guilt and shame we can see manifestations of how we perceive the problem of climate change and who is responsible for it. For instance, in October 2008, Chevron, one of the world’s largest fossil fuel companies, placed advertisements around Washington, DC, public transit stops featuring wholesome-looking, human faces with captions such as “I will unplug things more,” “I will use less energy,” and “I will take my golf clubs out of the trunk.” Six months later, DC activists reworked the slogans by adding to each the phrase “while Chevron pollutes.” This case of corporate advertising and subsequent “adbusting” illustrates the contrast between guilt and shame in climate change communication. Guilt has tended to align with the individualization of responsibility for climate change and has been primarily deployed over issues of climate-related consumption rather than other forms of behavior, such as failure to engage politically. Shame has been used, largely by civil society groups, as a primary tactic against fossil fuel producers, peddlers of climate denial, and industry-backed politicians.
Pieter Maeseele and Yves Pepermans
The idea of climate change inspires and reinforces disagreements at all levels of society. Climate change’s integration into public life suggests that there is no evident way of framing and tackling the phenomenon. This brings forward important questions regarding the role of ideology in mediated public discourse on climate change. The existing research literature shows that five ideological filters need to be taken into account to understand the myriad ways in which ideology plays a role in the production, representation, and reception of climate change in (news and entertainment) media: (i) economic factors, (ii) journalistic norms, (iii) political context, (iv) ideological cultures, and (v) citizen decoding. Furthermore, two different interpretations of how ideology precisely serves as a filter of social reality underlie this literature: an interpretation of ideology as an independent variable, on the one hand, and as a constitutive practice, on the other. Moreover, these interpretations underlie a broader discussion in the social sciences on the relation between climate change and ideology and how scholars and activists should deal with it. By considering climate change as a post-ideological issue, a first perspective problematizes the politicization of climate change and calls for its depoliticization to foster consensus and public engagement. In response, a second perspective takes aim against the post-politicization and post-democratization of climate change (resulting from the adoption of the first perspective) for suppressing the role of ideology and, as a result, for stifling democratic debate and citizenship with regard to the climate issue. This latter perspective is in need of further exploration in future research, especially with regard to the concepts of ideological fault lines, ideological hegemony, and ideological strategies.