Emily H. Ho, David V. Budescu, and Han Hui Por
The overwhelming majority of the scientific community agrees that climate change (CC) is occurring and is caused by anthropogenic, or human-caused, forcing. The global populace is aware of this phenomenon but appears to be unconcerned about CC and is slow to adopt potential mitigative actions. CC is a unique and complex phenomenon affected by various kinds of uncertainty, rendering communicative efforts particularly challenging. The compound and, potentially, conflicting uncertainties inherent in CC engender public ambivalence about the issue. The treatment of uncertainty in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) reports have been shown to be confusing to policymakers and the general public, further confounding public outreach efforts. Given diverse communication styles and the multifaceted nature of CC, an assortment of strategies has been recommended to maximize understanding and increase salience. In particular, using evidence-based approaches to communicate about probabilistic outcomes in CC increases communicative efficiency.
Nathaniel Geiger, Brianna Middlewood, and Janet Swim
Given the severity of the threat posed by climate change, why is large-scale societal action to decarbonize our energy systems not more widespread? The present article examines four categories of psychological barriers to accurate risk perceptions and engagement with this topic by the public. First, psychological barriers such as (a) not personally experiencing the threat, (b) not hearing people talk about climate change, (c) being limited by cultural narratives, and (d) not understanding how climate change works can lead to misperception of the threat posed by climate change. Second, individuals may lack knowledge or perceived ability about how to address the threat. Third, social barriers such as social norms not to act and socio-structural barriers can discourage climate change engagement. Finally, worldviews such as neoliberal ideology and conspiratorial worldviews can conflict with climate change engagement.
Jaime Gilden and Ellen Peters
It is a widely accepted scientific fact that our climate is changing and that this change is caused by human activity. Despite the scientific consensus, many individuals in the United States fail to grasp the extent of the consensus and continue to deny both the existence and cause of climate change; the proportion of the population holding these beliefs has been stable in recent history. Most of the American public also believe they know a lot about climate change although knowledge tests do not always reflect their positive perceptions. There are two frequent hypotheses about public knowledge and climate change beliefs: (a) providing the public with more climate science information, thus making them more knowledgeable, will bring the beliefs of the public closer to those of climate scientists and (b) individuals with greater cognitive ability (e.g., scientific literacy or numeracy) will have climate change beliefs more like those of experts. However, data do not always support this proposed link between knowledge, ability, and beliefs. A better predictor of beliefs in the United States is political identity. For example, compared to liberals, conservatives consistently perceive less risk from climate change and, perhaps as a result, are less likely to hold scientifically accurate climate change beliefs, regardless of their cognitive abilities. And greater knowledge and ability, rather than being related to more accurate climate change beliefs, tend to relate to increased polarization across political identities, such that the difference in beliefs between conservatives and liberals with high cognitive ability is greater than the difference in beliefs between conservatives and liberals with low cognitive ability.
Adam R. Pearson, Matthew T. Ballew, Sarah Naiman, and Jonathon P. Schuldt
Interest in the audience factors that shape the processing of climate change messaging has risen over the past decade, as evidenced by dozens of studies demonstrating message effects that are contingent on audiences’ political values, ideological worldviews, and cultural mindsets. Complementing these efforts is a growing interest in understanding the role of nonpartisan social factors—including racial and ethnic identities, social class, and gender—that have received comparably less attention but are critical for understanding how the challenges posed by climate change can be effectively communicated in pluralistic societies. Research and theory on the effects of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status (education and income), and gender on climate change perceptions suggest that each of these factors can independently and systematically shape people’s attitudes and beliefs about climate change, as well as both individual and collective motivations to address it. Moreover, the literature suggests that these factors often interact with political orientation (ideology and party affiliation) such that climate change beliefs and risk perceptions are typically more polarized for members of advantaged groups than disadvantaged groups. Notably, differential polarization in the perceived dangers posed by climate change has increased in some group dimensions (e.g., race and income) from 2000 to 2010. Groups for whom the issue of climate change may be less politically charged, such as racial and ethnic minorities and members of socioeconomically disadvantaged groups, thus represent critical audiences for bridging growing partisan divides and building policy consensus. Nevertheless, critical knowledge gaps remain. In particular, few studies have examined effects of race or ethnicity beyond the U.S. context or explored ways in which race, ethnicity, class, and gender may interact to influence climate change engagement. Increasing attention to these factors, as well as the role of diversity more generally in environmental communication, can enhance understanding of key barriers to broadening public participation in climate discourse and decision-making.
D. B. Tindall, Mark C.J. Stoddart, and Candis Callison
This article considers the relationship between news media and the sociopolitical dimensions of climate change. Media can be seen as sites where various actors contend with one another for visibility, for power, and for the opportunity to communicate, as well as where they promote their policy preferences. In the context of climate change, actors include politicians, social movement representatives, scientists, business leaders, and celebrities—to name a few.
The general public obtain much of their information about climate change and other environmental issues from the media, either directly or indirectly through sources like social media. Media have their own internal logic, and getting one’s message into the media is not straightforward. A variety of factors influence what gets into the media, including media practices, and research shows that media matter in influencing public opinion.
A variety of media practices affect reporting on climate change─one example is the journalistic norm of balance, which directs that actors on both sides of a controversy be given relatively equal attention by media outlets. In the context of global warming and climate change, in the United States, this norm has led to the distortion of the public’s understanding of these processes. Researchers have found that, in the scientific literature, there is a very strong consensus among scientists that human-caused (anthropogenic) climate change is happening. Yet media in the United States often portray the issue as a heated debate between two equal sides.
Subscription to, and readership of, print newspapers have declined among the general public; nevertheless, particular newspapers continue to be important. Despite the decline of traditional media, politicians, academics, NGO leaders, business leaders, policymakers, and other opinion leaders continue to consume the media. Furthermore, articles from particular outlets have significant readership via new media access points, such as Facebook and Twitter.
An important concept in the communication literature is the notion of framing. “Frames” are the interpretive schemas individuals use to perceive, identify, and label events in the world. Social movements have been important actors in discourse about climate change policy and in mobilizing the public to pressure governments to act. Social movements play a particularly important role in framing issues and in influencing public opinion. In the United States, the climate change denial countermovement, which has strong links to conservative think tanks, has been particularly influential. This countermovement is much more influential in the United States than in other countries. The power of the movement has been a barrier to the federal government taking significant policy action on climate change in the United States and has had consequences for international agreements and processes.
People can take extraordinary measures to protect that which they view as sacred. They may refuse financial gain, engage in bloody, inter-generational conflicts, mount hunger strikes and even sacrifice their lives. These behaviors have led researchers to propose that religious values shape our identities and give purpose to our lives in a way that secular incentives cannot. However, despite the fact that many cultural and religious frameworks already emphasize sacred aspects of our natural world, applying all of that motivating power of “the sacred” to environmental protectionism seems to be less straightforward.
Sacred elements in nature do lead people to become committed to environmental causes, particularly when religious identities emphasize conceptualization of humans as caretakers of this planet. In other cases, however, it is precisely the sacred aspect of nature which precludes environmental action and leads to the denial of climate change. This denial can take many forms, from an outright refusal of the premise of climate change to a divine confirmation of eschatological beliefs.
A resolution might require rethinking the framework that religion provides in shaping human-environment interactions. Functionalist perspectives emphasize religion’s ability to help people cope with loss—of life, property and health, which will become more frequent as storms intensify and weather patterns become more unpredictable. It is uncertain whether religious identity can facilitate the acceptance of anthropogenic climate change, but perhaps it can aid with how people adapt to its inevitable effects.
Scientists’ Views about Public Engagement and Science Communication in the Context of Climate Change
John Besley and Anthony Dudo
Scientists who study issues such as climate change are often called on by both their colleagues and broader society to share what they know and why it matters. Many are willing to do so—and do it well—but others are either unwilling or may communicate without clear goals or in ways that may fail to achieve their goals. There are several central topics involved in the study of scientists as communicators. First, it is important to understand the evolving arguments behind why scientists are being called on to get involved in public engagement about contentious issues such as climate change. Second, it is also useful to consider the factors that social science suggests actually lead scientists to communicate about scientific issues. Last, it is important to consider what scientists are trying to achieve through their communication activities, and to consider to what extent we have evidence about whether scientists are achieving their desired goals.
Climate journalism is a moving target. Driven by its changing technological and economic contexts, challenged by the complex subject matter of climate change, and immersed in a polarized and politicized debate, climate journalism has shifted and diversified in recent decades. These transformations hint at the emergence of a more interpretive, sometimes advocacy-oriented journalism that explores new roles beyond that of the detached conduit of elite voices. At the same time, different patterns of doing climate journalism have evolved, because climate journalists are not a homogeneous group. Among the diversity of journalists covering the issue, a small group of expert science and environmental reporters stand out as opinion leaders and sources for other journalists covering climate change only occasionally. The former group’s expertise and specialization allow them to develop a more investigative and critical attitude toward both the deniers of anthropogenic climate change and toward climate science.
Daniel P. Aldrich, Courtney M. Page-Tan, and Christopher J. Paul
Anthropogenic climate change increasingly disrupts livelihoods, floods coastal urban cities and island nations, and exacerbates extreme weather events. There is near-universal consensus among scientists that in order to reverse or at least mitigate climate disruptions, limits must be imposed on anthropogenic sources of climate-forcing emissions and adaptation to changing global conditions will be necessary. Yet adaptation to current and future climate change at the individual, community, and national levels vary widely from merely coping, to engaging in adaptive change, to transformative shifts. Some of those affected simply cope with lower crop yields, flooded streets, and higher cooling bills. Others incrementally adapt to new environmental conditions, for example, by raising seawalls or shifting from one crop to another better suited for a hotter environment. The highest—and perhaps least likely—type of change involves transformation, radically altering practices with an eye toward the future. Transformative adaptation may involve a livelihood change or permanent migration; it might require shuttering whole industries and rethinking industrial policy at the national level. Entire island nations such as Fiji, for example, are considering relocating from vulnerable locations to areas better suited to rising sea levels.
A great deal of research has shown how social capital (the bonding, bridging, and linking connections to others) provides information on trustworthiness, facilitates collective action, and connects us to external resources during disasters and crises. We know far less about the relationship between social capital and adaptation behaviors in terms of the choices that people make to accommodate changing environmental conditions. A number of unanswered but critical questions remain: How precisely does social capital function in climate change adaptation? To what degree does strong bonding social capital substitute for successful adaptation behaviors for individuals or groups? Which combinations of social factors make coping, adapting, and transforming most likely? How can social capital help migrating populations maintain cultural identity under stress? How can local networks be integrated into higher-level policy interventions to improve adaptation? Which political and social networks contribute to transformative responses to climate change at local, regional, and international levels? This article serves as a comprehensive literature review, overview of empirical findings to date, and a research agenda for the future.
Climate change is often said to herald the anthropocene, where humans become active participants in the remaking of global geology. The corollary of the wide acceptance of a geological anthropocene is the emergence of a new form of self-aware climate agency. With awareness comes blame, invoking responsibility for action. What kind of social action arises from climate agency has become the critical question of our era. In the context of climate deterioration, the prevalence of inaction is itself an exercise of agency, creating in its path new fields of social struggle. The opening sphere of climate agency has the effect of subsuming other fields, reconfiguring established categories of human justice and ethical well-being. In this respect we can think of climate agency as having a distinctive, even revolutionary logic, which remains emergent, enveloping multiple aspects of social action.
From this perspective the question of climate change and social movement participation is centrally important. To what extent is something that we can characterize as “climate agency” emerging through social movement participation? What potential has this phenomenon to develop beyond ideological confinement and delimitation to make wider and transformative claims on society? A genuine social movement, we are taught from history, is indeed a transformative force capable of remaking social and political relations. It remains unclear, but what are the emergent dynamics of climate movement participation that depart from established systemic parameters, to offer such a challenge? How are such developments reconfiguring “climate change communication,” forcing an insurgent element into the polity?
Though scholarship addressing these questions on social movement participation and climate change exists, the field undoubtedly remains relatively underdeveloped. This reflects the extent to which inquiry into climate change has been dominated by scientific and economic discourses. It also reflects the difficulty that social science, and specifically political sociology, the “home” of social movement studies, has had in apprehending the scope of the challenge. Climate change can disrupt deeply sedimented assumptions about the relationship between social movements and capitalist modernity, and force a reconsideration of the role of social movements across developmentalist hierarchies. Such rethinking can be theoretically challenging, and force new approaches into view. These possibilities reflect the broader challenges to political culture posed by climate change.
Across many parts of the globe the relationship between journalists and news sources has been transformed by digital technologies, increased reliance on public relations practitioners, and the rise of citizen journalism. With fewer gatekeepers, and the growing influence of digital and social media, identifying whose voices are authoritative in making sense of complex climate science proves an increasing challenge. An increasing array of news sources are vying for their particular perspective to be established including scientists, government, industry, environmental NGOs, individual citizens and, more recently, celebrities. The boundaries between audience, consumer and producer are less defined and the distinction between ‘factual’ and ‘opinion-based’ reporting has become more blurred.
All these developments suggest the need for a more complex account of the myriad influences on journalistic decisions. More research needs to examine behind-the-scenes relations between sources and journalists, and the efforts of news sources to frame the issues or seek to silence news media attention. Also although we now know a great deal more about marginalized sources and their communication strategies we know relatively little about those of powerful multinational corporate organizations, governments and lobby groups. The shifting media environment and the networked nature of information demand a major rethinking of early media-centric approaches to examining journalist/source relations as applied to climate change. The metaphors of ‘network’ and field’ capture the diverse linkages across different spheres better than the Hierarchy of Influences model.
Toby Bolsen and Matthew A. Shapiro
The importance of framing as a concept is reflected by the massive amount of attention it has received from scholars across disciplines. As a communicative process, framing involves making certain considerations salient as a way to simplify or shape the way in which an audience understands a particular problem and its potential solutions. As recently as the early 2000s, social scientists began to examine how strategic frames in a communication affect both individuals’ beliefs about climate change and the actions they are willing to support to mitigate the likely effects. Research on the effects of how strategic frames influence the attitudes, beliefs, and preferences of individuals in this domain primarily builds on insights from framing theory, which explains that an individual’s attitude or preference in any given context depends on the available, accessible, and most applicable (i.e., perceived strongest) considerations. But it is much more than theory: frames related to the effects and potential solutions for climate change have been employed strategically by various actors in an effort to shape public opinion and public policy.
Perceptions of scientific consensus on climate change are thought to play an important role in determining support for policy actions. Consequently, strategic actors promote a particular agenda by accentuating the inherent uncertainty of climate science, thus casting doubt on the scientific consensus. This has contributed to partisan polarization on climate change and the rise of protective forms of information processing and reasoning in this domain. Strategic messages and frames that resonate with particular subgroups have no effect, or may even backfire, on other segments of the population. Additionally, as individuals who possess different partisan identities become more knowledgeable and numerate, they become increasingly likely to accept information and messages that bolster their existing group loyalties and to reject communications that challenge those identities. Science communicators are thus presented with a considerable barrier to building consensus among the public for action on climate change. In response, scholars have begun to identify strategies and approaches for addressing audiences with the kinds of messages that are most likely to resonate with individuals possessing a diverse range of values and political identities. Further research must identify ways to overcome partisan motivated reasoning on climate change and the persistent and deleterious effects that have resulted from the politicization of climate science.
R. Kelly Garrett
Misperceptions about climate change are widespread, and efforts to correct them must be grounded in an understanding of the factors, both individual and social, that contribute to them. These factors can be organized into four broad categories: motivated reasoning, non-motivated information processing biases, social dynamics, and the information environment. Each type of factor is associated with a host of related strategies for countering false information and beliefs. Motivated biases can be reduced with affirmations, by attempting to depoliticize the issue, and via an evidentiary “tipping point.” Other cognitive biases highlight the importance of clarity, simplicity, and repetition. When correcting errors that contain an inaccurate causal explanation, it is also important to provide an alternative account of the event in question. Message presentation techniques can also facilitate updating beliefs. Beliefs have an important social dimension. Attending to these factors shows the importance of strategies that include: ensuring that lay people consistently have the tools that help them evaluate experts; promoting confidence among those who hold accurate beliefs; facilitating diverse, unsegregated social networks; and providing corrections from unexpected sources. Finally, the prevalence of misinformation in the information environment is highly problematic. Strategies that news organizations can employ include avoiding false balance, adjudicating among contradictory claims, and encouraging accuracy on the part of political elites via fact checking. New technologies may also prove an important tool: search engines that give preferential treatment to accurate information and automated recommendations of accurate information following exposure to inaccuracies both have the potential to change how individuals learn about climate change.
Bridie McGreavy and David Hart
Direct experience, scientific reports, and international media coverage make clear that the breadth, severity, and multiple consequences from climate change are far-reaching and increasing. Like many places globally, the northeastern United States is already experiencing climate change, including one of the world’s highest rates of ocean warming, reduced durations of winter ice cover on lakes, a marked increase in the frequency of extreme precipitation events, and climate-mediated ecological disruptions of invasive species. Given current and projected changes in ecosystems, communities, and economies, it is essential to find ways to anticipate and reduce vulnerabilities to change and, at the same time, promote sustainable economic development and human well-being.
The emerging field of sustainability science offers a promising conceptual and analytic framework for accelerating progress towards sustainable development. Sustainability science aims to be use-inspired and to connect basic and applied knowledge with solutions for societal benefit. This approach draws from diverse disciplines, theories, and methods organized around the broad goal of maintaining and improving life support systems, ecosystem health, and human well-being. Partners in New England have been using sustainability science as a framework for stakeholder-engaged, interdisciplinary research that has generated use-inspired knowledge and multiple solutions for more than a decade. Sustainability science has helped produce a landscape-scale approach to wetland conservation; emergency response plans for invasive species that threaten livelihoods and cultures; decision support tools for improved water quality management and public health for beach use and shellfish consumption; and the development of robust partnership networks across disciplines and institutions. Understanding and reducing vulnerability to climate change is a central motivating factor in this portfolio of projects because linking knowledge about social-ecological systems with effective policy action requires a holistic view that addresses complex intersecting stressors.
One common theme in these varied efforts is the way that communication fundamentally shapes collaborative research and social, technical, and policy outcomes from sustainability science. Communication as a discipline has, for more than two thousand years, sought to understand how environments and symbols shape human life, forms of social organization, and collective decision making. The result is a body of scholarship and practical techniques that are diverse and well adapted to meet the complexity of contemporary sustainability challenges. The complexity of the issues that sustainability science aspires to solve requires diversity and flexibility to be able to adapt approaches to the specific needs of a situation. Long-term, cross-scale, and multi-institutional sustainability science collaborations show that communication research and practice can help build communities and networks, and advance technical and policy solutions to confront the challenges of climate change and promote sustainability now and in future.
Neil T. Gavin
Television and cable are two routes by which broadcasters reach the public. Citizens are known to rely on a variety of media sources; however, television is seen by people in a very wide range of geographical locales, as a main or major source of reliable and trusted information. The coverage of climate change by broadcasters is, however, modest relative to press coverage of the topic and reports on topics other than global warming. Journalists in the televisual media can struggle to justify the inclusion of climate change in programming because it can lack the “newsworthiness” that draws editors and reporters to other issues. A range of incentives and pressures have tended to ensure that commentary and claims that stand outside the scientific consensus are represented in “balanced” reporting. The literature on broadcast programming output on climate change is highly diverse and often country specific. Nevertheless, certain features do stand out across locales, notably a focus on alarming (and possibly alarmist) commentary, limited reporting on the causes and consequences of climate change, and widespread reproduction of climate sceptic claims. These common forms of coverage seem unlikely to prompt full understanding of, serious engagement with, or concern about the issue.
Edward Maibach, Bernadette Woods Placky, Joe Witte, Keith Seitter, Ned Gardiner, Teresa Myers, Sean Sublette, and Heidi Cullen
Global climate change is influencing the weather in every region of the United States, often in harmful ways. Yet, like people in many countries, most Americans view climate change as a threat that is distant in space (i.e., not here), time (i.e., not now), and species (i.e., not us). To manage risk and avoid harm, it is imperative that the public, professionals, and policy-makers make decisions with an informed understanding of our changing climate. In the United States, broadcast meteorologists are ideally positioned to educate Americans about the current and projected impacts of climate change in their community. They have tremendous reach, are trusted sources of climate information, and are highly skilled science communicators. When our project began in 2009, we learned that many U.S.-based TV weathercasters were potentially interested in reporting on climate change, but few actually were, citing significant barriers including a lack of time to prepare and air stories, and lack of access to high-quality content that can be rapidly used in their broadcasts, social media, and community presentations. To test the premise that TV weathercasters can be effective climate educators—if supported with high-quality localized climate communication content—in 2010 George Mason University, Climate Central, and WLTX-TV (Columbia, SC) developed and pilot-tested Climate Matters, a series of short on-air (and online) segments about the local impacts of climate change, delivered by the station’s chief meteorologist. During the first year, more than a dozen stories aired. To formally evaluate Climate Matters, we conducted pre- and post-test surveys of local TV news viewers in Columbia. After one year, WLTX viewers had developed a more science-based understanding of climate change than viewers of other local news stations, confirming our premise that when TV weathercasters report on the local implications of climate change, their viewers learn. Through a series of expansions, including the addition of important new partners—the American Meteorological Society, National Aeronautical and Space Administration (NASA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Yale University—Climate Matters has become a comprehensive nationwide climate communication resource program for American broadcast meteorologists. As of March 2016, 313 local weathercasters nationwide (at 202 stations in 111 media markets) are participating in the program, receiving new content on a weekly basis. Some leaders in the World Meteorological Organization are now promoting the concept of “TV weather presenters as climate change communicators,” and collaborative discussions are underway with Climate Central. In this article, we review the theoretical basis of the program, detail its development and national scale-up, and conclude with insights for how to develop climate communication initiatives for other professional communities of practice in the U.S. and other countries.
Robyn S. Wilson, Sarah M. McCaffrey, and Eric Toman
Throughout the late 19th century and most of the 20th century, risks associated with wildfire were addressed by suppressing fires as quickly as possible. However, by the 1960s, it became clear that fire exclusion policies were having adverse effects on ecological health, as well as contributing to larger and more damaging wildfires over time. Although federal fire policy has changed to allow fire to be used as a management tool on the landscape, this change has been slow to take place, while the number of people living in high-risk wildland–urban interface communities continues to increase. Under a variety of climate scenarios, in particular for states in the western United States, it is expected that the frequency and severity of fires will continue to increase, posing even greater risks to local communities and regional economies.
Resource managers and public safety officials are increasingly aware of the need for strategic communication to both encourage appropriate risk mitigation behavior at the household level, as well as build continued public support for the use of fire as a management tool aimed at reducing future wildfire risk. Household decision making encompasses both proactively engaging in risk mitigation activities on private property, as well as taking appropriate action during a wildfire event to protect personal safety. Very little research has directly explored the connection between climate-related beliefs, wildfire risk perception, and action; however, the limited existing research suggests that climate-related beliefs have little direct effect on wildfire-related action. Instead, action appears to depend on understanding the benefits of different mitigation actions and in engaging the public in interactive, participatory communication programs that build trust between the public and natural resource managers. A relatively new line of research focuses on resource managers as critical decision makers in the risk management process, pointing to the need to thoughtfully engage audiences other than the lay public to improve risk management.
Ultimately, improving the decision making of both the public and managers charged with mitigating the risks associated with wildfire can be achieved by carefully addressing several common themes from the literature. These themes are to (1) promote increased efficacy through interactive learning, (2) build trust and capacity through social interaction, (3) account for behavioral constraints and barriers to action, and (4) facilitate thoughtful consideration of risk-benefit tradeoffs. Careful attention to these challenges will improve the likelihood of successfully managing the increasing risks that wildfire poses to the public and ecosystems alike in a changing climate.
Maria Ojala and Yuliya Lakew
One important group to include in efforts to combat climate change is young people. This group comprises the future leaders of society, besides being citizens of today, and they will be the ones handling the future negative consequences of this global problem. This article provides an overview of some research about climate change communication and young people. The aim is to gain a better understanding of how this group relates to and communicates about climate change in different contexts, and how to best promote knowledge, a sense of efficacy, and engagement concerning this problem. The focus is on young people who are between late childhood and young adulthood. Questions in focus are: How do media messages about climate change influence young people, and how do they themselves use media, for instance social networks, to engage with this issue? Can art-based and entertainment approaches to communication overcome the distant and complex character of climate change and make young people feel more empowered and engaged? Is it possible to communicate about climate change and raise awareness by promoting contact with nature and animals? How do young people cope with the negative emotions that are often evoked by information about this problem? In what way do young people communicate in everyday life with parents, peers, and teachers about climate change? Are participatory approaches to climate change communication a good way to prepare young people for future extreme climate events?
A great deal of learning takes place outside of the standard curriculum. School-based education is often insufficient to address climate change; many schools do little to cover the topic, perhaps out of the desire to avoid political controversy. This leaves social media, mainstream news media, and informal learning environments to cover the gap. Although social media and mainstream news media can be politically polarized, science museums, zoos, and other informal learning environments draw a broad and diverse audience, and are generally trusted by people across the political spectrum. This makes them an important location for climate change education.
Informal learning environments are settings outside traditional educational institutions in which information is communicated. Environments such as zoos and nature centers, which provide information about animals, ecology, and the natural environment, have several attributes that are important to their role in climate change communication. One significant feature is that they are social contexts, in which social interaction is both expected and encouraged. If the people who are encountering the message talk to each other about it, they can develop a shared understanding of, and response to, the content. The social experiences provide an opportunity to affirm shared values for nature, and understandings of the potential impacts of climate change.
Another key characteristic of these environments is that they have at least a minimal entertainment function along with the education function. People are required to attend formal educational settings, at least within certain parameters, but informal settings are usually optional. That means that those who run the sites have to think about ways to encourage attendance, by providing an emotionally engaging experience. The personal experience of curiosity, awe, and connection to nature can be dramatic, as can be seen by observing visitors at a zoo exhibit. Such connections can provide a powerful basis for empathy, a precursor to concern about the impacts of climate change on animals and ecosystems.
Climate literacy requires “an understanding of your influence on climate and climate’s influence on you and society” (U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), 2009, p. 4). Such an understanding can be frightening if people feel helpless. In addition to providing information about climate change, informal learning environments can do more to overcome denial. Well-constructed exhibits can promote concern through interest and engagement. But they also need to avoid a message that is too pessimistic. Beyond this, informal learning centers should take advantage of their social context. The very experience of learning about climate change in an institutional setting can empower visitors, who can feel reassured that society acknowledges the issue, cares about it, and has suggestions for effective action.
After reviewing aspects of environmental learning and the ways in which it occurs in informal settings, this chapter will present some suggestions about how zoos and other science museums can more effectively capitalize on their strengths to communicate with the public about climate change.