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Article

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.

Article

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?

Article

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.

Article

In comparison to fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gases, nuclear power plants are a cleaner energy source that could help to mitigate the problems of climate change. Despite this, the general public often associates nuclear energy with risks that include nuclear accidents, nuclear waste contamination, nuclear weapons proliferation, and many others. People’s experience with the 1979 Three Mile Island incident in Pennsylvania and the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine have caused a sharp decline in public support for nuclear energy over the past few decades. In addition, media images of the 2011 Fukushima-Daichii nuclear accident are still fresh in the minds of the public. These now iconic media images and portrayals have perpetuated a perception of nuclear energy as a risky technology. Against these backdrops, scientists, communication practitioners and other key stakeholders increasingly face an uphill struggle to communicate about nuclear energy as a possible strategy for addressing climate change. Though the general public may reluctantly accept nuclear energy for climate change mitigation, research suggests that messages emphasizing the benefits of nuclear power for energy security and economic growth appear to have greater impact on public acceptance of the technology. Furthermore, public perception of nuclear energy is shaped by a host of other factors such as trust in nuclear governing institutions, knowledge, political inclinations, geographical proximity, and socio-demographic variables. At the same time, nuclear experts and the general public differ in their perceptions of risk, in nature and strength, relative to nuclear energy. Understanding these key differences between the experts and the public, and how beliefs, values, and perceptions influence public acceptance of nuclear energy is necessary to formulate effective public communication and engagement strategies.

Article

The contribution summarizes the topic of climate change communication in Switzerland. The development of the topic of “climate change” is described and located within the general area of environmental politics in Switzerland, based on the specifics of Switzerland as a small, federal state, and non-EU member with direct democratic political processes. Climate change communication then is analyzed based on the results of several content analyses, mostly of Swiss print media, which focus on intensity of coverage, topics, and media frames. In the last part, the perception of and attitudes towards environment and climate change are presented and compared to other countries, based on public opinion survey data.

Article

María Carmen Erviti and Bienvenido León

It is not easy to determine the precise moment when climate change became a public communication issue in Spain. Among early references, the national newspaper El País published a story titled “World climate is going to change,” on November 17, 1976, and the term “global warming,” imported from the United States, appeared frequently in the media, from 1988 onward. However, academic research about communication of this important issue is relatively recent. A seminar held in 2005 warned that there were “no specific studies on the way the Spanish citizenry is facing the climate change threat” (II Seminario de Comunicación, Educación y Participación frente al Cambio Climático, Lekaroz, Navarra). This seminar precipitated the first study on public perception of climate change in Spain. According to more recent research, 90.1% of Spanish citizens are aware that climate change is happening, whereas only 4.6% are not. Historical records indicate that awareness has grown consistently in the early 21st century, with awareness levels that are similar to those of other countries. However, although there exists a strong consensus within the scientific community on the existence and the anthropogenic origin of climate change, polls indicate that only a small part of the Spanish population (39.0%) is aware of this agreement; a figure that is similar to that of other countries, such as the United States. In addition, two thirds of the Spanish population (64.4%) believe that climate change is mainly a consequence of human activities; a higher percentage than in other countries, like the United States. This ambivalent picture is not surprising, considering climate change is a marginal topic for mainstream Spanish media. According to a study conducted in 2005 and 2011, only 0.2% of all stories in the main national newspapers and 0.19% of national TV news focused on climate change, a lower percentage than in other countries. Media coverage of this issue has fluctuated since the 1990s, depending on several factors, like the existence of links to current affairs (such as international climate summits), notable report publications (from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), and public engagement efforts (such as the Al Gore film An Inconvenient Truth). As far as the quality of the coverage is concerned, research shows similar trends to those detected internationally, including politicization, superficiality, and catastrophism. However, compared to other countries, there is a lower representation of skeptic viewpoints in the Spanish media that may be related to a weaker public visibility of skeptic think tanks and personalities. Academic interest in climate change communication has risen since 2010. Only four publications (books or articles) were released from 2001 to 2005, whereas more than 30 appeared in the period 2011–2015. Research has primarily focused on public perception and media coverage of climate change and has been conducted mainly by four universities (Universidad Complutense, Universidad de Málaga, Universidad de Santiago de Compostela, and Universidad de Navarra). Communication actions related to climate change have been carried out by several nongovernmental organizations, often as part of international events and campaigns. In the early 21st century, national and regional public institutions have conducted several campaigns to communicate and raise climate change awareness, producing several exhibitions and publications, mainly on climate change mitigation. Several forums have suggested that the current weaknesses could benefit from a closer relationship among the media and scientific institutions. This could contribute to provide more credible information on the reality of climate change, as well as the options for mitigation and adaptation. Future research could also address climate change coverage in online media and social networks, as well as reception studies, currently underrepresented in academic studies conducted in the country.

Article

Lorenzo Beltrame, Massimiano Bucchi, and Enzo Loner

Climate change communication in Italy is preeminently “commonsensical” and pragmatic. Italian mass media represent climate change as an undisputable fact scaled to the everyday domestic and local experience of common people. While the causes of climate change are rarely discussed, its consequences are instead presented in very practical terms (from environmental catastrophes to weather anomalies) and the issue is framed as something linking, embedding, and drawing together multiple social dimensions (the economy, politics, science and technology, and everyday life). Mass media discourse has contradictory effects on public perceptions of the issue. Review of existing studies and use of available social survey data show that the Italian public is largely aware of the seriousness of climate change, but climate change is considered less urgent than other matters of concern related to the economic situation. In developing their environmental awareness, Italian citizens rely mainly on information provided by traditional mass media, while environmental organizations’ claims and public communication by scientists play a marginal role. Finally, perceptions of climate change in Italy are prevalently built on the direct experiences of anomalies in seasonal temperatures rather than on evidence-based scientific communication.

Article

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.

Article

Affective imagery, or connotative meanings, play an important role in shaping public risk perceptions, policy support, and broader responses to climate change. These simple “top-of-mind” associations and their related affect help reveal how diverse audiences understand and interpret global warming. And as a relatively simple set of measures, they are easily incorporated into representative surveys, making it possible to identify, measure, and monitor how connotative meanings are distributed throughout a population and how they change over time. Affective image analysis can help identify distinct interpretive communities of like-minded individuals who share their own set of common meanings and interpretations. The images also provide a highly sensitive measure of changes in public discourse. As scientists, political elites, advocates, and the media change the frames, images, icons, and emotions they use to communicate climate change, they can influence the interpretations of the larger public. Likewise, as members of the public directly or vicariously experience specific events or learn more about climate risks, they construct their own connotative meanings, which can in turn influence larger currents of public discourse. This article traces the development of affective imagery analysis, reviews the studies that have implemented it, examines how affective images influence climate change risk perceptions and policy support, and charts several future directions of research.

Article

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.

Article

Marianne Ryghaug and Tomas Moe Skjølsvold

Climate change research, activities, and initiatives in Norway started relatively late, by international comparison. From the beginnings in the early 2000s, research has mainly followed two paths: First, media studies, typically focusing on traditional newspaper representations of climate change and the surrounding debate, and second, research on public perceptions of climate change. Initially, the research field was dominated by media studies and science and technology studies (STS). As climate change and related controversies made headlines during the mid-2000s, the authorities implemented several engagement activities and research programs to improve climate change communication, typically aiming at public education on climate change. Teaching the public about climate change as a scientific phenomenon along the lines of the “knowledge deficit model” was a favored strategy. Research on climate change media coverage indicated that the issue was reported in the same way as other news stories: the journalistic principles of newsworthiness often led newspapers to cover global warming as a contested phenomenon, in which harsh scientific controversy was played out. Thus, the Norwegian media framed the issue similar to U.S. newspapers, giving voice to both concerned climate scientists as well as climate skeptics (representative of “balanced” reporting). Studies of public perceptions of climate change demonstrated that public opinions were largely influenced by this “balanced reporting”: although most people believed the climate threat was real, the many accounts of scientific controversy made people uncertain, and many people questioned the urgency of the issues. This was, of course, not only a result of the media accounts, but also of what the public interpreted as political inertia. Following this, a debate about the ethics of journalism surfaced, and the media increasingly downplayed the controversy angle. Recent research indicates that this may have had paradoxical consequences; downplaying controversy has made climate change less newsworthy, and it has thus been given less priority by Norwegian media. Recently, more disciplinary groups have become interested in climate change communication, from psychology to linguistics, political science, and philosophy. Accordingly, research trajectories have multiplied, and at least two new strands surfaced: how science is communicated in traditional and new social media and the use of climate change knowledge in so-called “climate change services.” The latter strand of research typically also relates to climate change adaptation work, to a greater extent than the earlier works, where the focus has mainly been on mitigation.

Article

Mental models are the sets of causal beliefs we “run” in our minds to infer what will happen in a given event or situation. Mental models, like other models, are useful simplifications most of the time. They can, however, lead to mistaken or misleading inferences, for example, if the analogies that inform them are misleading in some regard. The coherence and consistency of mental models a person employs to solve a given problem are a function of that person’s expertise. The less familiar and central a problem is, the less coherent and consistent the mental models brought to bear on that problem are likely to be. For problems such as those posed by anthropogenic climate change, most people are likely to recruit multiple mental models to make judgments and decisions. Common types of mental models of climate change and global warming include: (a) a carbon emissions model, in which global warming is a result of burning fossil fuels thereby emitting CO2, and of deforestation, which both releases sequestered CO2 and decreases the possible sinks that might take CO2 out of the atmosphere; (b) a stratospheric ozone depletion mental model, which conflates stratospheric ozone depletion with global warming; (c) an air pollution mental model, in which global warming is viewed as air pollution; and (d) a weather change model, in which weather and climate are conflated. As social discourse around global warming and climate change has increased, mental models of climate change have become more complex, although not always more coherent. One such complexity is the belief that climate changes according to natural cycles and due to factors beyond human control, in addition to changes resulting from human activities such as burning fossil fuels and releasing other greenhouse gases. As our inference engines, mental models play a central role in problem solving and subjective projections and are hence at the heart of risk perceptions and risk decision-making. However, both perceiving and making decisions about climate change and the risks thereof are affective and social processes foremost.

Article

Carbon capture and storage (CCS) has emerged as a potential strategy for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. It involves the capture of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from large point source emitters, such as coal-fired power plants. The CO2 is transported to a storage location, where it is isolated from the atmosphere in stable underground reservoirs. CCS technology has been particularly intriguing to countries that utilize fossil fuels for energy production and are seeking ways to reduce their GHG emissions. While there has been an increase in technological development and research in CCS, some members of the public, industry, and policymakers regard the technology as controversial. Some proponents see CCS as a climate change mitigation technology that will be essential to reducing CO2 emissions. Others view CCS as an environmentally risky, complex, and expensive technology that is resource-intensive, promotes the continued extraction of fossil fuels, and competes with renewable energy investments. Effective communication about CCS begins with understanding the perceptions of the general public and individuals living in the communities where CCS projects are sited or proposed. Most people may never live near a CCS site, but may be concerned about risks, such as the cost of development, environmental impacts, and competition with renewable energy sources. Those who live near proposed or operational projects are likely to have a strong impact on the development and deployment of CCS. Individuals in locally affected communities may be more concerned about disruptions to sense of place, impact on jobs or economy, or effect on local health and environment. Effective communication about the risks and benefits of CCS has been recognized as a critical factor in the deployment of this technology.