Political participation on the issue of climate change can encompass many different forms of individual and collective actions designed to affect governmental policies. At the most basic level, issue-specific political participation occurs when individuals directly attempt to influence governmental actors or policies on climate change—most notably by voting, but also through donating money and communicating with public officials. These types of participation tend to be relatively rare, limited to a small subset of deeply committed individuals. In contrast, personal action on climate change is more widely dispersed, especially if one includes impact-oriented actions (e.g., actions that influence the environment but are primarily undertaken for other reasons, like convenience or saving money) rather than purely intention-based actions, which occur when individuals adopt behaviors with the goal of addressing climate change. Additionally, opportunities to engage in expressive participation, largely online, create new spaces for individuals to build networks to engage in political action, as well as potentially to reach unengaged groups that are less likely to seek out information on the issue. A number of forces can contribute to whether an individual chooses to participate on the issue of climate change. Individual characteristics, like perceptions of impersonal and personal risks associated with climate change, knowledge of the issues, and environmental values all tend to produce people more likely to participate—especially when these attitudes become part of an individual’s identity as an opinion leader or activist. As a global issue, social norms play a particularly powerful role; when individuals believe others support and are likely to take action themselves, it tends to foster a sense of efficacy that such behaviors will be effective in producing change. Individual choices about media sources also intersect with media coverage and framing of the issue to influence perceptions of the issue and likelihood of taking action. Such media framing can exacerbate or mitigate the heightened political polarization on the issue of climate change that has erected barriers to effective political action in many democratic societies in recent years, most notably in the United States. New forms of political participation may create opportunities to encourage more participation on the issue of climate change, but they also raise ethical questions about inequality and participatory divides that privilege some groups over others.
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.
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.
Climate change specifically and the environment more generally are becoming increasingly central features in much of contemporary persuasive messages. From World Wildlife Fund public service announcements showing the Earth as a melting scoop of ice cream to advertisements for environmentally friendly hybrid cars set against backdrops of lush, green fields, climate change and the environment are closely linked to strategic communication and consumer behavior. This growing focus on the connection between climate change and consumption represents a wide and varied field of study, underscoring the ways in which the two can at once be symbiotic and yet also antagonistic. Meaningful academic attention to environmental cues in advertising can be thought of as occurring in two waves. In the first wave, peaking in the 1990s, research was concerned primarily with content analyses of advertising containing environmental appeals. Questions about deceptive environmental claims, often referred to as greenwashing, were a primary concern during this phase. Climate change specifically was not a central element, and instead, issues of environmental preservation and conservation dominated. In the second wave, which emerged in the late 2000s and continues unabated, researchers have broadened their focus to examine not only how the environment was depicted in advertising messages but also how audiences understood them. Attention was paid to message factors, like framing, source cues, and visual depictions, as well as individual-level factors, such as environmental concern, political ideology and regulatory focus. While concerns about greenwashing and deceptive advertising continue to plague green advertising, a collection of new critiques has emerged, including questions about the implications of emphasizing consumer behavior as a source of climate change mitigation, of relying on nature as a commodity to be sold and used, and of engaging individuals as consumers rather than as citizens in attempts to effect environmental change.