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date: 29 November 2020

Climate Change Communicationfree

  • Amy E. ChadwickAmy E. ChadwickScripps College of Communication, School of Communication Studies, Ohio University

Summary

Climate change, which includes global warming, is a serious and pervasive challenge for local and global communities. Communication theorists, researchers, and practitioners are well positioned to describe, predict, and affect how we communicate about climate change. Our theories, research methods, and practices have many potential roles in reducing climate change and its effects. Climate change communication is a growing field that examines a range of factors that affect and are affected by how we communicate about climate change. Climate change communication covers a broad range of philosophical and research traditions, including humanistic-rhetorical analyses, interpretive qualitative studies, and social-scientific quantitative surveys and experiments. Climate change communication examines a range of factors that affect and are affected by how we communicate about climate change. Much of the research in climate change communication focuses on public understanding of climate change, factors that affect public understanding, media coverage and framing, media effects, and risk perceptions. Less prevalent, growing areas of research include civic engagement and public participation, organizational communication, and persuasive strategies to affect attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors related to the climate. In all of these areas, most of the research on climate change communication has been conducted in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and Western European countries. There is a need to expand the climate change communication research into other regions, particularly developing countries. In addition, climate change communication has natural links to environmental and health communication; therefore, communication scholars should also examine research from these areas to develop insights into climate change communication.

Introduction

Climate change, which includes global warming, is a serious and pervasive challenge for local and global communities. The climate is the average weather over a period of decades, typically 30 years or more. Climate change is differences in the climate system (i.e., the atmosphere, biosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, and/or cryosphere) beyond natural variation that persist for extended periods of time (e.g., decades or longer) and can be attributed directly and indirectly to human activity (for additional explanation of the climate system, see Chadwick, 2016; IPCC, 2013). Global warming is the increase in the average atmospheric temperature of Earth across many decades. Thus, global warming is one example of climate change.

The changing climate affects the ecosystems upon which we depend, human health, food and water supplies, livelihoods, infrastructure, and security (IPCC, 2013). Current and future climate changes are the direct and indirect result of human actions. Human behaviors are responsible for changing the climate, but human behaviors can also mitigate climate change (IPCC, 2013; Steg & Vlek, 2009). Mitigation of and adaptation to climate change requires behavior change and the development of sustainable solutions on local, national, and global levels by individuals, businesses, scientists, governments, non-government organizations, and other social and economic players. Communication scholars and practitioners play a role in describing, predicting, and affecting how we communicate about climate change.

Climate change communication is a fairly new area. The area began to develop a presence in scholarly journals in the early to mid-1990s with a dominant focus on public understanding of climate change and risk perceptions. For example, a series of studies examined the mental models people had constructed related to climate change, such as links between global warming and steamy weather, the ozone layer, and skin cancer (Fischhoff, Morgan, Bostrom, & Read, 1994). The purpose of these studies was to understand public perceptions of climate change and inform the development of effective risk communication and policy messages to the public.

Climate change communication has since expanded to cover a broad range of philosophical and research traditions, including humanistic-rhetorical analyses, interpretive qualitative studies, and social-scientific quantitative surveys and experiments. Climate change communication examines a range of factors that affect and are affected by how we communicate about climate change. Much of the research in climate change communication focuses on public understanding of climate change, factors that affect public understanding, media coverage and framing, media effects, and risk perceptions. Less prevalent, growing areas of research include civic engagement and public participation, organizational communication, and persuasive strategies to affect attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors related to the climate. In all of these areas, most of the research on climate change communication has been conducted in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and Western European countries. There is a need to expand the climate change communication research into other regions, particularly developing countries.

Public Understanding of Climate Change

Numerous studies have examined the general public’s knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs about climate change (e.g., Capstick, Whitmarsh, Poortinga, Pidgeon, & Upham, 2015; Feldman, Nisbet, Leiserowitz, & Maibach, 2010; Leiserowitz, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, Feinberg, & Rosenthal, 2016; Leiserowitz, Smith, & Marlon, 2010; Nisbet & Myers, 2007; Wachholz, Artz, & Chene, 2014). Public understanding of and concern for climate change are particularly important to policy makers given the desire for public acceptance of policies and risk management procedures. In addition, assessing public understanding of climate change can guide public communication messages. Some areas of public understanding that researchers have examined are levels of belief in and concern about climate change, knowledge about climate change and its connection to issues such as health, understanding about scientific consensus, and imagery associated with climate change.

Belief

Overall, there is widespread global awareness of climate change and belief that climate change is bad (Lorenzoni & Pidgeon, 2006). Most Americans believe global warming is happening and about half believe global warming is mostly caused by humans (Leiserowitz, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, Feinberg, & Rosenthal, 2014). However, there is a generalized belief that the risks of climate change are greater to others than to oneself and that consequences will happen in the future, but not now (Leiserowitz et al., 2014; Lorenzoni & Pidgeon, 2006). Research with U.S. college students and adults aged 18 to 35 indicate that they are likely to believe in climate change, but have many misconceptions and are unlikely to take mitigation action (Cordero, Todd, & Abellera, 2008; Feldman et al., 2010; Wachholz et al., 2014). This research indicates that there is a need for education about climate change that addresses misconceptions.

Concern

There is fairly widespread concern about climate change, particularly in developed countries (Lorenzoni & Pidgeon, 2006). Despite general concern about climate change, it is lower in priority compared to other environmental, personal, and social issues, such as nuclear power, radioactive waste, health, family, finances, and safety (Lorenzoni & Pidgeon, 2006). From this research, it is clear that communication needs to more effectively turn concern about climate change into action.

Knowledge

In addition to examining belief in and concern about climate change, scholars have used both qualitative and quantitative research techniques to examine the accuracy of the public’s knowledge about climate change. Understanding what people know about climate change provides insight into the effectiveness of public communication and education about climate change as well as insight into what information should be addressed in future communication. Generally, people have limited knowledge of the causes, consequences of, and solutions to climate change (Leiserowitz et al., 2010; Lorenzoni & Pidgeon, 2006). For example, climate change is often incorrectly associated with ozone depletion (Fischhoff et al., 1994; Lorenzoni & Pidgeon, 2006; Nisbet & Myers, 2007; Whitmarsh, 2009). Although there is fairly broad recognition of vehicle and factory emissions as causes of climate change (Leiserowitz et al., 2010), there is substantially less recognition of the effects of various forms of consumption (e.g., use of plastics and eating meat) on the climate (Cordero et al., 2008). Similarly, there is general recognition of increasing temperatures, melting glaciers, and weather changes as effects of climate change, but the association between climate change and other impacts is not well recognized by the public (Whitmarsh, 2009). For example, climate change is having, and will continue to have, substantial direct and indirect impacts on health (Costello et al., 2009; Portier et al., 2010; Smith et al., 2014). However, the health effects of climate change are not well recognized by the public (Cardwell & Elliott, 2013). Overall, the research on knowledge about climate change indicates that there is a clear role for informational messages to strengthen knowledge on causes, consequences, and solutions associated with climate change.

Scientific Consensus

Another area in which the public has incorrect knowledge is around whether there is scientific consensus about climate change. There is strong scientific consensus (at or greater than 97%) that climate change is occurring and that it is caused by humans (Cook et al., 2016, 2013; IPCC, 2013). However, despite this scientific consensus, in many countries, including the United States, Japan, and Russia, less than half of people think that the majority of scientists believe that climate change is an urgent problem and that we know enough to act (World Public Opinion Poll, 2009). A recent study indicated that only 12% of people in the United States correctly identify scientific agreement as greater than 90% (Leiserowitz et al., 2014).

Misperception of scientific consensus is problematic because it is associated with lower support for climate policies and lower belief that action should be taken to mitigate climate change (Ding, Maibach, Zhao, Roser-Renouf, & Leiserowitz, 2011). In addition, people who believe scientists disagree about climate change are less certain that climate change is occurring (Ding et al., 2011; van der Linden, Leiserowitz, Feinberg, & Maibach, 2015). Belief in scientific consensus predicts beliefs that climate change is human caused and is a worrisome threat (van der Linden et al., 2015). Given the importance of scientific consensus as a “gateway” belief, public education campaigns and the media can correct this misperception and as a result perhaps increase support for climate policies and action.

The lack of understanding about the scientific consensus may derive from the journalistic norm of balance, which results in scientists and climate skeptics getting equal time/space in the media (Boykoff & Boykoff, 2007). Recently, there has been a trend for journalists to use a “weight of evidence” norm rather than a “balance” norm when it comes to scientific issues (Hiles & Hinnant, 2014). The lack of understanding about scientific consensus may also be due to political communication to intentionally increase perceptions of uncertainty around climate change (Cox & Pezzullo, 2015; Oreskes & Conway, 2010). There is a clear role for journalists and other communicators to provide messages that accurately represent scientific consensus.

Imagery

In addition to studying public understanding and knowledge about climate change, researchers have also examined what images are evoked when people think about climate change. In general, people struggle to create concrete mental images of climate change, and they associate climate change with psychologically distant images (e.g., polar bears and melting glaciers; Leviston, Price, & Bishop, 2014). The psychological distance people perceive there to be between themselves and the effects of climate change makes people less concerned about climate change (Spence, Poortinga, & Pidgeon, 2012). In addition, many of the images that people think about when they think of climate change (e.g., drought or denuded landscapes) evoke low emotional arousal and concern (Leviston et al., 2014). People also tend to think of apocalyptic images of climate change provided in popular media. For example, the movie The Day After Tomorrow (Emmerich, 2004) often comes to mind when people think of climate change (Leiserowitz, 2007). These psychological distant and extreme images evoked by thoughts of climate change result in less concern about and lower belief in possible effects of climate change. Some researchers have suggested that communication about climate change needs to evoke other images, such as positive, alternative futures and aspirational images to motivate people to change their climate-related behaviors and lifestyle (Manzo, 2010) rather than relying on climate icons, such as the polar bear, as motivators.

In summary, assessments of public understanding of climate change focus on knowledge and beliefs about climate change (e.g., whether climate change is real and caused by humans). Understanding public perceptions is important for developing educational messages, guiding the development of persuasive messages, and identifying anticipated responses to policy proposals. However, it also is important to recognize that simply attempting to close the gap between public understanding and scientific understanding is insufficient for creating widespread shifts in public understanding and practices. The information deficit model of science communication, which attempts to provide more and better science information to close the gap between expert and public views of science, has been shown to be an insufficient approach to communicating about science (Nisbet, 2005; O’Sullivan et al., 2012). Therefore, although research into the public understanding of climate change identifies important gaps and misperceptions in the public’s understanding, the approaches to addressing those gaps and misperceptions needs to rely on more sophisticated approaches to communication than simply provision of information.

Factors That Affect Public Understanding

In addition to examining public understanding of climate change, communication researchers have also identified factors that are associated with concern about and belief in climate change (see Brulle, Carmichael, & Jenkins, 2012). For example, researchers have identified demographics and psychographics that affect people’s understanding of climate change. In addition, there are effects of media coverage and knowledge about climate change on public understanding. Finally, the choice of “climate change” versus “global warming” also affects public understanding. Knowing what factors affect public understanding of climate change is an important step toward the development and targeting of effective messages about climate change.

Demographics and Psychographics

Researchers also have identified several demographic and psychographic factors that influence the public’s perceptions about climate change. For example, education plays an important role in public understanding of climate change. Across 119 countries, education is the strongest predictor of awareness of climate change (Lee, Markowitz, Howe, Ko, & Leiserowitz, 2015). Gender affects climate change engagement, such that females are more engaged with climate change than are males (Scannell & Gifford, 2013). In addition, political ideology plays a key role in public understanding of climate change, particularly in the United States. Age also affects public understanding of climate change. Audience segmentation is likely a way for communicators to adjust for the influences of demographics and psychographics on responses to climate change messages.

Political Ideology

Political ideology affects concern about climate change. For example, a more liberal ideology is associated with greater concern about climate change whereas a more conservative ideology is associated with less concern (Asim & Todd, 2010). Political ideology and party identification predict perceptions of scientific consensus, beliefs about the timing of climate change, belief in humans as a cause of climate change, and perceptions of the seriousness and threat of climate change (McCright, Dunlap, & Xiao, 2014). Political ideology and party identification also affect support for government action, such that more conservative views are association with preference for inaction (McCright, Dunlap, et al., 2014). The effect of political ideology on environmental concern within the United States is a fairly recent phenomenon, stemming from around 1992 (McCright, Xiao, & Dunlap, 2014) and intensifying in the mid-2000s (McCright, Dunlap, et al., 2014). The divergence in environmental concern based on political ideology appears to come from anti-environmentalism among conservative elites (McCright, Xiao, et al., 2014). Within the U.S., conservative white males in particular are more likely than other people in the U.S. to have denialist views (McCright & Dunlap, 2011). In addition, political ideology interacts with education such that, although college education is generally associated with greater concern about climate change, a college education does not increase concern for conservatives (Asim & Todd, 2010).

Political ideology also has a strong influence on how people process information about climate change. Motivated reasoning is the tendency of people to interpret information in a way that allows them to arrive at conclusions that support their pre-existing beliefs (Kunda, 1990). Motivated reasoning based on political ideology is particularly prevalent in the interpretation of climate change evidence (e.g., Deryugina, 2013; Kahan, 2013; McCright & Dunlap, 2013; McCright, Dunlap, et al., 2014; Zia & Todd, 2010). For example, people who believe that global warming is not happening are less likely to report that the weather has been warmer than normal when it objectively has been (Howe & Leiserowitz, 2013). Unfortunately, motivated information processing of information about climate changed can increase political polarization (Hart & Nisbet, 2012). Therefore, communicators need to take ideology and motivated reasoning into account when creating any climate change messages, but particularly for messages that attempt to change attitudes, beliefs, or behavior.

Values and Worldviews

In addition to political ideology, values and worldviews affect public understanding of climate change (Corner, Markowitz, & Pidgeon, 2014). For example, people who hold biospheric and altruistic values are more concerned about climate change, its risks, and its impacts (e.g., Corner et al., 2011) and are more supportive of climate policies (e.g., Dietz, Dan, & Shwom, 2007; Nilsson, von Borgstede, & Biel, 2004). Similarly, having egalitarian and communitarian worldviews is associated with greater risk perceptions, more urgent need for action, and increased support for climate regulations (Kahan et al., 2012; Kahan, Jenkins-Smith, & Braman, 2011). Like ideology, values and worldviews can lead to motivated processing; however, this effect is less well documented. When developing climate change messages, communicators need to understand their audience’s values and views and adjust messages accordingly.

Personal Experience

Perceived personal experience with climate change and weather affect public understanding of and engagement with climate change. Numerous studies have shown that local weather (e.g., particularly cool or hot days) affect belief in and concern about climate change (e.g., Capstick & Pidgeon, 2014; Demski, Capstick, Pidgeon, Sposato, & Spence, 2017; Li, Johnson, & Zaval, 2011; Zaval, Keenan, Johnson, & Weber, 2014). Warmer days also increase donations to global warming charities (Li et al., 2011). Cold days, when interpreted as part of a larger set of unusual weather patterns, can be seen as confirmation of climate change; however, the interpretation of cold days is largely dependent on worldviews (Capstick & Pidgeon, 2014). Direct experience of an extreme weather event can also increase perceived importance of climate change, perceived vulnerability, and risk perceptions and may increase behavioral intentions, support for mitigation policies, and personal adaptation behaviors (Demski et al., 2017). Beyond the effects of weather fluctuations, perceived personal experience with climate changes affects risk perceptions, belief that climate change is happening, concern, and adaptation beliefs and behaviors (Reser, Bradley, & Ellul, 2014). Because personal experience is a strong predictor of attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, communicators should identify ways to connect real, local events to climate effects and to provide experiences with climate effects as part of a larger educational process.

Age

Age also plays a role in public understanding of climate change and willingness to act. Americans between the ages of 18 and 35 are less concerned about and less engaged with climate change than their older counterparts, but are more likely to believe that humans cause global warming and that there is scientific consensus on the topic. They are also more optimistic about the ability of mitigation action to slow climate change but are less open to new information about climate change than are older Americans (Feldman et al., 2010).

Given the ways in which demographics and psychographics influence responses to climate change messages, communicators are encouraged to consider audience segmentation for the delivery of messages. Audience segmentation is a technique of breaking potential receivers of a message into small, homogeneous groups based on factors that likely affect how they respond to messages (Slater, 1996). Audience segmentation has been used for decades in both marketing and health communication research and, when the audience is segmented on relevant factors, can improve the effectiveness of communication campaigns (Edgar, Volkman, & Logan, 2011; Silk, Atkin, & Salmon, 2011). Although audience segmentation has infrequently been applied to climate change communication, there is promising evidence to support its effectiveness, and it could potentially decrease polarization between audience segments (Hine et al., 2014).

Media and Knowledge

Public awareness and understanding of climate change are linked to media coverage. In general, there is a dose-response relationship, such that more media coverage of climate change is associated with more awareness (Nisbet & Myers, 2007). It also is important to note that the public is generally unaware of climate-related issues that are not covered in the media (e.g., climate meetings; Nisbet & Myers, 2007). In addition, attention to science news is associated with greater understanding of climate change and higher risk perceptions, whereas attention to political news is associated with lower understanding and lower risk perceptions (Zhao, Leiserowitz, Maibach, & Roser-Renouf, 2011). Knowing more about climate change is associated with greater concern about climate risks (Milfont, 2012). However, feeling more informed about global warming is associated with a lower perception of personal responsibility for and less concern about global warming (Kellstedt, Zahran, & Vedlitz, 2008).

Word Choice

The words that are used to talk about climate change also affect public understanding. In general, “global warming” is associated with more concern, greater certainty, and human causes, whereas “climate change” is associated with natural causes and less concern and certainty (Whitmarsh, 2009). In addition, people perceive that individual behavior changes can make a difference to “global warming,” but not to “climate change” (Whitmarsh, 2009). The effects of word choice may also be mediated through ideology such that “global warming” has different associations for conservatives than does “climate change,” whereas for liberals, both terms have similar associations (Schuldt & Roh, 2014).

Identifying factors that affect public understanding of climate change can assist communication practitioners in segmenting their audiences appropriately for different types of messages. In addition, communicators can design and tailor their messages with these factors in mind.

Journalism and Media

Given the dominance of mass media as an information source for climate change information (Nisbet & Myers, 2007; Whitmarsh, 2009), understanding how the mass media portrays climate change is important for understanding the construction of the public’s views of climate change. In addition, communication scholars have examined the effects of newsroom dynamics and journalistic norms on media coverage. Researchers have also studied the effects of popular and online media on public understanding and climate change communication.

Media Coverage and Framing

Communication researchers often conduct content analysis of newspaper and other media coverage to determine themes and dominant frames about climate change. For example, across 10 years of newspaper coverage in the United Kingdom, researchers identified five dominant discourses about climate change (Doulton & Brown, 2009). The discourses were “climate change will be beneficial,” “other development issues should be tackled first,” “mitigation is the key,” “climate change must be tackled urgently,” and “overcoming climate change can help the poor.” Which discourses dominated in a particular newspaper depended on the ideology of the newspaper, social and political factors, and key events that drew attention to climate change (Doulton & Brown, 2009). Similarly, regional differences in how climate change is portrayed in the media reflect both differences in regional media systems and differences in cultural perceptions of relevance, responsibilities, and regional power related to climate change (Eskjær, 2013).

Understanding what discourses dominate media coverage of climate change is important for understanding public attitudes about climate change. However, most of these studies assume, rather than test, the effects of these themes and frames on public understanding, concern, or motivation. There are exceptions that do empirically analyze the connections between media content or coverage and public attitudes (e.g., Feldman, Myers, Hmielowski, & Leiserowitz, 2014; Olausson, 2011); however, in general, this area of research could benefit from not only describing media content, but also connecting that content to relevant communication outcomes. In addition, the degree to which public attitudes affect media coverage versus the degree to which the media affects public attitudes is unclear. For example, media coverage of climate change lagged behind increased public information seeking that resulted from the release of the movie The Day After Tomorrow (Hart & Leiserowitz, 2009).

Journalism

Researchers have also examined the effects of newsroom dynamics and journalistic norms on media coverage. For example, newswire articles often frame climate change as an issue of debate, controversy, and/or uncertainty (Antilla, 2005). In these articles, attempts at journalistic balance usually led to bias in the articles such that skeptic views (especially those with ties to the fossil fuel industry) were overrepresented compared to valid science (Antilla, 2005). Because many news outlets use newswire services as a key source for their articles, the misinformation from the newswire articles was spread exponentially across other media outlets (Antilla, 2005). Similarly, the ideology of the media outlet affects their climate change coverage. For example, in the United States, Fox News is more dismissive of climate change and interviews a greater ratio of climate change deniers to believers than does CNN or MSNBC (Feldman, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, & Leiserowitz, 2012). Watching Fox News is also associated with less acceptance of global warming, indicating the effect that mass media coverage has on public perceptions (Feldman et al., 2012).

Researchers have also examined the effects of journalistic practices on media coverage. For example, the journalistic norms of balance/objectivity, personalization, novelty, and dramatization have substantially contributed to the inaccurate and uncertainty-laden nature of U.S. news coverage of climate change (Boykoff & Boykoff, 2007). Although objectivity is a key standard within journalism, environmental journalists have recently redefined that standard with respect to climate change (Hiles & Hinnant, 2014). Instead of conceptualizing “objectivity” to mean presenting all viewpoints equally, some journalists are now defining objectivity using a weight-of-evidence approach, such that their reporting reflects the state of science concerning climate change (Hiles & Hinnant, 2014). Understanding the effects of journalistic practices and norms on climate change communication can aid in a self-reflective process for journalists and, as has happened with “objectivity,” a reexamination and redefinition of journalistic norms for science communication.

Popular Media

In addition to examining news media, researchers have studied the effects of popular media, such as movies, on public attitudes and the potential for popular media to educate the public and generate discussion (e.g., Beattie, Sale, & McGuire, 2011; Hart & Leiserowitz, 2009; Howell, 2014; Lin, 2013). For example, the film The Day After Tomorrow (Emmerich, 2004) portrays dramatic and catastrophic effects of climate change that result in a new ice age. The film increased viewers’ concerns about climate change and climate risks; however it decreased their belief in the likelihood of extreme events (Lowe et al., 2006). In addition, although the film increased viewers’ motivation to act, viewers did not know what actions they could take to mitigate climate change (Lowe et al., 2006). After the theatrical release of The Day After Tomorrow, there was an increase in information seeking on climate change websites, indicating that popular media can create teachable moments, enabling communicators to capitalize on increased concern and attention (Hart & Leiserowitz, 2009). Selected clips from An Inconvenient Truth (Guggenheim, 2006) decreased happiness and calmness, increased motivation, increased empowerment, and decreased fatalism (Beattie et al., 2011). The Age of Stupid increased viewers’ concern, motivation, and sense of agency regarding climate change. However, the effects of the film did not persist beyond 10–14 weeks of seeing the film (Howell, 2011), nor were there effects about a year after seeing the film (Howell, 2014). Most of the previously mentioned studies examined fairly short-term effects of films; however Howell’s (2011, 2014) research indicates the importance of examining the long-term effects of films when drawing conclusions about their effectiveness. In addition, researchers should also examine the cumulative effects of popular media on public concern and motivation to act related to climate change. The above research also indicates the potential for combining popular films with educational and persuasive messages to capitalize on increased motivation.

Online Media

A few studies have also examined the role of online media, such as YouTube (Uldam & Askanius, 2013), Twitter (Jang & Hart, 2015; Kirilenko & Stepchenkova, 2014), and blogging (Thorsen, 2013) in creating forums for public deliberation, reflecting prevailing views, and advocating for action. Given the importance of online media as sources of information that also provide opportunities for interaction, there is a need for more investigation of nontraditional mass communication channels as potential sources of public perceptions, locations for persuasion efforts, and ways for people to communicate about climate change.

Civic Engagement and Public Participation

An essential element of climate protection is public engagement and participation. Researchers use a number of different terms to describe citizen participation, including civic engagement, public participation, public engagement, and participatory democracy. The role of citizens in public participation can range from citizen-lead grassroots movements to minimally participatory top-down advisory roles (Lassen, Horsbøl, Bonnen, & Pedersen, 2011). Statements about climate change by a wide variety of actors (e.g., scholars, non-governmental organizations, governments, and industry) deem engagement from a variety of actors as essential for addressing climate change; however, they are vague and implicit in terms of which actions are necessary and what the role of citizen participation is in addressing climate change (Lassen et al., 2011).

Another important area of civic engagement is the climate justice movement. Currently, most of the research on the climate justice movement exists in sociology and political science journals. An exception is an examination of Australian media coverage of climate justice and a participatory process in which representatives from small island developing states (SIDS) identified preferred media themes (Dreher & Voyer, 2015). Overall, there has been relatively little application of public participation theory to climate change or the climate justice movement. This area presents an opportunity for more research to understand how citizens engage with climate change and justice.

Organizations

A few researchers have analyzed organizational communication about climate change, and some have applied organizational theories to their research. For example, organizational environments influence the diffusion of greenhouse gas emission programs (Vasi, 2006). Program adoption was affected by social contagion (in particular proximity to and relationships with previous adopters), organizational links to international change agents, and compatibility of the program with existing programs (Vasi, 2006). This research provides needed insights into an essential area of climate protection: the adoption of climate protective behaviors by organizations and industry actors. Researchers have also examined climate change communication by specialized organizations, such as advocacy, industry, and health organizations.

Advocacy Organizations

Researchers have examined the techniques that advocacy organizations use for public mobilization and advocacy (e.g., DeLuca, 2009; Hestres, 2014). For example, DeLuca (2009) examined how the advocacy organization Greenpeace views their role in communicating about climate change. Another study determined that Internet-based advocacy organizations dominantly mobilize people who already agree with the organizations’ goals (Hestres, 2014). The organizations focus on translating online advocacy into offline advocacy, attempting to create committed activists from more passive supporters (Hestres, 2014). By mobilizing the public around climate change issues, these organizations are able to affect the media agenda (Hestres, 2014).

Industry Communication

The U.S. fossil fuel industry has had a substantial impact on public communication about climate change. Industry actors have engaged in a concerted effort to spread a message of scientific uncertainty about climate change (Hoggan & Littlemore, 2009; Oreskes & Conway, 2010; E. Pooley, 2010). In particular, industry actors have sophisticatedly manipulated the language used to describe climate change and climate science (Hoggan & Littlemore, 2009). The purpose of these efforts is to prevent action on the part of policy makers and the public to address climate change, particularly to prevent actions that might have decreased industry profits (Oreskes & Conway, 2010). Communication from industry actors and conservatives encourage non-decision making by challenging the legitimacy of climate science and policy (McCright & Dunlap, 2010a, 2010b). The sophisticated climate denial movement is well-funded and tends to conceal the sources of its funding (Brulle, 2014). In a meta-analysis of 38 studies on how industry communicated about climate change, Schlichting (2013) identified three phases. First, scientific uncertainty dominated industry communication followed by a focus on socioeconomic consequences of emission reductions and regulations. These discourses were followed by a focus on industry leadership of climate protection, which is the dominant frame worldwide today (Schlichting, 2013).

Health Organizations

Climate change directly and indirectly affects human health (Portier et al., 2010; Smith et al., 2014). Several researchers have examined roles for public health and health care providers in addressing climate change. For example, Maibach, Chadwick, et al. (2008) examined the preparedness of public health systems to address climate change, indicating a need for greater activity in the public health sector to address climate change. Other researchers have examined the potential roles of health care providers in communicating about the risks of climate change to health (e.g., Villagran, Weathers, Keefe, & Sparks, 2010).

Organizations have important roles in climate change communication. For example, organizations can be drivers and resistors to change as well as sources of information about climate change. Therefore, understanding how organizations drive and resist climate protective practices and factors that influence organizations’ behavior are important for motivating organizations to adopt sustainable practices. Similarly, various organizations, such as health organizations, have current and future roles in address impacts of climate change. Therefore, there is an opportunity to expand climate change communication research related to organizations.

Science and Risk Communication

Climate change communication fits within the larger areas of science communication and risk communication. Several researchers have examined science communication and risk communication in the context of climate change. One area of science communication that is growing is translational research about climate change. Another growing area of climate change communication is the examination of risk perceptions related to climate change.

Translational Research

Within climate change communication, translational research focuses on translating communication and physical sciences to public health and government decision makers, practitioners, and lay audiences (e.g., Chadwick, 2016; Maibach, Nisbet, & Weathers, 2011; Rademaekers & Johnson-Sheehan, 2014). For example, Chadwick (2016), provided a primer on climate change and health for communication researchers and practitioners and identified ways that health communication scholars can contribute to climate change communication. Maibach and colleagues (2011) developed a primer on communicating about climate change for public health practitioners that translates communication theory and research into actionable recommendations for public health. In addition, Maibach, Roser-Renouf, and Leiserowitz (2008) describe how to incorporate communication and marketing in public health interventions. Rademaekers and Johnson-Sheehan (2014) provide recommended frames for science communicators to use when explaining climate change science to the public, and Budescu, Broomell, and Por (2009) provide recommendations for scientific bodies as they attempt to communicate about science and uncertainty. Continued efforts in translational research are necessary to improve understanding and interaction between communication, physical science, health, and other fields that are necessary for addressing climate change.

Risk Perceptions

Much of the research on risk perceptions related to climate change appears in psychology journals (e.g., Linden, 2014; Meijnders, Midden, & Wilke, 2001a). Communication scholars tend to use risk perceptions as a predictor of other persuasive outcomes, such as information seeking and climate protective action (e.g., Mead et al., 2012) rather than examining factors that create risk perceptions. Therefore, there is an opportunity in climate change communication research to examine how communication about climate change (e.g., media and organizational messages) affects risk perceptions in addition to examining risk perceptions as a predictor of persuasive outcomes.

Persuasion and Message Design

One area of climate change communication that is growing is persuasion and message design. Researchers are identifying and applying the most effective messages strategies (e.g., types of appeals, visuals, channels, sources, etc.) for encouraging change by governments, for-profit and non-profit organizations, communities, and individuals (e.g., Chadwick, 2015; Lombardi, Seyranian, & Sinatra, 2014; Nisbet & Kotcher, 2009; O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole, 2009). Within persuasion and message design, researchers have examined the effects of message framing and emotional appeals on persuasive outcomes (e.g., motivation, behavioral intentions, and behavior). In addition, researchers have examined predictors of persuasive outcomes, such as information seeking. Understanding how to affect persuasive outcomes will enable communicators to develop messages and campaigns that effectively encourage climate protective attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.

Psychological Distance

People have a limited ability to imaging a future 10–20 years away (Tonn, Hemrick, & Conrad, 2006); however climate projections are often on the scale of 50–100 years, generally making climate change impacts too abstract to affect daily behavior (for review, see Pahl, Sheppard, Boomsma, & Groves, 2014). Therefore, for persuasive messages to be effective, they need to make climate change and climate impacts relevant to people’s everyday lives and focus on effects that will occur on a much shorter timescale than most climate models predict.

Message Framing

Researchers have examined the effects of message framing on persuasive outcomes. For example, how a message is framed (positively or negatively) interacts with uncertainty to affect likelihood of climate protective action (Morton, Rabinovich, Marshall, & Bretschneider, 2011). When high uncertainty messages were combined with positive frames, participants had stronger intentions to engage in climate protective behaviors, whereas when high uncertainty messages were combined with negative frames, there were decreased intentions to act (Morton et al., 2011). Similarly, research has shown that gain frames result in more positive attitudes toward climate change mitigation and greater perceived severity of climate impacts than do loss frames (Spence & Pidgeon, 2010). Beyond positive and negative framing, framing impacts of climate change as distant leads to increased perceptions of severity of climate impacts, whereas framing impacts as personal resulted in more positive attitudes toward climate change mitigation (Spence & Pidgeon, 2010). Relatedly, a message about local climate impacts lead to more climate engagement than did a message about global climate impacts (Scannell & Gifford, 2013). Similarly, framing climate impacts thematically as a general trend of impacts led to greater support for climate change policies than messages that were framed as an episodic case study (Hart, 2011).

In addition to the variety of ways that climate change can be framed as an environmental issue, climate change can also be framed in non-environmental ways. For example, climate change may be framed as a public health issue or an issue of national security (Myers, Nisbet, Maibach, & Leiserowitz, 2012). Given the influence of political ideology and motivated reasoning, framing climate change as a non-environmental issue and connecting it to other important priorities may help communicators avoid reactance and motivated processing of messages.

Emotional Appeals

Communicators often use emotional appeals to encourage cognitive, affective, and behavioral engagement with climate change mitigation. Emotions can create predispositions toward action (e.g., anger, guilt, and hope) or toward inaction (e.g., sadness and happiness). Each emotion encourages specific types of action or inaction (Nabi, 2002; Ortony, Clore, & Collins, 1988). Because of these action tendencies, persuasive communication frequently uses emotions to prompt action.

Much of climate change communication is characterized by fear and catastrophe narratives (Doulton & Brown, 2009; Hulme, 2008) and uses negative emotional appeals, particularly fear appeals, to try to motivate behavior (O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole, 2009). In the context of energy conservation, moderate and high levels of fear led to positive attitudes toward energy-saving bulbs (Meijnders et al., 2001a). In addition, evoking fear also leads to systematic processing of risk information that results in more favorable attitudes toward energy conservation (Meijnders, Midden, & Wilke, 2001b). Perceived severity of climate change significantly predicts pro-environmental behavioral intention for both American and Korean students; however, perceived susceptibility to climate change does not (Kim, Jeong, & Hwang, 2013).

Despite these positive effects, fear appeals can often be counterproductive, leading to maladaptive attitudes and behaviors such as denial, derogation of the message source, selective exposure, and paralysis (Swim et al., 2009; Witte, 1992). Messages that emphasize severe, catastrophic climate threats can decrease concern and increase hopelessness (Hart & Nisbet, 2012; O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole, 2009) and often do not motivate engagement with climate change (O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole, 2009). This disempowerment can lead to less action because people are not likely to take action if they think it will make no difference (Moisander, 2007).

Several researchers (e.g., Chadwick, 2015; Markowitz & Shariff, 2012; Moser, 2007; J. A. Pooley & O’Connor, 2000) suggest that positive emotional appeals will be more effective and more engaging than messages that appeal to negative emotions. Studies have shown that positive appeals produce more positive attitudes toward climate change mitigation than negative appeals (Spence & Pidgeon, 2010). Similarly, positive message framing along with uncertainty about outcomes leads to greater intentions to mitigate climate change than does negative framing (Morton et al., 2011).

Among positive emotional appeals, hope appeals are particularly promising for encouraging climate change engagement (Chadwick, 2015; Swim et al., 2009). Research on the effects of hope and hope appeals is relatively nascent; however, hope and hope appeals show promise for encouraging climate engagement. Hope appeals increase attention to messages about climate change (Chadwick, 2015) and increase mitigation behavioral intention and mitigation behavior (Chadwick, 2010). In addition, feelings of hope increase interest in climate change protection (Chadwick, 2015) and are positively correlated with pro-environmental behaviors and support for climate change policies (Lorenzoni, Nicholson-Cole, & Whitmarsh, 2007).

Factors That Affect Persuasive Outcomes

In addition to determining how to affect persuasive outcomes via messages, communication researchers have also examined predictors of climate change behavior such as information seeking (e.g., Mead et al., 2012; Yang, Rickard, Harrison, & Seo, 2014), information sharing (e.g., Yang, Kahlor, & Griffin, 2014), and climate protective behavior (e.g., Kim et al., 2013). Understanding what factors affect persuasive outcomes helps communicators develop effective messages for influencing climate protective behaviors and other outcomes.

Conclusion

Climate change is currently affecting and will continue to affect us. Communication theorists, researchers, and practitioners are well positioned to describe, predict, and affect how we communicate about climate change. Our theories, research methods, and practices have many potential roles in reducing climate change and its effects. Climate change communication has natural links to environmental and health communication. It is important for communication scholars to examine research beyond that focuses exclusively on climate change to develop insights into climate change communication.

Historiography

Climate change communication is a fairly new area. The area began to develop a presence in scholarly journals in the early to mid-1990s with a dominant focus on public understanding and risk perceptions. For example, a series of studies examined the mental models people had constructed related to climate change, such as links between global warming and steamy weather, the ozone layer, and skin cancer (Fischhoff et al., 1994). The purpose of these studies was to understand public perceptions of climate change and inform the development of effective risk communication and policy messages to the public.

Climate change communication has since expanded to cover a broad range of philosophical and research traditions, including humanistic-rhetorical analyses, interpretive qualitative studies, and social-scientific quantitative surveys and experiments. Climate change communication examines a range of factors that affect and are affected by how we communicate about climate change. Much of the research in climate change communication focuses on public understanding of climate change, factors that affect public understanding, media coverage and framing, media effects, and risk perceptions. Less prevalent, growing areas of research include civic engagement and public participation; organizational communication; and persuasive strategies to affect attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors related to the climate. Most of the climate change communication research has been conducted in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and Western European countries. There is a need to expand the climate change communication research into other regions, particularly developing countries.

Further Reading

References