Nelya Koteyko, Lecturer in Media and Communication, University of Leicester:
Governments, NGOs and academics have become increasingly interested in the role of communication in perceptions of climate change. How do people form their opinions about whether climate change is happening or not? How should practical measures to mitigate or adapt to climate change be communicated and to whom? These are some of the questions posed by social scientists and communication experts who are also increasingly asked to formulate better and more persuasive messages for a variety of audiences.
If we accept that understanding and action arise from ideas, discourses, practices and perceived risks as much as from technical assessments of environmental impacts, then cultural and political aspects of climate change become as important as the science synthesised in the United Nations’ authoritative reports published by the International Panel on Climate Change. It is quite telling that only very few communication experts are involved in producing these reports. In the aftermath of what has come to be known as ‘climategate’ and a series of other ‘-gates’, such as ‘glaciergate’, it has also become clear that just communicating the science is not enough. Deeper engagement with the concerns and worries of the general public is therefore needed.
The importance of sociological and anthropological research becomes evident when we begin to reflect on the challenges posed by communicating about climate change mitigation and adaptation. Despite the growing consensus, at least amongst governments, that climate change poses risks to humanity, for many people such risks are still largely virtual rather than real ones, depending on where in the world they live and on how much they can afford to think about these issues.
Previous efforts to communicate such virtual risks have shown that in order to promote active engagement and motivate behaviour change, providing more or better (e.g. ‘rigorous’, ‘detailed’, ‘science-based’) information is not sufficient, as pre-established beliefs and convictions can play a central role in one’s arguments and actions. In order to meaningfully engage, communication efforts should therefore consider the implicit values and attitudes of individuals that are addressed.
This includes surveying public perceptions about local and global issues. By gauging public opinions and reactions first, communicators will be in a position to design strategies to address prevailing cultural values or social norms such as using cars for transport even when walking or cycling is feasible.
Communication on its own, however, is rarely an effective method of engaging people and motivating behaviour change, unless it is embedded in other approaches which are more directly linked to practical behaviour in social life.
Here the structure of society and considerations of the extent to which citizens are enabled to make effective changes play a central role. For example, in order to successfully carry out recommended ‘low carbon’ behaviours individual actions need to be supported by broader changes in infrastructure and policy, from transport policy to policies dealing with planning permission and so on. This means that communicators have to engage not only with ordinary people but also with policy makers in order to coordinate actions on the ground with policies that enable rather than hinder them.
Her current research continues to draw on methods of corpus linguistics and discourse analysis to study linguistic framing of popular and policy responses to developments in science, technology and medicine. Examples of completed projects include a two- year study of public discourses on climate change mitigation through the analysis of so-called ‘carbon compounds’ More information on Nelya’s publications
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