Climate change communication

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.

Nelya Koteyko is a Lecturer in Media and Communication in the Department of Media and Communication at the University of Leicester

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

Find more posts about: Climate change – deny, prevent or prepare?

4 Comments

  1. malcolm whitmore
    Posted 27/02/2011 at 11:46 | Permalink

    The measurement of public opinion on climate change needs to be significantly refined in order to understand the factors influencing that opinion.
    LX suggests that fiscal factors may have changed opinions,but the biggest factor is the well financed big business campaign of denial that preys on ignorance and indifference making the influence of short term uncertainties raised by fiscal matters count more.
    I suggest that measurement of the intensity of the denial campaign and its readily identifiable sources would be a useful factor in any assessment of public opinion of climate change.
    Balanced presentaion giving equal weight to both sides of the argument regrettably favours the deniers with more publicity. Education is the answer but democracy is indifferent to that factor.

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  2. LX Moderator
    Posted 27/02/2011 at 10:17 | Permalink

    I hope that won’t be necessary.

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  3. LX Moderator
    Posted 27/02/2011 at 10:16 | Permalink

    We encourage open, considered, informed and respectful debate on this site. We monitor the site regularly and we welcome comments from all views that are offered within the spirit of the community guidelines. In the interests of maintaining a respectful environment for users, moderators may remove comments that breach the policy. Users can report abusive or illegal content by contacting http://www.lexchanges.le.ac.uk

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  4. ACL
    Posted 17/02/2011 at 21:40 | Permalink

    I’d be really interested to know what’s happened to public perceptions of climate change over the last couple of years. It’s difficult to worry about the future of the planet when one is worrying about paying the mortgage. That’s not to say that’t the right attitude but surely one that’s become more manifest and understandable.

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    LX Moderator Reply:

    Anybody want to come back to ACL with a view on if there has been a noticeable shift in public perceptions of climate change that corresponds to the period of financial crisis from 2007 onward?

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    Nelya Reply:

    ACL:
    The most recent UK based survey I’m aware of – ‘Public Perceptions of Climate Change: Summary Findings of a Survey Conducted from January to March 2010’ survey report can be downloaded here http://www.understanding-risk.org – does point in this direction. The authors state that there has been ‘a small but significant decline in certainty about climate change amongst the public in recent years’ (p.23) but are cautious in interpreting this finding; they refer to economic concerns as only one of several possible explanations. In more general terms, the phenomenon of ‘climate change fatigue’ has been observed from around 2007 – see http://www.yaleclimatemediaforum.org/2008/12/2008-year-long-fall-off-in-climate-coverage; something we also have noticed in our study of public discussions on the Internet http://scx.sagepub.com/content/32/1/25.abstract

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