The Challenges for Climate Communication Post-COP21

Last fall I was in Helsinki to give two presentations at the 2nd ICOS Scientific Conference. ICOS is the Integrated Carbon Observation System, a European-wide research infrastructure that is developing a harmonized system for collecting and disseminating carbon cycle and greenhouse gas data. In their words, ICOS is an “organisation of eleven member countries and over 100 greenhouse gases measuring stations aimed at quantifying and understanding the greenhouse gas balance of the Europe and neighbouring regions.”

 Needless to say, the conference delegates were almost all bio-physical scientists who, I assumed, knew little or nothing about communication theory generally or climate communication research specifically. Keep that in mind as you read on because that informed my approach to the two talks.

In other words, if you are somewhat familiar with the research on climate communication, this should be pretty familiar ground. But if you are new to the topic, I hope this will be a good primer for you.

The first presentation, a keynote, was about the challenges of communicating about climate change in the Post-COP21 context. The second was about some of the main things we know about good practices in climate communication. Both of these talks were meant to synthesize of some of the current thinking among scholars and practitioners on these topics.

What follows is the approximate text of the first talk, edited somewhat for this context. I’ll do a post on the second talk shortly.

What does climate change mean? Some see it is an unprecedented existential crisis requiring urgent action, a massive tragedy unfolding as we speak. Others see it is a fiction, a hoax perpetrated on the public by self-serving scientists and environmentalists or at best as a distant concern.

How can something that is objectively measured by scientists be in such dispute? In part this is due to those people having very different existing beliefs, values and ideologies. And in part it is due to how people have been communicating about the issue. In fact, these are two sides of the same leaf, for how we communicate about the issue of climate change is interlaced with how we perceive it.

Therefore, in order to develop the policies and institutions necessary to address climate change, we are going to have to convince decision-makers and the citizenry to care enough to act. That will require much more effective and meaningful communication than we have seen so far, because past efforts have, unfortunately, not moved the needle of public opinion fast enough, or even necessarily in the right direction.

Post-COP21 there are three key challenges facing climate communicators. These are aspects of human psychology and of the climate change issue itself that lead people to be unengaged; a demented media system that is seemingly unable to deliver the necessary messages; and our limited knowledge of good practices.

Before getting into that, I want to say a few words about why good climate communication, and indeed good environmental communication generally is so important.

Why does communication matter?

Climate communication, and indeed environmental communication generally matter a great deal. To understand why, it helps to understand the two broad functions of communication.

First, communication is how we get many things done. We use communication to educate, alert, raise awareness, organize, protest, negotiate, argue, persuade, and so on. The alternative to communication is violence or the threat of it. This is true whether you are trying to change people’s behaviour, pass legislation, sway public opinion or collaborate to address conflicts. Communication is thus a form of symbolic ACTION.

© Greenpeace

© Greenpeace

This 2012 Greenpeace ad asks the reader to “Act now against climate change” by visiting Greenpeace’s web site for more information. It’s also trying to make the reader feel sad for the polar bears and concerned about the melting arctic, among other things.

The second broad function of communication, and the one that is perhaps less obvious, is that it shapes how people see, value and give meaning to themselves and the world. Whether it is your understanding of something as intimate as your relationship with your partner or something as global as the issue of climate change, communication shapes how you see. Yes, experience matters too. But the less direct experience one has of something, the more communication around that thing influences them.

In this context, communication shapes our understanding of the natural world and our place in it, of environmental issues and the problems that underlie them, of the possible approaches we might take to addressing the problems, and of the kinds of futures we can imagine, just to name a few of the most important things.

This ad is also full of potential meaning. It seems to be trying to get people to view the arctic as threatened and polar bears as sad or depressed victims of climate change. By comparing them to melting icebergs, the ad reinforces a very negative view of the present and future of the arctic and of this iconic species. It’s not a very uplifting image. These are the meanings intended by the ad; but people will respond differently to it and will create their own meanings.

So these two broad functions of communication as a FORM OF ACTION and as CONSTITUTIVE OF MEANING are directly related to each other and together make communication central to social life. How we see and value things, how we communicate about them and how we act towards them are intimately related to, and affect each other in ways we still don’t fully understand.

Science communication is not enough

Many people believe that climate communication is simply about communicating the science behind the greenhouse effect, the data on the changes in the ecosphere, and other aspects of the issue. Undoubtedly this is the view of many climate scientists. Without any disrespect to the science or the people who do it, I am going to challenge the assumption that communicating science to the general public is the best way to get them engaged with the climate change issue.

Research has shown repeatedly that this assumption does not hold. Historically there has been a belief that people just need to be cured of their ignorance. Educating people on the scientific or technical details of some project or issue would allow them to see reason. Put another way, ignorance has been seen as the main barrier to changing people’s minds.

This is known as the deficit model of communication because it believes people simply lack knowledge. If we can fill the gaps, or deficit, in peoples’ knowledge, they will do the right thing. This model has caused scientists, decision-makers, environmental advocates and others to expend great efforts to explain the science of climate change to the public.

climateliteracyguideThis Climate Literacy guide from the US government is just one example of the kinds of educational materials used to try to address the perceived deficit.

It’s true that people have limited knowledge of climate change science and it is a normal impulse to want to fix that, especially for those of us who are teachers. But for people who are not engaged, this approach is usually not going to make them so.

In the face of this, many people have concluded that their communication of the science needs to be more user-friendly. So they hire public relations or marketing firms, they cut out the jargon, they add nice pictures, and so forth, thus making the science more appealing, even entertaining.

Well, again it turns out that when it comes to public engagement on issues of scientific controversy, including climate change, this kind of approach is often not effective. Here are some of the reasons why.

People are active makers of meaning

We like to think that people are rational and that they will reasonably weigh the evidence they are presented. If we provide them with the facts about climate change, they will do the right thing. But most people do not think and behave the way we expect them to.

First of all, we all tend to seek out information that confirms what we already believe and to ignore or dismiss information that contradicts it. This is known as confirmation bias. For example we use news sources that we know will align with our values. Do you watch Fox News and read the Daily Mail, or do you read The Guardian and watch Democracy Now?

Secondly, people who hold prior beliefs and attitudes about a topic tend to assimilate new information on that topic in ways that reinforce their current perspective. They interpret or make sense of the new information in ways that are consistent with their existing views so they don’t have to change their minds. This is known as biased assimilation.

When this processing of information is used to suit some end or goal, such as the protection of one’s identity, support for their group or team, or advancing their political agenda, it is known as motivated reasoning. It is “motivated” because the person has some goal they are unconsciously trying to achieve. Unwelcome evidence and experience is evaluated much more critically than welcome evidence and experience, which tends to be uncritically accepted if it suits the unconscious goal.

Sports fans tend to interpret the referee’s calls differently depending on which team they favour because their emotional attachment to having their team win affects how they think about the evidence or experiences they are processing. To put it simply, ask yourself if you have ever concluded that the referee was favouring YOUR team with their calls.

And as it turns out, in the case of climate change, research shows that adding more and more information to such a situation can often lead to ever greater levels of polarization of attitudes. It does not lead to agreement.

Climate change is hard to get

In addition to our normal ways of processing information, there are some further psychological dimensions of the climate change issue that make it hard for people to imagine and engage with.

Let’s start with the obvious, which, as you and I know, is that climate change is bad news and its bad news on a global scale with all sorts of potentially negative consequences. No one likes bad news, even if it is intended to help them avoid the bad outcomes. It distresses them and its hard to process well. It can feel overwhelming and disempowering.

Complicating that, is that for many people the perception of climate change is that its consequences are probably distant (happening somewhere else), uncertain (maybe not that bad where I live) and some time in the future. All of these are reasons why it is difficult to get people to feel a sense of urgency.


© Walt Kelly

As experts like George Marshall and Per Epsen Stoknes have pointed out, our brains are not made to deal with things like climate change. We are much more attuned to what is happening around us right now. And when people have more pressing issues to deal with, like raising kids, earning a living, caring for elder relatives, etc., distant, uncertain and future issues are hard to focus on. It’s not that people don’t necessarily care. It’s that they are too busy with other things to act.

Moreover, people are storytelling animals and climate change does not have a strong narrative into which people can see a positive role for themselves. In the words of the immortal Pogo Possum, as created by Walt Kelly. “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Without a a clear enemy that is NOT us, how do you get people motivated to participate and make changes?

The public are not really engaged

So that is the context within which climate communicators must operate. People’s existing values, ideologies and identities have a greater impact on their beliefs and actions than does their knowledge.

If people do not have established opinions about an issue and if their values and identities are not aligned against acting on that issue, then they may be open to positive influence from the communication of scientific information. However in most cases people do already have opinions about climate change and about its typical spokespersons, environmentalists and scientists. And in these kinds of situations, more and more communication of the science of the issues can be counterproductive.

Indeed, research by Dan Kahan and colleagues published in Nature Climate Change in 2012 found that “Members of the public with the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change. Rather, they were the ones among whom polarization was greatest.” In other words, politics and ideology are better predictors of a person’s position on climate change than their knowledge of the science.

Furthermore, people don’t act on the basis of information alone, even information about serious risks. To get people to act, communicators need to also get people to care, to feel empowered, to believe they can make a difference, and to know what they can do. And that involves appealing also to people values and feelings. It involves situating people within a hopeful narrative about the future.

And it involves giving them a meaningful role in that story such that they see themselves as personally and politically able to help make change happen.

Until we can do that, people are likely to remain unengaged. They might believe in climate change and even care about it, but can’t prioritize it amidst life’s day to day demands, and can’t see how they can make a difference.



Disinformation is everywhere

There is, of course, also a continuing campaign to discredit the work of climate scientists and sew doubt in the public’s mind about climate change, including its existence, its causes, and its consequences. The campaign has also sought to create the impression that addressing climate change would be too expensive.

I have to say that this truly is the most effective environmental communication campaign ever. It just happens to be an anti-environmental campaign. The climate change deniers, often funded by fossil fuel interests such as Exxon Mobil, have, for 25 years been successfully delaying policy action, especially in the US, Canada, the UK, and Australia.

Using what is known as the “trope of uncertainty”, their primary tactic has been to claim that the science behind climate change is uncertain and that there is no real proof that global warming is happening or, if it is happening, is caused by human activity. Despite the best efforts of climate scientists and environmental advocates to counter this disinformation, the campaign has been, I am sad to say, effective beyond all probability.


The marine biologist turned author and filmmaker Randy Olson has compared climate scientists to the boy scouts, earnestly trying to selflessly do the right thing, tell the truth and, rightfully, play fair. On the other side, though, Olson sees the climate deniers as like the mafia. They are out for themselves, tough, fearless, unscrupulous, much better funded, and prepared to fight dirty.

So the campaign to deny the existence and importance of climate change has been effective for several reasons. It has been well funded. It has understood human psychology. And, perhaps most importantly, it has leveraged characteristics of the media system to its advantage.

The media are demented

And so this brings us to the media system. There is plenty of evidence that media coverage of climate change influences public opinion on the issue as well as its potential for being taken up on the political agenda. But the media system is becoming increasingly fragmented, competitive and unable to deliver a coherent story about climate change that serves the public interest.

When Jim Hansen testified about global warming before the US Congress in 1988 and the climate deniers started their campaign of disinformation in the early 1990’s, the world wide web was a toddler and traditional news media had no idea what was coming for their industry. Back then, the news media system was dominated primarily by commercial media conglomerates such as News Corporation, Disney, and Vivendi.

These “lords of the global village” typically operated across multiple media – newspapers, magazines, radio, television, films and more – and in multiple countries. Such media companies exist to make a profit for their owners by delivering audiences to advertisers.


Dementia: a chronic or persistent disorder of the mental processes caused by brain disease or injury and marked by memory disorders, personality changes, and impaired reasoning. – New Oxford American Dictionary

They were accompanied by various kinds of public broadcasters such as the BBC, Radio France, the CBC in Canada, Germany’s ARD, the Finnish Broadcasting Company and many others. The public broadcasters have typically been mandated to provide more of a service in the public interest, but haven’t necessarily done a better job covering climate change.

And, of course, there were some independent media outlets, either privately or cooperatively owned and operated. Note that I’m leaving out the propagandistic state media here; they are a different cup of tea.

Anyway, in that “traditional” media landscape, communicating an issue like climate change was not easy for many reasons. These include the fact that climate change was seen as a distant, uncertain and future issue; that the immediate causes of climate change – greenhouse gases – are invisible; and that climate change as an issue did not really offer conflict, novelty, and drama, the things the news media value the most.

But most notable of those reasons for limited and poor coverage was that the majority of journalists reporting on the issue knew very little about it. Unable to assess the competing claims, and in order to uphold their journalistic norm of objectivity, they would simply give “both sides” a voice in their stories: the climate scientists, backed by research, and the climate deniers, backed by the coal, oil and gas companies. The resulting news stories demonstrated what we call “false balance” and gave audiences the impression that the science was uncertain.

Even then, the media exhibited a short attention span, confusion, and a poor memory about environmental issues, including climate change.

That is not to say that there aren’t any good environmental journalists, for there are. But they are declining almost as fast as their resources and outlets in the face of the social media onslaught.

Now, with rise of social media, the communication landscape is shifting under our feet like an extended earthquake. The old conglomerates, and smaller commercial media companies are still around, but their business models are collapsing. Newspapers, the heart of quality investigative journalism, are as endangered as black rhinos. And public broadcasters face cuts from hostile governments looking to trim budgets. All of this makes doing quality journalism in the public interest ever more difficult.

What has also happened is that companies like Google and Facebook are taking away much of the advertising revenue from newspapers, but they are not putting that into journalism. These and other such companies (Apple, Microsoft, etc.) are not media outlets, but rather are carriers of media content produced at others’ expense.

And the web sites of newspapers, for example, are trying to figure out how to deal with this. Some, such as The New York Times, limit the availability of free content and charge for access to the rest. Others, such as The Guardian, still offer everything for free, but are struggling financially. All of this means less money for real journalism.

So what we get instead, as I am sure I don’t have to remind you, is a lot of trivial information of no value and a lot of misleading “news” that is not factual. Add to this the fact that audiences are fragmented across a seemingly infinite number of online media outlets, blogs, etc. is making it increasingly difficult to reach people in their bubbles.

And because the media landscape is full of people and organizations pushing their own particular commercial or political agendas, there is an ever greater supply of inaccurate information. This means that well-reasoned and researched news stories based on facts are appearing on people’s media plates less and less, unless you go looking for them, which most people don’t.

If the media system was demented 20 years ago, it now has full on Alzheimers.

There is uncertainty about good practices

As I have suggested, effective communication is necessary in order to accomplish the personal, political and industrial changes needed to address climate change.

And that communication has no choice but to take place within a challenging psychological, political and media landscape.

To top all of that off, believe it or not, there is limited research available to guide us towards good practices when it comes to designing messages for the public.

In my next post I will talk about some of what we do know about how to communicate more effectively around climate change, but for now let me say a few words about how little we know.

Since I don’t want you to think it’s all bad let me first say this.

Unlike any other area of environmental communication, there are actually research centers working on this, including the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and George Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication.


© Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and George Mason Center for Climate Change Communication

And there are organizations focussed on the dissemination of research, including Climate Outreach and Climate Access, that have produced some guides to good practices.

Within the field of environmental communication, most research and most funding has gone towards climate communication. But compared to what we know about the science of climate change, what we know about the science and art of climate change communication is miniscule.

Let me illustrate that. This is a crude measure, but by my rough estimate using Google Scholar, there is 1 journal article about climate change communication for approximately every 450 articles about climate change science.


There are several scholarly journals that include some environmental communication research, and one, the International Environmental Communication Association’s (IECA) journal Environmental Communication, now in its 11th year, that focuses on that topic.

However, there is no journal just for climate communication. That research appears in a variety of places, including Environmental Communication, Public Understanding of Science, Science Communication, Climatic Change, Nature Climate Change, and WIREs Climate Change.

I couldn’t tell you how little funding there is for climate change communication research, because its darn near impossible to find and there is no data on it that I know of.

Furthermore, there is very little collaboration between academic researchers and practitioners.

At the IECA, where I am the Executive Director, we have it as one of our goals to encourage such collaboration because we think it is vital in order to advance our understanding of good communication practices in real world situations.

Given the limited resources for conducting research, collaborative or otherwise, there are many uncertainties about how best to communicate about climate change in the many different contexts (languages, cultures, situations) in which it needs to take place.

To begin with, we don’t fully understand how people’s beliefs, values, knowledge, and attitudes about climate change are related to their behaviour, either personally or politically.

We don’t really know what kinds of frames, metaphors, or images are best in different contexts.

And as I mentioned earlier, climate change lacks a compelling narrative to motivate people to act in the right ways. We don’t know what kinds of narratives will work for people.

I have to tell you, these are just some of the known unknowns.

What is needed

Let me just conclude by laying out what I think is needed to properly advance our understanding of how to communicate effectively about climate change.

There needs to be more funding for research, collaboration and systematic training based on those. And, of course, there needs to be more funding for actual communication campaigns, outreach and consultation.

There needs to be more collaboration between practitioners and scholars.

There need to be better and updated guides to good practices.

There need to be large scale, united efforts to work on this. ICOS itself is a model for working together that we might learn from.

And lastly, there needs to be hope. It must be said, though, that there are different kinds of hope. Without going into detail, the main distinction I want to make is between passive and active hope.

Passive hope expects good outcomes and is pretty similar to optimism or wishful thinking. It is a simplistic belief that things will work out for the best.

Active hope, on the other hand, means believing things can get better if we work at it. It’s hope that keeps us going. It’s realistic hope born of the knowledge that no condition is permanent and that we have the power to set things right.

To quote environmental thinker David Orr: “Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up. In contrast to optimism or despair, hope requires that one actually do something to improve the world. Authentic hope comes with an imperative to act.”

Thank you for reading.