Environmental Communication: What it is and Why it Matters

by Mark Meisner

In the simplest terms, environmental communication is communication about environmental affairs. This includes all of the diverse forms of interpersonal, group, public, organizational, and mediated communication that make up the social debate about environmental issues and problems, and our relationship to the rest of nature.

It is both a lay activity and a field of professional practice

Anyone who is participating in these discussions is engaging in the activity of environmental communication. That includes everyone from the most passionate environmental advocates, to the fiercest opponents of ecological protections. In this sense, it is both a lay activity that anyone can undertake, and a field of practice that professional communicators have created.

It should be noted here that former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for his work in communicating about climate change. That makes him the most distinguished environmental communicator today.

It is also an interdisciplinary field of study

Environmental communication is also an interdisciplinary field of study that examines the role, techniques, and influence of communication in environmental affairs. Basically, it studies the activity and in doing so, it draws its theory and methods primarily from communication, environmental studies, psychology, sociology, and political science. There are university courses and programs in environmental communication, research centres dedicated to its study, scholarly journals focused on the subject, and books on various aspects of the field.

Work in this area is concerned with several interconnected dimensions of the communication. These are most easily explained with reference to the standard questions of who, what, where, when and how. In each of these dimensions, we might also ask why and so what?

Who gets to participate in the discussions? Why are certain voices privileged and others marginalized? Among those are the voices of citizens, politicians, civil servants, scientists, corporations, religious institutions, labour unions, indigenous peoples, environmental organizations, and other civil society groups, not to mention journalists and other media workers.

What are the facets of the environmental issues that are being discussed? Why are some emphasized over others? What are the implications? Among the key facets that might be discussed are the science, costs, risks, problem definitions, possible responses, values, agency, responsibilities, future visions, and ideas about nature, as well as the patterns of those discussions known as discourses.

Where and when does the communication take place? What are the limitations and opportunities associated with those different contexts? These include traditional news media, public participation fora, policy-making venues, advocacy campaigns, advertising, street protests, social media, popular culture and the public sphere generally.

How are people communicating? Why are they using certain words, metaphors, visuals, frames, music, art, narratives, and other rhetorical devices? Why not different words, etc.? What are the consequence for those who hear and see these messages? How should people be communicating?

A central goal of the field is to discern and promote good practices

These are some of the core questions that environmental communication researchers explore and practitioners face. However, despite tremendous growth in the literature of environmental communication in the past two decades, there is still much to learn and a lot of work to be done in order to fully answer them.

Because many of the people who study this field see it as a “crisis discipline,” akin to conservation biology, their work often goes beyond describing, explaining, or critiquing the communication. They feel a responsibility to see that communication concerning environmental affairs be as ethical and effective as possible. That’s because such communication is essential if we are to avoid violent conflicts and address environmental health and justice issues in the most effective ways possible. Accordingly, a central goal of the field is to discern and promote good practices.

Environmental communication is a practical, and indeed essential, tool for action

As with communication in general, environmental communication serves two broad social functions. The first is that we use communication to do things. For example, we communicate in order to inform, persuade, educate, and alert others. Similarly, we use communication to organize, argue, reconcile, and negotiate with each other, among other things. In this way, environmental communication is a practical, and indeed essential, tool for action. As such, it deserves careful scrutiny.

Whether you are using environmental communication to advocate for a policy, raise awareness, change behaviour, influence public opinion, collaborate to address conflicts, pass legislation or challenge assumptions, how you communicate will affect your outcomes. Whether you seek technological, political, economic, behavioural or cultural solutions, you need effective communication to succeed.

Communication shapes how we see and value the world

The second broad social function of communication is that it plays an important role in creating meaning. Communication shapes how we see and value the world of things, events, conditions, ideas and so forth. In environmental affairs, communication guides our understanding of the issues, the problems that underlie them, the people and organizations involved, the possible approaches that can be taken, potential futures, and most importantly, the natural world itself.

Many people working in this field understand how important meanings and values are to guiding everything from the kinds of technologies people develop to the policies they support to the day to day personal choices they make. Of course, meanings and values don’t fully determine how people act, but they can greatly influence it.

How well we communicate with each other about nature and
environmental affairs will affect how well we address the ecological crisis

Better policies, cleaner energy sources, new technologies, carbon taxes and all of the other innovative approaches to dealing with environmental issues will only take us so far. In order to achieve lasting ecological sustainability, human culture (especially in wasteful Western societies) is going to have to change as well. This will require some significant shifts in our views and values towards the natural world, ourselves, and each other. So, how well we communicate about nature and environmental affairs will affect how quickly and thoroughly we can transform our cultures and ultimately how well we address the ecological crisis.

Get the PDF of this: Environmental Communication: What it is and Why it Matters

Copyright Mark Meisner. All rights reserved.


Communication for the Commons book published

commonsOver at the International Environmental Communication Association (IECA), we have finally completed work on Communication for the Commons: Revisiting Participation and Environment. It’s an anthology that pulls together selected papers and posters from the 2013 Conference on Communication and Environment. The conference took place in Uppsala, Sweden, June 6-11, 2013.

The book is edited by myself, Nadarajah Sriskandarajah of the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and Stephen P. Depoe of the University of Cincinnati. Continue reading

Visual Environmental Communication book

Visual Environmental CommunicationRoutledge has a new book out now on Visual Environmental Communication, edited by Anders Hansen and David Machin. The book contains a number of papers that were part of a special issue of Environmental Communication. My paper with Bruno Takahashi, “The Nature of Time: How the Covers of the World’s Most Widely-Read Weekly News Magazine Visualize Environmental Affairs” is included in the book.

It’s a great collection of papers, certainly suitable for a course. And in case you are wondering, I get no money from the book sales. I signed the paper over to Routledge and that’s that. Continue reading

Consciousness Raising

Achieving_Sustainability_CoverMark S. Meisner “Consciousness Raising,” in Achieving Sustainability: Visions, Principles, and Practices, Vol. 1, Ed. Debra Rowe, pp.155-158. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2014.

“As a strategy for social change, consciousness raising can be defined as a form of communication or any activity aimed at increasing people’s awareness of specific conditions and/or ways to address them. In the sustainability context, this means raising awareness about social and environmental issues and problems, as well as about sustainable alternatives. For example, consciousness raising can mean educating people about the risks of biocides and the industrial food system as well as promoting local organic agriculture as an alternative. Either way, the purpose is to get the broader public interested in the cause and then engaged in doing something about it. Consciousness raising is thus a crucial first step in solving social problems….”

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Agenda Setting and Issue Definition at the Micro Level: Giving Climate Change a Voice in the Peruvian Congress

Congress of PeruBruno Takahashi & Mark S. Meisner “Agenda Setting and Issue Definition at the Micro Level: Giving Climate Change a Voice in the Peruvian Congress,” Latin American Policy, 4(2). 340-357, 2013.


Agenda setting and policy formulation processes, including those involved in global issues such as climate change, have been a focus of continuous research during recent years. However, most studies have taken a broad longitudinal perspective, with limited emphasis on the individual level decision-making that can better explain the broader dynamics thoroughly tested in the past. This study presents an analysis at the micro level that uncovers specific instances of individual decision-making within an information-processing framework. Additionally, little is known about how climate change is defined in developing nations that are highly vulnerable to its effects. Therefore, this micro level analysis focuses on national legislators and advisers in the Peruvian Congress.  This paper presents a detailed narrative of the processes of formulation of several climate change bills and the development of a special committee on climate change and biodiversity in the 2006-2011 legislative period in the Peruvian Congress. The study discusses the role of policy entrepreneurs, the influence of limited or inaccurate information, and the competition with other policy issues, through an analysis of in-depth interviews with these legislative elites. The results show the significant influence of media reports and Internet use in a low information environment.

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Re-examining the Media-Policy Link: Climate Change and Government Elites in Peru

CulturePoliticsandClimateChangeBruno Takahashi & Mark S. Meisner “Re-examining the Media-Policy Link: Climate Change and Government Elites in Peru,” Chapter 6 in Culture, Politics & Climate Change: How Information Shapes our Common Future, Edited by Deserai A. Crow and Maxwell T. Boykoff. London: Routledge, 2014.


The ways in which the mass media report on policy and scientific issues such as climate change have an influence on the attention to–and understanding of–such issues by decision makers. However, the study of such influence has been quite limited. This chapter is motivated by this gap in the literature, as well as by limited research about media and climate change in developing countries. We want to understand the ways in which media coverage of climate change interacts with individual traits (e.g. values, knowledge, attitudes) of national legislators in Peru, and how such interaction influences the design of policies. Additionally, it focuses on the circumstances that allow such effects to occur. The results reveal that a low policy information environment, coupled with issue attributes, enables both the media and alternative sources of information such as the Internet to play an important role in shaping how legislators perceive the issue and act upon it. In a highly vulnerable country such as Peru, the need to increase information of local issues related to climate change is necessary.

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The Nature of Time: How the Covers of the World’s Most Widely-Read Weekly News Magazine Visualize Environmental Affairs

Time-1970-02-02Mark S. Meisner & Bruno Takahashi “The Nature of Time: How the Covers of the World’s Most Widely-Read Weekly News Magazine Visualize Environmental Affairs,” Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture, Vol.7 No.2, pp. 255-276, 2013.


Scholars of environmental communication acknowledge the importance of visual representations in shaping perceptions and actions in relation to environmental affairs. Unlike with other media, including newspapers, television and film, research on the visualization of nature and environmental issues in magazines is rare. This study focuses on the covers of Time magazine, one of the world’s most influential news weeklies. A data set that includes all relevant covers from 1923 to 2011 is examined using a combination of quantitative and qualitative content analysis to analyze the visual representation of nature and environmental issues. The results show that the presence of environmental issues and nature on the covers has increased over the decades. Furthermore Time takes an advocacy position on some environmental issues, but it is a shallow one that is weakly argued through less-than-engaging imagery and fails to offer much in the way of solutions or agency to the reader.

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Environmental Discourses and Discourse Coalitions in the Reconfiguration of Peru’s Environmental Governance

Ministry of Environment of PeruBruno Takahashi & Mark Meisner “Environmental Discourses and Discourse Coalitions in the Reconfiguration of Peru’s Environmental Governance,” Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture, Vol.6, No.3, 346-364, 2012.


Environmental discourses are considered precursors to policy decisions as they delimit the range of policy options. The mass media are an important arena for those discourses and the discourse coalitions engaged in struggles to define policy and political issues. The study of such discourses requires an expansion to contexts outside developed countries, but within the influence of global forces, especially in how dominant global discourses influence national policy making. This article focuses on the competing discourses in the debate about the creation of the Peruvian Ministry of the Environment as portrayed by the media and the actors involved in the process. The results show a debate dominated by neoliberal discourses of administrative rationalism and economic rationalism, intertwined with the environmental requirements of a free trade agreement between Peru and the USA. In this case, democratic and environmental justice concerns—from both indigenous rights and anti-hegemonic perspectives—were marginalized. The study presents the operationalization of theoretical categorizations of environmental discourses within the concepts of storylines and discourse coalitions.

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Environmental Communication and Media: Centers, Programs and Resources

Communication@theCenterRonald E. Rice, Mark Meisner, Steve Depoe, Andy Opel, Connie Roser-Renouf, & Debika Shome “Environmental Communication and Media: Centers, Programs and Resources,” Chapter 11 in Communication @ the Center, ed. Steve Jones, pp.137-155. New York: Hampton Press, 2012.

Environmental issues are some of the most global, complex, and significant problems today. They threaten our quality of life, but they are politically polarized and characterized by hyperbole, disinformation, and public skepticism. The media can affect people’s perceptions of the environment (Ader, 1995; Besley & Shanahan, 2004; Corbett & Durfee, 2004; O’Donnell & Rice, 2008) given that many Americans live in urban settings with little direct experience of the outdoors. Media in the broadest sense of the term-including books, magazines, films, television, news, Internet websites, videogames, and podcasts-are for many people a major source of environmental information. Moreover, media appear to play an important role in winning public support for environmental movements (Brulle & Jenkins, 2008). The media’s role as attitude changer is particularly important within the context of contemporary environmental problems, which are perceived to be both abstract and distant (whether in place or time) by many Americans. Public reaction to environmental news also has the indirect effect of generating additional news, hus raising the agenda even more and therefore influencing politicians and policy makers (Dasgupta, Laplante, & Meisner, 2000)….

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Mass-Media Coverage of Climate Change in Peru: Framing and the Role of Foreign Voices

AcrossBordersBruno Takahashi & Mark Meisner “Mass-Media Coverage of Climate Change in Peru: Framing and the Role of Foreign Voices” in Across Borders and Environments: Communication and Environmental Justice in International Contexts, ed. Stacey Sowards, Cincinnati: International Environmental Communication Association, 2012.


Media coverage of climate change has been an area of continued research during the last few years, mostly with a focus on developed countries. This study attempts to contribute to this body of work by analyzing the coverage in a developing country. The study presents a content analysis of newspaper coverage of climate change in Peru through the study of frames, geographical focus, and climate change strategies (mitigation/adaptation). Additionally, the role of foreign voices is assessed by comparing news coverage by Peruvian reporters with the news coverage by wire services and by determining the types of sources present in the articles. Results show a prevalence of an effects frame, followed by a politics frame. Also, the study found a significant number of stories originating from wire services. In general, coverage prioritizes mitigation strategies and policies while providing limited attention to adaptation, which can be inadequate for a highly vulnerable country.

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