Climate communication or climate change communication is a field of environmental communication and science communication focused on facilitating the communications of the effects of anthropogenic climate change. Most climate communication focuses on bringing knowledge about and potential action for responding to scientific consensus on climate change to a broader public.
The field of climate communication explores two main areas: the efficacy of existing communications strategies, and supporting the development of recommendations for improving that communication. Improving climate change communication has become the focus of several major research institutes, such as the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and Climate Outreach in the UK, as well as major international organizations, such as the IPCC and UN Climate Change Secretariat, and NGOs, like the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.
In her encyclopedia article in Oxford's Communications Research Encyclopedia, scholar Amy E. Chadwick describes Climate Change Communication as a new field emerging in the 1990s. Early studies were connected to other environmental communications concerns such as exploring awareness and understanding of ozone depletion. As of 2017[update], most research in this field has been conducted in the United States, Australia, Canada, and Western European countries.
Climate communications is heavily focused on methods for inviting larger scale public action to address climate change. To this end, a lot of research focuses on barriers to public understanding and action on climate change. Scholarly evidence shows that the information deficit model of communication—where climate change communicators assume "if the public only knew more about the evidence they would act"—doesn't work. Instead, argumentation theory indicates that different audiences need different kinds of persuasive argumentation and communication. This is counter to many assumptions made by other fields such as psychology, environmental sociology, and risk communication.
Additionally, climate denialism by organizations, such as The Heartland Institute in the United States, and individuals introduces misinformation into public discourse and understanding.
There are several models for explaining why the public doesn't act once more informed. One of the theoretical models for this is the 5 Ds model created by Per Epsten Stoknes. Stokes describes 5 major barriers to creating action from climate communication:
In her book Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life, Kari Norgaard's study of Bygdaby—a fictional name used for a real city in Norway—found that non-response was much more complex than just a lack of information. In fact, too much information can do the exact opposite because people tend to neglect global warming once they realize there is no easy solution. When people understand the complexity of the issue, they can feel overwhelmed and helpless which can lead to apathy or skepticism.
Though communicating the science about climate change under the premises of an Information deficit model of communication is not very effective in creating change, comfort with and literacy in the main issues and topics of climate change is important for changing public opinion and action. Several agencies and educational organizations have developed frameworks and tools for developing climate literacy, including the Climate Literacy Lab at Georgia State university, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Such resources in English have been collected by the Climate Literacy and Awareness Network.
As of 2008, most of the environmental communications evidence for effecting individual or social change were focused on behavior changes around: household energy consumption, recycling behaviours, changing transportation behavior and buying green products. At that time, there were few examples of multi-level communications strategies for effecting change.
Main article: Social and behavior change communication
Since much of Climate communication is focused on engaging broad public action, much of the studies are focused on effecting behavior change. Typically, effective climate communication has three parts: cognitive, affective and place based appeals.
Different parts of different populations respond differently to climate change communication. Academic research since 2013 has seen an increasing number of audience segmentation studies, to understand different tactics for reaching different parts of populations. Major segmentation studies include:
A significant part of the research and public advocacy conversations about climate change have focused on the effectiveness of different terms used to describe "global warming".
Before the 1980s, when it was unclear whether warming by greenhouse gases would dominate aerosol-induced cooling, scientists often used the term inadvertent climate modification to refer to humankind's impact on the climate. In the 1980s, the terms global warming and climate change were introduced, the former referring only to increased surface warming, while the latter describes the full effect of greenhouse gases on the climate. Global warming became the most popular term after NASA climate scientist James Hansen used it in his 1988 testimony in the U.S. Senate. In the 2000s, the term climate change increased in popularity. Global warming usually refers to human-induced warming of the Earth system, whereas climate change can refer to natural as well as anthropogenic change. The two terms are often used interchangeably.Various scientists, politicians and media figures have adopted the terms climate crisis or climate emergency to talk about climate change, while using global heating instead of global warming. The policy editor-in-chief of The Guardian explained that they included this language in their editorial guidelines "to ensure that we are being scientifically precise, while also communicating clearly with readers on this very important issue". Oxford Dictionary chose climate emergency as its word of the year in 2019 and defines the term as "a situation in which urgent action is required to reduce or halt climate change and avoid potentially irreversible environmental damage resulting from it".
Main article: Climate change and health
Climate change exacerbates a number of existing public health issues, such as mosquito-borne disease, and introduces new public health concerns related to changing climate, such as increase in health concerns after natural disasters or increases in heat illnesses. Thus the field of health communication has long acknowledged the importance of treating climate change as a public health issue, requiring broad population behavior changes that allow societal climate change adaptation. A December 2008 article in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine recommended using two broad sets of tools to effect this change: communication and social marketing. A 2018 study, found that even with moderates and conservatives who were skeptical of the importance of climate change, exposure to information about the health impacts of climate change creates greater concern about the issues.
Framing climate change information as a story has been shown to be an effective form of communication. In a 2019 study, climate change narratives structured as stories were better at inspiring pro-environmental behavior. The researchers propose that these climate stories spark action by allowing each experimental subject to process the information experientially, increasing their affective engagement and leading to emotional arousal. Stories with negative endings, for example, influenced cardiac activity, increasing inter-beat (RR) intervals. The story signalled the brain to be alert and take action against the threat of climate change.
A similar study has shown that sharing personal stories about experiences with climate change can convince climate skeptics. Hearing about how climate change has influenced someone’s life elicits emotions like worry and compassion, which can shift beliefs about climate change.
Main article: Media coverage of global warming
The effect of mass media and journalism on the public's attitudes towards climate change has been a significant part of communications studies. In particular, scholars have looked at how the media's tendency to cover climate change in different cultural contexts, with different audiences or political positions (for example Fox News's dismissive coverage of climate change news), and the tendency of newsrooms to cover climate change as an issue of uncertainty or debate, in order to give a sense of balance.
Main article: Global warming in popular culture
Further research has explored how popular media, like the film The Day After Tomorrow, popular documentary An Inconvenient Truth, and climate fiction change public perceptions of climate change.
Effective climate communications require audience and contextual awareness. Different organizations have published guides and frameworks based on experience in climate communications. This section documents those various guidelines.
A 2009 handbook developed by the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at the Earth Institute at Columbia University describes eight main principles for communications based on the psychological research about Environmental decisions:
A strategy playbook, developed based on lessons learned from the COVID pandemic communication, was released On Road Media in the UK in 2020. The framework is focused on developing positive messages that help people feel optimistic about learning more to address climate change. This framework included six recommendations:
In 2018, the IPCC published a handbook of guidance for IPCC authors about effective climate communication. It is based on extensive social studies research exploring the impact of different tactics for climate communication. The guidelines focus on six main principles:
Climate Visuals a nonprofit, published in 2020 a set of guidelines based on evidence for climate communications. They recommend that visual communications include:
The impacts of climate change are exacerbated in low- and middle income countries; higher levels of poverty, less access to technologies, and less education, means that this audience needs different information. The Paris Agreement and IPCC both acknowledge the importance of sustainable development in addressing these differences. In 2019 the nonprofit, Climate and Development Knowledge Network published a set of lessons learned and guidelines based on their experience communicating climate change in Latin America, Asia and Africa.
Major research centers in climate communication include:
...the Heartland Institute, the primary American organization pushing climate change skepticism...