July 19, 2017 — Because of the complexity and urgency of climate change, efforts to understand the problem’s social, cultural, and political dimensions must stretch beyond the environmental sciences and economics to be truly multi-disciplinary. To this end, over the past two decades, a growing community of scholars have focused on the factors that influence public understanding, perceptions, and behaviors relative to climate change; the nature of journalistic, media, and cultural portrayals and their effects; and the role that public communication, outreach and advocacy play in shaping societal decisions. This research has taken place across disciplines, countries and continents, generating broad-based interest and discussion.
There have also been well resourced and highly visible efforts to apply this research to the communication activities of experts, professionals, and advocates as they work to influence societal decisions related to climate change. Most notably, research in this area has been a central focus of the global environmental movement and climate science community, the public engagement with science movement in the UK and Europe, the science of science communication movement in the U.S., the climate change communication movements in Australia and Canada, and the still nascent climate change communication efforts in India and China, to name a few leading examples.
Until now, however, there has not existed a leading scholarly outlet where the broad range of climate change communication, media and public opinion research is reviewed, synthesized, and critiqued; or translated in relation to other disciplines and professions. To address this gap, the Oxford Encyclopedia of Climate Change Communication is a curated series of 115 original peer-reviewed articles published in print and digital format, and by way of the web-based Oxford Research Encyclopedia (ORE) Climate Science. The collected articles comprehensively review research on climate change communication, advocacy, media and cultural portrayals, and their relationship to societal decisions, public knowledge, perceptions, and behavior. Co-authored by more than 250 experts representing more than a dozen disciplines and twenty countries, the commissioned articles reflect five main areas of scholarship and research. These include:
- Climate Change Public Opinion, Knowledge, and Behavior: Articles in the first focus area examine the psychological, social, economic, and cultural factors shaping public attitudes, knowledge, and behavior. Some articles also examine the political, cultural, and sociological linkages between public opinion, societal decisions, and policy outcomes. Many emphasize the implications for effective public communication, engagement, and/or advocacy. Examples of articles in this category include “Mental Models and Risk Perceptions of Climate Change,” “Partisan Cuing and Polarization in Public Opinion about Climate Change,” “Personal Experience, Extreme Weather Events, and Perceptions of Climate Change,” “Race, Ethnicity, Gender, and Beliefs about Climate Change,” “Religious Identity, Beliefs and Views about Climate Change,” “Political Participation and Voting Relevant to Climate Change,” “The Information Deficit Model and Debates over Climate Change and Public Opinion,” and “Beliefs about Climate Change and Conspiracy Thinking.”
- Media and Cultural Portrayals of Climate Change and their Societal Effects: Articles in this second focus area comprehensively cover the social, cultural, and political factors shaping climate change-related journalistic decisions and media portrayals; the effects of media and popular culture portrayals on audience perceptions; and how these factors, portrayals, and influences vary by type of media organization, topic, and national context. Many of the articles also emphasize the implications for improving journalistic coverage or media portrayals. Examples of articles in this category include “Elite News Coverage of Climate Change,” “Objectivity, False Balance, and Advocacy in News Coverage of Climate Change,” “Portrayal and Impacts of Climate Change in Advertising and Consumer Campaigns,” “Effects of TV and Cable News Viewing on Climate Change Opinion, Knowledge, and Behavior,” “Documentary and Edutainment Portrayals of Climate Change and Societal Impacts,” and “Celebrities and Climate Change.”
- Climate Change Communication, Engagement, and Advocacy: Articles in this third focus area comprehensively cover major theories, areas of research, methods, intellectual traditions, professional innovations and debates that inform our understanding of climate change communication including persuasive message design and framing; public education and information campaigns; advocacy and activist efforts; and initiatives designed to foster public input, engagement, and dialogue. Several articles also focus on effective communication and engagement specific to low carbon energy technologies such as solar, hydro, or nuclear power. Examples of articles in this category include “Communicating about Climate Change with Policymakers,” “Communicating about Climate Change with Corporate Leaders and Stakeholders,” “Communicating Climate Change Adaptation and Resilience,” “Countering Climate Science Denial and Communicating Scientific Consensus,” “Strategies for Countering False Information and Beliefs about Climate Change,” “Online and Social Media Campaigns for Climate Change Engagement,” “TV Meteorologists as Local Climate Change Educators,” and “Strategic Framing and Persuasive Messaging to Influence Climate Change Perceptions and Decisions.”
- Climate Change Communication Across Countries and Regions: Articles in this fourth focus area critically discuss the factors, events, organizations, and individuals that have shaped the trajectory of research and practice related to climate change communication, media, and public opinion in a particular country or region, including an emphasis on significant debates, controversies, assumptions, and future directions. In total, twenty-five countries or regions are covered including Germany, China, India, Turkey, the Netherlands, South Korea, Japan, Denmark, Argentina, Spain, Peru, Russia, Italy, Canada, New Zealand, and the Middle East.
- Climate Change Communication Research Methods and Approaches: Articles in this fifth focus area comprehensively review major methodologies and scholarly approaches to the study of climate change communication, public opinion, media portrayals, and their effects. Examples of articles in this category include “Audience Segmentation and Climate Change Communication,” “Discourse Analysis in Climate Change Communication,” “Frame Analysis in Climate Change Communication,” “Linguistic Analysis in Climate Change Communication,” “Content Analysis in Climate Change Communication,” “Methods for Assessing Online Climate Change Communication, Social Media Discussion, and Behavior,” and “Methods for Assessing Visual Images and Depictions of Climate Change.”
Communication and Social Change
Collectively, the articles in this volume reveal a deep knowledge base about the barriers to public engagement with climate change, and the social and political obstacles to effectively managing the many risks involved. Scholars across countries have examined how values, social identity, mental models, discourses, social ties, culture, media, interest groups, economic conditions, geography, and weather shape individual judgments and collective decisions. They have also tracked the evolution of climate change as a social problem in relation to specific media systems and political arenas, describing the factors that drive the framing of debate. Yet not surprisingly, given the complexities involved, even after more than twenty years of research, easy answers on how to mobilize the political will needed to meaningfully address the problem are not readily apparent.
In regards to such solutions, researchers tend to conform to one of four different camps of thinking that map to slightly differing theories of social change. A first school of thought, comprised mostly of social psychologists, communication researchers, and decision scientists, views the challenge as a matter of persuasion: How can climate change be reframed in a way that resonates with the identities, priorities, and interests of different publics and be communicated about by trusted opinion-leaders? Through such strategies, public opinion will eventually pass a certain threshold of perceived urgency and importance, creating the political conditions for national and international policymakers to take aggressive action. A second group, comprised mostly of political scientists and sociologists, views the issue as a matter of power-based politics, requiring strategies and tactics that mobilize social movements and interest groups that pressure elected officials and industry leaders to ratchet up their efforts to address the problem.
A third group, comprised of more humanistic and critical scholars, views the issue as one of dialogue and deliberation: the challenge is to facilitate the opportunities for different publics to learn about, debate, and participate in collective decisions about climate change, and to co-produce knowledge about risks and solutions alongside the expert community. By building a stronger, more democratic public sphere at the local and national levels, the issue will eventually be better managed. Finally, a fourth group of scholars approach their research far less instrumentally. For them, the social dimensions of climate change are the ultimate puzzle worthy of study and inquiry. Their research is not intended to inform communication campaigns or political strategy. Rather their goal is to understand what climate change tells us about human psychology, society, culture, politics, or media systems. As scholars, they serve in an interrogatory role, exploring questions but not offering advice on how society can move forward to solve the pressing problems involved.
For many readers of the Encyclopedia of Climate Change Communication, one of these schools of thought is likely to be the principal lens by which they approach the collected articles, guiding their choices about what to pay attention to and what to accept as valid. I encourage readers, however, to engage in a more flexible and critical reading of the volume, seeking to engage with the multiple assumptions and perspectives offered by the more than 250 co-authors. Their conclusions frequently counter conventional assumptions and narratives about the roots of societal inaction on climate change and effective directions forward. By considering these differing perspectives, as readers we can come to hold our own assumptions and biases more lightly, and it is only as a product of such critical self-reflection that new insights are likely to emerge.
Nisbet, M.C. (2018). Preface. In M.C. Nisbet (Ed), Ho, S., Markowitz, E., O’Neill, S., Schafer, M., Thaker, J.T. (Assoc. Editors). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Climate Change Communication. New York: Oxford University Press.