What makes climate change a unique communication challenge?

Academic research article










What makes climate change a unique communication problem? Why have a whole series of reports, guidelines and academic studies been devoted to this particular area of environmental communication? This blog post maps out the answer to this question by examining the unique properties of climate change itself, considering the highly interdisciplinary nature of this type of communication and briefly reflecting on the limitations and creative possibilities of visuals.

The nature of climate change

There are several properties of climate change that make it a complicated subject about which to communicate. Firstly, climate change is, as described by Mike Hulme, a ‘wicked’ problem (1). This means it is both complex and uncertain, and as a result is difficult to explain. Secondly, the effects of climate change may seem distant geographically and in timescale and be regarded as a non-immediate or irrelevant threat. Thirdly, there is no immediate or quantifiable sense of reward for taking action (2) (at least not beyond fulfilling a personal sense of responsibility, which for some may arguably be enough).

Climate change creates unusual communication situations as can be seen with the problem of press representation. In an attempt to provide unbiased news coverage on climate change, the press has tended to give climate contrarians an overly-disproportionate voice, despite the weight of evidence (4). In fact, even with the release of the IPCC report in September 2013, the BBC attracted claims that the views of sceptics were given too much air time.

Interdisciplinary insights

Climate change communication is a highly interdisciplinary area, which at its best draws on communication theories, psychology, behavioural change and cognitive science, amongst others, so that we can make sense of the options open to us and make informed decisions about the communications we create in various contexts.

Psychology, for instance, can explain why we don’t fear a threat as great as climate change. Our ‘fight-or-flight’ defence mechanisms were designed to deal with immediate threats and not ones perceived to be a long way away. According to Futerra, that explains why appealing to individuals based on their children’s future has been shown not to work. In fact, fear appeals of any type are generally not advised, and particularly if there’s no practical action the audience can take; this just leads to apathy and denial.

Issue framing, for which the cognitive scientist George Lakoff is best known, is a framework that can be used to examine how responsible our communications on the environment may be long-term. It explains how choosing to communicate a concept in a particular way (e.g. through use of language, or choice of framing) may weaken or strengthen a person’s deeply held values, and whether this is in line with what the communicator is seeking to achieve long-term (if you’d like to know more, visit the Common Cause’s introduction to values and framing, which I’ll make the subject of future blog posts).

Communicating climate change through visuals

This is where things get even more interesting. Consider these observations:

1. We cannot see ‘climate change’ itself – we only see its effects or symptoms (2).

2. What we photograph now shows the effects of past emissions. That means we have no visual evidence of the effects of current emissions (4).

Humans are very visually-orientated, but as these examples show, visualising climate change is not straightforward. The visual communication of climate change is an area that needs a lot of further research, which is why I made it the subject of the research dissertation for my MA. Illustrations and 3D visualisations offer alternatives to photographic evidence in picturing climate change, but again, because climate change itself cannot be seen, it is fascinating to see how organisations and individuals conceptualise climate change through imagery. For example, what aspect of climate change symptoms, effects and related human activity (e.g. causative activities or carbon saving activities) do you frequently see portrayed by organisations, businesses and the media? The visual communication of climate change is such a rich and complicated area to study that I can’t understand why so few people have yet really delved into this area. Then again, given the complexities I came across in setting up my study’s methodology and data collection using visual communication theory, perhaps I can!

The future of climate change communication

Climate change communication, and environmental communication generally, is an exciting, expanding and highly relevant area of study and practice. In my opinion, understanding its issues and limitations, and the knowledge that various disciplines can contribute, will hopefully only make practice in this area more informed, more able to achieve its desired effects, and more personally fulfilling for practitioners too.

Further reading

(1) Hulme, Mike (2009). Why We Disagree about Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

(2) Moser, Susanne C. (2010). Communicating Climate Change: History, Challenges, Process and Future directions. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, 1 (1), 54-66.

(3) Hansen, Anders (2010). Environment, Media and Communication. London, Routledge.

(4) Doyle, Julie (2007). Picturing the Clima(c)tic: Greenpeace and the Representational Politics of Climate Change Communication. Science as Culture, 16 (2), 129-150.

This post was originally published on my previous blog on 18 November 2013.

Janine is a researcher, content writer and communications consultant with particular experience in the field of sustainability. If your organisation would find this combination of skills helpful, contact Janine on 015394 69034 / 07707 038 092 or email her on janine@bloominggoodcommunications.co.uk

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