Climate communication

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.

Ed Hawkins' warming stripes graphics portray global warming since 1850 as a series of color-coded stripes, purposely devoid of scientific notation to be quickly understandable by non-scientists.[1] Blue (= cool) progresses over time to red (= warm).

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.


This 1902 article attributes to Swedish Nobel laureate (chemistry) Svante Arrhenius a theory that coal combustion could cause a degree of global warming that could eventually lead to human extinction.[2]
This 1912 article succinctly describes the greenhouse effect, focusing on how burning coal creates carbon dioxide that causes climate change.[3]

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.[4] Early studies were connected to other environmental communications concerns such as exploring awareness and understanding of ozone depletion.[4] As of 2017, most research in this field has been conducted in the United States, Australia, Canada, and Western European countries.[4]

Major issuesEdit

Barriers to understandingEdit

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.[5]

Additionally, climate denialism by organizations, such as The Heartland Institute in the United States,[6][7][8] 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.[9] Stoknes describes 5 major barriers to creating action from climate communication:

  1. Distance - many effects and impacts of climate change feel distant from individual lives
  2. Doom - when framed as a disaster, the message backfires, causing Eco-anxiety
  3. Dissonance - a disconnect between the problems (mainly the fossil fuel economy) and the things that people choose in their lives
  4. Denial -- psychological self defense to avoid becoming overwhelmed by fear or guilt
  5. iDentity -- disconnects created by social identities, such as conservative values, which are threatened by the changes that need to happen because of climate change.

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.[10]

Climate literacyEdit

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.[11] Several agencies and educational organizations have developed frameworks and tools for developing climate literacy, including the Climate Literacy Lab at Georgia State university,[12] and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.[13] Such resources in English have been collected by the Climate Literacy and Awareness Network.[14]

Creating changeEdit

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.[15] At that time, there were few examples of multi-level communications strategies for effecting change.[15]

Behaviour changeEdit

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.[16]

Audience segmentationEdit

The results of a public opinion poll by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Yale is one of the principle research centers developing segmentation studies.

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.[17] Major segmentation studies include:

  •   US Segmentation of the American audiences into 6 groups:[18] Alarmed, Concerned, Cautious, Disengaged, Doubtful and Dismissive.
  •   AUS Segmentation of Australians into 4 segments in 2011,[19] and 6 segments analogous to the Six America's model.[20]
  •   DE Segmentation of German populations into 5 segments[21]
  •   India Segmentation of Indian populations into the 6 segments[22]
  •   Singapore Segmentation of Singapore audiences into 3 segments[23]

Changing rhetoricEdit

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".

History of global warmingEdit

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 popularised, the former referring only to increased surface warming, the latter describing the full effect of greenhouse gases on the climate.[24] Global warming became the most popular term after NASA climate scientist James Hansen used it in his 1988 testimony in the U.S. Senate.[25] In the 2000s, the term climate change increased in popularity.[26] Global warming usually refers to human-induced warming of the Earth system, whereas climate change can refer to natural as well as anthropogenic change.[27] The two terms are often used interchangeably.[28]

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.[29] 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".[30] 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".[31]


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.[15] 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.[9] 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.[32] Climate change is also expected to impact mental health significantly. With the increase in emotional responses to climate change, there is a growing need for greater resilience and tolerance to emotional experiences. Research has indicated that these emotional experiences can be adaptive when they are supported and processed appropriately. This support requires the facilitation of emotional processing and reflective functioning. When this occurs, individuals increase in tolerance to emotion and resilience, and are then able to support others through crisis. [33]

Importance of StorytellingEdit

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.[34] 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.[35] Hearing about how climate change has influenced someone’s life elicits emotions like worry and compassion, which can shift beliefs about climate change.

Media coverageEdit

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.[4]

Popular cultureEdit

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.[4][36]

Effective climate communicationEdit

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.

General guidanceEdit

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:[37]

  1. Know your audience
  2. Get the Audience's Attention
  3. Translate Scientific Data into Concrete Experiences
  4. Beware the Overuse of Emotional Appeals
  5. Address Scientific and Climate Uncertainties
  6. Tap into Social Identities and Affiliates
  7. Encourage Group Participation
  8. Make Behavior Change Easier

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.[38] This framework included six recommendations:

  1. Make it do-able and show change is possible
  2. Focus on the big things and how we can change them
  3. Normalize action and change, not inaction
  4. Connect the planet's health with our own health
  5. Emphasis our shared responsibility for future generations
  6. Keep it down to earth

By expertsEdit

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.[39] The guidelines focus on six main principles:

  1. Be a confident communicator
  2. Talk about the real world, not abstract ideas
  3. Connect with what matters to your audience
  4. Tell a human story
  5. Lead with what you know
  6. Use the most effective visual communication


Climate Visuals a nonprofit, published in 2020 a set of guidelines based on evidence for climate communications.[40] They recommend that visual communications include:

  1. Show real people
  2. Tell new stories
  3. Show climate change causes at scale
  4. Show emotionally powerful impacts
  5. Understand your audience
  6. Show local (serious) impacts
  7. Be careful with protest imagery.

Sustainable developmentEdit

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.[41]

Important organizationsEdit

Major research centers in climate communication include:

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Hawkins, Ed (4 December 2018). "2018 visualisation update / Warming stripes for 1850-2018 using the WMO annual global temperature dataset". Climate Lab Book. Archived from the original on 17 April 2019. (Direct link to image)
  2. ^ "Hint to Coal Consumers". The Selma Morning Times. Selma, Alabama, US. October 15, 1902. p. 4.
  3. ^ "Coal Consumption Affecting Climate". Rodney and Otamatea Times, Waitemata and Kaipara Gazette. Warkworth, New Zealand. 14 August 1912. p. 7.
  4. ^ a b c d e Chadwick, Amy E. (2017-09-26). "Climate Change Communication". Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication. doi:10.1093/acrefore/9780190228613.013.22. ISBN 9780190228613. Retrieved 2020-04-13.
  5. ^ Norgaard, K. M. (2011). Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life. MIT Press. ISBN 9780262015448.
  6. ^ Dryzek, John S.; Norgaard, Richard B.; Schlosberg, David (2011). The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0199683420.
  7. ^ Pilkey Jr., Orrin H; Pilkey, Keith C. (2011). Global Climate Change: A Primer. Duke University Press. p. 48. ISBN 978-0822351092.
  8. ^ Gillis, Justin (May 1, 2012). "Clouds' Effect on Climate Change Is Last Bastion for Dissenters". The New York Times. Retrieved February 23, 2018. ...the Heartland Institute, the primary American organization pushing climate change skepticism...
  9. ^ a b Stoknes, Per Espen (2015-04-03). "The 5 psychological barriers to climate action". Boing Boing. Retrieved 2020-04-12.
  10. ^ Norgaard, Kari Marie (2011), Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life, The MIT Press, doi:10.7551/mitpress/8661.003.0003, ISBN 9780262295772
  11. ^ "Mind the Climate Literacy Gap". Resilience. 2019-11-01. Retrieved 2020-04-16.
  12. ^ "What is Climate Literacy? |". Retrieved 2020-04-16.
  13. ^ "The Essential Principles of Climate Literacy | NOAA". Retrieved 2020-04-16.
  14. ^ "CLEAN". CLEAN. Retrieved 2020-04-16.
  15. ^ a b c Maibach, Edward W.; Roser-Renouf, Connie; Leiserowitz, Anthony (November 2008). "Communication and Marketing As Climate Change–Intervention Assets". American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 35 (5): 488–500. doi:10.1016/j.amepre.2008.08.016. PMID 18929975.
  16. ^ Halperin, Abby; Walton, Peter (April 2018). "The Importance of Place in Communicating Climate Change to Different Facets of the American Public". Weather, Climate, and Society. 10 (2): 291–305. doi:10.1175/WCAS-D-16-0119.1. ISSN 1948-8327.
  17. ^ Hine, Donald W; Reser, Joseph P; Morrison, Mark; Phillips, Wendy J; Nunn, Patrick; Cooksey, Ray (July 2014). "Audience segmentation and climate change communication: conceptual and methodological considerations: Audience segmentation and climate change communication". Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change. 5 (4): 441–459. doi:10.1002/wcc.279.
  18. ^ Chryst, Breanne; Marlon, Jennifer; van der Linden, Sander; Leiserowitz, Anthony; Maibach, Edward; Roser-Renouf, Connie (2018-11-17). "Global Warming's "Six Americas Short Survey": Audience Segmentation of Climate Change Views Using a Four Question Instrument". Environmental Communication. 12 (8): 1109–1122. doi:10.1080/17524032.2018.1508047. ISSN 1752-4032. S2CID 149807754.
  19. ^ Ashworth, Peta; Jeanneret, Talia; Gardner, John; Shaw, Hylton (May 2011). Communication and climate change: What the Australian public thinks (Report). Pullenvale: CSIRO. doi:10.4225/08/584ee953cdee1.
  20. ^ Morrison, M.; Duncan, R.; Sherley, C.; Parton, K. (June 2013). "A comparison between attitudes to climate change in Australia and the United States". Australasian Journal of Environmental Management. 20 (2): 87–100. doi:10.1080/14486563.2012.762946. ISSN 1448-6563. S2CID 154223092.
  21. ^ Metag, Julia; Füchslin, Tobias; Schäfer, Mike S. (May 2017). "Global warming's five Germanys: A typology of Germans' views on climate change and patterns of media use and information" (PDF). Public Understanding of Science. 26 (4): 434–451. doi:10.1177/0963662515592558. ISSN 0963-6625. PMID 26142148. S2CID 35057708.
  22. ^ "Global Warming's Six Indias". Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Retrieved 2020-04-12.
  23. ^ Schmoldt, A.; Benthe, H. F.; Haberland, G. (1975-09-01). "Digitoxin metabolism by rat liver microsomes". Biochemical Pharmacology. 24 (17): 1639–1641. ISSN 1873-2968. PMID 10.
  24. ^ NASA, 5 December 2008.
  25. ^ Weart "The Public and Climate Change: The Summer of 1988", "News reporters gave only a little attention ...".
  26. ^ Joo et al. 2015.
  27. ^ NOAA, 17 June 2015: "when scientists or public leaders talk about global warming these days, they almost always mean human-caused warming"; IPCC AR5 SYR Glossary 2014, p. 120: "Climate change refers to a change in the state of the climate that can be identified (e.g., by using statistical tests) by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer. Climate change may be due to natural internal processes or external forcings such as modulations of the solar cycles, volcanic eruptions and persistent anthropogenic changes in the composition of the atmosphere or in land use."
  28. ^ NASA, 7 July 2020; Shaftel 2016: "'Climate change' and 'global warming' are often used interchangeably but have distinct meanings. ... Global warming refers to the upward temperature trend across the entire Earth since the early 20th century ... Climate change refers to a broad range of global phenomena ...[which] include the increased temperature trends described by global warming."; Associated Press, 22 September 2015: "The terms global warming and climate change can be used interchangeably. Climate change is more accurate scientifically to describe the various effects of greenhouse gases on the world because it includes extreme weather, storms and changes in rainfall patterns, ocean acidification and sea level.".
  29. ^ Hodder & Martin 2009; BBC Science Focus Magazine, 3 February 2020.
  30. ^ The Guardian, 17 May 2019; BBC Science Focus Magazine, 3 February 2020.
  31. ^ USA Today, 21 November 2019.
  32. ^ Kotcher, John; Maibach, Edward; Montoro, Marybeth; Hassol, Susan Joy (September 2018). "How Americans Respond to Information About Global Warming's Health Impacts: Evidence From a National Survey Experiment". GeoHealth. 2 (9): 262–275. doi:10.1029/2018GH000154. PMC 7007167. PMID 32159018.
  33. ^ Kieft, Jasmine and Bendell, Jem (2021) The responsibility of communicating difficult truths about climate influenced societal disruption and collapse: an introduction to psychological research. Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS) Occasional Papers Volume 7. University of Cumbria, Ambleside, UK..(Unpublished)
  34. ^ Morris, Brandi S.; Chrysochou, Polymeros; Christensen, Jacob Dalgaard; Orquin, Jacob L.; Barraza, Jorge; Zak, Paul J.; Mitkidis, Panagiotis (2019-04-06). "Stories vs. facts: triggering emotion and action-taking on climate change". Climatic Change. 154 (1–2): 19–36. doi:10.1007/s10584-019-02425-6. ISSN 0165-0009.
  35. ^ "Personal Climate Stories Can Persuade". Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Retrieved 2020-12-19.
  36. ^ Schneider-Mayerson, Matthew; Gustafson, Abel; Leiserowitz, Anthony; Goldberg, Matthew H.; Rosenthal, Seth A.; Ballew, Matthew (2020-09-15). "Environmental Literature as Persuasion: An Experimental Test of the Effects of Reading Climate Fiction". Environmental Communication. 0: 1–16. doi:10.1080/17524032.2020.1814377. ISSN 1752-4032.
  37. ^ The Psychology of Climate Change Communication: A Guide for Scientists, Journalists, Educators, Political Aides, and the Interested Public. Center For Research on Environmental Decisions, Columbia University. 2009.
  38. ^ "Six ways to change hearts and minds about climate change". On Road. 2020-09-15. Retrieved 2020-09-18.
  39. ^ "Communications Handbook for IPCC scientists". Climate Outreach. January 30, 2018. Retrieved 2020-04-12.
  40. ^ "The evidence behind Climate Visuals". Climate Visuals. Archived from the original on 2021-03-07. Retrieved 2020-04-12.
  41. ^ "GUIDE: Communicating climate change - A practitioner's guide". Climate and Development Knowledge Network. Retrieved 2020-04-12.


Further readingEdit