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The science is settled? Exploring expert views on climate communication


If there’s one thing about public engagement with climate change you can be certain about, it is that climate change doesn’t communicate itself, writes Adam Corner.

There is now a wealth of climate communication research, plus decades of practitioner expertise on public engagement to draw on. But how much agreement is there among climate communication specialists on what works, and what doesn’t? Is the science of climate change communication ‘settled’?

That’s exactly the question we asked a group of invited experts who represent the many sectors that work on communicating climate change (including social science researchers, climate scientists, campaigners, science communicators and communications strategists).

As part of a day of discussion and debate, we asked workshop participants to draw on their own knowledge, experience and expertise and provide some judgments about a series of statements about communicating climate change.

This ‘expert elicitation’ task was based on the (much more involved!) process that IPCC authors go through when assessing the academic evidence base on climate change. But our task was a little different, in that we wanted to include different types of expertise (i.e. not just people who were familiar with the academic literature, but also people whose expertise was based on their experiences as a practitioner).

Splitting people into three groups, with a mixture of types of expertise in each, we asked participants to discuss a set of six broad ‘propositions’ about climate change communication (e.g. Climate communication should start with the values of the audience – i.e. the things that matter to them), with each proposition (or ‘rule of thumb’) accompanied by some more specific supporting statements (e.g. An individual’s values are likely to have a bigger influence on their attitudes towards climate change than the amount they know about climate science).

Participants then individually gave a rating to each proposition (using a traffic light system) and each supporting statement (using a matrix based on their assessment of the amount of evidence and level of agreement -producing a ‘confidence statement’).

As far as we know, it is the first time something like this has been attempted. Here are some key takeaways from the day:

Trial by Traffic Light

On most of the six ‘rules of thumb’ there were pretty consistent views across the 15 people providing judgments. The statement noted above about ‘starting with the values of the audience’ received unanimous ‘green’ ratings from all participants, for example, and there was almost universal agreement (all except two participants selecting a ‘green’ rating) for the proposition that “Creative methods (e.g. poetry, visual arts) & storytelling are an effective way of reaching beyond the ‘usual suspects’ (i.e. the already engaged) on climate change”.

Other propositions attracted more diversity – for example, the idea that “Increasing knowledge about climate science is not very important for building wider public engagement and concern about climate change” got an equal number of green and amber ratings. The proposition that was (consistently) given the most red and amber ratings (and not single green) read “Focusing on individual behaviours (e.g. eating meat or recycling) is an effective way of communicating climate change to public audiences”

But interestingly, there were no instances of propositions that were radically disagreed on (i.e. half red, half green, or with people split across all three categories). Participants were consistent in the traffic light ratings they provided, within and across the three discussion groups.

So at this level there seemed to be a lot of agreement in the room, across diverse experts from a range of sectors. This is an important insight: it seems that there is a shared sense of what works, and what doesn’t. And it is an important message to get out there – there is cross-sector agreement on some key principles of climate change communication.

Into the matrix

As might be expected, things got a little hazier when it came to the more nuanced ‘matrix’ rating system used to evaluate the supporting statements. With the reassuringly simple three colour traffic light system no longer available, participants had to make an assessment (from their perspective – which might not necessarily be based on reviewing the social science evidence base) of the strength of the evidence and the level of agreement for each statement, creating a confidence statement (from very low to very high).

But strikingly, there was still a ‘centre of gravity’ in the room around almost every single statement – there were very few instances where judgments were split evenly (or ‘randomly’), and on some statements there was a great deal of consistency among participant’s ratings. For example, there was strong agreement with the statement “Showing images of ‘local’ climate impacts is an effective way to engage public audiences” and strong disagreement with the statement “A scientist using a storytelling approach to communicate climate change (rather than presenting facts and figures) will be distrusted by the audience”

This tells us something important, because although participants discussed each statement as a group, they made their judgments individually. The fact that people with such diverse expertise and experience nevertheless provided such consistent judgments is a strong indication that – at least in some cases – the science of climate communication really is settled.

There were a couple of statements that did ‘split the crowd’, though. The statement “Communicating the level of scientific consensus is an effective way to build public engagement with climate change” produced inconsistent ratings across participants, with confidence judgments ranging from ‘very low’ to ‘very high’ and every other response category in between! The statement “If people experience extreme weather they become more concerned about climate change” also drew mixed responses.

Both of these examples are interesting and illuminating – the question of whether (and how) to use the level of scientific consensus in climate communication is a topic that has attracted an unusually strong level of spirited debate among researchers, and this seems to be reflected in the judgments our participants gave. And the question of whether ‘encountering’ climate change through extreme weather leads to greater engagement with climate change more generally is a very topical (the UK’s July 2018 heatwave was well underway as the meeting took place).

What have we learned, and where next?

As part of the feedback collected during the day, we asked our 15 participants to say whether they thought there was agreement on climate change communication. Just over half of the room thought there wasn’t a clear consensus on climate communication – but the findings of our workshop suggest that perhaps this assessment is unduly pessimistic, and there is more agreement than they think on some key areas of public engagement.

Clearly, there are limitations to a method like this. It was a relatively small number of people taking part (we’re hoping to repeat it later in the year), and there were definitely some issues to iron out with the instructions provided to participants (which were interpreted in slightly different ways by different people). But in one sense, this makes the consistent agreement in judgments even more striking.

It certainly wasn’t an easy task to complete – we gave ourselves ten minutes for each proposition (plus supporting statements) then moved on – with more time, would there have been more or less agreement?

But the key conclusion from the meeting is a really positive one: on many key aspects of climate change communication, there is widespread agreement, across sectors and disciplines. As the Climate Communication Project moves forward – with the aim of securing further support to build on our initial conclusions over the coming years – we can provide evidence-based resources for climate communicators, confident that the recommendations we are providing are built on widely-shared views about what works and what doesn’t on public engagement with climate change.

Adam Corner (Research Director, Climate Outreach)

This blog is republished from the Climate Communication Project, for which Dr Adam Corner is part of the leadership team)

Image: research shows that photos showing people actively involved with wind technology, as in this image, are better received than passive images of people looking at (Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)