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In defence of the science of climate communications

By Adam Corner on December 19, 2017

56% of Copenhageners ride a bicycle for transport daily. 75% cycle all winter. This is the world's busiest bicycle street. Nørrebrogade. Over 40,000 cyclists per day.

The social science of communicating climate change is – like climate science itself – full of uncertainties, caveats, and conditional statements. But (again like climate science) there are some core principles where there is firm agreement.

 A recent commentary in Vox argued that the social science of communicating climate change is not settled enough to be useful to campaigners. Here’s why that’s wrong, and why more adventurous research on climate change communication can help deal with some of the shortcomings in the literature that the piece rightly identifies.

The writer David Roberts has written a series of articles about the science of communicating climate change. Roberts’ take is that the research is too mixed (or contradictory) to provide useful guidance for campaigners, most recently using a new paper in the journal Nature Climate Change to underscore his points.

Roberts’ piece usefully drew attention to the paper’s message, but also went further, arguing that “We don’t know much of anything about how messages affect people, so everybody’s better off just doing the best they can.”

And that’s where Roberts’ analysis parts company with ours at Climate Outreach, and the growing number of people – researchers, campaigners, practitioners and communicators – working hard to distill the complex social science of climate change communication into something that is practically useful. As challenging as this may be, it is the exact opposite of encouraging people to ‘just do the best they can’.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

The weird and wonderful human psyche (and the kaleidoscope of political, cultural and social influences on it) is not easy to get a handle on. Predicting human behaviour is not like analysing a chemical equation. People are always complex, sometimes unpredictable, and on occasion simply contrary, confounding expectations about what a ‘rational thinker’ would do.

This should be the starting point for any honest take on the social science of human understanding & behaviour.

But none of this implies that social science research on climate change communication has nothing to offer practitioners working to engage the public on climate change. The social science of communicating climate change is – like climate science itself – full of uncertainties, caveats, and conditional statements. But (again like climate science) there are some core principles where there is firm agreement.

In fact, Roberts alludes to one of them: the well-documented link between ideology and scepticism about climate change. Roberts points to this as evidence that no messaging strategy can overcome these deep-rooted differences. In a narrow sense, he’s right – just like no one low-carbon technology will ‘save the world’, and no political agreement on its own is worth much without public momentum behind it.

But the fact that we know about this link is because people conducted careful psychological studies, and established it. And while there may not be any ‘magic words’ that can shift someone’s opinion on climate change overnight, the idea of selecting words (‘framing’) to build a narrative to connect with an audience’s values are all firm conclusions from the social science literature. And over time, if applied at scale, they will shift the discourse in a positive direction.

Does this give us an off-the-shelf campaign that can be wheeled out for conservative sceptics at any opportunity? No. But it does give us the building blocks for designing a campaign that is as attuned to the evidence base as possible, and is not simply ‘going with our gut’. Too much climate campaigning has been exactly that – messages and imagery picked by climate campaigners to appeal to other climate campaigners (for example, save the polar bears) – and as a result, climate change has a serious identity problem.

Why we need more adventurous research on climate change communication

There is no doubt that some campaigners and commentators use psychological insights in an over-simplistic way. But that is an argument for building bridges between academics and practitioners working on climate change communication, something which we’re doing right now in anaudit’ of climate change communication research.  Working with climate scientists, social scientists, science communicators and practitioners over the next 12 months, we’ll provide a measure of where the consensus lies on climate change communication – and where disagreement remains.

But as well as this crucial ‘synthesis’ work, there’s a real need for more adventurous, applied research which seeks to answer pressing practical questions.

Hundreds of lab-based studies, with university students answering questions about their attitudes towards recycling and using well-worn theoretical models to predict tiny differences in their answers, are (for the most part) not contributing to solving climate change. But if research focused on ensuring that real climate campaigns were designed (and evaluated) in a systematic way, using the best social science evidence, this would mark a major shift in the way that climate change communication takes place.

Roberts’ frustration with commentators loudly criticising others when they haven’t got their own facts entirely straight is understandable. But to slip from acknowledging that the science can’t tell us everything to suggesting it can’t tell us anything is exactly the kind of wooly logic employed by climate sceptics trying to discredit climate science.

Evidence-based climate communication is our best hope of reaching beyond the usual suspects – we should embrace it, not dismiss it, and work harder to connect the social science with the people who can put it into practice.

By Dr Adam Corner

Adam led Climate Outreach’s research work for almost 10 years, growing the Research team and building long standing relationships with academic partners, including the CAST Centre (Climate Change & Social Transformations). He stepped down in early 2021 to start a new adventure in freelance work, which includes a role as a Climate Outreach Associate.  

Before Climate Outreach, Adam worked in the Understanding Risk research group at Cardiff University, researching public attitudes towards climate change. An accomplished and widely-published author, Adam wrote Talking Climate: From Research to Practice in Public Engagement, with Jamie Clarke, and his research and writing has appeared in academic journals, reports and briefings, and international media commentary.

Adam also writes about music – including the increasing connections between music and climate change – for UK media, and can occasionally be found lurking behind the decks at pubs and parties in Bristol.

2 responses to In defence of the science of climate communications

  1. Liz Boulton says:

    December 20, 2017 at 5:10 pm

    There is immense “research” on how to best communicate with people – it is called literature studies.. humanities… have been analysing this issue since ancient times.. philosophy.. “scientific tools” may be wrong tool for job!

  2. Duncan Noble says:

    December 30, 2017 at 1:31 pm

    Thanks for this. I enjoyed reading David Roberts’ piece when it first came out. When I read it again recently, I too was uncomfortable with his statement that “We don’t know much of anything about how messages affect people, so everybody’s better off just doing the best they can.” Your blog post helps me understand the source of my discomfort. In fact, Roberts contradicts himself (we can be such messy humans!) in the same article when he states that “A smart communications strategy will be tailored as specifically as possible to particular identities, delivered by trusted members of those tribes, and sustained over time.” Where does this come from? Social science research on communications!

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