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Research round up

We now analyse new research in our insights blogs, but we’ve archived here some of our former ‘research round-ups’ in which we picked one theme within the field of climate change communication and analysed three recent academic papers shedding a light on that theme.

November 2018

Climate visualisation is a form of communication that uses visuals alongside additional information, such as sound, text and/or other elements. Climate visualisation has the potential to help make distant and abstract aspects of climate change more tangible and immediate. The papers reviewed this month analyse how different types of climate visualisations are interpreted and made sense of by their users.


Localizing Climate Change: Nordic Homeowners’ Interpretations of Visual Representations for Climate Adaptation

Ballantyne, A. et al (2018). Environmental Communication, Volume 12, 2018 – Issue 5

The study reports on how 35 homeowners from three Nordic cities made sense of a climate visualisation tool called VisAdapt™. The VisAdapt™ tool includes information about anticipated climate change effects and risks facing regions and house types, as well as adaptation measures which can be implemented by homeowners to avoid specific risks.

VisAdapt™ is built around three main components. The user inserts his or her street address and information about the house type and material, which are used to visualise the location of the searched house and to offer a sorted selection of adaptation guidelines. Alongside this, information is provided on anticipated climate change trends over the coming 40–60 years. The tool also includes risk maps for flooding in all Nordic countries.

The researchers wanted to see what kinds of knowledge the users drew upon to make sense of the information being provided. They analysed 15 audio-recorded test sessions in which homeowners from Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, in groups of two or three, were asked to “think aloud” while interacting with VisAdaptTM.

The authors found that the users drew on their own personal experience and knowledge of their locality to interpret the results. The users were critical of the knowledge embedded in the tool, as compared to their own local knowledge and experience. Local knowledge was used to interpret the climate risk information that the tool generated for their area. This domain – the users’ knowledge of their house and local environment – was their area of expertise.

They say: In our study, the participants’ critical negotiation of localised content suggests that although a local focus is likely to engage audience interest and attention, it will not necessarily awake concern about local climate change impacts. A more participatory process of co-production that incorporates local knowledge is needed to build engagement.

We say: Effective climate change communication needs a trusted messenger, someone the audience can identify with. Using a machine to communicate facts and hope that this will motivate the user to change their behaviours ignores the role of the trusted messenger – localising climate change is important, but people need to be central to this.


Connecting the Dots: Public Engagement with Environmental Data

Kuchinskaya, O. Environmental Communication  Volume 12, 2018 – Issue 4

Environmental hazards (e.g. rising levels of greenhouse gases) need to be made visible and represented (e.g. as pollution) in order for people to feel motivated to take action on the topic, or to see it as a problem. The goal of this research is to explore how otherwise unemotive data can be made more engaging.

The paper discusses a case study of a public art installation. The installation, called Particle Falls, was installed in Pittsburgh in November–December 2014. Pittsburgh used to have a problem with air pollution caused by heavy brown smoke. That has been cleared up, but Pittsburgh remains heavily polluted, though this time the air pollution is less visible. This visualisation used a scientific instrument called a nephelometer. The nephelometer takes in air samples every 15 seconds and measures the concentration of fine particle pollution, or soot. Readings from the nephelometer were projected as bursts of orange colour against the background of “waterfalls,” or falling blue lights on the façade of the Benedum Center in central Pittsburgh. The booklet available free from the site of the projection explained, “the more dots of color you see, the more particles there are detected in the air you’re breathing”.

Particle Falls provided the public with a near real-time rendering of the empirical data describing actual levels of air pollution. Located in a public space, the installation provided the community with tools for observing pollution they were actually breathing at that moment. It provided a new way of experiencing air pollution for its audiences, and prompted some community and media discussion on local air quality.

They say: The question is how to facilitate not just spikes in public visibility of hazards, such as this one-off installation, but more sustained public engagement with environmental data. Our understanding of how to do this could benefit from more research by environmental communication scholars.

We say: Climate change communications needs to be ongoing, multi-faceted and relevant to people’s lives. Large scale and unusual visualisations help grab people’s attention. But they can only work as one part of a well coordinated and funded strategy, otherwise they may be dismissed as entertainment, and the serious message underlying the visualisation missed or ignored.


Visualizing the Paris Climate Talks on Twitter: Media and Climate Stakeholder Visual Social Media During COP21

Hopke, J and Hestres, L (2018) Social Media and Society

This research analyses the visual framing of climate change on Twitter during the high profile international climate change meeting that took place in Paris at the end of 2015 (COP21). The researchers chose to focus on visual social media because of the growing importance of imagery on social apps and platforms. Advocates routinely use Twitter to engage with audiences and promote their messages about issues they care about, including climate change. For activists, media organizations, and other actors, the advantage of Twitter is that it can reach and connect diverse networks.

The researchers collected tweets from Twitter users representing key climate stakeholder groups over a 1-month period, encompassing the Paris COP21 summit. The study’s authors analysed the visual and textual aspects of the COP21 debate that stakeholders chose to emphasise in their visual Twitter posts during COP21. They collected a sample of more than 150,000 Twitter posts from the user handles of the climate stakeholders and developed a framework for categorising the images.

Their findings show that individual activists, movement organisations, multinational representatives and scientific experts were more likely than other stakeholders to use images that spoke to climate justice issues. The major outliers were the fossil fuel industry and trade association accounts. These stakeholders largely focused on former US President Barack Obama’s climate policy, promoting the perception of a lack of domestic support for his climate policies in their visual Twitter postings.

They say: To draw attention to climate issues, climate change communicators using social media apps need to move beyond imagery of protests and the logistical matters of international negotiations, such as the Paris climate talks, and tell visual stories of how people around the world are impacted by climate change, as well as provide concrete actions individuals can take in their daily lives to make a difference toward mitigation and adaptation.

We say: High profile events such as the COPs bring climate change to the attention of publics around the world. The potential these moments offer for making climate change relevant and tangible to ordinary people remains unrealised. Perhaps it is time to completely reconsider how we visualise events like this: instead of depicting two types of ‘climate professionals’ (in suits inside the conference, and in polar bear suits outside the conference), is it time to show imagery and video that captures life in a changing climate around the world? After all, this is why these conferences are happening in the first place.

September 2018

Is polarisation on climate change limited to the US? Is it evident at all levels of government in the US? And what can communicators do to overcome this polarisation?

These are the questions the papers reviewed this month attempt to answer. What they show, in terms of polarisation on climate change, is that the US is a special case. This is a hopeful message for climate communication: climate communication outside of the US is unlikely to contend with such ingrained scepticism. These papers suggest that in America, trusted authoritative voices will play an important role in shifting the opinions of the sceptics – it is a matter of identity, not science.


Boussalis, C., Coan, T and Holman, M (2018). Climate change communication from cities in the USA. Climatic Change, Vol 149 (2), pp 173-187.

Cities are important players on climate change in the US, delivering local level plans for mitigation and adaptation, even as action stalls at the federal level. What is less clear is how effective cities are in communicating about climate change to their residents. This paper reports the results from an analysis of press releases from 82 large US cities to see how climate change is communicated.

The authors found it was the most climate-vulnerable cities (Boston, New York, Chicago and Pittsburgh) that did the most climate change communication. Climate change (across all cities analysed) was most commonly discussed in relation to energy and climate change. Weather and transportation were the next two most common themes. Cities in the US are generally more liberal than the country at large, but the most liberal cities were not more likely to communicate climate change than the less liberal ones. The authors suggest the reason for this is that the lack of polarisation in cities means there is less focus on climate change as an ideological battle ground, and so less need to discuss and defend policies on climate change.

They say: This research highlights that climate communication is going on at different levels of government in the US, and that at the city level there is much less polarisation. There are a lot of factors at play in shaping city level climate policy that have not been addressed in this paper.

We say: It is difficult to assess the importance of city level climate communication without understanding how these communications are being received and interpreted by the city’s residents.


Benegal, S; Scruggs, L (2018). Correcting misinformation about climate change: the impact of partisanship in an experimental settingClimatic Change Volume 148, Issue 1–2, pp 61–80

The authors of this paper wanted to find out if being told by a Republican politician that the scientific consensus on climate change is true would convince Republican voters to change their view on climate change.

The authors conducted an online survey with around 1300 participants in September 2016. The respondents were grouped according to partisanship, ideology, and other demographics. They were then assigned articles which argued climate change was a hoax. Three of the groups received additional short corrective statements, which named specific Republican Congressional representatives who support the scientific consensus on climate change. Respondents then completed a short survey which included measures for an understanding that scientists agree that climate change is occurring, whether climate change is anthropogenic, and whether it is a serious problem.

The results showed that those who read the additional corrective statement were less sceptical about the consensus on climate change, indicating that polarisation can be reduced by highlighting the views of elite Republicans who acknowledge the scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change.

They say: The reason why showing Republicans speaking against their expected partisan positions on climate change is so effective in changing opinion on the scientific consensus is because this is a politically risky action, which they wouldn’t take unless they were convinced of the science.

We say: This is a welcome addition to the research demonstrating how vital it is to prioritise values, worldviews and identity in climate change communication strategies. It is important to understand whether this trusted messenger approach can be equally effective in building support for climate policies (rather than simply accepting climate science).


Fielding, K; Harris, EHornsey, M.J. (2018). Relationships among conspiratorial beliefs, conservatism and climate scepticism across nationsNature Climate Change

A comparison between 24 countries reported in this paper showed that the ideological divide on climate change is greater in the US than elsewhere, a situation which the authors attribute to the political culture in the US.

The research also examined whether people who express an ideology and worldview that rejects climate science also endorse conspiracy theories and hence were more likely to think climate change is a hoax. Data was collected from 5,323 participants from across the globe. Attitudes to four conspiracy theories were measured, and people also placed themselves on both a left/right and liberal/conservative axis. These measures were then correlated with level of scepticism about climate change.

The results showed that ideology and belief in conspiracy theories were strongly correlated with climate scepticism in the US. In contrast, relationships between conservative ideologies and climate scepticism appeared to be relatively weak and inconsistent in Europe. The authors also concluded that the organisations working to undermine belief in climate science are predominantly based in the US and so it is there that the ideological battle is fiercest, and there that polarisation is greatest.

They say: Outside of the US, it is difficult to reliably predict participants’ views on climate change from knowing whether they are chronically prone to conspiratorial thinking, or where they are in terms of being individualistic or communitarian, hierarchical or egalitarian, left or right, liberal or conservative.

We say: These results confirm the unique conditions underpinning polarisation on climate change in the US. Finding effective methods for communicating climate change which can speak to Republican voters in the US is important not just for domestic climate policy in the US, but of global significance.

March 2018

The world we inhabit is a social one. What other people say and do – and what we imagine they are saying and doing – matters to us. The three papers reviewed this month offer new research revealing how what the public and politicians think about what other people (and politicians) think about climate change shapes our beliefs and attitudes.


Mildenberger, M and Tingley, D (2017). Beliefs about Climate Beliefs: The Importance of Second-Order Opinions for Climate Politics. British Journal of Political Science

People underestimate levels of public support for action on climate change. This belief about other people’s opinions negatively affects their own beliefs (that is why it is called second-order opinions). However, when told about the true levels of support for action on climate change, people’s own level of support increases.

In order to arrive at these findings, the researchers conducted an analysis of public opinion in the US and China, asking participants whether they thought climate change was happening, what they thought was causing it and whether they believed scientists agree humans are causing climate change. They were also asked what percentage of the public in the US and China would agree with these statements. The researchers found people consistently underestimate the percentage of the public that agree that climate change is real. This underestimation is especially great amongst those sceptical about climate change. They also found US politicians underestimated the level of public support for political action on climate change.

They say: Researchers should focus more closely on second-order beliefs as a key factor shaping climate policy inaction. Better understanding of the social patterns of belief formation promises to offer up new insights for building a deep and broad social consensus for ambitious action on climate change.

We say: This research confirms the importance of encouraging a sustained, broad and high profile social conversation about climate change. The sense of shared concern that people feel about climate change is a vital component of building an ambitious international agenda for ambitious action on climate change.


Willis, RE.  (2018). Constructing a ‘Representative Claim’ for Action on Climate Change: Evidence from Interviews with Politicians Political Studies , 1-19.

The author of this paper interviewed more than 20 UK Members of Parliament (MPs) in order to find out why climate change is so absent from the UK political discourse.

The MPs said the main reason they don’t bring the issue up more frequently is because voters are not asking them to act. Climate change simply never arises in their discussions with the people they represent. One answer to this impasse is for MPs to take the initiative by making claims about what is important, and what issues require action. Voters can then accept or reject these claims at the ballot box. The challenge for MPs is to find ways of representing the claim for action on climate change that are meaningful and relevant for their constituents.

Currently, when MPs do talk about climate change, they do so in four main ways. The first is to argue that we have a duty towards the people of the world to take action. The second is that action is needed to protect the local environment from dangerous impacts such as flooding. The third, most common strategy, is to identify the co-benefits of action, such as the creation of new industries and jobs. The fourth approach – what the author calls a ‘surrogate claim’ – is not to mention climate change at all but instead talk in terms of issues such as improved public transport.

They say: MPs can seek to make representative claims which are relevant and meaningful to their audience and should do so, if they can make a representative claim which is accepted. However in order to understand how to do this effectively, MPs need support in order to tailor the right message to the right audience.

We say: This timely article confirms the evidence emerging from other research and our own experience – climate change has to compete in people’s minds for a host of other worries. The way forward is to find ways of representing action on climate change as meaningful, achievable, and relevant to people’s lives.

Merkley, E and Stecula, D (In Press). “Party Elites or Manufactured Doubt? The Informational Context of Climate Change Polarization”. Environmental Communication

US Republicans weren’t always sceptical about climate change. The shift in opinion, the authors argue, was not the result of a disinformation campaign by fossil fuel industries. Nor can it be explained by the ideological orientation of individual Republican voters, because Republican ideology has remained unchanged even whilst attitudes to climate change have become more sceptical. The increase in scepticism is instead explained by the messages communicated by political elites through the mass media.

Media coverage of climate change has been dominated by Democratic Party politicians. The authors suggest a boomerang effect may have been at play, with the result that the dominance of Democrat voices on climate change in the media has driven a negative reaction amongst Republican voters.

The conclusion is based on analysis of over 30 years of news coverage between 1980 and 2014. The researchers found the amount of coverage in the media given over to the opinions of political elites, compared to scientific experts, doubled over the study period. Meanwhile coverage given to climate sceptic organisations casting doubt on the science has declined over the same period (though this is not to say those views are not being communicated by other people in the media, such as newscasters themselves).

They say: The boomerang effect in environmental communication appears to have polarised attitudes amongst the American public. The solution is to find a way of bridging the climate change divide between Republicans and Democrats.

We say: The influence of elite cues is an important factor in shaping public attitudes to climate policy. The research reinforces the importance of also building a voice amongst the electorate to demonstrate support for action on climate change. Further research should take account of blogs and other online communication channels.

February 2018

In this month’s round-up we get all emotional as we summarise the results from two articles that look at the role emotions play in the communication of climate change. We also look at a paper which reports what people say when they are asked an open ended question about what should be done about climate change.

Chapman, D; Lickel, BMarkowitz, E (2017). ‘Reassessing emotion in climate change communication.’ Nature Climate Change 7 , 850-852

The authors argue the role emotions play in attitudes to climate change should be understood as one part of a ‘complex interplay of cognitive processes’ rather than simply ‘levers to be pulled’ in communication. The paper was written in response to the debate surrounding an article published in July 2017 in The New York Magazine. The article was titled ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ (and is the most read article in the magazine’s history). This academic paper is an intervention in the ensuing argument about whether ‘doom and gloom’ has a positive or negative impact on public attitudes to climate change policy.

The paper argues that this dichotomy over-simplifies a complex argument. Even the idea of being able to easily separate emotions from each other, or group them as good/bad, or positive/negative is not straightforwardly supported by the research. Emotions are modified by, and in turn modify, responses to information in an evolving manner over time.

In short, we simply do not know much about how the interplay between emotions and attitudes to climate change evolve over time. In fact, recent papers indicate hopeful or positive messages may sometimes undermine the motivation to act on climate change.

They say: Any effort to harness emotions to specific climate communication goals needs to be tailored to the specific characteristics, needs and values of the audience concerned. A one-size-fits-all strategy is unlikely to succeed.  

We say: Effective climate change communication begins with understanding your audience and meeting them on their own ground. Emotional triggers may have a role to play in building powerful communication strategies, but they are not a substitute for getting to know what matters to your audience.

Jones, M and Anderson Crow, D. (2017) ‘How can we use the ‘science of stories’ to produce persuasive scientific stories?’ Palgrave Communications 3, 53. Doi 10.1057/s41599-017-0047-7

Research into the communication strategy of ‘narrative persuasion’ is used to highlight how science can be communicated in a way that aligns with the problem solving narratives that policy makers are likely to understand and engage with. This approach is presented as an alternative to communications based on the ‘knowledge deficit model’. The knowledge deficit model assumes just presenting the facts will result in the audience changing their attitudes or behavior in light of these facts.

Policy narratives are defined as having a setting, characters, plot, and moral. The ‘setting’ of a narrative is made up of the ideas and facts that are relevant to the policy being addressed in the narrative Characters are the ‘emotional engines’ of the narrative, the villains and heroes. The plot describes the actions of the characters in time and space, and the moral is the point of the story, the take home message.

The purpose is to use these narrative elements to communicate the evidence in a way that it is ‘legitimate and memorable.’ However, by understanding how these elements act on the sense-making process one can ensure the narrative has greater congruence with the listener’s values and norms. This will make the narrative more persuasive.The authors stress that these elements should not be included at the expense of remaining true to the actual scientific evidence being communicated to policy makers.

They say: Understand your audience, ensure your stories have heroes as well as villains, ensure you weave the evidence into your story and recognise how your own views and opinions will shape the story you tell.

We say: Understanding how to make best use of the ‘knowledge’ part of the knowledge deficit model in a more emotionally engaging narrative format is an important challenge for science communicators. We echo the author’s conclusion that integrity and honesty are key to effective science communication.

Tvinnereim, E  et al. (2017). ‘Citizens’ preferences for tackling climate change. Quantitative and qualitative analyses of their freely formulated solutions’ Global Environmental Change 46, 34-41.

Most surveys of public opinion on climate change ask people to express how strongly they agree or disagree with a list of pre-set questions. This paper presents the results from a less structured survey method. The paper analyses the results from an an open-ended survey question posed to a Norwegian internet panel. The survey generated 4634 written answers to the question of “what should be done” about climate change. The authors argue this approach leaves respondents free to include what is important to them, and leave out that which is less important. The average length of response was was 21.5 words.

The authors conclude that respondents favoured mitigation over adaptation. Men discussed the causes of climate change and policy options; women focused more on lifestyle changes and individual behaviours. The results suggest a willingness to accept stronger mitigation action, but that central and local government needs to take a stronger leadership role on this.

They say: By giving respondents free reign on how to respond, this method addresses the issue of which policies the public actually favour, showing politicians which actions to prioritise. Also, this approach avoids the problem of respondents giving the interviewer the answer they think the researcher wants to hear.  

We say: Giving citizens the chance to formulate what should be done about climate change in a more open manner is a welcome innovation. However the individualisation of the method combined with the brevity of the answers provided means the results should be treated with caution. The answers given appear in many cases to be as generic as those derived from other methods.

January 2018

This month’s roundup summarises a selection of the themes that have emerged from a selection of our own research in 2017 (some completed, some ongoing). This was a year that saw a rapid expansion in the diversity of issues, countries and people Climate Outreach worked with. The variety and volume of work undertaken offers a unique perspective on the state of play in climate communication, and some of the audiences we’ve worked with: centre-right, youth, business, and science communicators.

  • The results of a project between Climate Outreach and researchers at Cardiff University to understand how to communicate climate change with centre-right audiences in the UK found messages that demonstrate patriotic support for the UK’s flourishing low-carbon energy technologies have broad appeal, but particularly resonated with those of centre-right values.
  • An ongoing European project is examining the social factors that influence how and why young adults take the lead on climate change campaigns. The early results seem to show that moving from home to university is often an important part of becoming involved in climate change campaigns.
  • But what young climate campaign leaders can actually hope to achieve is often shaped by the national political and cultural context. In many parts of the world there is low environmental awareness, which means it is easier to engage publics with local issues such as litter on the beach. Involving people in campaigns around the more abstract topic of climate change is much more difficult in the absence of a national dialogue on the issue.
  • One final word on the project with young adults. Whether coincidental or truly representative of the situation, the majority of campaign leaders identified in this project are female.

It takes a lot of drive and commitment (as well as the right opportunities) to take on a leadership role in climate change campaigns. These are qualities often associated with business owners and entrepreneurs, two groups who have featured in very different projects we have been running.

  • We completed two separate projects on the topic of decentralised renewable energy (DRE is electricity generated by small scale off grid mechanisms, normally solar and small scale wind power). One project focused on India, the other addressed DRE across the developing world. The purpose of both projects was to develop narratives that would accelerate the uptake of DRE in the developing world.
  • Both projects showed that there is no one size fits all narrative; narratives of entrepreneurship were appropriate for financiers, and narratives of development and modernity were most appropriate for development banks and NGOs.
  • A pilot project run with partners at the University of Oxford and the Open University, called Growing Green, gave the owners of small businesses the opportunity to reflect on the role of values in their strategies for growing their business sustainably. The pilot project (being followed in 2018 by a larger scale follow-up project – Growing Greener) showed that businesses who sell directly to the public (food, wine and clothes were the examples represented) were able to connect their values and business practices much more closely than those businesses who provided services to larger companies.

Those businesses interacting with the public at the human scale, as people and not as representatives of large, remote and opaque organisations, embody a key principle that runs through all of our work. That principle is the need to connect through shared values. In 2017 (and into 2018) we have produced three sets of evidence based resources detailing how climate science communicators can use values based messaging strategies and language to make these connections with their audiences.

  • The first of these is an online guide to the science of science communication, based on a series of workshops for early career climate researchers delivered across Europe in partnership with the Helix project and the Tyndall Centre.
  • Mistra commissioned Climate Outreach to produce a report summarising the current state of play in environmental science communication, and to make recommendations on future directions for research. Our report (to be launched within the next few months) recommends a shift in the relationship between environmental science and society away from a model of ‘doing the science and then telling people about it’ towards a closer and ongoing dialogue between science and society.
  • And coming up shortly is the release of a climate science communication handbook for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Rather than focusing on any one area of climate science and climate modelling, this handbook uses the evidence base on effective science communication to develop a series of principles that IPCC scientists can use as a guide to communicating the broader sweep of science collated in the IPCC reports.

An inescapable conclusion from 2017 is that where people live still matters. Yes, climate change is a global problem and governments are working to deliver on internationally agreed targets. Yet people’s immediate experience of the world continues to play an important role in connecting with climate change. The national scale also exerts an influence, through political leadership, culture and level of economic development.

May 2017

At Climate Outreach our mission is to turn climate change from a scientific reality to a social reality. Our approach uses ideas from the field of social psychology, and a lot of psychological research is in the form of experiments which take place within the lab. This work has produced a fountain of powerful insights into how we respond to, and engage with, the warnings coming from the climate scientists. However what really matters is what happens when people interact with other people. That is why our Narrative Workshop model is central to our work – it brings people together and provides a space for ordinary people to discuss climate change with their peers.

This month’s Research Round-up focuses on the social dimensions of climate change communication and engagement, paying particular attention to the factors which make it difficult for people to talk about climate change.

Brick, C, Sherman, D and Kim, H. (2017) “Green to be seen” and “brown to keep down”: Visibility moderates the effect of identity on pro-environmental behavior. Journal of Environmental Psychology Vol 51 226-238

There is research indicating environmentalists will signal their identity through environmental behaviours that are highly visible, whereas people with negative attitudes to environmentalism are less likely to take environmental actions that are highly visible. For example, liberals pay extra for the Toyota Prius over other hybrid cars because it signals the owner’s environmentalist identity more effectively than less well known hybrid car brands. (Sexton & Sexton, 2011). Meanwhile conservatives shunned energy-efficient lightbulbs when paired with a sticker reading “Protect the Environment” because the motive given for buying the bulbs did not resonate with their sense of identity (Gromet, Kunreuther, & Larrick, 2013).

This study presents the results of an investigation to test the claim that environmentalists will be more likely to adopt highly visible environmental behaviours and anti-environmentalists will be more likely to avoid those behaviours. The results of three online surveys with 1126 US residents were analysed. The results from the first two surveys showed that the more visible the pro-environmental behaviour, the less likely it was that respondents would engage in it – whether or not they identified as environmentalists – whereas the third study showed that anti-environmentalists were more likely to avoid high visibility anti-environmental behaviours and environmentalists more likely to adopt those behaviours. No definitive explanation could be found for this difference.

They say: The impact of visibility on attitudes to pro-environmental behaviours varies widely across contexts. Highly visible environmental behaviour may be less likely in areas where there is an overall negative view of environmentalists, but more likely when there is an overall positive view of environmentalists.

We say: With attitudes to environmental science becoming increasingly polarised, it would not be surprising if people felt wary about behaviours that signal a particular identity if that identity runs counter to the surrounding social norms. Advocates of behaviour change should be mindful about the issue of identity.

Steentjes, K., Kurz, T, Barreto, M. and Morton, T. (2017) The norms associated with climate change: understanding social norms through acts of interpersonal activism. Global Environmental Change Vol 43 pages 116-125

The willingness to express social disapproval is identified here as a form of interpersonal activism. Examples of interpersonal activism include the confrontation of sexist and racist behaviours. This interpersonal activism has helped build social norms which have made racist and sexist behaviours much less acceptable. Our current social norms promote carbon intensive lifestyles and hinder environmental actions.

The researchers carried out two studies with a total of 234 British university students.  In the first study, they examined how participants evaluate an individual who confronts someone who has made potentially racist comments with someone who confronts a person expressing disregard for climate change. The results of the first study show that the person confronting negative comments on climate change was perceived less positively than someone who did not confront negative comments on climate change. The opposite was true for confrontation of racism – the person confronting racism was perceived more positively than the person who did not confront racism.

The second study analysed the manner in which the confrontation occurred; in essence how confrontational was the challenge and how did this impact on perceptions of the person doing the challenging. With respect to climate change, the more confrontational the challenge the greater the social cost to the person making the challenge. However this pattern did not emerge in perceptions of people challenging racism.

They say: there are high social costs for people who confront negative comments on climate change. This is because climate change and high-carbon lifestyles are not seen as moral issues in the wider public discourse. Until climate change is broadly recognised as a moral issue, interpersonal activism on this topic is likely to fail.

We say: this research has important implications for climate change communication.  The findings reaffirm the importance of the broader social context in which climate communication takes place. Bottom-up engagement is important, and so is top-down communication. Defining climate change as a moral issue requires strong and consistent cues from politicians and other influential voices.

Geiger, N of., Swim, J and Fraser, J. (2017).  “Creating a climate for change: Interventions, efficacy and public discussion about climate change.” Journal of Environmental Psychology, Vol 51 Pages 104-116

Talking about climate change is an important part of the process of building momentum towards a low carbon future, but most people do not discuss the subject. Previous studies have connected this reluctance to discuss the subject with both a sense that nothing can be done at an individual level and a lack of knowledge making people feel unconfident about discussing climate change. This research combined an experiment with 173 university students and 907 visitors to what the authors call informal science learning centres (e.g. aquariums, national parks and zoos) to test whether an intervention which communicates climate change information in a simple, accurate and engaging manner will promote increased public discussion of climate change.

The results showed both that the participants’ belief in their own ability to discuss climate change accurately, plus the belief that by doing so they could create positive impacts, were important factors in motivating participants to talk about climate change.  The effect of feeling confident about talking about climate change was more significant than the belief that talking about climate change will create a positive impact.

They say: Providing information about climate change science in a simple, clear and accessible manner and combining that with discussions of solutions that can be enacted at that community level, and hence are within the participative sphere of influence, can play a meaningful role in breaking through the climate silence.

We say: This study highlights potential next steps for climate science communicators who are keen to move beyond the dead end of the information deficit model. While just giving people information is not enough, it is not possible to avoid some element of knowledge transfer in the engagement process. Improved understanding of how to communicate climate science remains central to strategies for making climate change a social reality.

March 2017

How the cultures, economies and politics of different countries shape public attitudes to climate change

Climate change is a global problem requiring a globally coordinated response. Recent events such as the Brexit vote and Trump’s election suggest a possible shift away from a global approach in favour of a more nation-focused approach to policy. In addition, targets for reducing emissions following the Paris agreement have been devolved to individual nations through what is called the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions framework.

This shift reinforces the importance of understanding how the cultures, economies and politics of different countries shape public attitudes to climate change, and what these differences mean for effective climate change communication. The three new research papers summarised below explore attitudes and media representations of climate change in four different countries – China, India, and a comparative study of Adelaide (Australia) and  Lisbon (Portugal). The China study examines how Weibo (the Chinese social network) is used to communicate climate change stories. The India study explores the relationship between media use and attitudes to climate change. The comparative study assesses the difference in willingness to pay for effective climate mitigation policies between Portugal and Australia. The results of these studies highlight the risks of following a one-size-fits-all global climate messaging strategy on climate change.

The more we can understand about national differences on climate perceptions, the better public engagement will be. Look out for the findings of a major new four-country European survey, the European Perceptions of Climate Change project, led by Cardiff University and three other international academic teams, in collaboration with Climate Outreach, and funded by the Joint Programming Initiative (JPI).

The three papers summarised in this month’s Research Round-Up share our interest in the potential of COPs, as important global media events, to engage the public with climate change. They seek to understand the extent to which the conferences impact public awareness, as well as whose stories, images and representations dominate the coverage. The research shows that COPs do indeed increase public awareness of climate change and that – because of the rather dry and procedural nature of what happens inside the conference halls – COPs present a unique opportunity for NGOs, through their protests and campaigns, to get their messaging out to a global audience. However our research suggests that currently the visual messaging employed by NGOs around COPs is fairly restricted and predictable and we are seeking to catalyse a new, more diverse and inclusive visual language for climate change at key moments in the climate calendar (like the COPs) and beyond.

Leiserowitz AThaker JXiaoquan Z (2017). Media Use and Public Perceptions of Global Warming in IndiaEnvironmental Communication

This paper investigates the relationship between media coverage (how different stories about climate change are ‘framed’) and attitudes to climate change in India. Relatively few studies have examined media coverage and public understanding of global warming in developing countries where, the authors argue, a high proportion of people have never heard of climate change or do not understand its causes and consequences.

A representative sample of 4031 people were surveyed for this study. The survey questions were designed to investigate if media use, news attention (that is, the amount of time that respondents spent on environment and world affairs news) and trust in informational sources are associated with three key outcomes: the belief that global warming is happening and human-caused; the belief that it poses a serious risk; and support for policies to mitigate and adapt to climate change.

The researchers were simply looking for positive associations between media use and the key outcomes, and did not seek to establish causal links between these variables. They found a positive relationship between greater general media use, news attention and trust in information sources, and key global warming beliefs and policy support.

The results showed that whilst scientists were the most trusted sources of information for the Indian public, the second most trusted groups were environmental organisations. They also found high levels of agreement that the climate is changing (89%), though 31% of respondents attributed this change to natural causes. TV use was the media most positively associated with risk perception and policy support. It was surmised that this was because even though there is low TV coverage in India, TV provides a more powerful visual stimulus than print media, and may provide more easily accessible visual cues about global warming. They also found personal experience of extreme weather events was a strong predictor of belief in climate change.

They say: The results suggest the Indian media, through consistent and accurate coverage of global warming using trusted sources, can play a positive role in increasing public engagement.

We say: The fact that environmental organisations are the second most trusted source of information on climate change in India stands in marked contrast to the situation in the West. Understanding the reasons behind this may have important implications for building engagement in developing countries.

Chung-En Lui JZhao B (2016). Who speaks for climate change in China? Evidence from WeiboClimatic Change 3, 413-422.

Weibo is China’s most popular social media platform and ranks as the 17th most visited website in the world. Its format combines elements of Twitter and Facebook.

The researchers examined the extent to which Weibo facilitates democratic discussion about climate change, whether the Chinese public use the site as a platform to push for climate actions, and what types of framing catch people’s attention. In order to do this the study analysed discussion about climate change on Weibo over a two month period around the Paris Climate Summit. The researchers analysed all posts with a topic of “climate change” or “global warming.”

The results show that state media and large international institutions dominate the discussion of climate change on Weibo. A significant proportion of Weibo posts aim to raise climate change awareness; few users discuss topics such as climate science, climate change’s actual impacts on China, or China’s low-carbon policy measures.

In terms of discourse the researchers found that climate change mostly appears as far removed from everyday life in China. The most talked about content was President Obama’s appearance on an American television show in which he traveled across Alaska to showcase the impacts of climate change. Obama made a much larger impact in China with his trip to Alaska than in the USA.

They say: Climate change is represented on Weibo as a global threat that has little connection to China’s national context. The researchers summarise the impact of this framing as making sure climate change remains “safe” as long as it appears to be a global and disembodied subject matter.

We say: The discourse around climate change on Weibo appears superficial and marginal, with minimal connection to the daily lives of Chinese citizens. Finding ways to overcome this particular form of ‘psychological distance’, and making climate change a social reality for the 1 billion members of the world’s largest country is a crucial priority for public engagement.

Carvalho MCasanova JChaffee DEveruss lLever-Tracy, C (2017). Assessing the public willingness to contribute income to mitigate the effects of climate change: A comparison of Adelaide and Lisbon, Journal of Sociology

The authors surveyed residents of Adelaide (Australia) and Lisbon (Portugal) to ask if they would be willing to contribute regularly a significant but affordable part of their income to prevent or reduce negative impacts of climate change that will occur within their lifetime, and also negative impacts of climate change that will affect their descendants in centuries to come. That is, they explored people’s ‘willingness to pay’ for climate policies now or in the future.

The results showed that the people of Lisbon are more willing to contribute than those of Adelaide, despite Portugal’s poorer economic conditions. Furthermore, willingness to contribute in both Lisbon and Adelaide did not diminish even when the impacts were described as likely only to affect future generations. The authors interpret these results as suggesting that economic calculations are not the only criteria shaping attitudes to climate change.

The authors argue that previous studies on how people view future risks have focused purely on how far in the future the risks occur, and ignored considerations such as perceptions of ‘intergenerational equity’ (i.e. fairness between generations). Another possible explanation for the results is that attitudes to climate change are, in part, shaped by levels of trust in political leaders  – will these leaders actually use the money to ensure climate change policies are effective and implemented? That trust is greater in Lisbon than Adelaide. A third possible reason is media framing: the media is more sceptical in Australia than Portugal, and more likely to associate natural disasters with climate change in Portugal than in Australia.

They say: Challenging the assumptions that the public will naturally reject action on climate change on the basis of cost-benefit calculations and a disregard for future generations is important because that reasoning ties inaction on climate change to supposedly deep-rooted aspects of human rationality, rather than modifiable aspects of culture and society.

We say: In demonstrating how attitudes to climate change are partly determined by social and cultural circumstances, this research adds weight to the idea that changes in the public discourse around climate change (and by extension how it is socially and culturally represented) is a crucial pathway to building policy support. People are not inherently opposed to climate policies, but they need to believe in the politicians delivering them and for there to be a vibrant national discourse about why climate change matters.

February 2017

Making best use of the opportunities global climate summits offer for building public engagement with climate change.

The annual UN climate conferences (COPs) play an important role in focusing media attention on climate change, turning it from an ongoing and rather abstract scientific process into a news event. Given the coverage the COPs receive, there is a need for visual communication – just like all forms of communication – to be as evidence-based as possible. The international social research behind our ‘Climate Visuals’ programme produced a series of principles for effective visual communication. We have published a report examining the use of visual images at COP21 in Paris and will soon (in April) be publishing a report on the visual images used at COP22 in Marrakech.

The three papers summarised in this month’s Research Round-Up share our interest in the potential of COPs, as important global media events, to engage the public with climate change. They seek to understand the extent to which the conferences impact public awareness, as well as whose stories, images and representations dominate the coverage. The research shows that COPs do indeed increase public awareness of climate change and that – because of the rather dry and procedural nature of what happens inside the conference halls – COPs present a unique opportunity for NGOs, through their protests and campaigns, to get their messaging out to a global audience. However our research suggests that currently the visual messaging employed by NGOs around COPs is fairly restricted and predictable and we are seeking to catalyse a new, more diverse and inclusive visual language for climate change at key moments in the climate calendar (like the COPs) and beyond.

Bakaki, Z & Bernauer, T. (2017) Do global climate summits influence public awareness and policy preferences concerning climate change?’. Environmental Politics, 26:1, 1-26, DOl: 10.1080/09644016.2016.1244964 

Much research has been carried out into how events (for example extreme weather events) shape people’s attitudes to climate change. There is also a lot of research on how climate change is ‘framed’ (eg Nisbet, M., 2010) affects how people feel about climate change. In this study, the researchers wished to explore how people’s attitudes to climate change are shaped when framing is associated with a particular event. The study was based on a survey of 1200 people from the United States, undertaken around the time of the 2014 UN COP held in Lima, Peru. Participants were asked questions about their awareness of climate change and attitudes to policies both before and again after the COP. Also during the COP some of the participants were shown a positive story about the COP, and some were shown a negative story. The researchers found that exposure to stories about the COP increased climate change awareness, particularly among participants who start out with a low level of awareness. This was true regardless of whether or not the stories were positive or negative. In addition, people’s support for taking action on climate change was not affected by either the negativity or positivity of the story they were shown while the COP was on.

They say: Media coverage of the COP made the public more aware of climate change; however the use of negative and positive frames did not influence what they thought about climate change.

We say: By analysing attitudes prior to and after the COP, this research confirms the important role these conferences play in maintaining public awareness of climate change. There is much more work to be done to understand the depth of that engagement and the role that visual communication plays in that process.

Lück, J; Wessler, H; Wozniak, A (2016). ‘Who Prevails in the Visual Framing Contest About the United Nations Climate Change Conferences?’ Journalism Studies , 1-20

This study looked at which images are favoured by journalists, delegation spokespeople and NGO representatives, and which of these are most prominent in mainstream media coverage at the COPs. The researchers tested the idea that the lack of interesting visuals from inside the conference hall at COPs offers campaigners more opportunity to get the pictures they want into the news. The research examined the images used from the COPs held in Doha (2012) and Warsaw (2013). The analysis was based on coverage in the two most widely circulated newspapers from Brazil, Germany, India, South Africa, and the United States. They also interviewed 44 communication professionals about how they visually communicate climate change in their work. The researchers found that NGOs are substantially more successful than government delegations in getting their visuals covered in the global media. They conclude that the COPs do offer opportunities for NGOs -who are commonly sidelined in mainstream media coverage on public policy issues – to influence the visual framing of the COPs.

They say: The lack of interesting visual opportunities inside the conference hall provides groups who might otherwise be marginalised with the chance to shape the visual iconography of global climate summits.

We say: Events such as COPs are a time when climate change moves up the news agenda. It is important that the imagery used in the coverage represents best practice in visual communication of climate change. For example, one of the findings from our Climate Visuals research was that protest imagery featuring the usual suspects of environmentalists in costumes often left the public disengaged, as they did not identify with the people in the images.

Lück, J; Wessler, H; Wozniak, A (2016). ‘Networks of Co-production: How journalists and Environmental NGOs Create Common Interpretations of the UN Climate Change Conferences.’ The International Journal of Press/Politics 21 (1), 25-47.

This study examines the working relationships that develop between journalists and NGOs at the annual COPs. The study uses COPs as a focus because they are a unique situation which brings together these different groups in close contact over a two week period. In what ways, and to what ends, do these groups work together to produce a common narrative of the processes and agreements that characterise the COPs? The research was carried out at three COPs – Cancun (2010), Doha (2012) and Warsaw (2013) – and was based on the analysis of seventy-eight interviews with journalists and NGO representatives. The researchers found that the exceptional circumstances of these events foster a temporary blurring of the professional boundaries between both groups that partly results in a joint production of interpretations. Specifically, NGOs try to mobilize and engage broad audiences through protests and symbolic actions aimed at national media, while journalists actively publicise the protests in order to capture their readers’ attention.

They say: Though NGOs and journalists are not the only two groups defining the agenda at COPs, the working relationships that develop over the course of the conferences do provide a window of opportunity for NGOs to shape the news coverage.

We say: The unusual circumstances at COPs mean that the lines between journalism and activism are blurred, which is all the more reason to ensure that the images NGOs produce (and the media pro-actively reproduce) are as engaging as possible for a public audience beyond narrow green circles. Our Climate Visuals research shows how to do this – focusing on images of people that are as ‘authentic’ as possible and avoiding pictures that seem overly ‘staged’.

Look out for our expanded Climate Visuals project, starting this April! 

January 2017

Using place to connect with climate change.

Climate change communicators are always on the lookout for better ways of reaching people, helping them connect with that abstract and unfamiliar thing we call climate change. People’s immediate environment is an obvious starting point, talking about how the world at our doorstep is changing, and what risks those changes pose. That is something tangible and makes climate change more relevant to everyday life.

The three papers summarised in this month’s research round-up take quite different approaches to exploring how people’s attitudes to their local area influences what they think and feel about the prospect of changes to their environment. They make clear that the role that ‘place’ (e.g. where people live or particular places they are passionate about) plays in our attitudes to – and understanding of – environmental change is a complex one. The types of risk and change are one important factor. The length of time people have lived in an area varies and can also influence how people feel towards the local environment. And a strong sense of attachment and love for a place can make it difficult for people to accept that it is at risk.

As we have found time and again in our work, there is seldom a one size fits all message in climate change communications. Instead it is important to listen to and understand your audience, and ensure communication strategies are informed by evidence.

Demski, C., Capstick, S., Pidgeon, N. et al. Climatic Change (2016) ‘Experience of extreme weather affects climate change mitigation and adaptation responses’ Climatic Change doi:10.1007/s10584-016-1837-4

The UK winter flooding of 2013/2014 was an opportunity for researchers to examine the extent to which direct experience of an extreme weather event shapes attitudes to climate change. Experience of an extreme weather event may make future climatic events more imaginable, indicating dramatic changes to familiar and local places, in turn heightening the sense of risk posed by climate change.

The research compared the testimony of 162 individuals personally affected by flooding to a nationally representative sample of 975 individuals. The results show that direct experience of flooding does in fact lead to greater awareness of climate change, pronounced emotional responses and increased perceived personal vulnerability and risk perceptions. In addition these changes not only translate into an increased propensity to take personal climate change mitigation actions, but also appear to trigger broader intentions beyond this, including support for mitigation policies and intentions to adapt to another potential climate impact (heatwaves).

They say: The relationship between experience of extreme weather and attitudes to climate change is complex. However, these results indicate that communicating about the risks of flooding and other extreme weather events may provide a powerful overarching narrative for engaging local and wider publics about rising climate risks.

We say: This research shows that communicating climate change through reference to people’s lived and direct experience of the world can help overcome some of the barriers to engagement posed by the abstract nature of climate change.