Research Summary

Enhancing learning, communication and public engagement about climate change – some lessons from recent literature

Insights from Two Decades of Climate Change Communication Research

Environmental Education Research

Because climate change will have consequences for many people around the planet, efforts to educate the public about its causes and effects are steadily rising. In the face of these increasing efforts, there is a need for better information on how learners of climate science understand climate-related issues, how media discourse frames climate change, what barriers exist to public engagement in climate change, and how these barriers could be overcome. This paper provides educators with insight into the growing fields of climate change communication and public understanding of climate change through a literature review of 92 studies. Through this review and discussion of recurrent themes in the literature, the authors aim to inform future design of climate change communication and education, particularly in informal settings.

The review explored: (1) factors that influence how climate change communication is understood and received by an audience; (2) goals of climate change communication to a lay public; (3) barriers to public engagement in climate change and possible solutions; and (4) the relevance of key messages in the literature for nonformal climate change education. The author primarily focused the analyses of barriers on the content of climate change communication, visualizations, framing, and audience segmentation into target groups. The review encompassed peer-reviewed articles published between 2000 and 2011, because the bulk of research in the nascent fields of climate change communication and education has been conducted in the 2000s. Search terms for articles listed in two databases (Academic Search Premier and Scopus) included climate change, global warming, communication, public, public understanding, and public engagement. With a few exceptions, the studies included in the final dataset were primarily from developed countries.

In terms of how climate change education is received and understood, the author found a clear distinction between public understanding and public engagement, as well as a shift from communication goals centered on understanding to those centered on engagement over time. Climate change communication that targets public understanding relies upon the information deficit model, the idea that basic education about climate change can alleviate the lack of trust or interest in climate change. In contrast, communication designed for public engagement actively brings the public into the learning process with minds, hearts, and hands. Caring about the issue, feeling motivated, and having the ability to take action were all found to be critical to public engagement in climate change.

The results contextualize public climate change education and communication by summarizing media coverage and studies of the public’s understanding of climate change. The reviewed studies document a tendency in media for sensationalism and alarmism that can be counterproductive for engaging people. How media frames the issue influences how people understand and interpret it. Highlighting the core issues and actors, and offering solutions, could be more productive for media communication to trigger engagement. Despite an increase in public awareness of climate change, some studies reported a decline in concern in the U.S. and U.K. in recent years. Citizens may see government bodies as the main responsible bodies, as individuals balance everyday-life challenges with the societal issues climate change may cause and question their own abilities to affect change. Public discourse on climate change remains characterized by uncertainty and debate, with various perspectives offered on how people can best contribute to mitigation and adaptation.

The primary goal for climate change communication was consistent across the studies examined and centered on identifying strategies that support sustainability and reduce climate impact. Various studies offered more specific goals within this umbrella, such as focusing on lifestyle change, political influence, and participation in climate science and policy dialogue, or reduction in household energy use.

The review of the climate change communication literature also revealed many barriers to public engagement. The greatest barriers were a lack of scientific literacy and “the bigger-than-self ” dilemma, in which individuals doubt that there are actions they can take to make a difference. The author offers a number of potential solutions to these barriers, such as using awareness-raising messaging that empowers individuals, as opposed to fear-based messages, and suggests that climate change communication and nonformal education needs to address several barriers at once.

The Bottom Line

Climate change communication has evolved in recent years to focus on engaging the public to care about the issue, feel motivated, and have an ability to act. There are many barriers, however, to engaging individuals in climate change. Climate change communication research indicates the importance of using messaging that focuses on empowerment, rather than fear; solutions rather than catastrophic consequences; and local impacts rather than more-distant, iconic impacts, such as glacial retreat. Using computer visualizations may help people better understand future impacts in relation to their current actions. Reframing climate change, not as an environmental issue, but as a human health issue or security issue—and carefully tailoring communication to groups based on values, attitudes, and beliefs—may also help enhance public engagement.