Climate Change Communication: A Provocative Inquiry into Motives, Meanings, and Means


Branden B. Johnson, Decision Research, Inc., Decision Research, 1201 Oak St., Ste. 200, Eugene, OR 97401, USA;


The deliberately provocative theme of this article is that perceived difficulties in climate change communication (CCC)—e.g., indifference about or denial of climate change's reality, negative consequences, anthropogenic causes, or need to mitigate or adapt to it—are partly the fault of climate change communicators. Fischhoff's model of risk communication development is used to demonstrate that CCC to date has tended to stress persuasion, rather than social movement mobilization or deliberation, and with a focus on the model's early stages. Later stages are not necessarily better, but a more diverse strategy seems superior to a focus perhaps narrowed by empathic, ideological, psychological, and resource constraints. Furthermore, even within persuasion, emphasizing a wider set of values, consequences, and audiences could be fruitful. Social movement mobilization has its own set of weaknesses, but usefully complements persuasion with a focus on developing power, subverting mainstream assumptions, and engaging people in collective action. Deliberation similarly has its drawbacks, but unlike the other two approaches does not define the solution—or even, necessarily, the problem—in advance, and thus offers the chance for people of contending viewpoints to jointly develop concepts and action agendas hitherto unimagined. Simultaneous pursuit of all three strategies can to some degree offset their respective flaws, at the potential cost of diffusion of energies and contradictory messages. Success in CCC is by no means guaranteed by a more diverse set of strategies and self-reflection by communicators, but their pursuit should better reveal CCC's limits.