Communicating climate change: the view from Sweden

Despite widespread concern, public action on climate change is not forthcoming. Victoria Wibeck asks why…

In this guest post based on her recent review paper, Victoria Wibeck (Linköping University) asks why despite widespread concern about climate change, more meaningful action is not forthcoming…

The public response to climate change in the west presents a persistent and problematic paradox. Numerous surveys indicate widespread concern about the issue, yet meaningful action is still not forthcoming. What causes this disconnect? And how can we find a way past the impasse? These were the questions I had in mind when I embarked on a review of the latest academic literature on climate change communication (CCC) and public understanding of climate change[1].

According to a recent Eurobarometer survey, the number of Europeans who consider climate change a serious problem increased from 64% in 2009 to 68% in 2011. A 2013 US survey, ‘Climate change in the American mind’ found that 51% of respondents were very or somewhat worried about global warming. Zooming in on my home country of Sweden, the annual study from the Swedish SOM (Society, Opinion, Media) Institute at Gothenburg University, which surveys trends in the Swedish public’s views on society, politics and mass media, found that the three societal issues my countrymen and women worried about most last year were environmental degradation, deteriorating ocean environment and climate change.

But for the most part, meaningful responses to climate change are not forthcoming. The literature indicates what some of the broader reasons for this gap between public concern and action could be. While climate change undoubtedly presents a significant global challenge that will have severe impacts, many of these are considered to be distant in both time and space; they have an abstract quality that makes them hard to comprehend. Further, climate change is a complex, high stakes issue, involving many actors, lots of data and a number of uncertainties. This leaves people struggling to identify what action to take and in which direction, overwhelmed in the face of such a manifold challenge. Finally, given the consistent communication and education efforts regarding environmental protection that have taken place over the last few decades, some studies point to signs of “climate fatigue”.

So if these are the problems – in short, abstraction, confusion and lethargy – what are the solutions? How can climate change be made to feel meaningful in people’s everyday lives and how can they be encouraged towards collective, affirmative action?

It’s a delicate balancing act. Given the level of concern that already exists, it’s important that the urgency of climate change is not communicated in a way that leads to a sense of hopelessness, helplessness and apathy. There is increasing evidence that appeals to fear, using catastrophic images and narratives, do not help to spur public engagement. One example comes from focus group interviews with members of the Swedish public, which found that participants’ spontaneous associations to climate change corresponded to the dramatic images regularly presented by the media. When asked, “What comes to your mind when you hear the words ‘climate change?” the most frequent answers included melting polar ice caps, endangered polar bears, floods and droughts. Such depictions serve to reinforce the urgency of climate change, but also help shape representations of its impacts as distant in both time and space. This contributes to a sense of limited agency that in time leads to apathy.

Instead, the literature recommends that narratives stressing local effects and local responses should be used to enhance public engagement with climate change. By empowering people with concrete strategies for action, climate change becomes increasingly meaningful and successful responses appear ever more achievable. Other recommendations include making climate change more tangible trough images, using metaphors and ICT-based visualizations, and considering how climate change can be reframed to resonate with different social groups, taking into account various cultural understandings.

There are, however, some significant absences in the literature too: research focused on the behaviour patterns of those in the global south, as well as work on larger comparative studies being two of the most notable. Additionally, while an overarching goal expressed in much of the literature is how to engage the public in supporting sustainability measures and mitigating the impacts of climate change, where their role and responsibility lies in relation to other societal actors is rarely discussed. Yet, for the participants of our Swedish focus group, this was revealed to be a key issue: people recognised the importance of taking action, but were frustrated by the feeling that any change in their activities would have little real impact.

Finally, further studies into how climate change is discussed in more spontaneous, commonplace settings, such as on social media and in casual conversation would be useful for gathering a richer picture of the everyday understanding of the issue. After all, this is where much current debate takes place and scholarly analysis of these arenas is likely to reveal an intriguing array of social processes at play.

Further reading

For those interested in the scholarly CCC literature, an extensive reference list can be found in:

Wibeck, V (2014), “Enhancing learning, communication and public engagement about climate change – some lessons from recent literature”. Environmental Education Research, 20(3):387-411.

The Special Eurobarometer 372: Climate change is available at: http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_372_en.pdf

The Climate Change in the American Mind survey is available from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication www.climatechangecommunication.org

The Swedish SOM Institute publishes survey results at www.som.gu.se

The Swedish focus group study is reported in:

Wibeck, V (2014), “Social representations of climate change in Swedish lay focus groups: local or distant, gradual or catastrophic?” Public Understanding of Science, 23(2):204-219.

and

Wibeck, V & Linnér, B-O (2012), “Public understanding of uncertainties in climate science and policy”. In: Ibisch, P, Cybulla, F. & Geiger, L. (eds.), Global Change Management. Baden-Baden: Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft.

 

[1]This is a rapidly expanding field. Using the Scopus database I identified 92 research papers published between 2000 and 2011, the majority of which were published after 2006.

 

 

New climate change communication videos

Watch video recordings of the AGU Chapman conference on Climate Change Communication.

Last month saw a major conference in Colorado, Boulder (US), focused entirely on the topic of climate change communication.

Videos from the event are now available online, including a couple that we’ve posted below from Talking Climate’s Adam Corner and Cardiff University Researcher Stuart Capstick.

Adam and Stuart delivered their talks from Cardiff, over video link (so that might excuse some of their strange facial expressions!)

Adam Corner at the Chapman conference on Climate Change Communication

Stuart Capstick at the Chapman conference on Climate Change Communication