Reconsidering Climate Change Literacy & Communication

Last week I participated in a two-day workshop at NSF on climate change education. The meeting brought together researchers in science education, communication, and informal learning; representatives from government agencies such as NOAA, the EPA, and NASA; and organizations such as the American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorological Society. The presentations and discussions focused not only on school-based settings but also on public engagement campaigns, the news media, and the role of science centers and museums.

Among several participants, there was an emphasis on three factors that are central to educating and engaging the public across these contexts and venues:

1) The need to frame the complexity of climate change in a way that remains scientifically accurate but that is personally relevant and understandable to an intended audience. This applies to whether communication is occurring in the classroom, in public forums, or via the media.

2) The untapped importance of peer-educators and everyday opinion-leaders. These are friends and colleagues who pay closer attention to dimensions of climate change, hold greater knowledge about these dimensions, and are skilled at passing on information and recommendations about the topic to others.

3) The need to localize communication and engagement about climate change. This means not only figuring out new models for providing locally-focused and relevant sources of news about climate change, but also the design and sponsorship of community forums where engaged citizens and stakeholders can come together to learn, coordinate, and plan actions.

In considering each of these key strategies and types of initiatives, we are well along in developing some areas whereas in others we are still in various stages of progress. Here are some collected thoughts:

The Ethics and Norms of Climate Change Engagement and Communication

Based on past work, we have a deductive starting point for understanding the frames that likely matter to public engagement on climate change [see this recent article at Environment]. As Ed Maibach and I presented at the workshop, large scale research is under way to test and translate framing research into educational materials and effective engagement strategies. This will be a multi-year process with input and additional studies from other researchers.

We still, however, need more clarity and discussion about norms, ethics, and goals of public engagement, especially relative to government agencies and science organizations. As I warn with Dietram Scheufele in a forthcoming article at the American Journal of Botany, some well-intentioned NGOs conceive of public engagement in terms of political marketing which is easily re-interpreted by critics and the public as elite manipulation. Other well-intentioned voices further muddle the situation through mixed messages that confuse the differences between engagement, civic education, and ideologically-driven advocacy.

Sponsoring and Evaluating Opinion-Leader Initiatives

Opinion-leaders have rarely if ever been used in science-related engagement initiatives much less on climate change. There is more than 60 years of research on opinion-leaders and they are widely used in initiatives related to health, politics, and consumer choices. In a recent article with John Kotcher, I tried to pull together these various strands focusing on the key implications and questions relative to climate change. The article is intended as a blue print and starting point for incorporating opinion-leaders into engagement initiatives. A lot more work is needed. First, in analyzing some of the large scale opinion data currently being collected, we need to profile the nature of opinion-leaders across key audience segments. We then need to systematically evaluate how to identify these opinion-leaders within communities, recruit them, train them, and put them into action.

Local Deliberative Forums on Climate Change

Community-based forums that bring engaged citizens and stakeholders into a two-way exchange of information and perspectives are perhaps the major innovation in science communication over the past decade. At these meetings, experts are joined on stage by a variety of local stakeholders and leaders. Each representative provides information and perspectives relative to the subject. Audience members are active participants, breaking into small groups during the meeting to discuss key issues or topics, and to ask questions of the experts and stakeholders. At the end of the consultation process, participants submit or vote on major lingering questions, on recommendations, and on preferences.

Through these initiatives, studies find that participants:

-Learn directly about the technical aspects of the science involved, but also other dimensions that involve social, political, economic, and ethical considerations.

-Feel more confident and efficacious about their ability to participate in science-related decisions, and perceive relevant institutions as more responsive to their concerns

-Say that they are motivated to participate on the issue if provided a future opportunity to do so.

-Perceive scientists, experts, and policymakers as open to feedback and respectful of public

-Are more likely to accept and be satisfied with a policy outcome, even if the decision is contrary to an individual's original preference.

These public consultation initiatives should also be conceived of as a source of learning and discovery for sponsoring agencies and organizations. Lay participants bring valuable localized knowledge and perspectives on how, for example, different climate change and energy policy options might apply to a specific community or how a specific community can best adapt to specific climate-related impacts.

Still missing from the focus and investment in deliberative forums, however, is a clear understanding of how different structures for these forums might result in preferred outcomes and goals, ranging from technical learning to building trust to empowering local coordination and collective action. One innovative model was recently piloted by the Arizona Science Center in collaboration with NOAA. More work is needed to develop "off the shelf" blueprints that organizations and agencies can draw upon in choosing, formulating and sponsoring public forums with different outcomes and goals in mind. We also need to train the experts, stakeholders, and organizers of these meetings on how to effectively sponsor, facilitate, moderate, and evaluate forum participation and discussion.

Developing and Sponsoring New Models for Localized Climate News

Most informal learning about climate change--or any public affairs related debate--takes place via the news media. Not only do the news media perform an important learning function for individuals, but at the local level they serve as the connective tissue that enable communities to identify, coordinate, plan, and respond to challenges. Yet with the historic distress to the news industry, newspapers big and small have dramatically cut their coverage of science and environment-related topics. As a consequence, many regions lack an important part of the community infrastructure needed to adapt to the challenges of climate change.

Government agencies in collaboration with research universities are uniquely positioned to step in and fill this news gap on climate change at the local level. Resources can be allocated either through project specific grants or through the innovative pooling at the university level of the "broader impacts" money from NSF research grants. This money can then be invested in local digital news communities on climate change and energy sustainability [serving also as an economic stimulus.] At these digital news communities:

--An experienced journalist from the respective area would be hired to serve as News Editor for the city-specific site.

--Freelancers from among experienced journalists and graduate students would be hired as contributors.

--Additional support could be generated through online advertising from local community partners, companies, and organizations.

--A full time online community organizer would manage the social media components content development and maintenance.

--These digital news communities would also involve partnerships and shared content with local public media organizations, local TV stations, newspapers, libraries, museums, and universities to provide a locally-focused source of news about climate change.

The digital news community would eventually serve as the central information hub for each component of a public engagement campaign on climate change:

--Much of the overall engagement campaign's "brand" would then focus in part on creating awareness, traffic, and use of the site.

--Face-to-face connections forged by way of public forums would be strengthened and expanded by way of use of the digital news community.

--Part of the content would be professionally produced news by the News Editor and hired freelancers.

--Local area experts would also contribute content in the form of blog posts etc.

--Parts of the content would be user-generated by local citizens in the form of comments, blogs, discussion boards, videos, and other materials.

--Other content features could be the release of fact sheets and reports from Federal government agencies, the local university, and local government organizations.

--Local citizens and stakeholders would be recruited and strongly encouraged to be active contributors, participants, and discussants at the site.

--Universities, libraries, and museums would be "real world" sites where "citizen journalists" could be trained on how to report local climate and energy issues, how to contribute to the digital news community, and as places for face-to-face discussion and civic planning.

Dimensions of Climate Literacy: What Do We Want the Public to Learn?

There needs to be more focus and clarity about the goals and outcomes of public engagement and communication, even down to the most basic questions as to what do we want citizens to learn about climate change? Or put another way, what dimensions of knowledge matter to public engagement and participation?

Unfortunately, well intentioned commentators have confused the important distinctions on science literacy to the point that the term has lost its meaning in popular discussion. Yet based on the relevant literature in science communication, below are several dimensions of climate change literacy and knowledge that are likely to matter to public engagement. More work is needed in measuring these dimensions of knowledge in research studies and in evaluating different types of communication and media initiatives that might promote learning specific to one or several of these areas:

Civic science literacy refers to a level of understanding of scientific terms and constructs sufficient to make sense of a news report, and/or to interpret competing arguments on the reality and risks of climate change. It also involves understanding how scientific investigation works, and how expert agreement develops over time.

Social, legal, and ethical knowledge commonly refers to information about who funds climate change research, how relevant policy decisions are reached and by whom, the ethics and values that guide decisions, and the connections between the climate change debate and other societal areas such as the economy, partisan politics, or national security.

Participatory knowledge refers to information and details on how a citizen can get involved and have a say in decisions that are made about climate change at the community or national level. Civic education on climate change makes it easier for community members to voice their preferences, draw attention to perceived problems, and to express their ideas on possible solutions. Emphasizing this dimension of knowledge promotes a two-way exchange of information between experts and the public. Knowledge conveyed to the public might include the range of organizations in their community that are working on climate policy; upcoming major events, decisions, or meetings; and the names and contact information of key government organizations and officials. Web sites that make contacts and participation easier through direct email links or displaying maps for event locations would also reduce barriers to participations.

Consider that the recent Six Americas of Climate Change survey found that more than 90% of Americans had never written, emailed, or phoned a government official about the issue. When respondents were then asked about the reasons that prevented them from participating more frequently, 17% simply said they "didn't know how" while another 16% said it "took too much effort."

Localized and experiential knowledge involves evaluating and drawing connections between complex science-related topics and local impacts or relevance. For example on climate change, a resident living in a Midwest city may draw upon their own personal experience observing agriculture-related energy use or on the potential of biofuels whereas a reside of a Northeast city may reference their experience with commuting, urban sprawl, air pollution, and/or public transportation. Public education in a city or region should therefore be tailored to these unique connections and needs of the public.

Practical science literacy refers to knowledge that can be applied to solving common everyday personal problems such as consumer and household decisions or interpreting the packaging on energy appliances. For example, in a survey by Tony Leiserowitz and colleagues, when asked about the important energy reduction actions of insulating their attic or weather proofing their home, more than 20% of Americans said that a barrier was that they "didn't know how" and nearly a quarter indicated they didn't have the time to research the options. In addition, many Americans may erroneously assume they have already adopted the best and most effective energy efficiency practices in terms of heating and insulation and may not be aware of newly available options. Many Americans also express that they would like information on what personal actions they can take that would have the "most bang for the buck," in other words the actions that are likely to make the most difference in terms of energy conservation or cost-savings. As expert agreement emerges on these questions, focusing communication around these practical, consumer dimensions is likely to increase public engagement and action.


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