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Navigating Climate Change Communication

Symposium Panelists Talk Misinformation, Messaging, and Messengers

Leila Darwiche | April 10, 2023
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Throughout the two days of ISEN’s Annual Symposium, industry experts and academics talked through complex topics related to sustainability and energy. The success of the event was in how effective speakers were at distilling and communicating their knowledge for a broader audience. This type of communication, particularly around climate change in today’s political environment, was the topic of the last session of the panel: “Science Communication, Misinformation, and Climate.”

“More and more, we seem to dwell in a world where reality is increasingly subjective. Having many expert voices in the public dialogue is really important,” said Yarrow Axford, associate professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Axford is careful to teach her students, who are future research leaders, how to hone their communication skills.  “I personally feel that I have a civic responsibility to share what I learn in my research,” she added. However, she noted, not all researchers will have the skills or inclination to prioritize direct public engagement, and “I think it’s important to recognize that there are so many ways [for scientists] to engage and communicate, and one of the ways is to learn to partner effectively with professionals in communication, the news media, and journalists.”

Whether through mass media, social media, or interpersonal conversations, the panelists agreed that navigating such communication is far from easy. Many frameworks for communicating ideas become obsolete when talking about climate change due to political polarization. For instance, the deficit model, which suggests that when the public and scientists have access to the same information there will be consensus on policy or what other action to take, has been proven to be empirically false. People instead seek out information that affirms their beliefs. Another framework, consensus messaging, says that if scientists agree, and communicate their agreement publicly, there will be change in policy. However, in practice, only those who already lean in the associated political direction are swayed by consensus messaging. So, what does work?

“The number one rule of communicating climate change is not to mention climate change,” said Erik C. Nisbet, Owen L. Coon Endowed Professor of Policy Analysis and Communication in the School of Communication. “Are there [climate-related] environmental issues [that…] you can actually get [to] without raising ideological resistance to public policy?” In a world where climate change is not associated with politics, he noted, such caution may not be necessary.

Nisbet also emphasized that, when it comes to interpersonal communication, such conversations needed to happen after building rapport with an individual. It’s a process that takes time and multiple conversations. While scientists have a high level of credibility in these conversations, the panelists agreed that sometimes the most compelling messenger is not a scientist. Axford said that the most rewarding comments she receives when giving talks is that she enabled someone to speak to their loved ones about the topic of climate change and its effects with more authority.

Messaging is not the only problem facing science communication today. With the internet, there is a lot of knowledge vetting that needs to occur to ensure people are not succumbing to misinformation. David Rapp, professor in the School of Education and Social Policy and in the Department of Psychology, talked about the idea of false fluency. If an incorrect fact is repeated and at the forefront of someone’s mind, they tend think it is true.

“We're all really good learners and well practiced at acquiring information,” said Rapp. “The challenge comes when we don't know what is accurate and what is not.” Nisbet added that in order to combat that reality, it is important for those studying miscommunication to identify what common false information is spread and then take action to correct it.

Even with these challenges, the panelists were cautiously optimistic about what the future holds within the field, especially if informed action is taken. While current times may feel pessimistic, they were hopeful for the future.

The two pillars of the Institute’s 2021-25 Strategic Plan are Climate and Energy Transition and Resilient Communities. They shaped the Symposium’s two days of panel presentations that brought together industry professionals and leaders, students, community members, and faculty from across more than twenty disciplines. This panel was part of the Symposium’s Resilient Communities Track.