Dynamics of Communicating Climate Change Information: Using Mixed Methods to Examine the Perspectives of Scientists, Communicators and Publics
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
The communication of anthropogenic climate change presents many challenges, for communicators, scientists, policymakers and publics alike. Particularly difficult is the issue of uncertainty, which can include ambiguity around the phenomenon of climate change, the possible impacts of this, and the timeframe within which such impacts will be seen. Previous research has established that audiences are often averse to uncertainty, and will disregard or ignore messages that contain it. This raises a theoretical and practical question of how best to manage uncertainty in climate change communication in order to maintain audience engagement. This question was the focus of this PhD research. Specifically, the aim of this thesis was to explore the process of climate change communication from the perspectives of the scientists, communicators, and the recipient. I achieved this research goal by utilising a mixed methods design. I firstly interviewed the originators (i.e., scientists) and professional communicators of climate change information to explore the process from their side (Chapter 2). This revealed a number of themes connecting to the different ways scientists and communicators understand the process of communication (e.g., as information exchange versus relationship building), the challenges of climate change communication and uncertainty in particular, and the (appropriate) role of scientists when communicating with the public about climate change. Next, in a series of studies I experimentally explored how audiences respond to variations in the informational content of climate change messages (such as the level of uncertainty) and the role of different communicative styles in further shaping audience engagement (Chapter 3). Broadly, the results of these studies suggest that while uncertainty can undermine audience engagement with climate change communications, the negative effects of uncertainty are buffered when the communicator is perceived to be high in morality and/ or when they use an open communication style. Interestingly, these effects of communication style were particularly evident among women, whereas men tended to react against this. Together, these studies show how relational factors (e.g., communication styles and perceptions of communication sources) can moderate the impact of informational content on audience responses. Finally, I ended this programme of research by looking in more detail at how audiences perceive a real scientific organisation engaged in climate change communication and the bases of their beliefs about organisation competence and morality (Chapter 4). This study combined qualitative and quantitative data to delve deeper into some of the insights gained in the experimental work, and to reconnect this to the real-world organisation context I began with. This study again showed how perceptions of communicator morality moderate responses to uncertainty, but also provide useful insights into the different origins of perceptions of morality and competence. Chapter 5 concludes by summarising the research presented in this thesis, discussing its strengths, limitations and ways forward. Here, I also consider the theoretical, methodological and practical implications of the thesis’ research findings. Briefly, it is argued that addressing the scientific uncertainties of climate change may not necessarily mean altering the form of information itself. Rather, modifying the language peripheral to the information that contains uncertainty, attending to the ways in which audiences perceive the sources of uncertainty, and considering variations amongst publics, may help to engage in effective communication around the complex issue of climate change.
ESRC and Met Office
The research was conducted during an ESRC CASE Studentship under its Capacity Building Clusters Award (RES-187-24-0002) in partnership with the Met Office.
PhD in Psychology