Communicating Climate Change: Spatial Analog versus Color-Banded Isoline Maps with and without Accompanying Text

By Retchless, David Pahl | Cartography and Geographic Information Science, January 2014 | Go to article overview

Communicating Climate Change: Spatial Analog versus Color-Banded Isoline Maps with and without Accompanying Text


Retchless, David Pahl, Cartography and Geographic Information Science


Effective climate change outreach requires a close fit between climate information, its mode of presentation, and its intended audience. This fit is in need of adjustment: among both climate scientists and the public, dissatisfaction with the current state of climate change communication is widespread. According to a fall 2008 survey, 82% of American adults think that they do not have enough information to "form a firm opinion" about global warming (Maibach, Roser-Renouf, and Leiserowitz 2009). Scientists similarly recognize the need to improve communication of the causes and consequences of climate change, with practitioners from environmental sciences (Leiserowitz 2006; Lorenzoni, Nicholson-Cole, and Whitmarsh 2007), geography (Slocum 2004; Moser 2007; Hulme 2008), landscape architecture (Sheppard 2005; Brody et al. 2008), psychology (Gifford 2008), and resilience studies (Tschakert and Dietrich 2010) all calling for better tools and methods for communicating this information to the public. This article considers some explanations for these difficulties communicating climate change information, tests whether spatial analogs can help overcome these difficulties, and assesses the results. It begins with a brief literature review of climate change perceptions and communication.

Climate change perceptions and communication

Barriers to understanding and engagement

Climate scientists' calls for improving climate change communication generally reflect two closely related goals: (1) improving public awareness and understanding of the science of climate change, including causes and impacts; and (2) increasing personal engagement with climate change and its possible impacts (Lorenzoni, Nicholson-Cole, and Whitmarsh 2007). The first goal hews closely to the "deficit model" of scientific communication, which attributes people's skepticism about science to gaps or distortions in their understanding of the relevant scientific facts (Sturgis and Allum 2004). Meanwhile, the second goal suggests a need to move beyond understanding to engagement. Following Lorenzoni, Nicholson-Cole, and Whitmarsh (2007), engagement is defined as one's personal state of cognitive, affective, and behavioral connection with climate change. Communicating to increase engagement thus requires consideration of how scientific information is contextualized by personal experience and societal values in ways that help shape people's thoughts, feelings, and actions (Lorenzoni, Nicholson-Cole, and Whitmarsh 2007). To achieve behavioral engagement, communicators need to go beyond understanding and concern by taking steps to develop the public's motivation and capacity to adapt to and mitigate climate change; as noted in Grothmann and Patt (2005), these efforts must address both perceived self-efficacy and adaptation costs.

Several studies have attempted to explain why many people have difficulty understanding and personally engaging with climate change. Some explanations suggest that scientists have failed to tailor climate change information to their audiences' characteristic modes of thought. For example, the dual process theory posits that people use two modes of thought to understand risks and other stimuli: analytic processing and experiential processing (Evans 2003; Slovic et al. 2004). Analytic processing is more deliberate, consciously employs formal tools such as statistical analysis and algorithms, and is the preferred mode of scientific thought; experiential processing is more immediate, is grounded in imagery and affect, and is often used in intuitive or "spur-of-the-moment" decision making (Slovic et al. 2004). Several authors have therefore suggested that the communication of climate change information could be improved by translating scientists' analytic conclusions into experiential modes, which are potentially more concrete, immediate, and memorable, and thus more likely to prompt behavioral change (Sheppard 2005; Leiserowitz 2006; Marx et al. …

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