The Path Forward: Making Change Happen

  • Susanna Priest
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Media and Environmental Communication book series (PSMEC)


In this final chapter, Priest revisits the dynamics of opinion formation and mobilization identified throughout the book, asking how climate—abstract and seemingly distant—can become the object of successful collective action. Part of the answer involves recognition that climate change is a social justice issue, not simply a scientific controversy. Americans have been through multiple periods of major social change, including a series of civil rights movements, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and the environmental movement. These taught important lessons. Four ideas for communicators and communication researchers who want to facilitate action on climate are presented: talk to others about the issue, adopt a “turn to the collective” in research, consider “action research” initiatives, and suggest solutions alongside identifying problems.


Social Movement Communication Scholar Collective Identity Mediate Communication Communication Researcher 
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To understand how to develop and study (as scholars) or implement (as communicators) effective communication strategies in a climate change context will require something of a paradigm shift in our thinking. Science communication scholarship and practice have already changed in major ways. As a community, we are well beyond the era where we could assume that the dissemination of accurate scientific information would be a sufficient antidote to low levels of scientific literacy or solve the “problem” of science-society relationships. Dialogue, discussion, and other forms of two-way participation involving non-scientists in reflecting on scientific developments (and in some cases, even contributing to those developments) are more likely to be promoted by today’s science communication scholars and progressive practitioners, but they have their limits as well. These events and activities generally take place on a small scale, are often one-time experiments, and do not readily “scale up” to facilitate broader participation. Those who do participate may tend to be those already actively interested in scientific and technological ideas. And the link between these events and activities and collective action on policy is weak, both conceptually and in practice.

Many of our existing communication models and persuasive strategies have been developed in quite different contexts, such as health communication or political communication or product advertising or the diffusion of innovations. They do not always translate to climate in a simple way. They also do not translate well to understanding and facilitating collective action. In this book, we have emphasized that collectivities matter, whether we are talking about professional norms and ethics in journalism and science, the social networks that underlie social media, the social organization of science, or—in the end—the kind of broad-based social movement that will be needed to combat climate change in our century (we hope sooner rather than later). Our research paradigm needs to shift to a clearer focus on the collective. We need new theoretical work here, as well as new research strategies. We also need to rethink how we are using familiar concepts such as efficacy, emotional appeals, science literacy, and group identity in the context of promoting social change. To help people understand the basics of the science underlying climate change is one thing, but to help them understand what we need to do about it is quite another.

Our traditional mass media are far from perfect, but they have made progress on climate reporting. Will this be enough? With fewer journalistic gatekeepers and vastly more sources to choose from, thanks to rapid technological development, individual citizens are empowered to make new choices among a far larger number of competing voices, but they may need new skills to do so effectively. Among these skills is an understanding of what it means to suggest that science itself is a collective social process and that recognizing uncertainty is a part of that process and not always a sign of mistakes being made—or that scientific knowledge cannot be trusted. Meanwhile, journalism itself has largely been redefined. The old problem of “lopsided” reporting through false balance may have receded, but is itself a part of the bigger problem of indiscriminately conveying scientific legitimacy (or, sometimes, taking it away). But that bigger problem is now resting more squarely on the shoulders of individual information consumers who must navigate through a new landscape to arrive at opinions on complex topics—or else simply take the word of leaders they respect. Few scientists are among those leaders, and even fewer are both good scientists and good communicators. The trusted news anchor is a vanishing species. We also need new research on how opinion leadership and credibility operate, for climate issues, in the world of new media, as well as studies of other dynamics of today’s opinion climate for science.

The news media as a whole may still set the agenda, but the media landscape and the social ecology in which this landscape is embedded are far more complex now than they seemed a generation ago. Blogs, informational websites, social media messages, partisan cable news networks, startup online news organizations, and myriad other influences shape our perceptions of the world in new and seemingly more individualized ways. Traditional media such as newspapers, magazines, and network television news continue to be influential, but they have more competition for people’s attention and trust; print media in particular have been through many years of declining presence and influence. The newer media may serve to isolate us as much as they serve to unite us and to overload us as much as to inform us. How do we best reach people and change minds in this new media world? What is the available path forward toward collective action on climate change?

In the end, addressing climate change will require much more than a better-informed citizenry. Individual lifestyle changes are important but not enough. Ultimately, success will require the creation of new paths to action, beginning most logically at the local level where the impacts of climate change are already being felt. Ultimately, ongoing action at the federal and even the global level are also completely essential, but this seems an even greater challenge. Climate has no clearly defined constituency; it will affect—indeed, it is already affecting—everyone, and yet even those most likely to be affected in the near term have not mobilized to advocate for available solutions. Many may not recognize how their local weather problems connect to global climate trends. Environmental groups will be part of the necessary mobilization, but—like politicians—they have their own constituencies and their own priorities. Climate plays an important part in the work of many such groups, but we need to make climate more central to someone in order to educate and engage everyone, as well as to put new policies in place.

How can social action coalesce around an issue so diffuse, so seemingly distant in time and space and so technically complex and yet so threatening that it seems some people simply opt out of thinking about it at all? What is it about our most cherished values, our deepest collective identity, that should be motivating us to move forward on this front and yet, at the same time, seems to hold many of us back? Social movements may attract members because those members feel a sense of belonging and commitment, but also because movement goals and identities reinforce the particular kind of collective identity that the movement stands for. What does climate stand for, then, in this sense? Communication scholarship should be able to address this and related issues, but it will take some rethinking and retooling. Instead of continuing to search for a messaging frame that will overcome all of this inertia, we need to ask some new questions that will likely require new approaches.

Climate is a social justice issue. All people on the globe will not be affected equally, and some are in a better position to shelter themselves against the worst effects of new climate patterns than others. Future generations, rather than those alive today, will be more affected than present ones. Older people are more susceptible than others to heat stress (U.S. EPA 2016). Poorer people worldwide have fewer resources with which to cope with changes. And coast dwellers in all locations (rich, poor, rural or urban) face particular challenges. A very good argument can be made that we—that is, those among the people of the present who have the resources to support action—have an ethical obligation to address this problem on behalf of others, including future generations, on top of the many short-term, practical, more self-interested reasons to do so. And in the end, concern about climate likely needs to coalesce into its own social movement, given that the present array of environmental and conservationist NGOs does not seem well positioned to push forward in concert on this issue. Neither scientists nor environmentalists can or should shoulder the entire burden of advocating for reasoned climate policy.

Communicators and communication scholars cannot shoulder it either, but the communication community might well take note of the research opportunities provided—and of the fact that answers to new research questions about the relationship between communication and social action should prove useful to climate advocates. This movement may not look a lot like previous U.S. social movements for civil rights or environmental protection; that remains to be seen. The problem of climate will take us in new directions in this new media, post-mass communication world. Even so, we can learn a lot from the literature on previous social movements that is applicable here, as Chap.  7 demonstrated.

We have tried to emphasize throughout this book, without discounting the need to develop better ways to communicate and persuade on an individual basis, that our field should not overlook consideration of broader collective processes—or the research opportunities they provide. Human beings are social, communication is critical to that characteristic, and climate change needs collective social action. What in fact glues us together as societies (local, national, global) is in large part communication—one of the most notable and truly remarkable hallmarks of ourselves as a species. Public opinion is measured at the individual level, but it is formed and altered through collective processes, and its collective dynamics influence us on both the individual and the collective level. Communication media remain a central factor, even if far more dispersed and diverse than ever before, and influence the perceived opinion climate in new ways. We need much more research on how these processes of change play out.

In light of the above discussion, we would like to suggest four specific directions forward for communication specialists and others interested in improving communication about climate: continue talking to people, face-to-face and via mediated communication, about climate—so it stays on the public agenda; consider a “turn to the collective” in our research, further emphasizing the relationship between communication and collective processes; understand climate change as a social justice issue that requires a social action solution, not just behavior change at the individual level; and facilitate that action by a focus on presenting solutions—not just problems.

Keep Talking! Interpersonal Strategies Matter

We have already mentioned that when Hurricane Katrina rolled over New Orleans in 2005, some people left their homes earlier than others. Our work, based on interviews with Katrina evacuees across the U.S. South (Taylor et al. 2009), asked 114 people what went through their minds at the moment of their final decision to leave. When they focused on remembering that moment, many of them reported that they already knew about the storm and understood its likely severity via some combination of media reports, interpersonal sources, and previous personal experience, but it often took a personal message—a neighbor knocking on the door, an urgent telephone call, in a few cases even a rescue worker—to push them to the point of an actual evacuation decision with the message that “it’s time to go”. Storm information by itself, in other words, was not enough. Less than a third of those we talked to left because of media reports alone, although remarks by trusted media representatives and familiar political voices on broadcast news were sometimes persuasive. In many cases it also took an evolving collective response resulting in a person-to-person message diffusing through a local social network to elicit action.

Communication scholars have known for decades that interpersonal communication or a combination of interpersonal and mediated communication can be much more powerful than mediated communication alone (see Lazarsfeld et al. 1944). Interpersonal communication travels rapidly through social networks; this is not just a matter of one person speaking to one other person, a fact made more obvious in the Internet age. We also know that trust is an extremely important factor in risk communication, even if this means trusting a source seen on television—which may be experienced as a close parallel to trusting a physically present person. Face-to-face and mediated communication coming from trusted spokespersons will continue to be a vital component of climate communication going forward. Yet many people do not know any scientists personally, and scientists seem to speak more often through print media and blog texts than in broadcast, podcast, or video formats. This underscores the need for others to fill the “opinion leader” role, ranging from outreach and education staff at parks, museums and universities to teachers, writers, and media figures, political and religious leaders, and perhaps most importantly relatives, neighbors and friends. Even communication scholars can fill this role in their private lives, as can natural scientists.

Speaking out about climate matters. Not only does it keep the issue on the media and therefore the public agenda, but it shapes the climate of public opinion and nurtures the expansion of people’s background knowledge. This process transfers to the “new media” world, which multiplies person-to-person outreach in new ways. Businesses are typically very pleased when their messages “go viral”, one of the least expensive advertising strategies ever imagined since after the original production and placement (which may be low cost itself), the diffusion of the message is completely free. Yet the key characteristics that make this happen for one message and not another remain unknown—another research opportunity for communication scholars. This is also more than one person “talking” (via social media) to another; it is multiplied by the connection between technological networks and true social ones. For those looking for new research opportunities, we still have much to learn about both kinds of networks and how messages pass between and through them.

However, actual in-person, face-to-face communication with other individual people, even in casual settings, matters too—it may be even more important, since Internet messages are easily ignored. Every time someone brings up the weather in a conversation, for example, it can be thought of as a teachable moment. Communication researchers should consider pursuing research questions that focus on these issues as well, perhaps through a fieldwork, interview, or focus group effort.

Focus on the Collective: A Renewed Research Paradigm

Communication scholars Boudet and Bell (2015), writing about the nature of social movements, argue that risk communication work has not focused enough on the role of social groups, as opposed to individuals. We very strongly agree. Why would this be the case? Sociology, the study of human social life, was an early foundation of communication scholarship, mass communication scholarship in particular. Although there were multiple other influences, many early communication scholars who later became well known had sociology training. Yet somewhere along the line, our research tended to become rather more reductionist. Group membership is routinely reduced to demographic variables in quantitative studies in which the individual is most often the unit of analysis. That often reflects a missed opportunity to better understand just how the group influences the individual—and conversely, how individuals (especially those in opinion leadership positions) affect the group.

Was this turn toward quantitative work a function of communication scholarship seeking its place in the academic world? Sophisticated quantitative studies impress tenure committees and help cement the argument that communication is a rigorous field. That is not at all to say that experimental or survey work is not valuable or that questions of academic status are the only factors that motivate it. On the contrary, this work absolutely continues to give us important new insights, but these approaches do typically tend to reinforce a focus on the individual rather than the social dynamics that are in play. In general, if our goal is to understand social action decisions and the dynamics of opinion formation, we will also need more studies based on ethnographic, case study, or interview-based approaches, as well as more true mixed-methods research. Although the quantitative-qualitative divide in social science research is sometimes a touchy issue, it should not be. Mixed-methods efforts might be particularly suited to understanding how advocacy and movement organizations form and function.

Early sociology and the communication work that began there reflected creativity that sometimes seems missing from today’s communication scholarship. Asking theoretical questions that are vitally important for human society might help bring that back; climate change provides an opportunity to do just that. Communication research needs to breathe new life into studies of collective phenomena. As social scientists, we should take better account of the central role within social groups played by communication. Communication cannot take place absent a social context and a shared language and culture. This does not just involve information transfer, of course, but things like network construction, group decision making, and identity formation. As a scholarly community, we would benefit from further diversifying our research approaches.

For the present discussion, perhaps the most important place where this issue arises is in considering the kinds of values and identities that will make a climate movement happen. Here, the individual intersects with the social. However, we should not assume that we can always adequately measure things like collective identity or the dynamics of collective behavior with experimental or survey-based approaches alone. It is not yet clear what kind of collective identity would prompt people to join a climate movement, representing another research opportunity—one where well-designed experiments might contribute greatly. But, while we may eventually find quantitative variables that can “stand in” for some of the relevant social elements, these variables usually do not tell the whole story. Human social identity and human culture are sometimes better understood holistically and not as answers to a discrete series of questions. And we are looking at a period of exploratory work before we find some of our answers.

Action Orientation: Climate as a Social Justice Issue

If we look at successful social movements that have taken place in the United States, they share a single characteristic that may easily be overlooked: an orientation to social justice and to the inalienable rights of human beings. Think about the abolition of slavery, the women’s suffrage movement, the later feminist movement, and a whole series of somewhat interlocked civil rights movements surrounding ethnicity, not only for African Americans, but for Asian Americans, Hispanic and Latino Americans, and Native Americans, as well as senior citizens, people with disabilities, and most recently LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people. The anti-Vietnam War movement ultimately changed the course of U.S. policy in Southeast Asia—and, arguably, ended or at least helped to end the war itself. There, both the rights of the Vietnamese to self-determination and the rights of young Americans to resist a military draft forcing them to fight in what was widely considered an unjust war were at stake. This history suggests that arguments about the rights of future generations and of contemporary people in the areas of the world most vulnerable to climate change should also prove effective.

Worth special mention in this context as a strong example of changing attitudes culminating in political action: In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill to award $20,000 and a formal apology from the government to each of well over 100,000 Japanese Americans (a majority of them U.S. citizens) who were sent to prison camps on U.S. soil during World War II (Qureshi 2013). Admittedly, this small an amount of money could never compensate those victims for their experience, on the one hand, but on the other, this demonstrates that America does have at least something of a collective historical conscience where human rights are concerned.

At first glance, the environmental movement may not seem to fall into the same pattern of human rights orientation, but actually it can be interpreted as representing a movement reaction on behalf of the rights of ordinary citizens to live and work in an unpolluted environment that is not dangerous to them or to other species they care about. Some (although certainly not all) environmentalists extend the right to a continued and stable existence to many other species. Protests have reduced seal kills, led to increased protection for whales, dolphins, and other sea life, and stopped the logging of old-growth forests (primarily in cases where critical animal habitat has been involved, e.g., that of the spotted owl in the U.S. Pacific Northwest). Public pressure has resulted in the re-introduction of wolves in Yellowstone National Park, one of the most-loved parks in America. Climate will affect many remaining wild species (as well as domesticated ones), so advocates for those species and their organizations should be ready recruits to the climate change cause—even though they may not always be its leaders.

Communication scholars who are particularly attracted to studies of collectivities should consider action research as an alternative form of scholarship (see Abraham and Purkayastha 2012, for a review introducing a special issue of Current Sociology on this topic). In a departure from the usual assumption that researchers must remain psychologically separated from those they study in order to be objective, action research assumes instead that researchers can be an embedded component of an active organization or community that is trying to solve problems and pursue new directions. While many action research projects are carried out in the developing world, where visiting researchers may help local communities with limited resources to define, articulate, and then realize their own goals, communication scholar Lana Rakow (2005) reports on her own action research approach to study of her local community after a major flood. She calls the ongoing failure of communication researchers to study communities (including their own) “disappointing and troubling” (p. 6).

Communication researchers who have the time, interest, commitment and resources to involve themselves in action research within climate movement organizations, emerging alternative energy entrepreneurs, or other social contexts where people’s work and lives intersect centrally with climate issues face a rewarding opportunity. This work could potentially target communities affected by climate-related changes in patterns of flooding and drought or resource availability issues (such as reductions in fish populations and forests lost to wildfire), including Native American communities who may be among the especially vulnerable (U.S. EPA 2016). These researchers could offer communication-related advice and assistance to those organizations or communities.

Push Out Solutions, Not Just Problems

Climate likely seems to some a problem that not only has primarily remote effects but also has elusive and remote solutions. Although the role of efficacy (a sense of control through action) in health communication and other situations is well established, it has not been as firmly established for climate change. Perhaps this is because no matter the wording of a survey question or the experimental message condition being tested, research participants simply do not feel efficacious with respect to climate. Of course, as researchers, we need to look at this question more deeply. But meanwhile, the role of efficacy being so well-established in many other arenas, practitioners should take seriously the idea that people need to know what it is they can in fact do—turn off the lights, turn down the thermostat, and travel less, yes. Many other things could be added to that list. But there must also be advocacy and support for new legislation.

Necessary solutions will not only go beyond lifestyle adjustments, but also beyond the establishment of controls on carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions or to the preservation of tropical forests. We need to pro-actively extend investment in alternative energy and continue to provide positive incentives for its adoption and use. Research designed to clear a path for change needs to recognize the collective nature of political will and in some cases it may make sense to actively facilitate action on climate issues from an action research perspective. To create more activism around these issues, we will also need to demonstrate hope that such efforts can be successful. And to create hope, knowing even small steps people can take will help enormously—not just to encourage action, but to alleviate a sense of helplessness. Together, we can make progress.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Susanna Priest
    • 1
  1. 1.Camano IslandUSA

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