Background:

More effective methods of engaging the public with climate change are needed. Here, an ‘iconic’ approach was utilised which harnesses the emotive and visual power of icons already in the public eye with a rigorous scientific analysis of possible changes under a different climate future.

‘Icons’ are defined as tangible entities which will be impacted by climate change, considered worthy of respect, and to which the viewer can relate to and feel empathy for. Such icons already exist: for example, the melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet or potential Thermohaline Circulation shutdown. But these icons have so far failed to inspire non-experts. Instead, non- expert participants were asked to select their own icons of climate change.

Objective/hypotheses:

To investigate the use of ‘icons’ as tools for engaging non-experts with climate change.

Method:

A robust sourcing for icons was carried out through focus groups and an online survey with three spatially and culturally diverse non-expert publics. Icons were selected depending on their trajectory on the icon selection scale, which incorporated ‘pragmatic’ and ‘intangible’ reasoning arising from coding of transcripts together with model data. From this, three ‘non-expert icons’ (polar bear population dynamics, sea level rise in London, UK and flooding in the Norfolk Broads, UK) were selected. Three ‘expert icons’ of melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, ocean acidification and Thermohaline Circulation slowdown were identified arising from the ‘Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change’ conference convened by PM Tony Blair in 2005 in Exeter, UK. Mini impact-assessments were carried out on each of the three ‘expert icons’ and three ‘non-expert icons’. Methodologies used included a survey of expert opinion (polar bear population dynamics) and quantitative modelling (sea level rise in London). Lastly, a comparative workshop using a pre/post test methodology was held to evaluate the cognitive and emotional impacts of the icons upon participants.

Results:

Results from the comparative workshop reveal that after viewing the icons, participants agreed more strongly that if they came across climate information, they would look at it (Wilcoxon matched-pairs signed-rank test, T = 212, P < 0.01, n = 142). Participants were most drawn to the non-expert icons Norfolk Broads (24%) and polar bears (23%), with reasoning such as ‘it shows people how climate change will directly impact on their lives’. Participants were least drawn to the expert icons ocean acidification (11%) and WAIS (7%), often because these icons were ‘too technical’, or because there was ‘nothing to really connect people with the problem’. These results find resonance with similar climate communication research.

Conclusions:

Communication of climate change using non-expert icons increases emotional and cognitive responses to climate change, encouraging attitudinal change towards mitigative and adaptive action.

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PCST Network

Public Communication of Science and Technology

 

An iconic approach to communicating climate change

Saffron O'Neill   Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, School of environmental sciences

Mike Hulme   Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, School of environmental sciences

Irene Lorenzoni   Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, School of environmental sciences

Tim Osborn   Climatic Research Unit, School of environmental sciences

Background:

More effective methods of engaging the public with climate change are needed. Here, an ‘iconic’ approach was utilised which harnesses the emotive and visual power of icons already in the public eye with a rigorous scientific analysis of possible changes under a different climate future.

‘Icons’ are defined as tangible entities which will be impacted by climate change, considered worthy of respect, and to which the viewer can relate to and feel empathy for. Such icons already exist: for example, the melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet or potential Thermohaline Circulation shutdown. But these icons have so far failed to inspire non-experts. Instead, non- expert participants were asked to select their own icons of climate change.

Objective/hypotheses:

To investigate the use of ‘icons’ as tools for engaging non-experts with climate change.

Method:

A robust sourcing for icons was carried out through focus groups and an online survey with three spatially and culturally diverse non-expert publics. Icons were selected depending on their trajectory on the icon selection scale, which incorporated ‘pragmatic’ and ‘intangible’ reasoning arising from coding of transcripts together with model data. From this, three ‘non-expert icons’ (polar bear population dynamics, sea level rise in London, UK and flooding in the Norfolk Broads, UK) were selected. Three ‘expert icons’ of melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, ocean acidification and Thermohaline Circulation slowdown were identified arising from the ‘Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change’ conference convened by PM Tony Blair in 2005 in Exeter, UK. Mini impact-assessments were carried out on each of the three ‘expert icons’ and three ‘non-expert icons’. Methodologies used included a survey of expert opinion (polar bear population dynamics) and quantitative modelling (sea level rise in London). Lastly, a comparative workshop using a pre/post test methodology was held to evaluate the cognitive and emotional impacts of the icons upon participants.

Results:

Results from the comparative workshop reveal that after viewing the icons, participants agreed more strongly that if they came across climate information, they would look at it (Wilcoxon matched-pairs signed-rank test, T = 212, P < 0.01, n = 142). Participants were most drawn to the non-expert icons Norfolk Broads (24%) and polar bears (23%), with reasoning such as ‘it shows people how climate change will directly impact on their lives’. Participants were least drawn to the expert icons ocean acidification (11%) and WAIS (7%), often because these icons were ‘too technical’, or because there was ‘nothing to really connect people with the problem’. These results find resonance with similar climate communication research.

Conclusions:

Communication of climate change using non-expert icons increases emotional and cognitive responses to climate change, encouraging attitudinal change towards mitigative and adaptive action.

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.

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