Re-Imagine Climate Change Communication

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More Than Just Facts: Shifting the Focus to Climate Scenarios

Impulse text by Prof. Axel Gelfert, Technische Universität Berlin, Germany

In my work, I focus on the conditions that need to be in place for the successful generation and dissemination of scientific knowledge. This, I have found, is often best explored by way of contrast, viz. by looking at the dysfunctions of epistemic processes (such as fake news, rumours, and their ilk), rather than by looking at ideal theories of how scientific knowledge ought to be produced and ought to guide our actions. Science is, by necessity, a ‘messy’ and incomplete process, and presenting it as anything other than that to the general public risks cynicism once its inevitable imperfections come to light. Put crudely, science communicators should keep expectations low so as to exceed them, rather than inadvertently feeding a currently voracious appetite for science denialism.


The impotence of facts

One of the puzzles of public understanding of science in relation to climate change is the persistence of climate change denialism – whether in the form of outright rejection of climate science and its findings, or as fabricated doubt about the conclusiveness of the available evidence. To be sure, those who are broadly accepting of the scientific consensus – that is, those who support the two-fold acknowledgment that human influence is a driving factor of observed climate change and that anthropogenic climate change has already begun – are in the majority in practically all Western democracies and in many countries around the globe. All in all, the percentage of those convinced of the reality of anthropogenic climate change has gone up, but only slowly and at a diminishing pace. At the same time, there remains a sizeable minority of climate change denialists, whose position has only hardened over the past few years, even as ever more scientific evidence of observable climate change is flooding in (sometimes quite literally in the form of hurricanes and rises in sea levels ). In the United States, to mention an extreme example, climate change has become a deeply partisan issue: a Gallup poll some years ago (2008) found that over the preceding decade, belief that “the effects of global warming have already begun” had gone up from 47 to 76 percent for Democrats, whereas for Republicans it had decreased (!) from similar initial levels (46 percent) to just 41 percent. On a simple deficit model of science communication, this would suggest that a sizeable segment of the public has closed itself off from scientific evidence and is either unwilling or unable to respond to incoming scientific evidence.

From a traditional philosophical viewpoint, irresponsiveness to evidence is a hallmark of irrationality. “A wise man [sic] proportions his belief to the evidence”, David Hume declared optimistically, yet the cultural cognition thesis tells us that, as a purely descriptive fact about human belief formation, we often form beliefs not so much in order to reflect the best available evidence, but in order to safeguard our most cherished and deeply held beliefs. Research on climate change communication bears out this fact. Those who consider themselves adherents of a free market and who believe in the limitlessness power of human ingenuity are less likely to acknowledge the objective limitations that the climate system (along with any efforts to maintain its stability) imposes on us. Since it is not hard to see that any serious effort to prevent climate change would require weaning ourselves off fossil fuels, which in turn would require tough regulation and far-reaching government action, acknowledging that climate change is happening and poses a problem would inject a great deal of tension into a market fundamentalist’s belief system. Dismissing the “inconvenient truth” of global climate change (to use Al Gore’s phrase) thus becomes a way of managing cognitive dissonance.

These considerations would seem to lead to a sobering analysis: Even as scientific evidence amasses, it fails to reach relevant audiences – not because the information is unavailable, but because parts of the audience are not receptive to it. If one’s goal is to reach those who, so far, reject the scientific consensus – rather than preaching to the converted – then merely presenting them with “the science” will likely be ineffectual (and, under certain circumstances, may even backfire).


Shifting the focus away from (mere) facts

What the discussion so far suggests is that boilerplate admonishments to “believe the scientific facts” achieve little by way of widening the reach of climate change communication. This is, of course, not to say that the scientific facts are unimportant and should not be communicated – after all, the majority of the public is already receptive to them and deserves to be kept abreast of ongoing scientific developments. The point is a more limited one: in order to reach those who are not susceptible to “the facts” alone, additional communication strategies need to be considered. Of course, this does not – and ought not – entail that the facts should be tampered with, or that audiences should be manipulated in ways that depart from our best current evidence. Instead, what it requires is adding a cultural dimension to the way in which scientific results are communicated. This is hardly a novel proposal: Dan Kahan and co-authors have long argued for a “science communication strategy that combines information content (‘Channel 1’) with cultural meanings (‘Channel 2’) selected to promote open-minded assessment of information across diverse communities” (2013). The point, then, is not to present audiences with only those scientific results they find palatable, but rather to open up previously closed-off avenues for open-minded appreciation of the full range of scientific findings. Sometimes, this can be achieved through framing issues in culturally compatible ways. As has been shown in empirical studies, presenting truthful information about the effects of climate change in ways that highlight the potential business opportunities – e.g., by emphasizing the need for investments into climate adaptation, or (more controversially) the potential contribution of geoengineering measures – can help reduce climate change denialism. While reframing climate change as a business opportunity may sound cynical to some, it does at least provide an entryway into reasoned discussion with those who were previously not open to considering the scientific evidence.


Generalizing the point

I want to conclude with an attempt to generalize the point about opening up avenues for communication beyond merely presenting an audience with bare scientific facts. Importantly, I want to do so by steering clear of any recommendation – such as might be inferred from the cited case study of framing climate change as a ‘business opportunity’ – to tailor scientific information to specific target audiences by exploiting knowledge about their worldview or background beliefs. Such communication strategies may sometimes be legitimate in specific contexts, but, when applied in a blanket manner, may also turn into a problematic form of paternalism – for example when certain types of information are being withheld from an audience because they are deemed to be a “bad fit” with the audience’s background beliefs.


Instead, I want to suggest that contemporary climate science already has at its disposal a conceptual tool that allows for a refocusing of climate discourse, namely the notion of climate scenarios. The term “scenario” here refers to a description of a possible climate future – at least one that has a non-zero probability of being realized. As such, scenarios differ from predictions in that they are explicitly based on assumptions and judgments of their creators. Whereas a prediction is bound by the requirement that it be the likeliest outcome all things considered, scenarios have more leeway and allow for the consideration of unlikely outcomes (whether these be desirable outcomes or worst-case scenarios). Arguably, modern climate modeling has adopted this perspective by looking at ensembles of models, thereby exploring a wider range of possible climate futures.


Putting scenarios centre-stage in climate communication would, as I see it, achieve multiple worthwhile goals:
  1. First, it would widen the collective realm of what is deemed conceivable, in good as well as bad ways. At a time, when actual carbon emissions (with a small blip due to the covid-19 crisis) are exceeding the worst-case scenarios from only a few years ago, it may be a matter of survival that we consider the full range of what the future may have in store for us.
  2. Second, a shift towards scenarios highlights the fact that the greatest source of uncertainty lies not in our scientific understanding of the global climate system per se, but in our own collective behaviour: how much more fossil fuels we will consume, and whether we will eventually take action to mitigate the effects of climate change.
  3. Third – extending the notion of “scenario” beyond that of a particular run of a climate model – descriptions of possible climate futures may be enriched, by considering what a given scenario would entail for lived human experiences. As the rise of climate fiction (“cli-fi”) indicates, there is a popular demand for imagining what our possible futures might look like, and what difference it would make to be living, say, in a “two-degree” world as opposed to a “six-degree” world (also called “sixth circle of hell” by the science writer Mark Lynas).
  4. Finally, by presupposing a dynamic relationship between human actions and the global climate system, a shift in emphasis towards climate scenarios may help lay to rest the fruitless dispute about whether anthropogenic climate change is, or is not, real.

Whether or not anthropogenic climate change is happening is simply no longer a valid question, since it has long been resolved by science. What we make of our climate futures, however, is an as yet unresolved question – one that we all have a stake in – and it is something that deserves to be placed centre-stage in all climate change communication.



Dan Kahan: “Deepening Public Engagement Through a Two-Channel Strategy of Science Communication” (2013)

Mark Lynas: Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (2007); Gallup Environment Poll (March 2008).

Selected literature by the author:

“We Are the End of the World: Stories of Anthropocenic Hyperarousal”, in Technology, Anthropology, and Dimensions of Responsibility, eds. B. Beck & M. Kühler, Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler 2020, pp. 75-94

“Fake News: A Definition”, Informal Logic, Vol. 38, No.1, 2018, 84–117

How to Do Science With Models: A Philosophical Primer (Springer 2016)

“Climate Change, Epistemic Dissonance, and the Ethics of Uncertainty”, Philosophy and Public Issues (New Series), Vol. 3 (1) 2013, pp. 167-208