Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Communicating Climate Change: A Guide for Educators

How can science teachers best communicate about climate change? A recent book, Communicating Climate Change: A Guide for Educators, delves into the latest research and offers practical guidance, according to our reviewer.

At its heart, education is a communicative process. As such, science and environmental educators serve as important and trusted messengers about some of society’s grandest challenges like climate change. Research has much to offer about how to best approach climate change communication, but that research exists in many different academic areas and is not synthesized for practical use by educators. To address this need, Armstrong, Krasny, and Schuldt drew from environmental psychology, science and environmental education, and science communication to write Communicating Climate Change: A Guide for Educators. The goal of the book is to create a relevant and immediately useful guide for climate change educators, bridging the gap between research and practice. 

Communicating Climate Change book coverThe authors start with the science, reviewing the basic scientific underpinnings of climate change including the difference between weather and climate, the greenhouse effect, the effects of climate change, and possible mitigation and adaptation actions. Written in clear and concise language, the scientific information helps educators understand the science for themselves. Later in the chapter, in the “Bottom Line for Educators” section, the authors take an unequivocal stance against disinformation campaigns, stating, “We cannot allow distortion, bias, and fabrication to prevent the evidence-based decisions and actions required at the individual and societal level to reduce climate change.” (p. 20) It is refreshing to see explicit reference to the terrible effects of these misinformation efforts, which are not only occurring in mass media but are also being targeted directly at teachers (as in the Heartland Institute’s campaigns).

Successful educators begin at the end, by defining their intended out- comes and then working backwards to create the educational experiences that would be the most likely to produce that outcome. Chapter 3 is thus particularly useful for educators, as it presents a menu of possible outcomes for climate change education, including knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors. In particular, the section about community-level outcomes is a real contribution to the literature. Large-scale, collective problems, such as climate change, require moving beyond individual-level outcomes. Instead, consideration of community resilience, collective efficacy, social (or science) capital, and collective action as potential outcomes for educative efforts inspires and challenges the field.

Communication strategies for climate change often begin with “knowing your audience.” The second part of the book delves into some of the more interesting findings from environmental psychology to help educators understand why their audiences may not hold the same science knowledge and attitudes as themselves. Moving beyond the myth of the ignorant public, in which it is erroneously assumed that more knowledge leads to more concern, the authors acknowledge the role of identity in influencing climate change attitudes. For U.S. adults, political identity is more predictive of climate change concern than knowledge. Promisingly, the authors present research that indicates that, for youth, political identity isn’t a strong predictor of climate concern.

We cannot allow distortion, bias, and fabrication to prevent the evidence-based decisions and actions required at the individual and societal level to reduce climate change.

In part three of the book, the authors illustrate three research-based strategies for communicating climate change: framing, use of metaphor and analogy, and establishing trust. “Framing” comes from communication theory and research, and it refers to how some aspects of a message can be emphasized or made more salient to the audience. For example, climate change can be presented as a global or a local issue. While it is both, communication research indicates that framing climate change as a local is- sue creates more relevance for the audience. Relevance, the authors note, can decrease psychological distancing, which may hinder taking action.

The authors also recommend the use of metaphor and analogy to help audiences better understand the science of climate change by connecting complex abstract ideas to everyday lived experience. For example, the “blanket analogy” can be used to help the audience understand the greenhouse effect. Lastly, the authors emphasize the importance of trust between the educator and the audience. One way an educator can nurture trust is to under- stand and speak to the values of those in their audience.

In the last part of the book, the authors recount “Stories from the Field.” In four richly described vignettes, the authors provide specific ways in which practicing educators are using the research-based practices in formal and informal settings. Each story ends with a “tip for educators” taken directly from the educator highlighted in the vignette: for example, “Instead of letting the climate change blues get you down, harness your frustration into something productive and active, like a climate change action project” (p. 87). This book provides some very clear direction on how to approach such a project successfully.

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.

K. C. Busch
Short Bio

K. C. Busch is an Assistant Professor of STEM Education and faculty in the Leadership in Public Science interdisciplinary cluster at North Carolina State University.