A lone polar bear on a melting iceberg. Forests burning. Glaciers melting in the Arctic. These images, while correctly alarming, have been used to repeatedly illustrate the climate crisis.

Science communication is essential to detailing the global impacts of climate change and how people can help, but, there are multiple viewpoints as to how it should be communicated. Historically, much of the coverage has been linked to business or industry interests. In this article, author Dorothea Born traces the history of climate communication, and proposes a way forward that is people-focused.

Some scholars have argued that science should be generalist in messaging, to make climate change more accessible to readers. Other scholars argue science needs to be the main focus. Born argues both are needed to best connect with the audience, and to avoid anthropomorphizing the environment.

Born believes communication should take on elements of critical theory, the idea that theories are always building off of social and historical circumstances, and are not separate from day-to-day life. They do not exist alone, but are influenced by many interacting factors.

Furthermore, critical theory indicates that communication has often been intertwined with capitalistic ideas, and the interests of businesses over people. For example, climate communication is often centered on what society wants or needs from the environment, and as Born describes, “ultimately entangled with capitalist modes of production.” Instead, Born argues, communication needs to be nature-driven.

The author calls for a reimagining of climate communication. Relying on climate tropes, such as the polar bear on the melting ice, creates a savior complex, implying that humankind must rush in to save the polar bear to clear our conscience. Warns Born, “’The “photographic gaze’ incorporates and perpetuates human domination over nature.” And the issue of the impacts of climate change remains unaddressed.

Furthermore, this image disregards how the polar bear got into this predicament in the first place. It ignores how we humans have exploited the environment, and our over-consumption of fossil fuels. By describing ice melt alone and its effects on nature, it allows us to disregard the greater impact that climate change is having on ecosystems and species around the world.

The future of climate change communication must be community focused, and place nature, not business, at the forefront.

Concludes Born, “A solely scientific understanding of climate change reduces nature to a physical phenomenon that can be observed and controlled by the means of the natural sciences…Furthermore, communicating climate change as a solely scientific problem inhibits a wider understanding of how climate change is ultimately also a social and political issue.”

Paul Lussier

On the Side of Climate Solutions: An Interview with Paul Lussier

Paul Lussier on how to energize people, work with business, and develop solution-focused rhetoric and strategy before it’s too late.

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RCC Perspectives, No. 4, COMMUNICATING THE CLIMATE: From Knowing Change to Changing Knowledge (2019), pp. 79-86
Rachel Carson Center