What Does Climate Change Demand of Communications?

By Roberta Laurie

As a communications professional I am often confronted by the challenging dynamics of communicating in the midst of a changing climate. There is much at stake for everyone: ideology, livelihood, economic stability, community, values. As a result, communication is muddied by fear, self-interest, and a lack of empathy. Issues are often framed in a way that gives salience to one position while diminishing the importance of another. Honest and open discussion is often lacking. Communicators need to ask, “What does climate change demand of communications?” How do we communicate with one another about a topic that represents the possibility for uncertain outcomes, uncomfortable change, and unknown difficulties? Climate change reflects a challenge and an opportunity for communicators in all disciplines.

Within the scientific community, there is wide-spread consensus that climate change is caused by humans (Maibach, Myers, and Leiserowitz 2014), yet the discourse surrounding climate change has become polarized along political and ideological lines, particularly in North America (Zhou 2016; Hoffarth and Hodson 2016). There are numerous reasons given for this divisiveness, but it is almost certainly in part due to a perception that many of the people delivering the climate change message represent a particular ideology—for example, environmentalists, socialists, Democrats, or Green-Party representatives (Hoffarth and Hodson 2016). Still, climate change is a phenomenon affects us all.

We might think that a “scientific phenomenon,” such as climate change, would be divorced from ideology, but, according to Dan Kahan, people are influenced by group values when they evaluate scientific findings, making “public debate about science…strikingly polarized” (2010: 1). If this is the case, communicating climate change needs to go beyond simply communicating scientific facts. We must also be respectful and inclusive in our conversations surrounding climate change (mitigation, policy, psychology, and belief) by accepting epistemological differences. We must recognize that there are many ways of knowing the world.

The symposium pieces reflect a diversity of understanding, and the “ontological pluralism” of carbon is a common theme throughout (Whitington 2016: 8). These articles demonstrate the scope of epistemological diversity surrounding climate change understanding, mitigation, and research even from an anthropological perspective. Examination of these articles can help us reflect on the boundless variation of human experience and the consequences for climate change communication that might arise as a result.

In his paper, “What Does Climate Change Demand of Anthropology,” Jerome Whitington recounts Julie Cruikshank’s research on the relationship between the Tlingit and the glaciers of the Saint Elias Mountain Divide and the Tlingit’s belief that “glaciers take action and respond to their surroundings” (2016:8). Her research suggests that to the Tlingit, glaciers exhibit a form of sentience. In “Carbon as a Metric of the Human,” Whitington writes about the Beijing start-up, Internat Energy Solutions, which proposed a registry for reporting emissions data. He describes its business partners as “intellectuals whose personal life goals are caught up in thinking about and tinkering with the design possibilities for problems of public concern” (2016: 53).

Gökçe Günel presents Jan, a logistics company executive in Rotterdam, who saw the potential for carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies as an opportunity. It was the new legal and political infrastructure required to engender this transformation that Jan saw as a logistical puzzle. He believed that “carbon dioxide needed to be understood… as a profitable commodity on its own” (Günel 2016: 37). This range of epistemological perspectives about carbon goes far beyond mere political affiliation. With these differences, we can imagine the challenges these visions represent for effective discussion and/or negotiation of climate-change related issues.

It has become ever more clear that polarization is an obstacle to creating strategies for climate change mitigation in the United States (Sautter and Sautter 2010). Mark Romeo Hoffarth and Gordon Hodson believe this polarization has resulted, at least in part, from an ever-growing “ideological pushback against environmentalism” (2016: 40). A similar ideological divide exists globally as well and can be seen to hamper the negotiation of international treaties (McCright, Dunlap, and Marquart-Pyatt 2016).

As the world transforms before us, the issues surrounding our changing climate have the potential to become ever more volatile. It is against this backdrop that we should consider the importance of accepting diverse (even opposing) ways of knowing. As Dan Kahan (2013: 420) explains,

“When societal risks become suffused with antagonistic social meaning, it is…individually rational for ordinary members of the public to attend to information in a manner that reliably connects them to the positions that predominate in their identity-defining groups.”

This heightened intensity of conflicting discourse could be collectively detrimental on a global scale. Through accepting our differences, we can avoid antagonism. We must approach climate change communication with a spirit of inclusivity and tolerance.

When it comes to climate change communication, we must reject further polarization. We must recognize that, although we may not always agree, we need to avoid the tendency for division, alienation, and differentiation. If we aspire toward significant global cooperation, we must promote a willingness for understanding, empathy and respect for our ontological differences. This is what climate change demands of communication.


Günel, Gökçe. 2016. “What Is Carbon Dioxide? When Is Carbon Dioxide?” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 39(1): 33–45.

Hoffarth, Mark Romeo, and Gordon Hodson. 2016. “Green on the Outside, Red on the Inside: Perceived Environmentalist Threat as a Factor Explaining Political Polarization of Climate Change.” Journal of Environmental Psychology 45: 40–49.

Kahan, Dan. 2010. “Fixing the Communications Failure.” Nature 463: 296-297.

Kahan, Dan. 2013. “Ideology, Motivated Reasoning, and Cognitive Reflection.” Judgment and Decision Making 8(4): 407–424.

Maibach, Edward, Teresa Myers, and Anthony Leiserowitz. 2014. “Climate scientists need to set the record straight: There is a scientific consensus that human-caused climate change is happening.” Earth’s Future 2(5): 295–298.

McCright, Aaron M., Riley E. Dunlap, and Sandra T. Marquart-Pyatt. 2016. “Political ideology and views about climate change in the European Union.” Environmental Politics 25(2): 338–358.

Sautter, John A., and Christopher A. Sautter. 2010. “Price, Carbon and Generation Profiles: How Partisan Differences Make the Future of Climate Change Uncertain.” The Electricity Journal 23(2): 71–75.

Whitington, Jerome. 2016. “Carbon as a Metric of the Human.” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 39(1): 46–63.

Whitington, Jerome. 2016. “What Does Climate Change Demand of Anthropology?” PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review 30(1): 7–15.

Zhou, Jack. 2016. “Boomerangs versus Javelins: How Polarization Constrains Communication on Climate Change.” Environmental Politics 25 (5): 788–811.



Roberta Laurie completed her Master’s degree in Environmental Education and Communication at Royal Roads University. She is currently researching the personal narratives and public discourse surrounding the Alberta oil sands and writing a memoir based on a series of letters left by her father. Roberta is the author of Weaving a Malawi Sunrise: A Woman, a School, a People and teaches in the Bachelor of Communications Studies program at MacEwan University.


Recommended Citation

Laurie, Roberta. What Does Climate Change Demand of Communications? PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review Online, 08 September 2016, https://polarjournal.org/what-does-climate-change-demand-of-communications/