Climate Science Communications Assessment

An analysis of the current capacity of the climate science communications field as it relates to the needs of decision makers (by RESOLVE for the Hewlett Foundation and the Packard Foundation).

The report aims to understand the views of key stakeholders in government, business, the philanthropic community, and civil society who are concerned about climate change and to determine whether there are any unmet needs or opportunities for improving the communication of climate science.


This assessment considers the climate science communication needs of decision makers within the larger context of the economic downturn, issue polarization, media coverage of climate disputes, and shifts in public opinion. The authors considered three key questions:

1. What do decision makers need to communicate about climate change?
2. What capacity exists within the climate science communication field?
3. Are there unmet needs and new opportunities?


Drawing from a needs assessment of decision makers and a landscape survey of US-based climate science communications initiatives, the report identifies the following findings:

Acceptance of Climate Science
Decision makers largely accept that climate change is happening and human-caused.
For some, the urgency of climate change is less accepted, either due to the idea of uncertainty with regard to climate models or political obstacles.
Attacks on climate science affect the views of constituencies more than decision makers.
"A rush to push a particular scientific analysis or aggressively promote certain science sources could be counterproductive, causing views to harden further and closing opportunities."
Climate science is unlikely to drive policy by itself, but must be considered within the policy landscape of the recession, health care reform, and immigration.
Interest in Credible Sources
Decision makers look beyond the IPCC, which has become controversial with some constituencies, for independent, credible, and dependable sources of climate science information (based on trusted relationships, audience needs and reputation).
"Decision makers want to know who they are getting information from, their agenda, and who is behind them."
Advocacy groups are not seen as useful science sources and can be counterproductive with some audiences.
"The question of messenger becomes particularly important for decision makers when they are working with some of their constituents."
Decision makers want climate science to be de-politicized through a non-partisan "referee" that could help facilitate interactions that are based on the science rather than specific policy outcomes.
Businesses appear split on their role as communicators in terms of how vocal they're willing to be on the issue.

Need for Usable Science

Decision makers want more information on climate impacts and responses to impacts at the local level, particularly for use with skeptical audiences.

Science should support both mitigation and adaptation efforts.
"Moving the discussion to what’s happening in people’s own communities and how to respond draws in constituencies. Once constituencies are focusing on localized impact and response, they are de facto accepting that climate change is occurring, regardless of its causes. Many see this as a way to depoliticize the climate science discussion. As we heard, 'when it gets personal, you start being open to science.'"
However, some expressed caution that if adaptation efforts are framed as a way to motivate support for a particular policy agenda – rather than as a way to respond to impacts – adaptation communications could be perceived as politically motivated.
Businesses are seeking more actionable data so that they can set targets for emissions reductions or planning purposes that consider projected impacts.

Gaps Exist Among Climate Science Communications Initiatives

The climate science communications field has expanded quickly to share communications strategies and disseminate research.

Most initiatives are linked to the environmental community.

There is a shift from a science and policy focus to audience-specific communications that highlight impacts and preparedness efforts. These tactics include:

  • Reach influential constituencies by cultivating new messengers.
  • Focus on localized impacts and resilience.
  • Take advantage of "teachable moments" such as extreme weather events.
  • Package communication tools for local leaders.
  • Develop graphically compelling tools.
  • Utilize innovative partnerships with major distribution channels.
  • Experiment with different strategies and evaluate the results.
  • Increase and use social science research on communications.


Strategic coordination is necessary to respond to needs, close gaps and address inefficiencies among initiatives communicating about climate science. The report identified five opportunities:

  1. For decision makers, there is an interest in information that moves beyond defense of causal science to a focus on more granular science (on mitigation and adaptation). 
  2. Move away from advocacy science (for decision makers), toward collaborative science diversity: encourage others to communicate. 
  3. Focus on the business of climate mitigation and adaptation
  4. Coordinate strategically across initiatives to bolster effectiveness and improve efficiency


Date: 2012
Authors: RESOLVE
Strategic Approach: Engagement, Framing, Other
Strategic Approach: Engagement, Framing, Other

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