Climate Communication and Engagement Efforts: The Landscape of Approaches and Strategies

The Resource Innovation Group’s Social Capital Project and Climate Access identified climate communication framing approaches and a variety of theories of social and behavioral change most prevalent in climate change communications and public engagement initiatives. The project researched the main categories of organizations working on climate communication and behavior change projects, the key frames, and focal strategies being pursued by these initiatives.

The research ultimately identified 670 distinct climate communication and behavior change efforts initiated by various nonprofits, government agencies, academia, and media organizations as of 2012. Of this list of organizations, the majority (388) are nonprofits that focus at least a part of their agenda on policy change.

The study found that in addition to framing climate change issues in easily understood or more impactful vernacular, effective outreach efforts rely on the effectiveness of engagement approaches being used - including the goals, audiences, strategies and tactics.

The report describes theories of change, which can relate to communication that invokes behavioral change, engagement, or more widely creating change in the sense of being able to scale up the public’s role in supporting climate and green energy policies, for example. There are benefits to creating evidence-based theories of change to guide climate outreach efforts. The findings suggest that when groups do develop a theory of change to guide public engagement strategies and use evidence to adapt the theory, they generate better results.

More than half of the climate communication and behavior change initiatives identified in this study are from nonprofits focused on policy.  In order to determine the dominate climate communication frames currently in use, they focused the assessment on these organizations. The top 3 framing approaches used by the organizations surveyed are:

  1. Call it Climate, Name the Enemy, and Make the Switch
  2. Climate Disruption is Impacting You
  3. Adaptation is Critical Too

A majority of climate frames are based directly on policy goals. The most dominant frame in use emphasizes the threat of climate change as the reason to transform our energy, economy, and ecological systems. More specifically, this frame says that “the certainty of climate science is a reason to act, and that the opposition to action (namely, the oil and coal industry) must be overcome to make the needed transition - with the help of policy interventions - to clean energy sources and the sustainable management of natural systems.” 

Economic benefits in particular are emphasized in an effort to make the transition being called for seem more politically and culturally feasible.

The primary general recommendations for practitioners communicating about climate change are:

    1. Audience is key
    2. Connect framing choices to audiences
    3. Explore the use of evidence-based theories of change
    4. Be prepared to leverage teachable moments
    5. Explore emerging engagement approaches
    6. Invest in measurement (create benchmarks of success for public outreach efforts and evaluate if they were achieved)


Publication Date: 2012

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  • Communication

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