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Relationship-building Between Climate Scientists and the Public

There is an ironic similarity between the public who does not respond to information about climate change, and climate experts who do not respond to information about the ineffectiveness of information transfer.

It has long been known that disseminating information alone is unlikely to prompt people to change their behaviors. This is especially true in controversial or uncertain situations, and even more true when people will have to pay or lose something as a result. It is therefore surprising that, for the most daunting and existential challenge facing humanity, experts have relied almost exclusively on the transfer of information and expert advice, hoping that a resulting awareness will prompt the massive response needed to mitigate the detrimental impacts of climate change.

Research spanning the sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities have each, in their own way, confirmed that information transfer has a very limited, and sometimes counter-productive, impact on behavioral change. But experts persist with this deficit model. There is an ironic similarity between the public who does not respond to information about climate change and climate experts who do not respond to information about the ineffectiveness of information transfer. In this paradox, social scientist Brian Cook and climate scientist Jonathan Overpeck offer relationship building as an alternative to information transfer as an effective strategy. To do this, Cook and Overpeck had to forge a relationship themselves to ‘work through’ the challenges facing experts who want to contribute to social controversies and who recognize the weaknesses of information transfer.

Over four years, and despite many drafts and stumbles, Cook and Overpeck have reviewed the massive cross-disciplinary literature on participation, science-society relations, and behavior change. Extending criticisms of information transfer, they criticize approaches that are directly reliant on the communication of information to prompt change, or that subtly reasserts such processes when ‘lessons must be upscaled or extended beyond the case’.

In WIREs Climate Change, Cook and Overpeck attempt to challenge prevailing interpretations of how climate experts and the public (e.g., stakeholders and citizens) interact, arguing that truly meaningful participation has, to date, rarely occurred in the context of climate change. What is meant by this controversial claim is that existing practices, no matter how ‘participatory’ or empowering the case, ultimately require information transfer, lesson sharing, and extension to affect change beyond the case. If participation-produced lessons are subsequently transferred to other places, times, people, or issues, then it is no different than expert-imposed information and should be expected to have the same, minimal impact on behavior as is demonstrated by countless studies.

Cook and Overpeck propose and develop relationship building as an approach that can flow and ‘ripple’ through inter-personal networks, thereby avoiding the pitfalls of the deficit model.

 

Kindly contributed by the authors.

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