Exploring the Role of Visualization in Climate Change Communication – an Audience Perspective

University dissertation from Linköping : Linköping University Electronic Press

Abstract: Climate change communication is a topical and relevant issue, and it is widely acknowledged that public communication about causes, impacts and action alternatives is integral to addressing the challenges of the changing climate. Climate visualization concerns the communication of climate information and data through the use of different information technologies and different modes of visual representation. In the context of climate change communication, climate visualization is highlighted as a potential way of increasing public engagement with climate change. In particular, developments within information technology have provided significant advancements that are claimed to be transformative in engaging lay audiences with issues relating to the mitigation of and adaptation to climate change. Nevertheless, there is a lack of research exploring climate visualization from an audience perspective. This thesis addresses this gap. The overarching aim is thus to explore the role of climate visualization in climate change communication from an audience perspective, focusing specifically on how lay audiences make meaning of climate change as represented in two examples of climate visualization. In addition, the thesis discusses the potential contributions and/or limitations of climate visualization from a communication perspective.Based on a social semiotic theoretical framework, this thesis employs focus group interviews to study participants’ meaning-making related to two cases of climate visualization: a dome theatre movie developed for Swedish high school students with the aim of encouraging reflection on climate change causes, impacts and mitigation alternatives, and a web-based tool for climate change adaptation developed to assist Nordic homeowners in adapting to the local impacts of climate change.The results of this thesis show that climate visualization can help audiences concretize otherwise abstract aspects of climate change, and that the localized focus can make climate change appear more personally relevant and interesting for targeted audiences. Nevertheless, despite these communicative qualities, the analyses also show that participants’ interpretations are shaped by their preconceptions of climate change as a global and distant issue to be solved by other actors, such as national governments, or through international policy negotiations. Although climate visualization can enhance a sense of proximity with climate change, the localization of climate risk can also lead to participants downplaying the significance of climate impacts. In addition, despite the intentions of inducing a sense of agency in both cases of climate visualization, participants critically negotiated messages concerning their roles as individuals in mitigating or adapting to climate change, and assigned this responsibility onto other actors. These findings show that although climate visualization presents certain communicative qualities, it is not a panacea for engaging lay audiences with climate change. This also underlines the importance of considering cultural and social aspects of the communicative event when studying and developing climate visualization tools as a means of communication.