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What Do We Expect from Environmental Risk Communicators?

Xin Wang's picture

Several polls have shown that we citizens, in relation to the generic “environmentalist” agenda, stop short of enacting real changes in our habits and in our daily lives, changes that would help undo some of the ecological devastation we claim to be concerned about.  For example, the alarm of global warming or climate change has been sounded repeatedly, but most people, collectively and individually, still generally turn a deaf ear— partially because they assume that the potential risks of rising sea levels and melting glaciers to be chronic, diffuse in time and space, natural, and not dreadful in their impact. Continued exposure to more alarming facts does not lead to enhanced alertness but rather to fading interest or “eco-fatigue,” which means we pay ‘lip service’ to many environmental concepts, or we just become increasingly apathetic.  In short, we are essentially armchair environmentalists.

The burgeoning civic discourse on environmental issues must confront this apathy. Our perspectives are, at large, influenced by public hearings and mass-mediated government accounts: we learn about environmental problems by reading reports of scientific studies in national and local newspapers, by watching nature documentaries, listening to public radio, and by attending public events. However, environmental concern is a broad concept that refers to a wide range of phenomena – from awareness of environmental problems to support for environmental protection – that reflect attitudes, related cognitions, and behavioral intentions toward the environment.  In this sense, public opinion and media coverage play a significant role in eliciting questions, causing changes, resolving problems, making improvements, and reacting to decisions about the environment taken by local and national authorities.

So here is our question: what kind of environmental risk communicators do we really need?

One challenge to effective environmental risk communication is that the narrative of environmental apocalypse still dominates as a standard rhetorical technique in communicating environmental problems to the public.  Apocalyptic prophets continue, however, to blow the whistle on existing and developing environmental problems.  Films such as The Core (2003) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004) suggest that our biggest threat is the earth itself.  While scholars agree that such apocalyptic narratives can initiate public discourse about and intervention in impending ecological disaster, the overuse of “fear” discourse is highly controversial considering its vagueness and hyperbole, which often lead to procrastination and inaction. Those who are frightened, angry, and powerless will resist the information that the risk is modest; those who are optimistic and overconfident will resist the information that the risk is substantial.  Subsequently, misleading language used to frame the environmental issues results in either deliberative avoidance or subconscious blindness.

Another challenge facing environmental communication results from difficulties in producing knowledge to support improved decision making.  Undoubtedly, society requires knowledge in engineering and natural sciences, yet this is apparently insufficient for producing a transition to more sustainable communities. To wit, in the traditional technocratic model where there is little or even no interaction between scientific experts and the public, scientists decide what to study and make information available to society by placing it on a “loading dock” and then waiting for society to pick it up and use it. This process has largely failed to meet societal needs.

Trust or confidence in the risk communicator is another important factor to be taken into account where potential personal harm is concerned: if the communicator is viewed as having a compromised mandate or a lack of competence, credence in information provided tends to be weakened accordingly.  Or, if the particular risk has been mismanaged or neglected in the past, skepticism and distrust may greet attempts to communicate risks. Apparently, it is more difficult to create or earn trust than to destroy it. If people do not trust an organization, negative information associated with that organization reinforces their distrust, whereas positive information is discounted.  This is especially true when the control of risk is not at the personal level; trust becomes a major and perhaps the most important variable in public acceptance of the risk management approach.

Culture, social networks, and communication practices are nuanced, specific, locally based, and often highly resilient. Our objective of effective and productive environmental communication should be in democratizing the way control affects how people define risk and how they approach information about risk. It is time to advocate a new environmental risk discourse as well as to develop practical wisdom grounded in situated practice on the part of communicators. Risks and problems are socially constructed. Under the social constructionist model which focuses on the flow of technical information and acknowledges the shared values, beliefs, and emotions between experts in science and the public, an interactive exchange of information takes place: it is an improved integration of invested parties, initiatives that stress co-learning and focus on negotiations and power sharing. While grave threats may exist in the environment, the perception of such danger, rather than the reality itself, is what moves us to take actions.

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Submitted by Helene Rotes on

You conclude: "perception of such danger, rather than the reality itself, is what moves us to take actions." This in effect says that belief (religion) trumps science. Would it be appropriate for an institution like the World Bank to base its policy recommendations around some need to increase beliefs that are not based on reality?

I would prefer starting from a cold and rational assessment of risks. Not just by anyone but by scientific consensus , revised regularly. Then take the biggest risks and seek to increase people's assessments of those risks closer to what the risks objectively are. Manipulating beliefs would backfire, people are not stupid.

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