Purdue University Graduate School
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Playing Telephone: On the Negotiation and Mediation of Climate Science Communication

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posted on 2019-12-20, 13:59 authored by Roberta A WeinerRoberta A Weiner

In this thesis, I investigate the effects of social and political context on the process and outcomes of science communication in two different settings, using Dietram Scheufele’s interpretation of science communication as political communication.

In the first setting, I examine the communication of climate tipping points at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) using 26 semi-structured interviews and 271 surveys administered to members of the UNFCCC policy community. Survey results revealed that only a small minority (14.3%) of policymakers defined climate tipping points consistently with the scientific community. Interview responses revealed that many policymakers believed they were not responsible for incorporating new scientific advice into their work on negotiations, and that this was the responsibility of scientists. Scientists interviewed expressed frustration that policymakers were not willing to hear scientific information they saw as irrelevant to their work on the negotiations. Policymakers responding to interviews were also unwilling to defy social norms by introducing a topic they saw as “complicated” into negotiations. Interview respondents who believed climate tipping points should be discussed within formal negotiations also noted that they interpreted the effects of climate change as temporally or spatially immediate to themselves.

In the second setting, I examine how the United States print media incorporated discussion of climate change into coverage of the 2017 hurricane season via a content analysis of hurricane coverage in six major US newspapers. Conservative papers and liberal papers displayed significant differences in frequency and directness of references to climate change, as well as a significant difference in the references to climate denial messages, climate consensus messages, and use of proximity cues. However, the conservative paper near a 2017 hurricane consistently displayed significant differences in coverage from the other conservative papers. This paper frequently used social norms in messaging to shift narratives of acceptability of climate change discussion among conservatives. Both conservative and liberal papers near a 2017 hurricane used proximity cues to indicate the effects of climate change are both physically and temporally near at greater rates than elite and regional papers not near a 2017 hurricane.

Taken together, these results reveal that three major factors influenced climate change communication in these two settings. First, power to define direction and content of science communication explains the lack of communication about climate tipping points at the UNFCCC. Policymakers’ hold legitimate power over science communication. This power is codified within UNFCCC structure. Policymakers’ expert power is also interpreted as more relevant to negotiations processes than scientists’ expert power; meaning policymakers are free to define what information is “policy relevant” and therefore, what is communicated. Second, social norms influenced how and whether communication occurred. Social norms prohibiting behavior disruptive to consensus building influenced policymaker definitions of “policy relevant.” Social norms among US conservatives prohibiting serious discussion of climate tipping points were also apparent. Finally, perceptions of climate change as immediate and nearby seemed related to willingness to defy social norms around climate change communication.


Mellon Foundation Policies for Progress Award


Degree Type

  • Master of Science


  • Forestry and Natural Resources

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Linda S. Prokopy

Additional Committee Member 2

Linda Pfeiffer

Additional Committee Member 3

Sarah P. Church