There is a great need at this time for messages that communicate the complexities of climate change and the actions that can be taken.
—National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, 2009
Due to the impacts of global climate change,
it has become increasingly challenging for the National Park Service (NPS) to uphold its mission to conserve the nation’s most treasured landscapes for future generations. The Park Service has responded by targeting communication as one of four management areas in its Climate Change Response Strategy (NPS 2010). Thus, while the agency is working to expand research on impacts on parks’ increasing ecosystem resilience, and assisting species in transitioning to new climate regimes, it is also focused on conveying this information to diverse audiences both in and outside the organization.
This is both an enormous communication challenge and an opportunity for the National Park Service with implications for the almost 300 million people who visit its nearly 400 sites each year. Climate change poses a multitude of inherent problems to communicators: the topic is politically polarizing (Dunlap and McCright 2008), the science is complex (Moser 2010), and most Americans perceive its impacts to be primarily on people and places far removed from themselves (Leiserowitz 2006). Over the past few decades, social science research across many fields—including public health and social marketing (Hornik 2002; Maibach and Parrot 1995; McKenzie-Mohr and Smith 1999)—has begun to determine which communication strategies most successfully engage the public in solving broad societal problems. This research is now being applied to climate change. Over just the last four years, the field of climate change communication, which addresses the issue’s communication challenges and how to facilitate social change in related areas such as energy conservation (Moser and Dilling 2007), has developed a rapidly growing academic literature. Yet few studies address the specific problems that public land managers face (Schweizer et al. 2009; Schweizer and Thompson in press).
In reaching out to visitors, NPS interpreters rely on a traditional toolkit of resources and techniques: evening programs, guided walks, roving interpretation, school programs and teacher workshops, multimedia products, publications, and exhibits. Though interpreters and education staff may strive to follow Freeman Tilden’s first principle—“Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile” (Tilden 1957)—without audience research it is difficult to ascertain information about visitors beyond license plate observations. In this article we offer ideas for evaluating where audiences stand on the issue of climate change, and information on shaping messages that will most appeal to those groups. The data presented here are derived primarily from public opinion research conducted at the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication (4C) and the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, based at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
Akerloff, K., G. Bruff, and J. Witte. 2011. Audience segmentation as a tool for communicating climate change: Understanding the differences and bridging the divides. Park Science 28(1):56–64.
Available at http://www.nature.nps.gov/ParkScience/archive/PDF/Article_PDFs/ParkScience28(1)Spring2011_56-64_Akerloff_et_al_2792.pdf.