New research underscores challenges in communicating climate change risks

by | Feb 10, 2023 | Public Relations

Despite the issue’s urgency and horrific implications, new research from Singapore Management University (SMU) determines that there is no easy way to engage with the general public to communicate the risks of climate change.

Led by Assistant Professor Terry van Gevelt from the College of Integrative Studies at SMU, this research investigated the use of immersive virtual experiences to communicate the risks of climate change to the general public, with a focus on coastal cities in Asia. Throughout the school’s research demonstrations—and contrary to the adage of “seeing is believing”—study participants who saw what the future impacts of climate change may look like were not positively motivated to make behavioral changes. This was particularly true for climate skeptics and for individuals who already live more climate-friendly and sustainable lives.

“We created a completely feasible and rigorous model of an extreme weather event amplified by the expected impacts of climate change,” said van Gevelt, in a news release. “This extreme weather event—a super typhoon—was then modeled to hit an Asian coastal city (Hong Kong, in this case) and we created a virtual simulation of the event. This virtual simulation was used as a risk communication vehicle, or a way to experientially communicate the future impacts of climate change.”

New research underscores challenges in communicating climate change risks

Respondents experienced a virtual simulation of a storm surge induced by a future typhoon in Hong Kong.

The authors underscored the importance of not overestimating the effectiveness of immersive visualizations to communicate climate risks.

“Visualizing the devastating impacts of climate change play out in the cities we live in should provide the wake-up call needed to modify individual behavior and support costly climate adaptation and mitigation measures. Unfortunately, our results suggest that ‘seeing is not believing’, especially for climate skeptics,” said van Gevelt. “This goes to show that there is no easy solution to communicating climate change risk. Instead, we need to accept complexity and see highly targeted and contextual immersive experiences as one component within a comprehensive engagement strategy.”

The research, revealed in February 2023, was conducted in collaboration with Duke University, Nanyang Technological University, University of Hong Kong, University of Macau, Hohai University and Sun Yat-sen University. This work was supported by the University Grants Committee of Hong Kong and an Epic Games MegaGrant. Ethical approval was granted by the Human Research Ethics Committee at the University of Hong Kong. The study is based on experimental survey data from 1,500 respondents in Hong Kong, conducted in 2021.

Richard Carufel
Richard Carufel is editor of Bulldog Reporter and the Daily ’Dog, one of the web’s leading sources of PR and marketing communications news and opinions. He has been reporting on the PR and communications industry for over 17 years, and has interviewed hundreds of journalists and PR industry leaders. Reach him at richard.carufel@bulldogreporter.com; @BulldogReporter