Engaging Australians on climate change: The role of education and
communication in social change
Griffith School of Environment, Griffith University, Australia
Griffith School of Environment, Griffith University, Australia
Griffith School of Environment,
Nathan, QLD 4111
This chapter reports on an Australian research project exploring social diffusion
theory as a theory of social change to gain a better understanding of the role of
education and communication in assisting this change process. The research examines
Al Gore’s Climate Change Leadership Program, in partnership with the Australian
Conservation Foundation (ACF) and assesses the effectiveness of the social diffusion
model that underpins this educational outreach in encouraging and empowering
individuals to take individual and collective action to address climate change. Initial
findings of this research show that education and communication initiatives are more
successful when they promote processes of learning that engage individuals in their
social contexts in order to assist both individual and social change.
Education, communication, climate change, social diffusion, social learning,
individual change, social change
Addressing the major challenges posed by climate change1 requires societal
engagement on strategies for mitigation and adaptation. As researchers in the field of
education for sustainability, we are interested in processes of learning for individual
and societal transformation and how education and communication2 can effectively
engage people in sustainable solutions - through changing their own ways of thinking
and behaviours as well as mobilising for broader social change.
This research explores how education and communication can promote individual and
social learning in order to help bring about individual and social change towards
sustainability. We look specifically at education and communication efforts that
address climate change because climate change is a fundamental and pressing
challenge facing the sustainability transition (IPCC 2007). This research is motivated
by the assumption that effective education and communication have an important role
to play in addressing climate change and in facilitating long-term changes towards
sustainability. While environmental education and communication practices and
activities are often directed to young people in formal settings, we have chosen efforts
aimed at adults as the focus of our work. As Clover (1996: 97) argues, “[i]t is the
adults of the world, as citizens, consumers, employers and parents, who make critical
decisions on a daily basis that affect others and the biosphere everyday day”. It is
adults who are “the force of social and political change in both domestic and global
arenas” (Lipschutz 1996: 2)
In order to understand how an educational effort such as The Climate Project-
Australia might influence individual and social change, we examine this program
through the lens provided by social diffusion theory. Social diffusion theory explains
how new ideas and practices spread through certain communication channels over
1 The term climate change is used throughout this paper, and refers to the current or projected changes
in climate, whether due to natural variability or to human activities (IPCC, 2001).
2 In this paper, education and communication are inseparable processes that impact upon people’s
thinking and actions. Since education and communication both deal with the transfer or exchange of
ideas, information and skills in a two-way process, they inevitably shade into one another (Palmer,
1998). Both communication and education are needed if we are to successfully address the challenges
posed by climate change.
time among the members of a social system (Rogers 2003: 5). This research focuses
on the spread of new understandings of and solutions to climate change among
individuals, communities and organisations; and the potential change outcomes of
educational initiatives such as The Climate Project-Australia.
Learning for Climate Change
In order to understand the role of education and communication in encouraging and
empowering people to respond to climate change, we examine in this section the
literature around climate change; education, communication and social change; social
diffusion theory; and the current context of climate change education and
communication in Australia.
Sustainability and climate change
One of key challenges facing the achievement of a sustainable society is climate
change (IPCC 2007). The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), the
leading international body on climate change science, indicates that beyond natural
variability in Earth’s climate system, human activities are playing a significant role in
causing present climate changes and those projected in the future (IPPC 2001; 2007).
In the past couple of years, the release of the 4th IPCC report, the Stern Report, Al
Gore and the IPCC winning the Nobel Peace prize, the United Nations Climate
Change Conference in Bali, intense media coverage of climate change, and responses
to climate change from some state and local governments, businesses, industries,
environmental and social advocacy groups as well as civil society, have placed the
issue of climate change high on the global agenda. As a result, addressing the
challenges posed by climate change is beginning to be recognised as urgent, not only
in the environmental sphere but also in political, social and economic spheres
(Lorenzoni & Pidgeon 2006).
The IPCC (2001) indicates that patterns of social relationships, cultures, political
practices and economic institutions are not only part of the cause of climate change;
they are also subject to its potential effects. The IPCC (2001) points out that changes
in governance, lifestyles, economic activity, technological advances, policies, pricing
and regulation mechanisms are critical if we want to tackle climate change:
Social learning and innovation, and changes in institutional structure could
contribute to climate change mitigation. Changes in collective rules and
individual behaviours may have significant effects on greenhouse gas
emissions but take place within complex institutional, regulatory and legal
As Gelbspan (2007) states, responding to the climate crisis must involve every
segment of society working at every level of action. Stabilization of the Earth’s
climate requires large-scale government policies and programs along with
international cooperation as well as major shifts in individual and collective thinking
and behaviours (Leiserowitz 2007). While governments are crucial in setting priorities
and policies (Moser 2006), education and communication efforts have a key role to
play in empowering individuals to engage in individual, social and political actions to
address the challenges posed by climate change.
Education, communication and social change
Some education and communication efforts tend to be individualistic (Padolsky
2006). They are based on the assumption that the transition towards sustainability can
be made simply through individuals changing their personal practices. These
education and communication efforts encourage individuals to take personal action on
social and environmental issues by providing a list of suggestions on what individuals
can do (Padolsky 2006). As Oskamp (2002) indicates, there are an increasing number
of ‘what you can do’ lists in various locations such as internet sites, newspapers, and
books. Such individualistic approaches assume that each individual can make a
difference by taking small, day-to-day actions. While such actions appeal to the power
of individuals to change, Maniates (2001) argues that these actions tend to lead to the
individualization of responsibility for social and environmental issues. However, as
Princen et al. (2002) state, the current socio-environmental crisis will not be
countered by actions that are mainly individual and typically consumer-oriented such
as planting trees, riding a bicycle, or recycling. Although these actions are
commendable, they do not reflect the size and nature of the current global
environmental and social issues (Clover & Hill 2003). Clover (2002) argues that a
sole focus on ‘individual’ behaviours ignores the cultural, social, economic and
political structures that underlie the current socio-environmental crisis. Effective
education and communication should, therefore, take into account the dynamics of
socio-environmental issues originating in social, political and environmental attitudes,
behaviours, actions, decision-making and policies (Hill 2003). Effective education
and communication should expose people to exactly how their society operates and
why, thereby allowing them to become fully involved in its transformation towards
sustainability (Huckle 1993). Consequently, while education and communication
efforts should encourage and empower individuals to make changes in their lifestyles,
it is crucial that they also address the necessary changes to social, economic and
political systems (Pearse 2007).
According to Fien (1993: 4), “the current environmental crisis is first and foremost a
social crisis”. Thus, effective education and communication must be based upon the
dynamic interdependence of individual and structural/social transformation (Fien
1993). It cannot be based upon changing individual values or lifestyles or through
structural changes alone (Fien 1993). As Clover, Follen and Hall (1998) argue, in
addition to individual change, education and communication must have a goal of
collective social transformation. Clover (2003: 10) sees education as “an engaged and
participatory process of political and social learning and not solely a matter of
information transmission and individual change”. In the context of climate change, it
is all the more important that education and communication programs seek to
empower for individual change within a social or collective context. This is for four
reasons. Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that individuals are limited in their
actions by external barriers such as the lack of feasible alternative technology, public
infrastructure or transportation choices (Moser 2006). As Tribbia (2007) indicates, an
individual might not want to drive to work but unless public transport or safe bicycle
lanes are available, she/he might have no other option but to drive. Secondly, people
are heavily influenced by their social context (Rogers 2003; Bandura 1977). For
example, the lack of action being taken by others might discourage individuals to act
(Lorenzoni et al. 2007). Thirdly, individuals are often influenced by internal factors
such a sense of isolation, lack of motivation or the lack of belief that their individual
actions can make a difference (Kollmuss & Agyeman 2002). Fourthly, as Harriss
(2007) states, climate change solutions will need to confront the dysfunctional
practices in our social, governance and economic systems. Thus, education and
communication programs seeking to address the challenges posed by climate change
must move from the simple transmission of information and facts, or from a sole
individual focus, to learning processes that seek to empower individuals to transform
themselves as members of a social group and in the process work towards achieving
broader social change. Social diffusion theory offers one such strategy.
Social diffusion theory as a social learning process towards social
Social diffusion theory is a theory of social change that illuminates the change process
and how learning leads to change (Rogers 2003). It sees individuals as having a role
to play in social change while fostering a sense of community/collective and building
pressure for broader societal changes.
The doyen of social diffusion theory is Everett Rogers, a social scientist who studied
over 1,500 innovations and their diffusion over the last three decades (Rabkins &
Gershon 2007). Social diffusion theory has been used to study the spread of new ideas
and practices for over 50 years in a wide variety of settings. Social diffusion theorists
attempt to identify how new ideas, behaviours, values, technologies and products
spread through populations. According to Rogers (2003: 6), social diffusion theory
explains social change or “the process by which alteration occurs in the structure and
function of a social system”. When new ideas, practices, or products are invented,
diffused and adopted or rejected, social change occurs. However, Rogers
acknowledges that change can also happen in other ways; for example, as result of a
political revolution, a natural event or a government policy. Our interest in this
research is, however, in the role of education and communication efforts in assisting
‘planned’ individual and social change.
However for Rogers (2003), how a social problem (such as climate change) is defined
is an important determinant of how we go about solving it, and ultimately of the
effectiveness of the attempted solutions. Some factors underlying a particular social
problem may indeed be individual in nature. Effective solutions to the problem
should, therefore, focus on changing these individual factors. In many other cases,
however, the causes of a social problem lie in the larger context or system of which
the individual is a part. Rogers (2003) warns against overstressing individual-blame in
defining a social problem and underestimating system-blame. As Kaplan (2000)
states, solely ‘individual’ strategies might be inappropriate if macro conditions exist
which are responsible for contributing to the issue or limiting the effectiveness of
individual actions. Thus, Rogers emphasises the need to simultaneously address
individual change and social and structural change.
Social diffusion theorists argue that individual actions undertaken collectively help to
create a ‘culture of possibility for everyone’ (Rabkins & Gershon 2007: 302). This is
because, as Milbrath (1989) argues, people’s sense of the possibility of systemic
change is influenced by the attitudes and behaviours of the people around them.
Individual actions taken collectively can also build a ‘grassroots groundswell’
(Rabkins & Gershon 2007: 302). Or, as Suzuki (1999: 218) puts it, “each person,
group or organization working towards a different world may seem powerless and
insignificant, but all of them can add up to a force that can become irresistible”.
Definition of social diffusion
In his book Diffusion of Innovations, Rogers (2003: 5) defines social diffusion as:
[t]he process by which an innovation is communicated through certain
channels over time among the members of a social system.
This definition can be broken down into four key elements- innovation,
communication channels, time, and social system. The following section offers a
detailed account of each of these elements.
1. The innovation
An innovation is an idea, practice or object that is perceived as new by an individual
or other unit of adoption (e.g. a group of individuals or an organisation). An
innovation can take various forms. It may be tangible product, like an energy-saving
compact fluorescent light bulb, or a new idea, practice or behavioural pattern.
According to Rogers (2003), the characteristics or attributes of an innovation, as
perceived by individuals, help explain their different rates of adoption. These
attributes are: relative advantage, compatibility, complexity, triability and
2. Communication channels
According to Rogers (2003), information exchange is at the heart of the social
diffusion process. Such information exchanges occur, he argues, through
communication channels. Communication channels are the means through which
information moves from one individual to another. Communication channels include
mass media channels, such as radio, television and newspapers; interpersonal
channels that involve a face-to-face exchange between two or more individuals; and
interactive communication channels, such as via the internet (Rogers 2003). Different
communication channels are most effective at different times in the social diffusion
process. As Moser and Dilling (2004) state, mass communication channels are the
most efficient way for spreading information widely. However, more direct and
personalised communication channels are required to persuade individuals to take
3. Time: The innovation-decision process
According to Rogers (2003), the innovation-decision process is the process through
which an individual (or other decision making unit) passes from first knowledge of an
innovation (knowledge), to the formation of an attitude toward the innovation
(persuasion), to a decision to adopt or reject the innovation (decision), to the
implementation and use of the new idea (implementation), to confirmation of this
decision (confirmation). A key insight in the innovation-decision process is that each
stage of the innovation process requires different communication and education
approaches in terms of the communication channels, how the communication is
framed, who is communicating , to whom and the needs of targeted groups (Birney et
4. A social system
Social diffusion occurs within a social system, defined by Rogers (2003: 25) as “a set
of interrelated units that are engaged in joint problem-solving to accomplish a
common goal”. The members of a social system may be individuals, informal groups,
organizations or societies. A social system is also based upon a social structure. Lopez
& Scott (2000) define a social structure as the patterns of causal interdependence and
interconnection among the members of a system, their actions as well as their
positions in the system. In addition to this formal structure, the communication flows
between a system’s members, tracing who interacts with whom and under what
circumstances, creates a communication structure (Rogers 2003). Social diffusion
theorists’ understandings of the nature of information flows from one individual to
another is enhanced by the concepts of homophily and heterophily. Homophily is the
degree to which two or more individuals who interact perceive themselves as similar
in certain attributes such as beliefs, education, socio-economic status or interests
(Rogers 2003). Homophily accelerates the diffusion process but it limits the spread of
an innovation to those individuals who are already connected in a close network. In
contrast, heterophily is the degree to which individuals who interact are different in
certain attributes (Rogers 2003). Heterophily allows for a broader learning and
diffusion of new ideas or innovations across diverse and different groups (Moser
2007). Ultimately, the social diffusion process requires a certain degree of both
heterophily and homophily. In addition to social and communication structures, social
norms guide individual behaviour by setting standards for socially acceptable
behaviours (Stern 2000; Cialdini 2000). Social norms often discourage risk taking and
the willingness to be the first to make a change (Johnston 2007). According to Rogers
(2003), the social structure, the communication structure and social norms can all
impede or facilitate the social diffusion process.
Adopter Categories: The Bell Curve
Individuals in a social system do not all adopt an innovation at the same time. Rogers
(2003) states that adopters of any new innovation or idea could be classified in five
categories: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards,
based on a Bell Curve. Each adopter's willingness and ability to adopt an innovation
depends on their awareness, interest, evaluation, and trial of the innovation (Rogers
Figure 1: The Bell Curve
Source: based on Rogers 2003: 281
Moser (2006) indicates that it is the typical pattern for innovators and early adopters
to create the conditions for a majority of actors to eventually adopt new ideas,
practices or technologies. Early adopters are key individuals who are attracted to the
innovation and who have a high tolerance for experimentation (Rabkins & Gershon,
2007). As Rabkins & Gershon (2007) state a key element in social diffusion is the
idea that influencing a few people may be a precursor to influencing many.
In addition to these five adopter categories, Rogers (2003) identifies two additional
categories in the diffusion process: ‘opinion leaders’ and ‘change agents’. Opinion
leaders are members of a social system within which they are able to exert some
influence. Change agents, in contrast, are individuals who actively and effectively
promote new ideas and behaviours (Atkisson 1999). Their role is to develop a need
for change among early adopters. Once early adopters have recognised a need for
change, change agents seek to motivate interest in the innovation and create an intent
to change in early adopters. Once this intent to change has been identified, then
change agents seek to assist early adopters to translate their intentions into actions
(Rogers 2003; Atkisson 1999). In this study, educators and communicators are seen as
The S-shaped innovation adoption curve and critical mass
According to Rogers (2003), the adoption of an innovation in any given population
follows a certain pattern. Gladwell (2002) refers to the diffusion process as a social
epidemic as new ideas, behaviours and products move through a population very
much as a disease does. An innovation starts with an innovator, often a single
individual with an innovation. After its conception, an innovation spreads slowly at
first - usually through the work of change agents, who actively promote it until it
reaches the ‘take-off’ phase. At this stage, interpersonal networks become activated
and start to spread an individual’s subjective evaluations of an innovation from peer
to peer in a system (Rogers 2003). As Ball (2005: 372) states, the key ingredient here
is the effect that one person has on the other: ‘the influence of interaction’. A critical
mass (Rogers 2003) occurs when 10% to 20% of the population in a system has
adopted an innovation. After reaching this point, sometimes referred to as ‘tipping
point’ (Gladwell 2002), the innovation’s further rate of adoption becomes self-
sustaining. Critical mass bears on the relationship between individuals and the larger
system of which they form a part. This stresses how individual’s actions often depend
on their perception of how many other individuals are thinking or behaving in a
particular way (Cialdini 2000; Clayton & Brook 2005). After critical mass is reached,
the norms of the social system encourage further adoption by remaining individuals
within a system (Rogers 2003). Critical mass also puts pressure on decision makers to
introduce policy and structural changes that will facilitate further diffusion and
adoption. After reaching critical mass, the S-shaped curve eventually reaches a
saturation level, where virtually everyone who is going to adopt the innovation has
done so (Rogers 2003).
Figure 2: The S-shaped innovation adoption curve
Source: based on Rogers 2003: 11
The Diffusion Process
Social diffusion as a process of social learning
The Bell Curve, the S-shaped curve and the concept of critical mass are crucial in
understanding the social nature of the diffusion process. Social diffusion is driven by
an underlying social learning process. As people interact with each other, pass
information on to one another, discuss the innovation and share their experiences,
social learning occurs (Bandura 1977). Social learning theory (Bandura 1977)
considers that people learn from one another through observational learning,
imitation, modelling and communication. According to Bandura (1977), individuals
learn by observing and modelling the behaviours, attitudes, and emotional reactions of
others. Allen (1988: 260) refers to this process as ‘watching while being watched’.
Social learning theory is concerned with how the social environment influences an
individual’s way of thinking and behaviours. As Serrano (1998) states, since
individuals acquire knowledge and skills as well as form attitudes and values as they
relate to one another and their environment, all learning is, therefore, social learning.
Climate change education and communication in Australia: The
In the past couple of years, public awareness of climate change has been growing
quickly. The release of the Stern Report, Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient
Truth, the 4th IPPC report and intense media coverage coinciding with higher average
temperatures, altered rainfall patterns, Australia’s worst drought on record, intense
bushfires, tropical cyclones Larry and Monica, have generated a broad national debate
on climate change. Public opinion polls indicate a widespread and high level of
awareness of and concern about climate change. For example, the latest BBC World
Service poll, Climate Change: Global Poll (2007), indicated that 81% of Australians
agreed that human activity was a significant cause of climate change. A vast majority
(95%) endorsed taking action, including 70% who say major steps should be taken
‘very soon’ (BBC World Service 2007: 8-19).
Given the shift in public opinion, education and communication efforts should now
move from an awareness-raising agenda (or trying to convince Australians that
climate change is real) to encourage and empower Australians to change their own
behaviours and to support collective action and policy changes. If we refer to social
diffusion theory, this means that these efforts should now be moving into the
persuasion stage. In order to help move along the diffusion S-shaped curve towards
critical mass (Rogers 2003), the current challenge for educators and communicators is
to persuade a large number of Australians that they should individually and
collectively engage with the issue of climate change and take action. As Gladwell
(2002: 69) states:
For a social epidemic to start, some people are actually going to have to be
persuaded to do something.
To achieve this goal, Moser (2007) suggests that educators and communicators must
make climate change visible to individuals by better educating them on the causes,
impacts and implications of climate change as well as making the issue relevant to
them personally. In the persuasion stage, educators and communicators, as change
agents, should also concentrate on ‘how-to-knowledge’ (Rogers 2003: 173) to help
individuals translate their awareness and knowledge into action to combat climate
change. As Moser (2007) states, to facilitate engagement efforts, educators and
communicators must persuade individuals that practical solutions are available and
that they can make a difference by adopting them.
According to social diffusion theory, at the persuasion stage, an individual seeks
information about the new idea, decides what messages he or she regards as credible
and decides how s/he interprets the information (Rogers 2003). It is at the persuasion
stage that an individual develops his or her perception of the innovation (Rogers
2003). The individual wants to know what the advantages and disadvantages of the
innovation are for his or her particular situation (Rogers 2003). Interpersonal
communication networks with peers are particularly likely to convey such evaluative
information about an innovation. Individuals tend to turn to their peers to confirm,
debate, or obtain further details. As people interact with each other, pass information
on to one another, discuss climate change solutions, and share their experiences,
social learning occurs (Bandura 1977). Rogers (2003) indicates that information
obtained from peers located in social and organizational networks has more weight
than information obtained from the media or scientists. Individuals want to know
whether their thinking is aligned with the ways of thinking and behaving of their peers
(Rogers 2003; Goldstein & Cialdini 2007).
As Cialdini (2000) indicates, individuals often seek what he calls ‘social validation’
or ‘social proof’. If individuals see that many others, especially those perceived as
similar, are taking action, they will be more willing to take action too (Cialdini 2000).
This is especially important is the context of climate change. As studies on public
views of climate change (e.g. Bulkeley 2000; Nicholson-Cole 2004; Lorenzoni et al.
2007; Downing & Ballantyne 2007) indicate, individuals often lack motivation for
taking action or discount the effectiveness of their actions in tackling climate change
because they see few other people engaging in climate change solutions. Thus,
education and communication efforts must give individuals a sense that they can play
an essential part in tackling climate change. They must convince individuals that their
personal actions will make a difference as part of a larger collective who can together
successfully tackle the issue (Moser & Dilling 2004). This is accurately summarised
by David Suzuki:
If you don’t take your car to work one day, it is a drop in the bucket.
But if 400,000 people leave their car at home for one day a week, that
is huge. (Suzuki in Ambrose 2006, p.12)
As Moser and Dilling (2007) indicate, although such activities might be limited in
actual emission reductions they can spread a symbolic message that engages others.
Such efforts might also help to increase individuals’ sense of efficacy (the belief that
one is capable of taking effective action) and create collective efficacy (the belief that
together they are capable of taking effective action) (Bandura 2000). According to
Bandura (2000) when people feel a strong sense of belief in their ability to act, they
are more likely to try an innovation and adopt it long-term.
As social diffusion theory indicates, as more and more people decide to adopt climate
change solutions, they develop common guidelines and create new social norms.
Thus, the task of communication and education efforts is to show individuals that
others are engaged and that new social norms are emerging (Cialdini 2000; Moser
2007). For example, Bardwell (1991) advocates using success stories of ordinary
people to encourage others to take action. Sharing examples of individuals,
communities or organisations acting on climate change can show others the
possibilities for effective action that might be available to them. As Milbrath (1989)
states seeing that some people are able to bring about change, even a small one, can
provide evidence that change is indeed possible. Therefore, it can be argued that
education and communication efforts should create spaces for people to network,
exchange information and ideas on climate change, discuss and evaluate potential
solutions and actions available, and promote processes of learning that engage
individuals in a social context.
In order to ‘widen the circle of the engaged’ (Moser 2007: 78) and penetrate every
segment of society (Gelbspan 2007), it is also essential to widen the circle of
educators and communicators beyond scientists and environmental advocates.
More business and religious leaders, politicians, health practitioners, lawyers,
engineers, architects and community leaders are beginning to speak out on climate
change (see Gaillard 2008). These ‘new’ educators and communicators are key
individuals who act as entry points into specific groups. As ‘peers’, they are often
seen as credible, trustworthy and persuasive (Rogers 2003). They can tailor their
communication strategies to their audiences’ specific needs, knowledge, concerns,
motivation and sphere of influence. As Reardon (1991: 10), states “the greatest enemy
of persuasion is assumption”; when motivating changes, “you must know what does
matter to your audience, not what should matter to them”. Sharing similar situational
contexts, interests, values or concerns, educators and communicators can help their
peers understand what climate change means to them and how they can effectively
respond to the issue in their particular contexts (Moser & Dilling, 2007).
Educators and communicators should also enlist the support of other individuals in the
diffusion process. They should persuade and empower individuals, who are already
engaged or receptive, to spread the word on climate change and climate change
solutions, as the adoption of new ideas and behaviours frequently occurs as a result of
friends, family members, colleagues or neighbours introducing them to their peers.
The more people spread the word and talk to their peers and others, the more people
will start to adopt new ideas and practices sending, clear messages to government and
industry regarding citizen concerns and consumer preferences (Stern et al. 1999).
The study design
In order to understand how education and communication practitioners can use a
social diffusion process in the current Australian context, this research study
investigates the social diffusion model underpinning The Climate Project-Australia
education program and its potential impact on audiences’ understandings and
perceptions of climate change as well as their willingness to undertake individual,
social and political actions to tackle climate change. This section provides a brief
overview of The Climate Project-Australia along with an outline of the research
design for this study.
Brief overview of The Climate Project-Australia
The Climate Project-Australia seeks to spread the message of Al Gore’s Oscar-
winning documentary on climate change, An Inconvenient Truth. In late 2006, 84
Australians were personally trained by Al Gore to deliver versions of the
documentary’s slide show across Australia. In September 2007, an additional 170
Australians were trained using a more Australian version of the slide show called An
Australian Inconvenient Truth (ACF 2008).
The Climate Project-Australia educational outreach draws heavily on social diffusion
theory and peer education. It seeks to capitalise on presenters, from diverse social,
professional and geographical backgrounds, as entry points in communities across
Australia to spread the word on climate change (Gaillard 2008). After presenters learn
how to utilise the Al Gore slide show, they return to their communities, workplaces
and social groups and seek to engage as many people as possible in tackling climate
change (Haag 2007). More than 70,000 Australians have attended The Climate
Project-Australia slide show presentation since October 2006. By the end of
September 2008, it is predicted than one in one hundred Australians will have
attended a Climate Project-Australia presentation (ACF 2008). This is a cause for
great optimism in terms of awareness and knowledge-raising. However, this research
seeks to examine the outcomes of the program in light of the next stage in social
diffusion theory, ‘persuasion’; and to understand to what extent the program helps
attendees to individually and/or collectively engage with climate change and decide to
This research utilises a multi-method approach of observations, questionnaires and
semi-structured interviews to collect both quantitative and qualitative data from
audience members both before and after attending a Climate Project-Australia
presentation. This approach allows for a broader exploration of the research themes
and the triangulation of findings (Lowe et al. 2006). The research design is flexible
and intentionally leaves the study open to changing events inside and outside the
study, new ideas and our own learning during the course of this research (Nicholson-
Cole 2004). This research follows ten presenters from The Climate Project-Australia
and surveys their audience members at selected presentations. The presenters were
selected based on their occupational sector and geographical location to both reflect a
wide spectrum of society in the research and mirror The Climate Project-Australia’s
social diffusion model (Gaillard 2008).
To date, 12 presentations have been attended, 140 questionnaires completed, and 60
semi-interviews conducted. In this research, the observation process is based on
attending presentations and monitoring the extent to which presenters customise the
messages to their audiences; the visuals they use and the solutions they promote; and
the verbal and non verbal responses of audience members (Gaillard 2008). At each
presentation, audience members are invited to complete a two-part questionnaire. The
first part is completed immediately before attending the presentation and the second
part completed right after attending the presentation. The first part solicits basic
demographic information (gender, age and occupation) and asks eight questions on
motivation, perceptions, understanding of the causes and impacts of climate change,
level of personal concern and actions already taken to reduce climate change. In
addition to questions posed in part 1, part 2 contains a rating scale on several aspects
of the presentation, self-reported changes in understandings of and level of concern
about climate, intent to act as a result of attending the presentation, and a final open-
ended question for respondents to share additional comments on the presentation
and/or climate change (Gaillard 2008). Respondents who provide their contact details
in the questionnaire are also invited to participate in semi-structured interviews about
four weeks after attending the presentation to discuss in more depth their experience
of the Climate Project-Australia presentation they attended and their views, opinions
and concerns on climate change. At this stage of the research, it is expected that
participants will be re-interviewed about six months following the initial interview in
order to ascertain whether changes that might have been reported after the
presentation and during the initial interview have continued over time (Leiserowitz
2004). The second interview will also monitor if intentions to act expressed by
respondents after the presentation have translated into actions and what might have
assisted or hindered their change process (Gaillard 2008).
In this section, we present four main preliminary findings, based on the responses of
presentation attendees on the questionnaire and during semi-structured interviews, in
light of the two implications for climate change education and communication
described earlier in this paper: ‘widening the circle of the engaged’ and ‘widening the
circle of educators and communicators’.
1. Widening the circle of the engaged
Initial findings show that although a reasonable number of presentation attendees
claim to attend a presentation to learn more about the science behind climate change,
the majority attend in the hope of finding out more about what they can do to tackle
climate change or “do my bit” (respondent). This shows a clear demand from
audiences for available and practical solutions (Gaillard 2008). When asked to rate the
usefulness and relevance of solutions promoted in the presentation to them, the
average response from presentation attendees was between “fair” and “good”. It is
important to note, however, that audience members’ level of engagement with climate
change prior to attending a presentation as well as their interest and needs vary
significantly. This has significant implications on communicating solutions (Gaillard
Results from the questionnaires suggest that the majority of respondents already take
some actions to lead more sustainable lives prior to attending a presentation.
Recycling, energy conservation at home, water saving and use of public transport are
the most frequently mentioned (Gaillard 2008). Yet for some respondents “the
presentation gave easy solutions to start the process of change” (respondent). This
shows that some attendees are looking for additional practical ways in which they can
make a difference or “to learn how to further make improvements to a climate aware
lifestyle” (respondent). Some respondents indicated that information in the
presentation on ‘where do emissions come from?’ helped them to identify further
areas in their lives where they could reduce their emissions (Gaillard 2008). The
standard slide in presentations on solutions or “What can you do?” includes four
actions individuals can take: reduce your own emissions, buy Greenpower, offset the
rest and spread the word”. Findings from semi-structured interviews suggest that this
short list of practical solutions for individuals seems to suit audience members
looking to either get involved or to take additional actions in their daily lives.
However, for others respondents the presentation didn’t suggest anything that they
were not already doing. As one respondent indicated “I would have liked to have
heard more in-depth ideas for ways an individual can contribute rather than the
simplistic day-to-day activities that most of us do or try to do” (respondent). For these
audience members, the ‘four actions’ slide appears to fall short. Some respondents
would have liked a wider discussion on alternative solutions and for the presenter to
touch upon the need for broader social transformations. As one respondent stated
“solutions need to address not solely individual actions and technical fixes but also
the social and political changes required to tackle the issue” (respondent). For
audience members already pro-actively engaging with climate change and looking for
further involvement, presentations could go beyond ‘simple’ steps and make a
stronger case for citizen activism (Chase 2007) and bigger commitments.
These preliminary results show how crucial it is for presenters to customise the
solution information to their specific audience by reflecting on who the audience is,
what they know and do already, what they need and want, what their areas of interest
are and what their capacity for action or further is. There is no ‘one size fits all’ list of
solutions as the level of engagement on and interest about climate change seems to
differ greatly among audiences.
Engaging people socially
Some respondents attend a presentation hoping to engage with other people interested
and/or concerned about climate change, “I want to meet likeminded people who are
interested in climate change” (respondent) or “other interested parties” (respondent).
Although some presenters include interesting initiatives (such as using the slide-show
as an introduction to a discussion forum among attendees or breaking up the slide
show with interactive activities to allow more dialogue and interaction with audience
members, most presentations attended to date follow the traditional slide-show and
lecture format (Gaillard 2008). Some respondents would have liked some time either
during or around the slide show to interact with other people, discuss the topic and
“network” (respondent). They not only wish to learn from the presenter but also from
other audience members. As one respondent stated in her questionnaire, “I am happy
to see that there are more and more people passionate about climate change”.
However, this respondent later indicated during the interview that she was
disappointed that she did not have the chance to interact at the presentation.
A few attendees indicated that they hoped to learn at the presentation how other
people were responding to the climate change locally or “community projects and
networks I could join” (respondent). Some attendees claimed that they would like to
get involved but they did not always know how and where. This is in line with Kaplan
(2000) who argues that individuals value opportunities to be involved in community
activities and to take action. Based on observations, some presentations promote
examples of successful local community projects such as climate actions groups to
inspire audience members to take individual and collective action. These examples
not only show that individuals, communities and/or organisations are already taking
action on climate change but also how attendees can take action. As one respondent
stated “to get people to act, you need to get them to see that other people are being
proactive” (respondent). Indeed, some respondents claimed that the examples gave
them ideas and increased their motivation to act, “If they can do it, we can do it”
(respondent). Examples also can provide a way to make climate change relevant to
people where they live and work. All these findings indicate a need for The Climate
Project-Australia to shift from a mainly one-way ‘message delivery’ to a two-way
communication process that encourages more dialogue among participants and
promote active social learning, while still using the slide show.
2. Widening the circle of educators and communicators
As Moser and Dilling (2007: 501) state in their book Creating a Climate for Change,
effective communication and education has to achieve a match between the audience
and what it perceives to be a credible and legitimate messenger. This raises the
question of what makes someone persuasive (Gladwell 2002).
Findings from semi-structured interviews show that audience members have diverse
ideas about what makes a presenter persuasive. These include:
• Similar professional background, “the presenter has a similar professional
background than me so I could relate to his position” (respondent);
• Level of interest on the issue, enthusiasm and passion, “the presenter was very
passionate and his passion was contagious”,
• Good presentation skills, “the presenter was a very good and engaging
• Personal commitment to a sustainable lifestyle, “I know the presenter
personally. She embraces a sustainable lifestyle, she is connected to this place
and she is doing her part to tackle climate change. All these give her
• The fact that The Climate Project-Australia’s presentations are based on Al
Gore’s slide show, as part of his leadership programme, added credibility for
some respondents: “the fact that the presenter has been trained by Al Gore
made him credible”.
According to Chess and Johnson (2007: 23), the importance of credible educators and
communicators has not yet been examined in the context of climate change. Further
exploration in this study of what makes The Climate Project-Australia presenters
credible or not offer some contribution to the field.
Spreading the word
When asked in the questionnaire, what actions audience members were likely to take
to address climate change as a result of attending the presentation, only a few
respondents stated that they would talk to their family, friends, neighbours and
colleagues. However, when asked during semi-structured interviews who they spoke
to after attending the presentation about either the presentation itself and/or climate
change, a larger number of respondents reported having talked to colleagues, friends
and families about either the presentation and/or climate change after attending the
presentation. Interview findings indicate that some audience members consider
climate change to be a risky issue to discuss with others. Respondents provided
various reasons for this, including the complexity of the issue, the lack of opportunity
to raise the issue, the lack of interest from others, the lack of confidence in own
knowledge on the issue, and feeling like they were in a minority.
For some, “taking about climate change is not always easy due to the complexity of
the issue” (respondent), “the opportunity does not always come up” (respondents) and
“a lot of people are not interested or do not want to hear about it” (respondent). For
others, they are afraid to be perceived as ‘greenies” (respondent), as “messengers of
doom and gloom” (respondent) or as ‘unpopular” (respondent). Thus, audience
members only tended to only bring up the issue with people who they knew were
receptive. A few respondents also hoped that by making changes in their own lives,
they could encourage others to reflect and try out changes themselves.
Some attendees felt that they needed to know more on climate change (e.g. on climate
change science, causes and impacts, implications for Australia and worldwide and
alternative technological, financial, individual, social and political solutions) before
engaging others on the topic, “I want to learn more knowledge of scientific facts
related to climate change for use in discussions with friends and family members in
this presentation” (respondent) or ” how we can successfully tackle climate change in
Australia” (respondent). A few attendees indicate that they hope to learn from the
presentation “how to educate others on climate change” (respondent) and “some
presentation skills” (respondent).
The findings indicate that a number of respondents still find it challenging to engage
others on climate change and believe that they are a minority. Thus, it is key for The
Climate Project-Australia to encourage and better equip attendees to reach out to
others already engaged as well as not yet engaged with climate change; or as one
presenter stated “in this presentation, I hope to provide you with ammunitions when
you are trying to engage with others and enthusiasm because ‘spreading the word’ is
what it is all about”. It is also crucial to encourage attendees to talk to one another,
exchange stories, ideas and knowledge to build mutual support and feel as part of a
This research explores social diffusion theory in the context of climate change and
how education and communication initiatives, such as The Climate Project-Australia,
can promote both individual and social change towards sustainability. The current
challenge for education and communication in Australia is to persuade more
Australians that they should engage with climate change and take action. A key
finding from this research is that there is not one, but many Australian audiences and
thus, it is crucial for education and communication efforts, such as The Climate
Project- Australia, to be strategic in their approach to these audiences. Educators and
communicators must reflect on: who the audience is, what they need or want, what
they know and do already, what their capacity for further engagement is, what the key
messages to be conveyed are, what solutions should be promoted and what the
expected outcomes from the education and communication outreach are.
Education and communication initiatives such as The Climate Change Project
Australia need to move from a one-way information delivery to a two-way learning
process that engages individuals within their social context in order to assist social
diffusion towards broader social change for a sustainable future. However this
presents key challenges for educators and communicators.
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