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Communicating climate change for adaptation: Challenges, successes and future priorities

Communicating climate change to communities in semi-arid regions remains a difficult task.


Communicating climate change to communities in semi-arid regions remains a difficult task. In the past, efforts to communicate climate change were typically focussed on disseminating information rather than improving the understanding of adaptation challenges, raising awareness of adaptation pathways, encouraging dialogue or influencing behaviour change. Recently, however, there has been a shift towards a greater use of dialogue with stakeholders, and a stronger focus on knowledge co-generation.

Yet, communicators remain faced with three key challenges:

  • effectively integrating scientific information with traditional knowledge;
  • communicating this information to people and groups with varying contexts of power, agency and social dynamics;
  • navigating different communication channels, learning processes and modes of knowledge transmission to ensure that necessary information is accessible to marginalised groups.

We reviewed literature from the semi-arid regions of Africa and Asia to understand the state of knowledge about climate communication activities1. Here, drawing on examples from case studies, we discuss the factors and conditions that support – and those that prevent – the effective communication of climate change issues and adaptation solutions among vulnerable communities.

This information brief* helps communicators understand best practice and helps researchers understand where knowledge gaps exist.

*Download the full text from the right-hand column. The key messages and lessons are summarised below.

From page 2 of the brief: In a village in Maharashtra, India, water availability is communicated to community members via local water budgets boards.

Key Findings

  • Currently, relatively little attention is given to understanding the ways that important actors from policy, practice or the media in semi-arid regions perceive climate variability and change, and where important gaps in knowledge and information exist.

  • Aside from the limitations of resource availability, adaptive capacity largely depends on the extent to which problems are understood, knowledge is accessible to vulnerable groups and policy makers, and adaptive responses are recognised and available. Framing climate change messages in line with these local contexts is crucial and greatly improves their effectiveness.

  • Few attempts have been made to directly test for correlations between climate communication efforts and observed behaviour change. Yet, an understanding of this relationship can offer important guidelines for future climate communication efforts.

Key lessons from the semi-arid regions of Africa and Asia

These lessons are discussed in detail in the brief alongside supporting examples – see the full text for more detail.

LESSON 1: Understanding the relative effectiveness of different materials and channels for conveying information can help to ensure that communicated content is useful, appropriate and accessible.

LESSON 2: Power relations, gender roles, gender equality, and resource availability strongly influence whether and how vulnerable communities access climate information.

LESSON 3: Communication approaches that foster dialogue and public engagement can both enhance the understanding of climate change and adaptation solutions and improve the likelihood of behavioural change.

To further improve the relevance and usability of climate information we need to better understand the critical tensions between the effectiveness of large-scale mass communication, versus the need for situated knowledge within local contexts.

Key Recommendations for Research and Practice

  • To best influence social or behavioural change, both scientific and cultural discourses on climate change and adaptation practices should be evaluated and understood.
  • For communication efforts to be effective, it is important they begin with an understanding of local perceptions of climate change risks and adaptation responses. By talking to local communities and focussing on their needs, climate information can be co-generated, and can become more legitimate, usable and relevant. This in turn can help to create and achieve specific goals for adaptation.
  • To aid the design of communication strategies we also need a better understanding of how climate change adaptation is perceived by multiple actors and at multiple scales.
  • Given the important role the media plays in raising climate change concerns in policy arenas and framing public discourse, more careful consideration should be given to the knowledge and perceptions of these communicators.
  • Finally, more research is needed to evaluate the tensions between mass communication approaches that match the urgency and scale of the adaptation challenge versus the need for more interactive approaches that improve the local relevance and usability of climate information.


This information brief was written by Caroline Lumosi and Daniel McGahey with input from Blane Harvey and Tali Hoffman.

Photos: Jennifer Leavy, Tali Hoffman, Adelina Mensah © Photographers


ASSAR is a five-year, multi-country research project, which aims to deepen the understanding of the barriers and enablers for effective, medium-term adaptation within the dynamic and socially differentiated semi-arid regions of Africa and Asia. ASSAR will generate new knowledge about how adaptation processes – especially those linked to governance systems, policies and adaptation responses – can be modified or improved upon to achieve more widespread, equitable and sustained adaptation. We are particularly interested in understanding people’s vulnerability and, in doing so, exploring the dynamic structural and relational aspects linking vulnerability to social difference, governance and ecosystem services.

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