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Risk communication in the context of climate change

This set of articles review the fundamental concepts of risk communication and principles of communicating effectively, both in terms of the process and the content.
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This set of articles review the fundamental concepts of risk communication and principles of communicating effectively, both in terms of the process and the content. Various examples are provided of different risk communication approaches and techniques that have been used in a variety of climate adaptation projects, including ACCCA, CCAA and DryNet. These are used to reflect on the challenges and opportunities that exist in communicating environmental, and specifically climatic, risks. This material has been prepared as a starting point for the risk communication work to be done under the European Commission funded C3D+ project.

Rather than having a really, really long article, we have broken this content on risk communication up into a linked set of shorter articles. We recommend that you read through these in sequence, but you can jump ahead if necessary. The diagram below illustrates the way we have structured the articles/pages.

Articles on Risk Communication in the Context of Climate Change in the weADAPT Knowledge Base

Page 1 is this one you are now on:

  • What is risk communication?
  • Why communicate about risk?

Pages 2, 2A, 2B:

Considering the process of communicating

Pages 3, 3A, 3B:

Content of the communication: risk

Pages 4, 4A:

Challenges and opportunities in communicating risk

Links to the next and the previous article will be provided at the bottom of each page to make for easy navigation and continuity.

What is risk communication?

Let’s briefly explore what we might mean by the term ‘risk communication’ and then we can go on to look at how it might be done in practice.

If we break the concept of risk communication down into it’s parts, we can dig up hundreds of definitions for ‘risk’ and for ‘communication’, each tailored to the context in which they are applied, but in a general sense:

Risk = pertains to the relationship between something that has the potential to cause harm or have negative impacts, a hazard, (e.g. drought) and something that can be harmed or impacted (e.g. a maize farming community; a city’s water consumers). Aspects of this relationship include:

  • the likelihood of experiencing the hazard;
  • how sensitive the subject is to the effects of such an occurrence i.e. to what extent will there be negative consequences associated with the new condition(s);
  • how resilient the subject is to the effects of the occurrence i.e. to what extent the group/entity can withstand or change to accommodate the effects;
  • and thereby the extent of the impacts or losses associated with such an occurrence / exposure for the specified individual, group of people or entity.

In the environmental change and disaster management literature, this has been represented as: risk = hazard + vulnerability; where vulnerability = exposure + sensitivity (related to coping capacity). Or some variant of that, like risk = hazard + vulnerability + exposure. Adaptive capacity is sometimes also added to either the vulnerability or risk ‘equation’ as a factor that determines the extent to which the exposed unit / system can alter the levels of their vulnerability over time and thereby change their risk profile. It is useful to note that some of these conceptualisations are starting to be reformulated within the resilience literature, in which social and environmental factors and processes are viewed in a more integrated manner through the frame of socio-ecological systems.

Communication = a dynamic, interactive process of conveying and exchanging information (both factual and opinionated) using one or a number of methods and channels, usually with a specific intended purpose (e.g. to influence opinion, illicit action, access additional information, etc.).

Thereby, in the context of responding to climate change, risk communication can be understood to mean, a process of exchanging and sharing information about climate-related risks between various knowledge holders and decision-makers, including researchers, technicians, assessors, managers, practitioners, members of the public, authorities, media, interest groups, etc. As noted above, this risk information can relate to the existence, nature, form, likelihood, probability, severity, acceptability, response measures or other aspects of risk.

Climate risk information to be communicated may pertain to various aspects of:

  • natural climate variability in the system and how these are changing and will change under anthropogenic climate change (e.g. dry spell duration, number of days over a threshold temperature, prevailing wind patterns, total monthly rainfall, etc.);
  • the impacts of climatic conditions (e.g. crop production, sea levels, hurricane activity, occurrence of landslides, water availability, migration patterns, etc.);
  • the extent to which different types of people, organisations, investments, ecosystems, etc. are likely to be affected by these climatic conditions and their associated impacts, based on other prevailing conditions (e.g. income; livelihoods; effectiveness of early warning systems, levels of health, quality of infrastructure, species diversity, etc.) and their ability to adjust, prepare and respond accordingly (e.g. decision-making power, safety nets, disaster relief capacities, access to capital, extent of social networks, heat tolerance, etc.).

It is useful to briefly reflect on the fact that we keep referring to the exchange of information, as opposed to data, knowledge or even wisdom, especially as we are seeing a number of references appearing in the field of climate adaptation (and probably others) to the idea of sharing knowledge, particularly in the context of finding technical solutions to facilitating such sharing… until we realise the real challenge is actually figuring out how best to address the social (socio-cultural; socio-institutional ; socio-political) dimensions of sharing or exchanging. But that’s another issue, for now we are thinking briefly about what it is we are sharing (or not sharing as the case may be). We might think of data, information, knowledge and wisdom as a kind of spectrum or progression, from unprocessed observations, through analysis and contextualisation, to sound judgement. Let’s review what we might understand each term to refer to:

  • data is a collection of direct observations (can be in a variety of forms e.g. numbers, words, images);
  • information is the result of processing data into a format that is understandable by it’s intended audience;
  • knowledge is the understanding of a body of information (through personal experience and education) with the expertise and skills to use it as appropriate;
  • wisdom is utilizing and applying knowledge in a sensible and insightful way, especially to different situations from that in which the knowledge was gained.

So to use a climate change example to illustrate: data is daily maximum temperature values for Cape Town from 2045 to 2065, based on downscaling GCM outputs; information is a statement that conveys the extent to which daily maximum temperatures are expected to increase in Cape Town between now and the middle of the 21st century; knowledge is that when we exceed a certain number of days above a threshold temperature the city faces water shortages, especially if there has been below average rainfall in the preceding years; wisdom is offering tax rebates to households that install rainwater tanks, knowing that by the middle of the century the number of days exceeding the threshold will be higher and based on the current urban growth rate the baseline demand will be significantly higher than it is at present. Granted it’s not quite as pithy as the often quoted ‘joke’: knowledge is knowing the tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting in your fruit salad. But the point really is that for the most part it is true to say we are talking here about exchanging (both providing and receiving) information, the content of which is developed out of data and distilled from knowledge, and occasionally wisdom.

Why communicate about risk?

It is important to reflect on the reasons for engaging in risk communication. For the most part it assumes an emphasis on shared choice and informed decision-making, which may stem from policy changes or may in turn be reflected in new policy. Risk communication is required when decision-makers (at any level) do not hold all the information pertaining to the risks in question necessary in making a suitable decision to act. Depending on the decision context, the associated risk communication may involve a constellation of different stakeholders, from scientists (e.g. climatologists, hydrologists), through affected parties (e.g. livestock farmers, slum residents), to government regulators (e.g. policy advisor in the Department of Housing) and commercial service providers (e.g. insurers). The motivation for initiating risk communication may vary, it may be that tasked with making a specific decision, information about related risks is requested by the decision-maker; or it may be that people aware of the risks pro-actively engage decision-makers in an effort to inform them of additional factors that should be considered when making a decision, or to influence the outcome of a decision.

The need for risk communication also suggests a move away from more paternalistic styles of decision-making, based on ‘expert’ judgement, towards more inclusive approaches where those directly at risk are involved in making choices as to the most appropriate and desirable course of action. In the context of climate change this is particularly relevant where there is more than one adaptation option available and each option has different risk and benefit profiles (not to mention costings) and long lasting consequences, potentially for both those directly involved and others indirectly affected by these changes. Two of the reasons for this shift in decision-making power are that people display a great variety of values and preferences and risk professionals are on the whole not good at predicting what these might be in specific cases; and evidence suggests that people are more knowledgeable and more likely to follow through with risk reduction (or adaptation) measures when they have been involved in making the decision.

If communication is one aspect of the complex cognitive processes involved in acquiring knowledge (along with perception, association, reasoning, etc.) then communicating about climate risks is critical to fostering the learning needed to address the challenges of climate change, to build new knowledge in different people. It is then up to each of us to try and develop our wisdom through testing and refining the use of this gained knowledge in different situations. In turn reflections on these experiences and the lessons learned can be articulated and captured as information to be shared. This gets us into theories of learning, which we won’t go into here, but it is useful to note that Haas (2004) suggests a number of important criteria for the progression from information to usable knowledge, namely:

  • salience = timely and suitable for the context, meets a need
  • legitimacy = limited bias from sender and acceptance by receiver
  • credibility = trust and track record of demonstrated ability and consistency
  • value = contributes to understanding
  • adequacy = covers sufficient information
  • effectiveness = can be successfully utilized

These are important to consider when planning how and what to communicate.

Next article

Considering the process of communicating


Haas, P. (2004) When does power listen to truth? A constructivist approach to the policy process. Journal of European Public Policy, 1466-4429, Volume 11, Issue 4, pp. 569 – 592

Additional reading

Communicating on Climate Change: An Essential Resource for Journalists, Scientists, and Educators – Written by Bud Ward; Published by the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting, University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography

Authors: Anna Taylor (SEI Oxford); Tahia Devisscher (SEI Oxford); Fernanda Zermoglio (SEI Oxford); Jon Padgham (START International)

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