Research in Action: Project guides climate change communication strategies


Originally published in The Chronicle Journal on Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Dr. Lindsay Galway giving a presentation

Photo: Dr. Lindsay Galway speaking at the March climate change communication workshop.

That climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity is not news. This awareness, however, does not always translate into action. To move people to action, governments and organizations need to understand how best to communicate climate change information.

In March 2020, Dr. Lindsay Galway, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Health and Behavioural Science at Lakehead University and her team completed a project that sought to understand how citizens in Thunder Bay, Ont., and Prince George, BC, can become better engaged with climate change. Northern communities are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Although research has been conducted in the arctic, until now, little was known about public responses to climate change in the provincial norths.

“Provincial norths are unique case studies, because their economic wellbeing, culture, and history is often closely connected to resource extraction. They are also more remote and politically marginalized. But there is also a strong sense of place, of community, and of connection to the land,” said Galway.

The two-year project, funded the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada, involved three components: representative postal surveys in Thunder Bay and Prince George; interviews with “climate champions” in each community who are engaged in climate change education and action; and lastly, the development of climate change communication strategies based on the gathered data.

The postal surveys involved using Canada Post’s address database to randomly select 2000 households for each community and then adjusting based on census data to make sure these households represented the demographics of the community as a whole. Surveys were mailed to these households asking about climate change beliefs and attitudes, impacts of climate change, and climate change action. The team received just under 400 completed surveys for Thunder Bay which is considered a strong response rate.

Key findings from the Thunder Bay postal survey in regard to attitudes and beliefs include that 95% of respondents believe climate change is happening, and 86% feel very or somewhat worried about climate change. 40% of respondents report experiencing climate change impacts in Thunder Bay such as shifts in seasonal patterns, changing frequency and intensity of precipitation, and extremes of weather.

Other key findings, those that relate to action, highlight areas for education and change. 70% feel that addressing climate change will have positive effects on the long-term health of our communities, but paradoxically, 51% are concerned about whether addressing climate change will increase taxes. Similarly, while 80% felt Thunder Bay community members should do more to address climate change, only 60% reported taking action themselves. 70% of respondents felt that climate change is more likely to be a threat in the future than in the present.

“People still think of climate change as a threat of the future – that’s key. Climate science clearly illustrates that it is problem of now. If we are going to act to address climate change, we need to do it in the next five years” emphasized Galway.

The research was supported by an advisory group in each community made up of representatives from organizations who are working to address climate change. Following analysis of the data, 30 people from the advisory group and other organizations took part in a climate change communication workshop in March 2020 to discuss the results of the research, and to build best-practices for communicating about climate change in Thunder Bay, facilitated by Galway and Dr. Paul Berger, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at Lakehead.

“Dr. Galway's research provides a solid foundation from which to take strong action. Scholarly evidence of strong local support for addressing climate change helped to secure a unanimous vote in favour of the City of Thunder Bay’s declaration of a climate emergency” said Aynsley Klassen, Program Coordinator at EcoSuperior, and a member of the research advisory group.

“Eco-superior is also able to use Dr. Galway's research to guide program development, increase the effectiveness of climate-related communications, and engage community residents in climate actions,” she added.

Another outcome of the project has been a video which recently was a finalist in the Social Sciences and Humanities Council Storytellers competition. The video was created by Robert Sanderson, a Master of Health Sciences Student at Lakehead, who was a research assistant on the project.

“Working on the project expanded my own interests and knowledge – it was a great opportunity to learn and make connections and gain research experience. I got to see a whole project from start to finish – to see the steps, the challenges and how to overcome them,” he said.

Sanderson’s video can be viewed at here and the final report from the project can be accessed here.

Photo credit: Paul Berger