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  • Cited by 64
  • Print publication year: 2007
  • Online publication date: August 2009

2 - Communicating the risks of global warming: American risk perceptions, affective images, and interpretive communities



Large majorities of Americans believe that global warming is real and consider it a serious problem, yet global warming remains a low priority relative to other national and environmental issues and lacks a sense of urgency. To understand this lack of urgency, the study on which this chapter is based examined the risk perceptions and connotative meanings of global warming in the American mind and found that Americans perceive climate change as a moderate risk that will predominantly impact geographically and temporally distant people and places. This research also identified several distinct interpretive communities of climate change: segments of the public that conceptualize and respond to the issue in very different ways. The chapter concludes with five strategies to communicate about global warming in ways that either resonate with the values and predispositions of particular audiences or that directly challenge fundamental misconceptions.

Public risk perceptions are critical components of the socio-political context within which policy-makers operate. Public risk perceptions can fundamentally compel or constrain political, economic, and social action to address particular risks. For example, public support or opposition to climate policies (e.g., treaties, regulations, taxes, subsidies) will be greatly influenced by public perceptions of the risks and dangers of climate change.

In this context, American public risk perceptions of climate change are critical for at least two reasons.

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