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Science communication of slow impacts: Applying lessons from climate change communication to motivate publics’ understanding of and action against nutrient pollution

Authors: Katherine Canfield*, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Kate Mulvaney, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Topics: Communication, Coastal and Marine, Coupled Human and Natural Systems
Keywords: science communication, climate change communication, stakeholder engagement, nutrient pollution, nutrient management, Cape Cod
Session Type: Poster
Presentation File: Download



Despite the extensive scientific understanding of nutrient pollution, there is limited public understanding of its causes and human-environmental impacts. Communicating the severity of, and human involvement in, nutrient pollution is difficult in part due to the time lag between nutrients entering the system and resulting environmental and human health consequences. Communication with communities facing nutrient pollution problems is essential to address the root causes and to catalyze behavioral change. Luckily, there has been extensive research into understanding how to communicate about another slow-impact problem with a similar temporal disconnect between actions taken and human-environmental impacts: climate change. Such research includes identifying how people think about climate change, assess risks, and are best motivated to act based on their different backgrounds and life experiences. Through a qualitatively-coded review of literature on the science of science communication and climate change communication, this poster applies transferable lessons to communicating about and motivating action against nutrient pollution using the case of the Three Bays Watershed in Cape Cod Massachusetts. Three key lessons are: 1) design communications that pull from human experience rather than abstract analysis, 2) define and activate social norms around severity of the problem and urgency of action, and 3) emphasize current choices and local impacts of nutrient pollution. We apply these lessons to highlight the importance of contextualizing nutrient pollution and to motivate action. Applying such lessons across geographic contexts will increase public understanding of the complex and slow problems of nutrient pollution and potentially motivate action against them.

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