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UNC dual-degree student teams up with Institute researcher to validate communications strategies to combat climate change in North Carolina

April 30, 2023 Jessica Reid

A lifelong resident of Apex, NC, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill dual-degree student Jessica Reid watched her community experience rapid growth. Construction made way for new roads, homes, businesses, shopping and everything that comes with an influx of people moving to the area for technology jobs in nearby Research Triangle Park.

“There was clear cutting,” she recalled, “and that made me aware of the impacts humans can have on the environment. For as long as I can remember, I have cared about the natural world and the environment.”

Reid knew from a young age she wanted to do something to help the environment. She always enjoyed learning about ecology and meteorology, but she also loved reading and writing. In high school, she learned about a program at UNC that combined these two passions—the Environment and Science Communication dual-degree program. She jumped at the opportunity.

As Reid took courses, she sought out other opportunities to get involved at Carolina. She joined the Student Government Environmental Affairs Committee and served all four years as an undergraduate. She helped create environmental modules for students on how to live sustainably as a college student, creating life-long habits in her fellow classmates. She also was co-president of the Honors Carolina Student Association and was co-president of United Solar Initiative.

After her freshman year, she learned about a program called the Creator Institute, which guides participants through the process of writing their first book. Inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Reid spent the next year writing and publishing her first book, Planet Now: Effective Strategies for Communicating about the Environment and subsequently launched a blog Planet Now to discuss all things environment and communication.

“It was a great opportunity to talk to experts in the environment and communications fields, get research experience to write a book, and learn how to go through the publishing and marketing processes,” she said.

Approaching her senior year, Reid began exploring research topics for her honors thesis.

“I was interested in learning more about what local governments were doing in terms of sustainability in NC because local governments have a large role to play in responding to and mitigating climate change threats in their communities. Communicating these initiatives and receiving input from residents are key to creating successful outcomes in the community,” she said.

Reid teamed up with UNC Institute for the Environment’s Director of the Center for Public Engagement with Science (CPES) Kathleen Gray, a research associate professor, to launch a study to do just that. Miyuki Hino, an assistant professor in UNC’s Department of City and Regional Planning, and Lauren Thie a project manager at CALSTART, also joined as members of Reid’s thesis committee.

“It was valuable to have Dr. Gray’s guidance as my adviser throughout the process of developing a research project, conducting interviews, coding and analyzing data and interpreting the results. I’m appreciative of the genuine care and dedication that Dr. Gray and the rest of CPES have toward helping students gain experiences in the environmental field,” Reid shared.

“Working with Jessica was a joy,” said Gray. “CPES’ longstanding connections with NC communities helped her refine and realize her research ambitions. And her curiosity and focus led to findings that can inform both research and practice related to climate communications.”

The study, published last week in Sustainability and Climate Change, finds that local governments in North Carolina can benefit from adopting more recommendations from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) for communicating climate initiatives to residents in their communities. The IPCC is a body of scientists formed by the United Nations to monitor and assess the science of global climate change.

The research team interviewed twelve local government sustainability employees from across the state about the ways they communicate with and receive feedback from residents related to community climate change programming, such as waste reduction efforts or transportation alternatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The interview transcripts were then analyzed with software designed for qualitative data and compared with IPCC recommendations.

The IPCC uses an evidence-based guide (Principles for effective communication and public engagement on climate change) with 6 recommendations for effective strategies to communicate climate change science to the public in accessible ways, given that it is such a misunderstood and polarizing topic for many people. These recommendations are: (1) be a confident communicator, (2) talk about the real world, not abstract ideas, (3) connect with what matters to audiences, (4) tell a human story, (5) lead with what you know, and (6) use the most effective visual communication.

Participants in the study described using some of these strategies, but were not directly asked about whether they applied IPCC strategies. The most commonly used strategies were talking about the real world, not abstract ideas and connecting to what matters to audiences. One participant mentioned using visuals and no participants mentioned using leading with what they know, telling stories or being a confident communicator.

Reid hopes this exploratory study will inform future research with a larger sample of local government professionals. Further research may help decipher which strategies would be most effective in creating successful outcomes.

For her master’s thesis, Reid is building upon the findings from this study to form a communications strategy to encourage solar adoption and support among NC residents. To create a communications plan, she will analyze survey data and responses collected by the NC Sustainable Energy Association (NCSEA) from North Carolinians who have adopted residential solar. Reid has been an intern at NCSEA for the last year.

Reid will graduate in August with a grateful heart for all of the opportunities she had as a student.

“I knew that climate change was an issue more broadly around the world that has a lot of unjust effects on people. I knew I wanted a career helping the environment and helping to mitigate climate change and its negative consequences,” she said. “I love that there are opportunities to build that foundation at Carolina.”