Communicating Climate Change

Nick Troiola, UW-Madison,
Will Cushman, UW-Madison,
Marjorie Kersten, UW-Madison,

Scenario | Abstract | Introduction | Climate Change Communication | Framing | Other Communication Phenomena at Play | Farmers' Views | Methods | Results | Summary | Citation | About the Authors |

UW Extension is putting together a communication plan to effectively disseminate information about climate issues with different kinds of farmers (organic and conventional) and want to look at models adopted in other organizations to illuminate successful science-based communication strategies for inspiring change. In your report, specify components in the communication processes, modes of communication, how communication strategies should differ depending on the kind of farmer, and the various barriers to communication with respect to GHG.


Anthropogenic global climate change, caused by human-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, is a pressing issue for policymakers, industry, businesses, farmers and the global population. The U.S. state of Wisconsin is among the world’s many agricultural regions that must contend with climate change. Wisconsin’s conventional and organic farmers need the latest evidence-based information available to make informed decisions about how to best mitigate and adapt to climate change. We are tasked with making recommendations for communicating climate issues to Wisconsin’s organic and conventional cash crop farmers to inspire pro-environmental behavior change. It is useful to conceptualize climate change as an inherently risk-filled topic. Communicating risky environmental topics such as climate change requires high levels of trust in the messenger, and selecting proper message frames is a crucial part of developing strategies for communicating climate change issues to Wisconsin’s organic and conventional farmers. A meta-analysis of literature, a document review of organizations that have tackled communicating climate change to farmers, and an interview with Wisconsin climate change and agriculture communication expert were conducted. It was found that organic farmers are both ecologically and economically driven, and that conventional farmers are often driven by similar factors. Communication should be inclusive of farmers from the outset. Messages should be framed in different ways based on the background of the audience, and messages should originate from trusted messengers and the phrases “climate change” and “global warming” should be avoided.

Keywords: Climate Change, Agriculture, Sustainability, Communication, Environmental Communication, Risk Communication, Wisconsin, Organic Farming, Behavior Change


Anthropogenic global climate change, caused by human-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, is a pressing issue for policymakers, industry, businesses, farmers and the entire world population (IPCC 2014). Though scientific models vary in their predictions of the extent and effects of climate change in the 21st Century, climate researchers and governments across the globe agree that climate change poses profound risks for the Earth’s wildlife, coastal regions and food production (IPCC 2014; Nelson et al. 2009). Indeed, many of the world’s agricultural communities, already facing the enormous challenge of producing food for a vast and growing population, are likely to be affected by more extreme weather, flooding and droughts that will decrease crop yields, increase the tumultuous nature of commodity prices and the decrease the viability of entire agricultural sectors (IPCC 2014; Nelson et al. 2009). Because the environmental and economic risks posed by climate change are global, no agricultural region will escape its effects in some form (IPCC 2014; Nelson et al. 2009). Additionally, because agriculture both contributes to GHG emissions and is affected by climate change, farmers must be at the forefront of efforts to mitigate and adapt to a changing climate (Nelson et al. 2009).

The U.S. state of Wisconsin numbers among the world’s many agricultural regions that must contend with climate change. Situated in the American upper Midwest, Wisconsin is a world leader in dairy, cranberry and vegetable production as well as in wild rice harvesting; the state also contributes significantly to the Midwest’s output of corn, soybeans and other cash crops (Wisconsin Department of Agriculture 2014). Wisconsin farms and agriculture-related businesses generate more than $88 billion in economic activity annually accounting for more than 400,000 jobs (UW Extension 2014). Though conventional farming methods make up the majority of Wisconsin’s agricultural output, a significant and growing volume of the state’s agricultural production is certified organic. Wisconsin ranks second in the nation for total number of certified organic farms, making up more than eight percent of the organic farms in the U.S. (Carusi et al. 2015). Additionally, Wisconsin is ranked second in the nation for total number of organic cash crop farms (Carusi et al. 2015). While certified organic farms are a minority in Wisconsin’s agricultural economy, they nevertheless represent an economically significant sector, accounting for $122 million in sales in 2012 (USDA 2012). Additionally, the number of certified organic farms does not account for the large number of farmers utilizing organic farming techniques without being certified, and the economic and environmental benefit of such farms. Along with conventional farms, Wisconsin’s organic farms face challenges posed by climate change both in mitigating its severity (i.e. reducing on-farm GHG emissions) and adapting to its effects.

Wisconsin’s conventional and organic farmers need the latest evidence-based information available to make informed decisions about how to best mitigate and adapt to climate change. But simply providing farmers with one-message-suits-all information will not suffice. Due to a variety of factors, climate change has become a hotly contested political issue in the U.S. despite scientific consensus that it is occurring and caused by human activities (McCright & Dunlap 2011). The debate over climate change largely reflects the nation’s broader political polarization, with conservatives and Republicans self-reporting lower levels of concern about climate change than liberals and Democrats (McCright & Dunlap 2011). Since 2000, the polarization has only worsened, meaning communicating climate change issues to farmers of diverse economic, geographic and ideological backgrounds will be more complicated than ever (McCright & Dunlap 2011).

We are tasked with making recommendations for communicating climate issues to Wisconsin’s organic and conventional cash crop farmers to inspire pro-environmental behavior change. Recognizing that this is a complicated problem due to the U.S.’s uniquely politicized climate change debate, we propose that a nuanced understanding of communication principles is necessary to achieve acceptance of climate change messages among our diverse target audiences. Therefore, we must first review important and relevant principles of communication theory before considering potential best practices.

Climate Change Communication as Risk Communication

Communicating climate-change-related messages with Wisconsin’s organic and conventional cash crop farmers will likely not be an easy task. According to climate change communication expert Susanne C. Moser (2009), climate change lacks immediacy for audiences because its causes are invisible and its impacts are perceived as distant. Also, Moser says that audiences are likely to perceive little short-term utility in potentially costly adaptation or mitigation efforts. These factors may pose special challenges especially in communicating climate change with farmers who are often already economically strained. Therefore, when considering climate change communication with farmers, it is useful to conceptualize climate change as an inherently risk-filled topic. Not only does climate change pose global short- and long-term environmental, social and economic risks, it poses unique risks to agricultural communities. Additionally, there are secondary perceived risks associated with climate change: the potential economic risks posed by potentially burdensome regulations and the social risk of accepting climate change science in some ideological camps to name just a couple.

The risks posed by climate change are not simple, but rather they are highly complex, relatively uncertain and sometimes ambiguous. Because climate change depends on a huge number of global factors that are constantly changing, the specific risk it poses to any one person or group is often uncertain. Such systemic risks, which are very difficult to quantify, are especially difficult to communicate with stakeholder audiences (Renn et al. 2011). But Renn et al. (2011) do provide some insight on how communicating systemic risks might be successful. First, the communication should be inclusive of stakeholders, not only as message recipients (audiences), but as partners in the message creation process (Renn et al. 2011). By including audiences in developing the content, framing that content and deciding where and how to communicate it, professional communicators are more likely develop a better understanding of their audiences, build relationships, and create a mutual trust (Renn et al. 2011).

Indeed, trust and credibility play an important role in environmental risk communication. Audiences must feel trust in a messenger and perceive that the messenger is credible to accept a message, particularly in the case of a risk-related message (Renn & Levine 1991). This is especially true for issues related to emerging technologies and science. In these cases, audiences often have limited knowledge and will instead rely on heuristics, or cognitive shortcuts, in conceptualizing the topic and making judgments related to it (O’Keefe 2008; Renn & Levine 1991). Further, Peters et al. (1996) test what factors determine trust and credibility within the context of environmental risk communication. They find that audience perceptions of messenger trust and credibility depend on three factors: the audiences’ “perceptions of knowledge and expertise; perceptions of openness and honesty; and perceptions of concern and care,” (Peters et al. 1996). In addition to these determining factors of trust and credibility, Peters et al. also find that messengers must defy negative stereotypes about them to improve their perceived trust and credibility. Defying negative stereotypes is different for various messengers depending on their associations. Businesses do well to emphasize their knowledge and expertise on a topic; governments should emphasize openness and honesty; and scientists should demonstrate explicit concern and care. This emphasis is one component of message framing, a central component of the communication process.

Meanwhile, Connelly and Knuth (1998) note that there are some factors of risk communication that communicators can do little to control. These are internal characteristics of the audience, like their personal experience with a given hazard and their perception of the importance of the hazard. There are external factors, however, that communicators can and should control, including characteristics of the communicator and the format or mode of communication: “The manner in which risk information is presented to target audiences is a critical influence on their ultimate response in terms of attitudes, behaviors, and perceptions related to the risk,” (Connelly & Knuth 1998).

Communication should take into account audience preferences in message frames and formats. The authors note: “Designing audience-oriented communication programs will likely demand a diversity of approaches including communication methods other than the written word discussed here, such as videotapes, interpersonal contact, and signs or maps with symbols,” (Connelly & Knuth 1998). The only significant preference across groups they found was for a cajoling tone rather than a commanding tone. A cajoling tone allows the audience make its own decision with the information presented by the risk communicators. Considering diverse messages in communicating climate change to our diverse audiences will be important, as will striking the proper tone.


Selecting proper message frames is a crucial part of developing strategies for communicating climate change issues to Wisconsin’s organic and conventional farmers.

Framing as a concept has been defined in different ways by social scientists in fields ranging from sociology to psychology. Communication and political science researcher Robert Entman highlighted the many ways framing has been conceptualized and operationalized in the field of communication studies. Despite its frequent use in the social sciences, Entman (1993) notes that there is no uniform or agreed upon definition or conceptualization of framing among researchers. Entman proposes that the communication field can offer a coherent conceptualization of framing, where: …the power of communicating text…[and] analysis of frames illuminates the precise way in which influence over a human consciousness is exerted by the transfer of information from one location—such as a speech, utterance, news report, or novel—to that consciousness (Entman, 1993).

Framing, according to Entman (1993), is the interaction of selection and salience. A communicator frames a message by selecting and focusing on certain aspects of a topic, thereby raising the salience of those aspects.

Other communication and political science researchers define it similarly. Gitlin (1980) says that framing involves the “…persistent patterns of cognition, interpretations, and presentation, of selection [and] emphasis . . . [that are] largely unspoken and unacknowledged . . . [and] organize the world for both journalists [and] for those of us who read their reports.” The frames journalists and professional communicators use, according to Gitlin, depend upon professional routines and norms that often favor the positions of government officials, political and economic elites and other members of the so-called structural status quo. Gamson et al. (1992), make a similar point, noting that media-generated images are used by the public to piece together meanings of political and social issues. These media-generated constructions of political and social reality are not neutral, but rather convey the point of view of various political and economic elites (Gamson et al., 1992). These frames are just one part of the process by which political actors can attempt to affect behavior and policy in a risk debate and are therefore important to unpack and analyze (Renn, 1993).

But how do frames work? Entman (1993) again provides some useful guidance. Frames “highlight some bits of information about an item that is the subject of a communication, thereby elevating them in salience,” Entman says. By highlighting certain pieces of information (and consequently not highlighting other bits of information), the messenger is making that information more “noticeable, meaningful, or memorable to audiences,” (Entman, 1993). There are many ways that professional communicators may do this, Entman says, including strategic placement of ideas or words, repetition of those same ideas or words, or associating those ideas or words with culturally-relevant symbols.

These processes of emphasis, repetition and strategic association can have powerful effects, as demonstrated by prospect theory (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981). According to the logic of prospect theory, by framing identical messages in opposing terms of either loss or gain, communicators are in certain conditions able to produce significant differences in the opinions of the message receivers. Specifically, prospect theory predicts that in risky situations the number of people who prefer a certain option when it is framed positively — in terms of gain — almost completely reverses when the same option is framed negatively, or in terms of loss. A key component of prospect theory is negativity bias, which is a phenomenon that researchers commonly consider when assessing the framing of risk-related information (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981). Negativity bias means that people respond to potential losses more extremely than they do to potential gains. Additionally, negative frames are considered more advantageous when attempting to persuade message receivers to accept what is perceived as a risky behavior or product.

Prospect theory has potential implications for the framing of all sorts of risky issues, especially environmental issues like climate change, which is often discussed in terms of gain and loss. Risk framing studies that test message frames and attitude and behavior outcomes are well-rooted in the field of health communication. Though health risks and environmental risks are not totally analogous, they share some similarities. Among those similarities are the psychological “distance” of the perceived risk, which varies depending on the risk. The effects of gain and loss frames on behavior outcomes is well-documented in health communication, and the lessons learned there are potentially useful for environmental risk communicators, who are beginning to run similar message framing studies.

Rothman et al. (1993) found that women who were highly involved in the issue of skin cancer were more likely to respond to negatively framed messages encouraging them to take part in detection behaviors. Similarly, Maheswaran and Meyers-Levy (1990) found that high involvement participants were more likely to respond to negative frames encouraging them to have their cholesterol levels tested. Meanwhile, participants who were treated to a low involvement condition were more likely to respond to positive frames. This suggests that individuals who are more motivated to process risk-related information are potentially more likely to respond to negatively framed messages (Maheswaran & Meyers-Levy, 1990). Further, Witte’s Extended Parallel Process Model (EPPM) shows that negatively framed messages that stoke fear can be effective in eliciting attitude or behavior change if they also contain self-efficacy information (Witte, 1994).

Research conducted by Grady et al. (2011) is an example of the extensive research into message framing’s effects on long-term behavior change. Although it focuses on health behavior change, the authors consider a population with long-term risks at stake. In that way, the diabetes patients’ motivations are somewhat analogous to farmers’ in regard to the risk of climate change. The authors presented educational material to patients to test how frames affect knowledge, attitudes and behavior. The material was framed two ways: loss and gain. Patients who viewed the gain-frame educational material were more likely to sustain long-term positive behavior change. Further, changes in knowledge predicted changes in attitude, and message framing and attitudes interacted to predict long-term behavior.

But do the results of health communication framing studies hold true in environmental risk communication contexts such as communicating the risk of climate change? Drawing from the extensive literature in health risk communication, Spence and Pidgeon (2010) tested the effect of loss and gain frames and their interaction with “distant” and “local” frames in communicating climate change risks. Their findings are broadly consistent with the findings of other risk communication studies, including health risk communication. They found that positive/gain frames led to respondents both believing that climate change impacts are more severe and being generally more in favor of mitigation efforts. However, they also found that negative/loss frames were associated with more information recall about the risks of climate change and mitigation efforts. The implications of this, according to Spence and Pidgeon, are that climate change risk communicators must decide on whether the goal of their communication is before applying loss or gain frames. Gain frames might promote more acceptance of mitigation and adaptation efforts, while loss frames might promote more knowledge recall of the effects and severity of climate change. And framing is not the only communication phenomenon climate change communicators should consider.

Other Communication Phenomena at Play

Social psychologist Lisa M.P. Munoz (2015) discusses the communication phenomena known as “spiral of silence” and its potential consequences that could make communicating climate change with farmers more difficult. Spiral of silence is important to consider as it might be especially important in communicating a politically charged topic to communities that may not always be receptive to the message, according to Munoz.

She explains that spiral of silence causes people to remain quiet on a potentially controversial topic because they perceive they hold a minority or unpopular opinion, even if that perception is misplaced. Before sharing their views on controversial subjects, such as climate change, Munoz says that people will seek cues from those they are talking to about whether or not they hold the same views. Concerning climate change, Munoz says that people often perceive that there is more disagreement about the science of climate change than there actually is because the media often includes opinions from climate change skeptics. This can make it seem as though there is less scientific consensus on climate change than is the case. People who might consider climate change a problem are less likely to speak out because they perceive that they would be entering a more politically charged discussion than they actually are.

The implications for climate change communicators, at least in Wisconsin, might be kind of grim: “Research has shown that people are heavily influenced by what the people in charge of our country say in public. Therefore, something important policy-makers can do is to publicly express their concern about climate change,” (Munoz 2015). With many members of the Wisconsin state leadership, including our governor, expressing skepticism on the science of climate change, communicators will likely face an uphill battle in effectively communicating climate issues in the state, especially among rural residents and farmers, who make up a large part of the electorate that has voted the politicians who are skeptical of climate change into office.

Farmers' Views on Climate Change and Sustainability

To help make informed hypotheses about how to communicate with Wisconsin’s farmers about climate change topics, it is important to review previous studies about those farmers’ views. Because there is not enough information about the climate change beliefs of farmers in Wisconsin specifically, we have expanded our literature review to include research into the general climate change, environmental and sustainability beliefs of various types of farmers from around the United States and the world.

Kings and Ilbery (2012) find that British organic and conventional farmers have differing views on sustainability. They note that organic farmers are more likely to have positive attitudes in regard to sustainability, especially the language and common terminology of sustainability (Kings & Ilbery 2012). Also, they find that British organic farmers are more ecologically-driven than conventional farmers: they self-report more support for pro-environmental government regulation and for agro-ecological principles. On the other hand, Britain’s conventional farmers self-report to be more economically-driven than their organic farmer neighbors. This is not to say that conventional farmers only care about the economic aspects of sustainability and that organic farmers only care about the environmental aspects. Rather, both groups self-report different priorities when considering sustainability. This has important implications for the language and framing of climate change messages to Wisconsin’s organic and conventional farmers.

Niles et al. (2013) argue that perceived risk is the biggest threat posed by climate change policy because risk presents the threat of negative environmental, economic, or social change. The authors conduct a study to determine which factors related to climate change are perceived to have the greatest risk by farmers. The results suggest that climate change policy is perceived as the highest risk to farmers. The authors find that climate change beliefs did not influence participation in government programs or farmers’ concern about regulation. Climate change risk perception, however, did influence participation in government programs and increased concerns about government regulation, with farmers with high-risk concerns being more likely to fear future climate regulations that might pose a risk to their livelihood. Farmers’ negative experience with any past environmental policies did not influence their willingness to participate in a government sponsored climate change incentive program. To conclude, the authors find that past experience with local policy is more indicative of climate change attitudes than personal experience with climate change because many farmers have not directly experienced the effects of climate change in their lifetime. Any negative past experiences with local policy are reflected by less belief in climate change and more perceived risks of what might happen as a result of climate change or related policy. Based on this literature we hypothesize the following:

H1: Messages with positive (gain) frames will be preferred by farmers who show low involvement in climate change issues, while messages with negative (loss) frames will be preferred by farmers who show high involvement in climate change issues (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981)

H2: Messages with peripheral cues (i.e. trusted messenger, using simplified data, basic positive or negative frames) that encourage cognitive shortcuts will be more effective in short-term behavior change, but messages with systematic cues that encourage central processing will be more effective in long-term behavior change. (O’Keefe, 2008)

H3: Organic farmers will prefer messages that emphasize ecological frames, whereas conventional farmers will prefer messages that emphasize economic frames.

H4: Climate change messages should avoid references to anthropogenic causation.


To determine the best strategies for communicating climate change messages to Wisconsin’s organic and conventional cash crop farmers, we conducted a meta-analysis of existing academic literature and a document review examining the research, communication and results of organizations with similar goals. To find relevant literature and documents, we searched the online databases of the UW-Madison library system and conducted an online search of Google and Google Scholar. Google proved useful because we not only sought to review research results, but hoped to identify potential non-academic individuals and organizations who have dealt with similar questions about how to best communicate climate change to their different agricultural communities. The following is are the search terms we used to conduct library database, Google and Google Scholar searches: “Communicating climate change to farmers;” “How to talk about climate change with farmers;” “climate change communication best practices;” “Climate change and farmers;” “agricultural communities and climate change;” “Extension strategies for communicating climate change;” “Climate change + communication + farmers;” “Climate change + communication + agriculture;” “communicating climate change with stakeholders;” “Agricultural stakeholders and communicating climate change;” “communicating climate change with organic farmers;” “communicating climate change with conventional farmers;” “communicating climate with farmers;” “communicating with farmers;” “communicating with agricultural stakeholders.”

Upon identifying relevant research and organizational documents, we reviewed their findings, summaries, challenges and conclusions in an effort to answer both our hypotheses and to gain general insight into communication best practices concerning climate change and organic and conventional agricultural communities.

Additionally, we interviewed a Wisconsin expert in agriculture and climate change. Diane Mayerfeld, of the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, has helped extension agents and instructors develop climate change programming and communication strategies. The results of that interview are presented in the form of a limited case study within the results and discussion of this paper.

Results & Discussion

Stalker Prokopy et al. (2015) seek to explain the ways in which climate change experts can be more effective in communicating issues of climate change with agricultural stakeholders. The authors argue that there are several problems with the current method of communication including: misconceptions about climate change, the controversy and uncertainty of climate change based on its current framing, and conflicts in views about climate change within the general public and experts. There are often large misconceptions and gaps in information regarding climate change because individuals rely on intermediary sources like mass media to understand climate change instead of getting their facts directly from scientists or researchers.

Through surveying agricultural stakeholders, the authors confirm that there are varying degrees of belief in climate change and multiple beliefs about the cause of climate change (human versus natural). Possible explanations for these differences include: decreased trust in climate scientists, that experts like extension agents and American Farm Bureau Federation shape conceptions about climate change, and that perceptions about climate change are dependent on one's worldview and social group.

Stalker Prokopy et al. (2015) present solutions to improving the effectiveness in communicating climate change to stakeholders including: making the information relevant to farmers such as focusing on the economic and risk management benefits, as well as framing climate change in a way that disengages it from anthropogenic causation since there are still many who do not believe in this causation, thus supporting partially supporting H3 and supporting H4. Finally, the authors suggest that climate scientists should reduce the threat to individual’s views and increase open dialogue between all interested parties to improve communicating climate change. Utilizing different methodologies of communication outside of mass media may also prove more effective.

This article is a quality source of baseline information as to why climate change perceptions might differ between agriculture stakeholders, including farmers. Stalker Prokopy et al. (2015) suggest solutions to improve the effectiveness and decrease the threat of communicating climate change, which ultimately answers one of the questions that we are trying to address. Niles et al. (2013) discuss how their findings relate to communicating climate change. Related to perceived risks, farmers should be educated about risks in a manner that addresses the risks in a way that minimizes fears (supporting H1) and relates to the local context. Related to past policy perceptions, incentivization of participation can be a good strategy to involve more farmers regardless of their perceptions. Finally, a more collaborative effort should be utilized to develop climate change policy, whereby farmers are included in policy decisions and their opinions are heard.

Meanwhile, Krstin Hyde, a Seattle-based strategic communication, policy and food expert who has conducted survey research on farmers’ climate change views, provides some more advice for communicating climate issues with farmers. First, Hyde notes that the term “climate change” is a non-starter: “Even [climate change] believers [in the farming community] warn against ‘being fanatical,’” (Hyde 2012). Hyde also notes that language and terminology (i.e. frames) are critical, as we hypothesized. She notes that words such as “sustainable” can have strikingly different meanings for different farmers. She notes that “most” farmers she’s surveyed view sustainability mostly in the economic sense. Additionally, Hyde says that many farmers view environmental regulations as further burdening their ability to make a living: “To change production practices in ways that will deliver more environmental benefits, producers need to be convinced of an economic return on investment in change,” (Hyde 2012). Hyde also notes that many family farmers are feeling increasingly squeezed by the larger corporations that are becoming a larger presence in agriculture. She says that communicators should position themselves as advocates for these family farmers. Most importantly, Hyde says: “We don’t need to walk through the front door with farmers hoping to get them on the same page about climate change. Rather, we should work to foster peer-to-peer communication, and local, trusted messengers to help incentivize producers towards better practices, including climate preparedness,” (Hyde 2012). Hyde’s advice partially confirms H1, H3 and H4. H2 was unsupported by any of the literature or documents we reviewed.

Diane Mayerfeld, of the Wisconsin Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS), is the sustainable agriculture coordinator for University of Wisconsin Extension. Mayerfeld is also a PhD candidate in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW-Madison. Mayerfeld has done considerable outreach with extension agents, agriculture instructors, local and regional conservation departments, farmers and crop advisors throughout the north-central United States. One of the key issues she advises on is how to communicate climate issues. Mayerfeld says that first and foremost, extension agents must know their specific audiences and tailor their messages to them. This is particularly important in the case of climate change and farmers, Mayerfeld says, because climate change is a highly politicized issue in Wisconsin and across the U.S. For that reason, with a few exceptions, Mayerfeld recommends avoiding use of the terms “climate change” or “global warming” and at the very least avoiding discussion of the science that points to anthropogenic causation, supporting H4. Instead, Mayerfeld recommends first attempting to gauge what the farmer’s climate change beliefs might be. She notes that in her experience, highly motivated organic farmers are willing to discuss climate change mitigation and adaptation explicitly, while many other farmers tend to react negatively to such explicit conversations, perceiving the extension agent as politically-motivated. One strategy to reach these audiences is this: “One of probably the bottom-line, simplest, distilled messages we [have], and I think has guided a lot of efforts in extension here, is that rather than try to tackle the very political question of climate change head-on, the most effective thing in agriculture is to look at things that make sense to farmers and also address issues of climate change. Those are first and foremost healthy soils and things that lead to healthy soil,” (D. Mayerfeld, personal communication, April 2016). Mayerfeld says that promoting healthy soils is something virtually all farmers will support because it promotes higher yields and fewer inputs, thus improving their operations’ bottom lines. Healthy soils are particularly important for cash crop farmers: the target audience in question. But it also has climate change mitigation and adaptation benefits, Mayerfeld says, because improving organic matter in the soils promotes carbon sequestration and means that soils are more likely to handle larger flows of water from more extreme weather events. Though Mayerfeld says that organic and conventional farmers might react differently to different frames (ecological vs. economic), she notes that all farmers are usually receptive to solutions that are framed in both ecological and economic terms, supporting H3. Finally, Mayerfeld says that in her experience, some farmers do react better to negative/loss framed propositions than to positive/gain frame propositions. However, she recommends in general to frame climate change mitigation and adaptation discussions positively, highlighting the ecological, social and economic benefits of practices such as improving soil health and preparing for extreme weather events (i.e. the benefits of being resilient). This neither fully supports or fully contradicts H1.

There are several limitations to our findings. First, many of the best practices and recommendations of organizations that have tackled similar problems are not scientifically tested. Some of the recommendations are, however, and we believe that even those that are not provide valuable potential strategies because they are based on the anecdotal evidence of working experts who have experience communicating climate issues to farmers. Our second limitation is that we have little more than very general data on the organic and conventional cash crop farmers in Wisconsin (i.e. our audiences). Further, the data we do have does not include statistics or figures for how our target audiences view climate change, farmers’ trusted sources, and what frames farmers prefer. Though we can make informed inferences about what our audiences might believe and how they might react to various messages based on the findings of related research, we cannot say definitively what the two audiences would prefer. This leads to our third limitation: for practical reasons, we are considering our two audiences as somewhat homogeneous groups that hold generally similar beliefs. In fact, there is certain to be a significant amount of diversity within the two groups in how their members view climate change.

Summary & Conclusion

So what do our results mean? Organic and conventional cash crop farmers in Wisconsin will likely face many challenges in the coming years as they deal with the effects of climate change. Communicating with those farmers about climate change related topics is an important and complex problem to tackle. Not only must communication be inclusive of the farmers and their viewpoints and needs, but it must contain self-efficacy information that helps farmers make informed, evidence-based decisions in regard to mitigating and adapting to climate change. Climate change messages must come from trusted sources and should be framed in ways to achieve the desired result of pro-environmental behavior change (i.e. taking steps to reduce GHG emissions and to promote resiliency in the face of more extreme weather). For long-lasting behavior change, we recommend promoting systematic information processing that emphasizes the preferred frames of the farmer audiences. Our initial recommendation is to emphasize ecological frames in messages intended for organic audiences and to emphasize economic frames for conventional audiences. However, as we noted, our recommendations are limited by the dearth of scientifically-gathered information about Wisconsin’s conventional and organic farmers and their attitudes about climate change and sustainability.

Therefore, we suggest that future research fill this need through in-depth interviews and large-scale surveys of Wisconsin’s farming communities about their attitudes toward sustainability, climate change, best practices, as well as on what concerns them. For truly effective communication of climate change issues, UW Extension needs these clear and nuanced data. In the meantime, we recommend testing messages on organic and conventional farmer focus groups.

Additional research on the topic of communicating climate change to organic and conventional cash crop farmers in Wisconsin should seek to quantify our assumptions through use of questionnaires and interviews with farmers, extension agents and other stakeholders to determine perceptions of climate change, trusted sources, preferred modes of information dissemination and preferred frames of translation. Pilot studies could also be conducted to determine the effectiveness of several modes of communicating climate change to both groups of farmers in Wisconsin. Both of these next steps would greatly aid in the literature and information available about communicating climate change to conventional and organic farmers in Wisconsin both for specifically cash crop where our research focused, but also within the general farming industry.


Arbuckle, J. G., et al. "Climate Change Beliefs, Concerns, and Attitudes Toward Adaptation and Mitigation among Farmers in the Midwestern United States."Climatic change. 117.4 (2013): 943-50. ProQuest. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.

Bartels, Wendy-Lin, et al. "Warming Up to Climate Change: A Participatory Approach to Engaging with Agricultural Stakeholders in the Southeast US." Regional environmental change. 13 (2013): 45-55. ProQuest. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.

Entman, R. (1993). Framing: Toward clarification of a fractured paradigm. Journal of Communication, 43(4), 51-58.

Gamson, W.A., Croteau, D., Hoynes, W., Sasson, T. (1992). Media images and the social construction of reality. Annual Review of Sociology 18, 373-393.

Gitlin, T. (1980). The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Grady, Janet L., Eileen B. Entin, Elliot E. Entin, and Tad T. Brunyé. "Using Message Framing to Achieve Long-term Behavioral Changes in Persons with Diabetes." Applied Nursing Research 24.1 (2011): 22-28. Web.

Kings, David and Brian Ilbery (2012). Organic and Conventional Farmers' Attitudes Towards Agricultural Sustainability, Organic Farming and Food Production, Dr. Petr Konvalina (Ed.), ISBN: 978-953-51-0842-9, InTech, DOI: 10.5772/53072. Available from:

Kuehne, Geoff. "How do Farmers’ Climate Change Beliefs Affect Adaptation to Climate Change?" Society & natural resources. 27.5 (2014): 492-506. ProQuest. Web. 15 Mar. 2016.

Maheswaran, D., & Meyers-Levy, J. (1990). The influence of message framing and issue involvement. Journal of Marketing Research, 27, 361-367.

Moser, Susanne C. "Communicating Climate Change: History, Challenges, Process and Future Directions." WIREs Clim Change Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 1.1 (2009): 31-53. Web.

Munoz, Lisa M.P. ""Spiral of Silence" Makes Climate Change a Taboo Topic." Society for Personality and Social Psychology, 16 June 2015. Web. 16 Mar. 2016.

Niles, Meredith T., Mark Lubell, and Van R. Haden. "Perceptions and Responses to Climate Policy Risks among California Farmers." Perceptions and Responses to Climate Policy Risks among California Farmers. ScienceDirect, Dec. 2013. Web.

O'Keefe, Daniel J. "The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion." The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion. Northwestern University, 2008. Web. 16 Mar. 2016.

Peters, Richard G., Vincent T. Covello, and David B. Mccallum. "The Determinants of Trust and Credibility in Environmental Risk Communication: An Empirical Study." Risk Analysis 17.1 (1997): 43-54. Web.

Pimentel, David, Paul Hepperly, James Hanson, David Douds, and Rita Seidel. "Environmental, Energetic, and Economic Comparisons of Organic and Conventional Farming Systems." Environmental, Energetic, and Economic Comparisons of Organic and Conventional Farming Systems. Bioscience, July 2015. Web.

Rothman, A.J., Salovey, P., Antone, C., Keough, K., & Martin, C.D. (1993). The influence of message framing on intentions to perform health behaviors. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 29, 408-433.

Stalker Prokopy, Linda, Lois Wright Morton, J. Gordon Arbuckle, Jr., Amber Saylor Mase, and Adam K. Wilke. "Agricultural Stakeholder Views on Climate Change: Implications for Conducting Research and Outreach." American Meteorological Society 96.2 (2015): 181-90. Web.

Tversky, A., Kahneman, D. (1981). The framing of decisions and the psychology of choice. Science 211: 453-458.

Witte, K. (1994). Fear control and danger control: A test of the extended parallel process model. Communication Monographs, 61(2), 113-134.

About the Authors

Nick Troiola: Hello,I am currently a Junior majoring in Agricultural Business Management in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and am from Eagle, WI. I am a highly active Badger on campus being in Collegiate Farm Bureau, In the National Agri-Marketing Association, work on and off campus, and Alpha Gamma Rho. This summer I will be doing an internship in Evansville, WI with the DeLong Company.I plan on graduating in the spring of 2017, ready and willing to work in the industry that I am passionate about.

Will Cushman: Hi, I am a master's student in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at UW-Madison. I'm also a journalist and have a special interest in science, agriculture and food systems.

Annotated Bibliography


Keywords:Case Study on How to Effectively Communicate Climate Change With Farmers   Doc ID:60471
Owner:Alisha B.Group:DS 471 Food Production Systems and Sustainability
Created:2016-02-04 16:47 CDTUpdated:2021-06-04 08:28 CDT
Sites:DS 471 Food Production Systems and Sustainability
Feedback:  0   0