Climate Change Risk Knowledge & Communication

I am deeply concerned about Climate Change as part of the complex web of predicaments that humanity will increasingly have to face. It is this complexity, as well as the accelerating dynamics that make it difficult to provide simple, direct communications in the traditional form. Indeed Kahan in his article Fixing the Communications Failure in Nature [1] makes the point that scientific communication on the issue of Climate Change is fraught with difficulty; debate is highly polarized over the empirical data and this is related to recognition of cultural biases or in Kahan’s terms “cultural cognition”[2] reinforced by massive investment in sophisticated counter claims by those that stand to lose in the short-term. Further, Sandman in his Risk Communication website [3] notes that there are a group of people that rather than being apathetic are in denial about climate change – can’t bear to think about it – he suggests that Crisis Communication is required here. There are other groups that are apathetic and in these cases he would apply Precaution Advocacy. So there is not only the complexity of the science involved but also the complexity of people’s reaction to that data. To deal with this it is necessary to develop forms that allow for engagement beyond the simple “download” models of most media.

Scientific research has a strong role to play in understanding climate futures, but it is also necessary to engage people more widely as the outcome is not “set” by looking to the past and to “best practice” for approaches to resolving these issues; rather it emerges from the interactions of people and this necessarily brings intentionality into play. The now burgeoning social networking tools of blogging and wikis provide more expansive ways for the interaction of “experts” and laymen alike. This together with the more traditional “face-to-face” techniques of searching and other deliberative methods provide a tool-kit to allow people to more deeply understand the science and understand what is possible.

Most writers focus on unidirectional modes of communication with passive recipients while my experience has taught me that persuasion requires a more interactive strategy. What I would want to engage with as well as this “normal” mode is an active form of communication. Translating research into practice is not just a matter of communication: “improving translation of research to professional practice requires an understanding of the needs and expectations of researchers, on the one hand, and practitioners and policy-makers on the other” [4] to go beyond this also requires understanding of the needs and expectations of potential allies and the public. If this is done through interactive and deliberative processes it is possible to “enlarge their interests and values in ways that generate consensus around common ends” [5] rather than ending in the two-sides mode of debate.

I have a PhD focused on creating sustaining futures, where climate change is necessarily considered as one of the major areas of concern. Further, I have introduced transdisciplinary research processes to undergraduate and postgraduate students. In my PhD I developed a range of tools to facilitate communications about complex issues. My PhD was not only based on a theoretical perspective but also used action research and reflection and therefore it did not constitute disembodied research.

My engineering experience has resulted in highly developed analytical and evaluation skills. An example that was a highlight of my career was the work of the Future Mode of Operation in a telecommunications company, where over the space of 12 weeks, we analysed and evaluated the existing national network, reviewing new technologies and their potential role in order to determine a new mode of operation. While I led this activity for the Transport component, I also was instrumental in the communication of this material, preparing papers and presentations for the Board, for external stakeholders and for internal people. I moved into implementing these plans: continuing analysing, evaluating, integrating and synthesising the various aspects into practice.

The best example of synthesising in my career is my PhD thesis [6] which, one of the examiners said: “brings in a wide variety of schools of thought” and “rather brilliantly brings in many different theoretical discourses…and applies them to different contexts within the realm of sustainability and engineering scholarship, practice and education”.

My thesis [6] draws on Socio-Technical Systems Thinking, Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and process philosophy. It extends ANT, focusing on practice, the making and remaking of reality with the complex heterogeneous nature of agency.

In this I not only called on the need for synthesis and integration but also the need for analysis and evaluation: it is this that the examiner says is the innovation: the “coming together, modelling the very nature of that which the candidate suggests” “it is the seeking of so many different and varying ways of thinking, the bringing together of these ideas, and the way of presenting them, reflecting the nature of the knowing, that is so unique.”

My endeavors in large organisations produced tangible outcomes; ensuring that these organisations continued to be sustainable within dynamically changing environments. A telecommunications supplier faced with the internet revolution and other complex changes in the technological environment had to move towards a “solution development” strategy for new and existing customers, while also continuing to support the existing “product” businesses. As an Inside Partner I initiated, designed, implemented and led search processes and design workshops with all stakeholders – this resulted in a cross-company process (the Delivery Network Architecture or DNA, a purposefully chosen, distinctly living, metaphor) that would take into account these requirements, rather than the more normal re-organisation. The DNA process consisted of coalitions (between leaders whose normal performance criteria would be centred on their group’s outcomes, but who within this process were asked to work for the greater good – the company) and deliberations (allowing these leaders to “recognise the partiality of their perspectives and consequently enlarge their own interests and values in ways that generate consensus around common ends” [4]). What these processes did was develop power-sharing between the different parts of the organisation.

Even though I began my career in the telecommunications industry and moved from there to work in sustainability through a PhD there are some constant themes: the work has always included a research-type process, particularly action research through working across and between various disciplines and organisational areas (that is intrinsically transdisciplinary). I am drawn to introducing new ideas, gathering up resources across diverse areas to “apply” to a problem. I continue working with short cycles to produce specific outputs, while looking to the long cycle to provide more deeply understood responses to situations or events. Thus I have been active in both project and program type work.

More recently I have shifted my work from telecommunications to “creating sustaining futures” through both an educative research program and work in universities. I developed a postgraduate program in sustainability which recognised and called on knowledge of sustainability dispersed across the university within different disciplines. These were embedded in coursework and woven together through a core and elective program design. The core ran all the way through the program, allowing the development of a community of practice.


1.         Kahan, D., Fixing the Communications Failure in Nature. 2010. p. 296-297.

2.         Kahan, D., H. Jenkins-Smith, and D. Braman, Cultural Cognition of Scientific Consensus. Journal of Risk Research, 2010. Advance online publication at doi:_10.1080/13669877.2010.511246

3.         Sandman, P., Risk Communication. 2006.

4.         Young, D. and R. Borland, Conceptual Barriers in the Translation of Research into Practice: It’s not just a matter of “communication”. Translational Behavioural Medicine, 2011. In Press, Advance online publication at DOI: 10.1007/s13142-011-0035-1.

5.         Fung, Democratic Theory and Political Science. American Political Science Review, 2007. 101(3, August).

6.         Goricanec, J.L., Towards Creating Sustaining Futures: a philosophy of (engineering) practice for the 21st Century, in School of Civil, Environment and Chemical Engineering. 2009, RMIT University: Melbourne, Australia. p. 301.

About Jenni

I am interested in working with others to enhance the sustainability of human systems. My practice is to engage with people by drawing on their own ways of knowing and understanding. I orient people toward the “pull” of future intentions, rather than the blind "push" of past habits and "best practice". I encourage people to break out of their cognitive silos, to think laterally and to focus on the whole problem systemically in all its inter-disciplinary complexity. My practice works through the essential processes of innovation – mobilising resources, enrolling peers, engaging allies and building public support. This form of engineering practice is about manoeuvring, dissolving boundaries, always being in action, and recognising that function, congruence and transformation are emergent properties generated through active learning by doing.
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