Communicating Science during Controversy

Climate change as a topic of discussion in animal agriculture circles can be controversial. Often we believe “if they only understood the facts, they would agree with us.” However, this method only works with a small part of the population. Opinion formation is very complex and includes many other factors besides scientific facts, such as emotion, values, and trust.

Related: Recorded webinar on “Communicating Amidst Controversy

Fear-based messaging has been frequently used as an attempt to provide a spark that will lead to further learning and behavioral changes. However, these messages must be coupled with both information and support in order to be effective. Without these two resources, people often suffer from feelings of helplessness, remoteness, and lack of control over the situation which all prevent behavior change from occurring.

The goal of our communications is open-minded, unbiased consideration of all the facts. How do we create such an environment? 

White paper: Communicating Controversy in Agricultural Extension on the Topic of Climate Change: A Summarized Review


  1. Understanding your audience – people look for information that is consistent with what they already think, want, or feel. Identify misconceptions understand the context within which they make decisions.
  2. Get their attention – People typically perceive immediate threats as more relevant and of greater urgency than future problem. So focus on how climate is impacted them today and how smaller costs now can prevent larger losses in the future. Use stories to frame the issue in ways that relate to their values.
  3. Translate science into concrete experienceUse vivid imagery to discuss potential solutions up front, particularly highlighting any benefits.
  4. Effectively communicate uncertainty – explain the difference between knowing the causes of climate change and uncertainty about what to do about it.  Use risk management as an effective way to discuss how to evaluate solutions.
  5. Tap Into Social Identities and Affiliations – create connections between your audience, the environment, and society using diverse advocates.
  6. Encourage Group Participation  – encourage small group discussion and facilitate groups that can continue to meet and discuss.
  7. Minimize bias In order to reduce bias, it is critical to recognize your own values and biases. Checks and balances within your team as well as allowing for public input early in development of products will help provide transparency about your agenda. Emphasizing the need for continued learning is important and acknowledges the fact that there is a lot of information out there that can’t be covered in short periods of time.

Educator Materials

To download the video, white paper, or other materials for use in educational programs, visit our curriculum page.

Recommended Resources

This project hosted a webinar on “Communicating Amidst Controversy” The archive page includes links to view individual segments, download them, and access handouts of the presentation slides.


This page was developed as part of a project “Animal Agriculture and Climate Change” an extension facilitation project to increase capacity for ag professionals. It was funded by USDA-NIFA under award # 2011-67003-30206.

Author: Crystal Powers, University of Nebraska – Lincoln