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Interpersonal communication about climate change: how messages change when communicated through simulated online social networks


Climate change communication research has mainly focused on how to communicate climate change effectively to the public. By contrast, how such information is then spread through interpersonal social networks has been neglected, despite being an essential component of cultural change. Using a Facebook-like format, we examined what types of climate change messages ‘survive’ when passed between individuals via communication network chains. We found that statements centred on conventional climate change topics (e.g., its impact on the natural world and human health) survived longer in communication chains than those with less conventional topics (e.g., its impact on societal competence, development, or communality). Moreover, statements about gains from mitigation (gain-frames) survived more than those about costs of non-mitigation (loss-frames) in initial communications, but loss-framed information survived more later in communication chains. In light of research showing that climate change messages focused on society and/or gain frames can motivate action, this research highlights a challenge by showing that these messages are less likely to be spread throughout society.

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  1. We also attempted to manipulate perceptions of social consensus about the reality of climate change. Half of the sample (randomly assigned) read that “74 % of participants in a pilot study agreed with the statement ‘Climate change is occurring and humans are largely causing it’”. However, this manipulation had no effect over participants’ perceptions of either their Facebook friends’ or the general public’s belief in climate change (ps > .1). Initial analyses included consensus as an additional 2-level between subjects factor, but it produced no significant main or interaction effects and its exclusion made no difference to the reported results, so is not reported.

  2. These sample sizes (71 and 70) do not match the final sample size (69) due to participant exclusions.

  3. This is a common procedure used to stratify survey samples while holding sample sizes constant (Geraci et al. 2012).


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This research was supported by grants from the Australian Research Council to Y. Kashima (DP130102229), and to P. Bain (DP0984678). We would like to thank Elise Margetts and Mischel Luong for their assistance in coding, Paul Dudgeon for his advice on statistical methodology, Rijk Mercuur for his advice on environmental psychology literature, and our anonymous reviewers for their insights and suggestions.

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Correspondence to Paul Connor.

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Paul Connor and Emily Harris are co-first authors on this paper.

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Connor, P., Harris, E., Guy, S. et al. Interpersonal communication about climate change: how messages change when communicated through simulated online social networks. Climatic Change 136, 463–476 (2016).

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