Executive Summary

The Issue

Sea Level Rise (SLR) is a worldwide issue and a direct consequence of global climate change that poses a great risk to coastal communities. In the past 80 years, global sea level has risen at a rate of approximately 3 millimeters per year, resulting in a total rise of approximately 100-200 millimeters in the past century (National Geographic, 2017). Additionally, experts have estimated that by 2100, sea level could rise up to another 2 meters based on current projections (Thead, 2016). A rise in sea level at that rate has the potential to severely impact coastal communities all over the world.
Many of the world’s largest cities and economic centers are located in coastal areas, and residents, workers, and assets in those areas are directly endangered by SLR. This is a risk of particular concern in New Zealand, where three of the country’s largest cities by population – Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch – are all located on the coast, and account for 42% of the country’s total population (New Zealand Census 2016). With such a large percent of the population in these regions, SLR poses a threat to the economic, social and the environmental stability of the country. Due to the high risk and dire consequences, it is imperative that the New Zealand public become educated about climate change and sea level rise so that they can make informed decisions for the future of their country.
Our sponsor, the Antarctic Research Centre (ARC), headquartered in the Victoria University of Wellington, is a research organization that contributes to climate change and sea level rise data and knowledge to the scientific community. Their expertise lies in scientific research in glaciology, particularly in studying sediment and ice cores in order to make predictions and models for future global climates and resulting sea level rise. As the dangers of sea level rise become more apparent through their research, it is increasingly imperative for research groups such as the ARC to be able to effectively communicate their research to the public. The ARC is seeking to improve their communication with the public through a more robust public outreach strategy.

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Our Approach

The goal of this project was to assess the public’s perceptions of SLR in Wellington in order to provide recommendations to our sponsor, the Antarctic Research Centre, for developing outreach initiatives to communicate their SLR research to the public. To accomplish this goal, we developed three primary objectives. These are described below in the project organization diagram, Figure A.

Figure A: Project Organization Diagram

Objective 1: Gauge the public’s understanding and perceptions of sea level rise in Wellington’s Central Business District
In order to determine the public’s understanding and perceptions of sea level rise, we administered convenience surveys in the Central Business District (CBD). Our survey questions focused on four main pieces of knowledge that we wanted to gather: general SLR knowledge, perceived spatial risks of SLR, perceived temporal risks of SLR, and perceived comparative risks between SLR and other natural disasters, in addition to some demographic information.
We administered 153 surveys in total at several locations around the CBD. We analyzed the responses from these surveys through coding, cross-tabulation, and statistical analysis such as quartile analysis. To complete our analysis, we compared question responses against demographic data as well as against other responses. This allowed us to triangulate findings across several of the known types that we identified. Through this, we were able to visually analyze all of our data in order to determine the presence of significant patterns. Once we had identified several patterns, we then used psychological frameworks and cognitive heuristics to try to explain their significance.

Objective 2: Identify effective methods of communicating climate research that local public officials and science communication experts have utilized
In order to learn more about how climate science had been communicated in Wellington in the past, we held interviews with local public officials and science communication experts. In these interviews, we asked about each interviewee’s experiences, as well as their role, in science communication in both the Wellington region and New Zealand. Each interview was tailored to the interviewee’s experience but used similar questions to gather similar information.
After administering seven interviews, we then transcribed and coded each for recurring themes. Similar to our first objective, we then used psychological frameworks and cognitive heuristics to try to verify and provide further insight into the recurring themes. These themes that emerged were identified as best practices for communicating science research in Wellington.

Objective 3 (Recommendations): Design communication strategies to effectively communicate sea level rise to the public based on findings from Objectives 1 and 2
After learning about the public’s knowledge of SLR and best practices of science communication in Objectives 1 and 2, we then brainstormed potential outreach strategies to recommend to the ARC. The team used an iterative brainstorming strategy to develop 50 potential strategies. The list of 50 ideas was then narrowed and organized into several categories through clustering in order to develop detailed, robust strategies. This resulted in four potential outreach strategies: website, social media, simulation, and art installation. Lastly, we implemented SWOT analysis to assess each strategy’s potential effectiveness. We created detailed plans for each of these four ideas and presented them to the ARC as our recommendations.

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Our Findings

Objective 1:

Through our public surveys, we identified three significant findings: the public does not feel prepared to respond to sea level rise, the public’s knowledge of sea level rise is incomplete, and the public mainly uses the internet to learn about sea level rise.
        Preparedness vs Risk: The first interesting finding we made through our survey responses was that there exists a disparity between the public’s perceived risk and preparedness for sea level rise. One of our survey questions asked respondents to rate how at risk and prepared they felt for four different risk events: earthquakes, tsunamis, storm surge, and sea level rise. Through analyzing this question and corroborating with other questions, we were able to determine that there is a gap between public’s perceived risk and preparedness for sea level rise that is much larger than that of the other risk events. This is represented in the quartile analysis in Figure B. This made it evident that although the public feels at risk to sea level rise, they do not feel prepared to respond. This data also indicated to the team that it is important that our communication strategies convey methods that the public can use to become more prepared.
        Incomplete Knowledge: The second interesting finding that we identified was that the public has a basic, but not detailed, knowledge of sea level rise. This was supported

Figure B: Risk Preparedness Quartile Comparison (n = 153)

by several of our survey questions which each looked at different metrics for understanding SLR. For example, one question looked for a self-assessment of understanding while others looked at the ability to identify causes and factual information about SLR. The result from analyzing these questions was that the public has a partial understanding of sea level rise and its impacts, but their understanding is not complete. This indicated to the team that it is important that our outreach strategies include some educational aspect to inform people about sea level rise.
        Information Sources: The team also identified through our surveys that, not surprisingly, the public finds the majority of their information about SLR on the internet. One open-response question asked respondents to report the main sources they use to learn about sea level rise. To this question, 54% of respondents cited the internet. The next closest category was TV, which included documentaries and broadcast news, which accounted for another 38%. This finding informed the team that an internet-based outreach approach would likely have the highest chance of being successful.

Objective 2:

There were five main takeaways from these interviews: making information easy to understand, trust, framing conclusions, positive versus negative messaging, and communicating uncertainty.
        Information Simplicity: In order to let people retain the information they are presented, they need to be able to understand what is being said to them. Making information easily consumable has three main facets. The first is communicating in non-technical language whenever possible, so the public will have a greater likelihood of understanding. Also, it is important to communicate in several formats in order to accommodate many different kinds of learners, such as auditory, visual, and tactile. The final aspect from this finding is to make science communication interactive whenever possible, because providing a social experience increases information retention.
        Trust: People need to trust an information source before they will believe any of the information they are given from that source. Trust can be built in many ways, and the primary method identified is through name recognition. Another way to build trust is to make the science as well as the scientists more relatable. When the public builds a personal connection with a researcher, they are more likely to trust them.
        Drawing Conclusions: To improve information retention, experts identified that it is important to allow the target audience to come to the conclusion by themselves. When communicating science it is important to present the facts in a way that leads the public to the conclusion you are seeking to make, without feeding them that specific conclusion. This allows the audience to have their own realization of the conclusion through an “a-ha” moment, and they will be more likely to remember the conclusion they made.
        Positive Messaging: Presenting a situation negatively has the potential to leave the reader feeling distressed and hopeless, as if their contributions would not make a difference to the eventual outcome. Positive messaging, on the other hand, presents the facts and shows that the situation can be bad, but can also leave the audience feeling hopeful and empowered, and wanting to take action. Especially in regards to sea level rise, positive messaging is much more impactful.
        Uncertainty: While scientists use the term as a probabilistic measure of error, the public perceives it as having a lack of confidence. Therefore, when scientists communicate about uncertainty, the public perceives it with a very negative, unsure connotation. Instead of using the word “uncertain”, it is important that climate researchers use a different word like “variability” or describe levels of “robustness” in data, which communicates the same range of possible scenarios but without the negative connotation.

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        SLR Simulation: Our first recommendation to the ARC is to create an online sea level rise simulator. This simulation would allow users to explore different climate change scenarios, visualize different contributors to SLR, and model potential effects of SLR such as loss of coastal land and increased frequency of severe floods. The goal of this outreach strategy would be to allow the user to better understand the concept of uncertainty as well as to allow them to make their own conclusion about how SLR will affect them through interacting with the simulation.
        Social Media Campaign: We are recommending that the ARC begin a three-pronged campaign including a Facebook page, a short series of YouTube videos, and an Instagram account because many people use social media as a source of information. The main purpose of the Facebook page would be to increase ARC name recognition and give them the ability to share important publications or local climate change-related events. The YouTube series would be a short series of videos to explain in simple terms what sea level rise is, how it affects New Zealand, and how people in New Zealand can prepare for it. Finally, the main purpose of Instagram would be to increase trust and relatability to the public by posting researcher biographies and expedition updates. Through this three-pronged approach, the ARC would be able to provide easily consumable information as well as build trust with the public.
        Website: The goal of the website is to provide a single location for the public to access all of the information concerning SLR. Keeping all the information about SLR in one location creates a single resource for people to expand their understanding. A website would also present people with resources on response strategies for SLR to help them better understand what they can do as individuals and as a community. The website could include tabs on explaining what SLR is, what the impacts are on New Zealand, and how the public can respond to mitigate its effects. Additionally, the website is synergistic with the other recommendations discussed. The website would link to the SLR simulation and the social media campaign could also increase traffic to the website.
        Art Installation: The goal of an art installation would be to evoke an emotional response from the public and motivate them to want to take action. One idea we discussed was creating a set of human-sized water bottles that would be appeared to be filled with liquid up to the projected rise in sea level for different IPCC scenarios. A sign would accompany this installation that would explain what each sea level projection would mean for its impact on New Zealand, how human action leads to this projection and provide a resource for the public to learn more about SLR.