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Framing Climate Change

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

It’s environment week, kind of. Tuesday was World Environment Day and tomorrow is World Oceans Day. Both days were institutionalized through United Nations resolutions to draw attention to the environment and the threats it is exposed to. For communicators in development, climate change is one of the most relevant issues. Communication scholars also have thought a lot about how to effectively communicate climate change. I am not quite sure, however, whether the two sides are working together. Let me therefore discuss how framing can influence our understanding and acceptance of climate change.

Matthew Nisbet from American University has written an interesting article on “Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Matter for Public Engagement”. He argues that the enormous divide between the factual reality of climate change and citizens’ perception is partly due to the way interest groups have been framing the issue. He identifies a number of frames that are being used in the public discussion (p. 18):

  • Social Progress: improving life, to be in harmony with nature;
  • Economic development and competitiveness: economic investment, market benefit;
  • Morality and ethics: matter of right or wrong, respect;
  • Scientific and technical uncertainty: what is confirmed knowledge vs. what is alarmist, expert understanding and consensus;
  • Pandora’s box/runaway science: need for action in the face of a possible catastrophe;
  • Public accountability and governance: research or policy in the public interest or serving special interests;
  • Middle way: third way between conflicting or polarized views;
  • Conflict and strategy: Battle among elites, battle of personalities or groups.

Some of those frames support inaction and the position that we either don’t know enough about climate change, it won’t be that bad in the end, or science isn’t clear anyway. Others, such as social progress and morality and ethics promote societal change, but possibly slow change. Pandora’s box calls for immediate action. 

Two of the most fundamental frames, however, are “global warming” and “climate change.” Global warming was the most common phrase summarizing changes in the environment until only recently. It was not so successful – possibly because it does not always immediately square with people’s individual perceptions. While the world is indeed warming up, individuals mainly experience weather extremes, hot and cold. A cartoon by Gary Varvel wraps it up nicely: it shows the U.S. Capitol in DC under a mountain of snow during the massive snow storms of 2010 and the headline “Has anyone seen Al Gore lately?” The frame “climate change” captures individual experiences better, as it is all kinds of weather extremes we are dealing with in our individual experience. Changing the conversation from “global warming” to “climate change” was, in my mind, a stroke of genius and very important to making people understand that it’s about them (was it Al Gore who cultivated this term?).

Nisbet talks about framing climate change in a way that mobilizes people to act. While that’s of course crucial, I wonder whether people still need frames that make them understand the severity of the situation. Negative or urgent frames, like Pandora’s box, might be too scary and frighten people into denial. I like the idea of framing climate change in terms of economic growth – something on the minds of most citizens. Communicators need to find a frame that’s close to people’s lives, tying climate change to, for instance, property values that will plummet when sea levels rise and swallow your beautiful cabin at the bay. 

I’ll end with quoting Nisbet (p. 22): “If major policy change is to be achieved, new meanings and messengers for climate change are needed. Communication can no longer be a guessing game.”

Photo Credit: Flickr user greenwise art

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