Recently, the issue of how to frame the global-warming debate has come up repeatedly. David sums it up here.

It’s gotten me thinking about the confluence between climate science and decision science. Communicating about global warming can not be reduced to a simple up or down vote on the use of doom and gloom, or a tradeoff between bad science and a complete value change. In the end, how, when, and most importantly, why people start to seriously address global warming will be 1/10th about the climate science and 9/10ths about good ol’ wacky human decision making.

Global warming is perhaps the ultimate example of what Horst Rittel called a wicked problem. Wicked in this sense does not mean evil; it means complex, tricky to resolve, and resistant to solutions. It is not the problem per se that is wicked, but how we as individuals or a society can or cannot address it. Because of this, tackling wicked problems requires that we stop treating them like more familiar, contained problems and stop focusing solely on the characteristics of the problem and start looking closely at how we as humans handle problems and decision making.

A whole lot of fascinating work has been going on, principally among psychologists, around the weird and wonderful ways our minds work for or against us, depending on the problems we face and the information we have at our disposal.

One of the folks who deals with this, George Lakoff, has gotten the attention of the Democratic party, which is trying to use his work on “framing” to get their party back on track. Who knows if it will work for the Democrats, but I think the strategy of looking for insights in the decision-making research could be beneficial to our collective conversation about global warming.

For what’s it’s worth, here are a few of my favorite researchers, a hack explanation of their ideas, and some off-the-cuff applications to global warming.

Paul Slovic: affect heuristics

People often use “overall readily available” affective impressions over more rational processes, even in complex and important decision making. Further, people construct their preferences on the fly based on biased weightings of importance they may not be aware of. Global warming is a very complex problem, but how people feel about it (and hence what they do about it) may be predetermined by their affective responses. By the time Al Gore is showing his fourth graph, it may be too late.

Barry Schwartz: the paradox of choice

Despite our cultural (and economic) belief that more choice is always better, in many cases too many choices produce negative outcomes. Because there is so much uncertain about global warming, talking with people about it brings up a dizzying array of choices, many of them quite unpleasant. Maintaining scientific uncertainty is important, but perhaps environmental strategists need to focus on a presenting a coherent, limited agenda of responses for people to consider. It narrows the conversation, but may be more manageable for people.

George Lakoff: cognitive framing

Framing means attending to how your message is structured and how it fits into the larger narratives people already have built up. Although “framing” is tossed about almost as much as “sustainability,” there’s some really fascinating research on message framing in the media. Examining how global warming is being framed, what it means to individuals, and how that connects to their views of society and self may be important to developing framings that resonate deeply and can advance the dialogue.

Stephen and Rachel Kaplan: Reasonable Person model

“People are more reasonable, cooperative, helpful, and satisfied when the environment supports their basic informational needs.” If you want people to understand and engage with global warming, connect the information to what they already know and put it in terms they can use; make sure they can put the information to work in a meaningful way. While some might view programs like Terrapass as a way to buy out of conservation, it may be an important way to feel like you’re doing something — that’s no small thing, when we’re up against such a big thing.

Gerd Gigarenzer: ecological rationality

Effective decision making is highly dependent on the match between the information people have, the context they are in, and the question they are being asked. Currently, the context in which we evaluate global warming is highly insulated from the problem, so it’s no surprise that people are disengaged. This will change as conditions change, but we need to find ways now to align where people are and what the problem is. In some sense, this argues for using Katrina and other visceral images, despite their questionable connection, because they give people the vision of what they are facing. Obviously this needs to be done with caution.