Framing climate change
It’s practically a truism at this point that the lack of public outcry and action on global warming has something to do with the way the issue is “framed.” (I wrote about framing here.) But how to frame it better? Everybody has a theory.
An outfit called the FrameWorks Institute (good piece on the institute here) did some research on it and came up with some semi-concrete conclusions.
Here’s what it found is wrong with the way journalists and green groups are presenting the problem:
It found that the more people are bombarded with words or images of devastating, quasi-Biblical effects of global warming, the more likely they are to tune out and switch instead into “adaptationist” mode, focusing on protecting themselves and their families, such as by buying large vehicles to secure their safety.
FrameWorks found that depicting global warming as being about “scary weather” evokes the weather “frame” which sets up a highly pernicious set of reactions, as weather is something we react to and is outside human control. We do not prevent or change it, we prepare for it, adjust to it or move away from it. Also, focusing on the long timelines and scale of global warming further encourages people to adapt, encouraging people to think “it won’t happen in my lifetime” and “there’s nothing an individual can do”.
As importantly, the FrameWorks Institute found that stressing the large scale of global warming and then telling people they can solve it through small actions like changing a light-bulb evokes a disconnect that undermines credibility and encourages people to think that action is meaningless. The common practice of throwing solutions in at the end of a discussion fails to signal to people that this is a problem that could be solved at all.
Yes, that all sounds depressingly correct to me. What would work as better framing? Here’s what the institute offers:
… the FrameWorks Institute drew several conclusions:
- it recommended placing the issue in the context of higher-level values, such as responsibility, stewardship, competence, vision and ingenuity
- it proposed that action to prevent climate change should be characterised as being about new thinking, new technologies, planning ahead, smartness, forward-thinking, balanced alternatives, efficiency, prudence and caring
- conversely, it proposed that opponents of action be charged with the reverse of these values — irresponsibility, old thinking and inefficiency.
FrameWorks also recommended using a simplifying model, analogy or metaphor to help the public understand how global warming works — a “conceptual hook” to make sense of information about the issue. Instead of the “greenhouse-gas effect“, which was found did not perform for most people, FrameWorks recommended talking about the “CO2 blanket” or “heat-trap” to set up appropriate reasoning. This would help, it argued, to refocus communications towards establishing the man-made causes of the problem and the solutions that already exist to address it, suggesting that humans can and should act to prevent the problem now.
The need to evoke the existence and effectiveness of solutions upfront, the FrameWorks research stressed, was paramount. And if the consequences of climate change are cited, the analysis concluded they should not appear extreme in size or scale, should put humans at the centre, made to fit with personal experience and involve shorter timelines — twenty years not 200.
So: simplify explanations, focus on solutions, speak in terms of values, claim the future. All the usual stuff.
At this point it seems to me that good framing ideas on global warming abound. Now the question is: Why is nobody using them?