Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Re-Framing The Climate Change Discussion

Last month Sudhir Joshi wrote an Op-Ed in this blog about Message Framing. This blog article continues the "message frame" discussion on the topic of Global Warming and Climate Change.

Over the last several weeks, we’ve seen snowstorms of historic proportions roll across the country from New Mexico to New York. Scientists think events like this, the heat wave in Russia, the floods in Pakistan and Australia and the unusually bitter European winters are troubling examples of the kind of severe weather that will continue, and likely get worse.

Every decade since 1980 has been warmer than the previous decade and every year of the last decade was warmer than the previous year as greenhouse gas concentrations continue to climb higher than at any time over the last 500,000 years. 2010 was not just the hottest year this decade, but the hottest year in recorded history. This is why the National Academies of Science found last year that “climate change is occurring and is caused in large part by human activities.”

Military planners in the Pentagon have concluded that “global warming is now officially considered a threat to U.S. national security.” In its 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, Pentagon planners reported that climate change could result in food and water scarcity, pandemics, population displacement, and other destabilizing events that could create conflict.
“The American people expect the military to plan for the worst,” says retired Vice Adm. Lee Gunn, a 35-year Navy veteran now serving as president of the American Security Project. “It’s that sort of mindset, I think, that has convinced, in my view, the vast majority of military leaders that climate change is a real threat and that the military plays an important role in confronting it.”

President Obama speaks about investing in
clean energy technologies at Penn State Univ.
to create new jobs, grow the economy.
February 3, 2011.

Yet, as dire as global warm may seem, we have an opportunity to reduce the green house gas emissions that are disrupting our climate and at the same time put the pieces of our economy back together by investing in clean energy technologies.

Clean energy investment will help slow climate change while creating good-paying jobs for everyday Americans.

But to make that optimistic goal a reality we must learn how to re-frame the climate discussion.

Frames are interpretive story lines that set a specific train of thought in motion, communicating why an issue might be a problem, who or what might be responsible for it, and what should be done about it.

George Lakoff, a renowned cognitive linguist and political thinker, asserts that people reject facts that are outside the frame with which they see the world.

Audiences rely on frames to make sense of and discuss an issue; journalists use frames to craft interesting and appealing news reports; policymakers apply frames to define policy options and reach decisions; and experts employ frames to simplify technical details and make them persuasive. That frame, or framework, is often created by values that are instilled during childhood.
The frame ensures that we see the world, and only the world, that agrees with our values. In other words, we block out facts and reasonable arguments to ensure that our core values are justified.
Framing is an unavoidable reality of the communication process, especially as applied to public affairs and policy. There is no such thing as unframed information, and most successful communicators are adept at framing, whether using frames intentionally or intuitively.

Conservatives with a vested interest in making the public believe that burning fossil fuel does not contribute to global warming and climate change have "framed" the debate to their advantage. A framing that poll results indicate have had a negative impact on public understanding of climate change and recognition of the urgent need to address it. Those who dispute the science of global warming have financial ties to the oil, auto, electricity and coal industries that a vested interest in maintaining status quo in fossil fuel commerce. (PBS)

Frank Luntz, in a Frontline special "Hot Politics,"
explains his 1997/1998 memo that became the
playbook for how conservatives framed climate
change as really a matter of "scientific
uncertainty" and "economic burden."
During the 1990s, based on focus groups and polling, Republican consultant Frank Luntz helped shape the climate skeptic playbook, recommending in a strategy memo to lobbyists and Republican members of Congress that the issue be framed as scientifically uncertain, using opinions of contrarian scientists as evidence.

Luntz also wrote that the “emotional home run” would be an emphasis on the dire economic consequences of action, impacts that would result in an “unfair burden” on Americans if other countries such as China and India did not participate in international agreements.

This framing strategy was effectively incorporated into talking points, speeches, white papers, and advertisements by conservative think tanks and members of Congress to defeat major policy proposals along with the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty that would have committed the United States to cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

The communication campaign also promoted distortions in news coverage. As political reporters applied their preferred horse race frame to the policy debate—focusing on which side was winning, the personalities involved, and their message strategies—they also engaged in the same type of false balance that has been common to coverage of elections and issues.
In other words, by giving equal weight to contrarian views on climate science, journalists presented the false impression that there was limited expert agreement on the causes of climate change.

In fact, a survey published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal reveals that 97 percent of scientific experts agree that climate change is real and is caused mainly by human activity. That same study by Stanford University researchers also found that the small number of climate contrarians have a clear lack of scientific credibility.
U.S. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), former chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, has been the loudest voice of climate skepticism. In speeches, press releases, and on his Senate b log, Inhofe casts doubt on the conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other major scientific organizations, selectively citing scientific-sounding evidence. To amplify his message, Inhofe takes advantage of the fragmented news media, with appearances at television outlets, such as Fox News, on political talk radio, and Web traffic driven to his blog from the Drudge Report.
In a February 2007 Fox & Friends segment titled, “Weather Wars,” Inhofe deceptively argued that global warming was in fact due to natural causes and mainstream science was beginning to accept this conclusion. Inhofe asserted, unchallenged by host Steve Doocy, “those individuals on the far left, such as Hollywood liberals and the United Nations,” want the public to believe that global warming is manmade. Similar frames of scientific uncertainty and economic consequences continue to be pushed by other conservative commentators, including influential syndicated columnists George Will and Charles Krauthammer.

Charles Krauthammer uses
one of Luntz's frames

Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer recently attacked a Nobel Prize winner by claiming that the scientific consensus that backs climate change is essentially a religious institution. "Look, if Godzilla appeared on the Mall this afternoon, Al Gore would say it’s global warming, ... Look, everything is - it’s a religion." Charles Krauthammer said on PBS’s Inside Washington Saturday.

Inside Washington's host Gordon Peterson had kicked off the discussion, quoting former vice president Al Gore in a recent interview with a New York Times columnist. “There is about four percent more water vapor in the atmosphere today than there was in 1970,” Gore told Gail Collins. Gore further explained that the extra water appeared because the warmer oceans and air returned to earth as heavier precipitation.

To the Gore quote Krauthammer exclaimed, "You find me a single piece of evidence that Al Gore would ever admit would contradict global warming, and I’ll be surprised," he said. BUT, conservatives will not accept a single piece of evidence that climate change driven by global warming does exist.

Climate Change Frames that Reinforce Partisan Divisions

What explains the stark differences between the objective reality of climate change and the partisan divide in Americans’ perceptions? In part, trusted sources have framed the nature and implications of climate change for Republicans and Democrats in very different ways.

Conservative think tanks, political leaders, and commentators continue to hew closely to their decade-old playbook for downplaying the urgency of climate change, which includes questioning whether human activities drive climate change while also arguing that any action to curb it will lead to dire economic consequences. The strength of the decade-old conservative frames on global warming and climate change linger in popular culture, political discourse, and the memory store of many audiences.

In contrast, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, many environmentalists, and many scientists have attempted to counter the scientific uncertainty and economic consequences frames by emphasizing looming “climate crisis.” To instantly translate their preferred interpretation, these advocates have relied on depictions of specific climate impacts, including hurricane devastation, polar bears perched precariously on shrinking ice floes, scorched, drought-stricken earth, blazing wild fires, or famous cities or landmarks under water due to future sea-level rise.

Publicity for Gore’s documentary on climate change’s effects, An Inconvenient Truth, dramatized climate change as an environmental Frankenstein’s monster, including a hurricane-shaped plume spewing from a smoke stack on its movie poster and a trailer telling audiences to expect “the most terrifying film you will ever see.” With an accent on visual and dramatic effects, the catastrophe strategy triggered similarly framed news coverage. For example, a 2006 Time magazine cover featured a polar bear on melting ice with the headline, “Global Warming: Be Worried, Be VERY Worried.”

One of the unintended consequences of this line of communication is that it plays into the hands of climate skeptics and further reinforces the partisan divide in climate change perceptions. Andrew Revkin, who has covered climate change for nearly 20 years for the New York Times, argues these claims are effectively countered by critics, such as Inhofe, as liberal “alarmism,” because the idea that mir mortals could cause warming and climate change on a global scale is simply silly crazy talk. For many it is a matter of faith that God created the earth and the climate that sustains us today about 6,000 years and only God has the ability to change the global climate.

Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), the new head of the House energy committee, today denied that climate change is man made at a public meeting. Upton, who received $20,000 from Koch Industries in his most recent campaign, introduced legislation with Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) to overturn the scientific finding by the Environmental Protection Agency that greenhouse pollution threatens public health. Upton was pressed by National Journal‘s Ron Brownstein as to why the Upton-Inhofe bill describes climate change as “possible.” After repeated attempts to avoid the question, Upton finally explained his stance: he accepts that the planet is warming, but not that the billions of tons of greenhouse gases emitted by human activity are a cause.

Contrarians can easily exploit the perception of over-dramatization to dismiss climate change as a problem. Polls suggest that the conservative-leaning public is likely filtering information about climate change through their frame of a liberal media bias. Such filtering results in Republicans who not only discount the climate change problem, but who also agree that the mainstream news media is exaggerating its severity.

In Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, environmentalists Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger advocate a move away from the frame of dire environmental consequences if greenhouse gas emissions are not radically reduced. They offer an alternative communication strategy, which involves turning the economic development frame in favor of action, recasting climate change as an opportunity to grow the economy. The two authors argue that only by changing the message frames of “innovative energy technology” and “sustainable economic prosperity” can diverse coalitions be created across partisan lines for meaningful action on climate change. With this framing strategy, they seek not just to engage the wider public, but also catalyze a more diverse social movement — perhaps even engaging support for energy policies among Republicans, who think predominantly in terms of market opportunities, or labor advocates, who value the possibility of job growth.

The morality and ethics frame is also featured in Gore’s WE campaign, which launched in Spring 2008. The WE campaign to “Repower America” attempts to unify U.S. citizens by framing climate change as a solvable and shared moral challenge. For example, in television and print advertisements, the WE campaign attempted to break the gridlock of partisan perceptions by pairing unlikely spokespeople such as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) with Republican and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and self-professed liberal and conservative clergymen, respectively, Reverends Al Sharpton and Pat Robertson.

Other WE TV ads featured actors as ranchers, construction workers, and autoworkers, stress the economic development frame, emphasizing job creation and growth. Importantly, these ads are placed during daytime talk shows and entertainment programming and in leisure magazines, which all reach non-news audiences who might not otherwise pay attention to coverage of climate change.

The Obama Administration continues to promote ideas to slow CO2 emissions and global warming through the frames of “creating green jobs and fueling economic recovery.” Yet the optimism of clean energy solutions is also open to the conservative counter-frame of uncertainty and more big-government tax and spend. In his State of the Union address, President Obama declared, "this is our generation's Sputnik moment" as he made the case for greater government investment in biomedical research, information technology, and clean energy technology. Sarah Palin was quick to respond to the president's speech, saying his proposal was misguided, and would lead to the kind of excessive centralized spending that doomed the Soviet Union.

E. O. Wilson offers another potentially unifying interpretation in his best-selling book The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. Wilson frames environmental stewardship as not only a scientific matter, but also as one of morality and ethics. In writing the book as an open letter to a Baptist minister he shares a common value and respect for nature, what the Bible calls “creation.” In this manner, he engages Christian readers and media outlets that might not otherwise pay attention to popular science books or appeals related to climate change. Paralleling Wilson’s interpretation, an increasing number of Christian leaders, including Pope Benedict XVI and evangelicals, such as Richard Cizik and Rick Warren, are emphasizing the religious duty to be “stewards” of God’s creation. (Video: God and Global Warming)

The world’s leading economies and companies are engaged in a race to develop new 21st century technologies to support a global clean energy future. If we want to remain competitive in the global economy, the United States needs to lead this effort. Studies show that comprehensive clean energy and climate policies can generate a net increase of almost two million new American jobs — jobs that can’t be outsourced and that use the skills of today’s workers. Developing and using clean energy technologies would revitalize our manufacturing sector, providing a needed boost to the U.S. automotive industry and to states that are struggling from the loss of factories and mills during the recent economic downturn. Other countries are already taking those jobs away from American workers: General Motors uses a Korean company to supply the battery cells for the new electric Chevrolet Volt vehicle – because the most advanced technology of this kind comes from Korean manufacturers — not American manufacturers. With an eye towards the future, China has adopted the most aggressive energy efficiency program in the world, providing incentives and support to rapidly grow their own domestic clean energy economy.

America is founded on a spirit of optimism, ingenuity, innovation, and hard work. Americans should be leading the transition to a global clean energy future. But, climate change contrarians who continue to claim there is no need for America to even enter the global clean energy technology race, are letting those two million new energy technology are jobs are quickly slipping from the grasp of American workers and into the hands of foreign offshore workers. That is the correct frame for the global warming / climate change discussion!

No comments:

Post a Comment