Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Reframing climate change, part II

For years, climate realists have been concerned that, despite all the grim scientific evidence, the public is still not fully engaged with the debate or the action that will be needed to address climate change. One problem may even be the term “climate change”. Now a new report suggests that another term may shift the public’s dial. The term is, wait for it: "global warming".

Framing Science’s Matt Nisbet cites a new study that shows how using the terms "climate change" versus "global warming" has a real bearing on public perceptions. Published in the Journal Public Understanding of Science, it comes from Lorraine Whitmarsh of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and is based on a postal survey of 590 people in Portsmouth, Hampshire.

Nisbet quotes from the study’s conclusion:

""Global warming" is more often believed to have human causes and tends to be associated with ozone depletion, the greenhouse effect and heat-related impacts, such as temperature increase and melting icebergs and glaciers. The term "climate change" is more readily associated with natural causes and a range of impacts. Furthermore, the term "global warming" evokes significantly more concern, and is rated as "very important" by more respondents, than the term "climate change." Finally, more people consider individual or public action to be an effective means of tackling "global warming than do so for "climate change"; while a higher proportion believe planting trees could mitigate "climate change" than it could mitigate "global warming.""

The political realities take us right back to the infamous memo produced in 2002 by the US conservative political strategist Frank Luntz. He advised the George W. Bush White House on how to neutralise global warming and the environment as political issues.

“It’s time for us to start talking about “climate change” instead of global warming . . . . “climate change” is less frightening than “global warming.” . . . While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge.”

All this suggests that climate realists should stop talking about “climate change” and start talking about “global warming”.

But Drew Westen and Celinda Lake, who are experts on the emotional and neurological drivers of public opinion, see it differently. They were involved with a recent comprehensive research project for the communications gurus ecoAmerica, which aimed to find new ways to persuade people who haven’t made up their minds about climate change / global warming. Westen and Lake contend that “global warming” may sound quite positive to some Americans and that they may be less inclined to believe it every time there’s a cold spell. In any case, they say, “global warming” may be too abstract a concept for most people.

Last month, ecoAmerica produced their report Climate and Energy Reports: Our Common Future. Here’s their key suggestion:

"For climate change, leading with global warming, climate crisis or climate change tends to polarize and weaken the message. The language itself is especially problematic among swing voters. We should speak of deteriorating atmosphere and only after establishing connections with Americans’ other values
first . . .

“The best new term is “deteriorating atmosphere” or “our deteriorating atmosphere”(personalizing the term) instead of ‘global warming’ or ‘climate crisis.’”

I agree with Westen and Lake on the need to get away from jargon and on the need for progressives and client realists need to speak to people in their language, speaking to their values. The ecoAmerica report makes many good points (example: don’t talk about “renewable” and “alternative” energy; instead, talk about energy sources that run out and ones that don’t run out.) It is worth reading in full.

But their big idea, “our deteriorating atmosphere” isn’t the most catchy phrase I’ve ever heard. The respected Democrat pollster Mark Mellman has argued that it lags a long way behind public American public opinion. He cites evidence that the vast majority of Americans believe global warming is real, is happening now and constitutes a serious threat, particularly to future generations.

Likewise, four out of five people the UK are very or fairly concerned about the impact of climate change on the country. Most think that the UK is already affected. The vast majority believe that it may result in increased pollution, changing local weather and increased risk of skin cancer. Around three quarters believe that climate change is mainly or entirely a result of human behaviour. Four out of five people in the UK are very or fairly concerned about climate change. [click here] We should use these assets and build on the foundations. This isn’t the time to forget them.

So where to now? "Climate change" is a more technically accurate term but, as George Monbiot has said, it does not explain the full impact of what we are doing to the earth’s atmosphere. If the Tyndall research is correct, "global warming" is more emotive but it may not public support for the action that we all to take. But nobody has yet come up with a new term that really works. And, as Nesbit says, there is a risk trying to bring in new ones may simply annoy or polarise the public, who may feel they are being “sold to”.

There may not be a silver bullet on climate communications. So let's keep working with the terms we know, such as "climate change" and "global warming". And we need more UK-based research (polls, focus groups) about these terms, some of the options, and what they really mean to people.

The same applies to framing. UK climate realists have long used the “environmental disaster” frame. There are others on offer, most notably the “economic development” frame, which usually translates into “green jobs” and the “public health frame”, which has some value too. All of these should help to target messages and tell stories, to build support with different sections of the public and persuade people to act. Yet there is still very little research about how these frames work or fail with British people.

Most importantly, we shouldn’t pretend that any of these can be used in isolation from the evidence and arguments about climate change and global warming. Too many of the arguments over climate communications – especially those in the states – are carried out as if there is a direct choice between the science and the popular messages” / frames. But it doesn’t have to be that way. The climate realists can win on all these fronts. For some brilliant examples of how the jobs frame, the economic security frame and the climate message can work together, check out this speech by Barack Obama, urging passage of the Waxman-Markey energy bill. (hat tip: Climate Progress) Or this post by Joe Romm showing how Obama uses rhetoric and metaphor, to push his climate change messages so brilliantly.

If only there was a politician willing and able to apply those lessons in the UK.

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