Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Reframing climate change: a new overview

Most successful communicators are adept at framing, whether using frames intentionally or intuitively.

So says Matthew Nisbet, associate professor in the School of Communication at American University and blogger for Age of Engagement.

His primer on framing, what it is and how issues are framed, is essential reading for anyone involved in communications, especially about climate change.

Nisbet includes links to his earlier work, including this interesting article describing the frames that are frequently used in the climate change debate.

But he expresses concern that the framing of climate change is considered in terms of marketing and persuasion rather than as a resource for encouraging “bottom up” public involvement. Nisbet goes on:

The unintended consequence of a marketing, political campaign approach is that these strategies tend to seed further polarization and alienation while risking trust in experts and their organizations.

Nisbet, of course, writes about the US, where debate on climate change divides on party political lines much more than it does here. Across the Atlantic, there is much more dispute as to whether or not human-made climate change is real.

Yet the “marketing, political campaign approach” is also dominant in Britain’s discourse about climate change. There may not have been American-style polarisation and alienation, but the public have become less concerned about climate change over the last couple of years, as economic worries – jobs and mortgages – have moved to centre stage. (These trends can be too easily be over-stated, as Climate Sock has pointed out). And the media have lost interest , especially after the Copenhagen summit.

If we are to meet our emissions targets, governments and supporters of climate action will need to encourage people to adopt more-environmentally friendly behaviours. The policies needed are sure to be costly and controversial, meaning that public buy in will be essential. So, what sort of frames should be used?

The most familiar is what Nisbet calls the “Frankenstein’s monster” frame. You tell horror stories to grab the public’s attention, convince them that climate change is an important issue and warn about what will happen unless we all take action to emit less carbon. Many of the horror stories are, of course, well founded and well-researched. But there is growing evidence that “climate pornography” pushes people away and makes them feel that their personal efforts to tackle climate change are hopeless.

Last October, 10:1o tried to push climate change back into the headlines in a scary but humorous way, with disastrous consequences. [click here] Still, NEF’s “hundred months” campaign regularly warns us how little time we supposedly have left to save the planet. (It’s now 71 months, I think).

More positive strategies have been put forward. Last year, Tom Crompton of WWF argued that the government must promote a whole new set of values by which people should live, to promote a shift to a more sustainable society. [Click here, and here.] This sounds like a “moral” or “ethical” version of Nisbet’s “social progress” frame.

But other supporters of climate action acknowledge that most people want to enjoy ever more prosperous and comfortable lives and such materialist drives will prevail over any concerns that they may have about “climate change”. Consequently, most people will not readily make sacrifices to solve a problem that seems too academic, too big, too far away, too out of their control – or too scary.

The logical conclusion is that stories and frames should move on from “climate change”. and on to other arguments for taking action. For instance, this interesting New York Times article, from last October, about energy efficiency in Kansas, suggests that with ‘climate sceptic’ audiences, behaviour change is best framed in terms of other issues, such as energy security, jobs, and faith, rather than in terms of saving the environment.

One branch of this school of thought focuses on personal considerations, such as the promise of a better quality of life. Futerra’s Solitaire Townsend contends that politicians should tell the public a positive but down-to-earth story about what a low carbon way of life would look and feel like - “building a new narrative in people’s heads . . . a self-fulfilling low-carbon prophecy”. She has argued for “[low carbon] substitution, not sacrifice”. [Click here, and here.] Even if the narrative sounds a bit vague, it opens the way to a “consumerist” or “aspirational” edge to the “social progress” frame.

But neither Crompton or Townsend (or, at least, their material that I have seen) contains much analysis of current public perceptions and attitudes – where people are now, how much prepared they are to change, and why. Even Solitaire Townsend has tended to skirt around the issue of economic incentives or, to put it bluntly: why should people start living in more environmentally friendly ways? Where is the financial pay off for them?

The consumerist, “pocketbook” agenda is at the heart of the Political Climate blog, written for a year now by Matthew Lockwood and Andrew Pendleton. They want public policy to focus more on cutting on emissions than on changing behaviours. The Political Climate duo challenge the way politicians have framed climate change as an economic issue, with policies to price carbon (emissions trading, carbon taxes) and attempts to build an international framework as the solution. Instead, they want government to fund policies that bring down the price of low-carbon energy technologies, thereby helping to reframe the debate in more exciting ways, so as to bring more people and interest groups on board.

Political Climate’s argument is a version of the economic development frame, which positions climate change as an opportunity to grow the economy and create jobs, as well as to save the environment: a “win-win” solution.

I follow their work with considerable interest, but I’m still not convinced that the “innovation” answer could stabilise emissions quickly enough to meet the UK’s -- or other countries’ -- emissions targets. It may take years or even decades for cheap new technologies to reach the level of deployment needed to make a major impact on emissions. The alternative path is not as clear as it might be. In these fiscally straitened times, it’s very hard to see how the UK government could write the massive cheque needed to decarbonise our energy system by 2030. A key test of economic development frames like the promise of “green jobs” is whether they are plausible and credible.

Meanwhile, the coalition government has taken economic development as their central frame (but not the only one) for communicating climate policy. Two notable speeches by the energy and climate change secretary, Chris Huhne, on the theme of “green growth” can be seen here and here. Huhne argues that “green growth” will be delivered by more energy saving, carbon capture and storage, renewables and “new nuclear plant as long as there is no public subsidy”.

Crucially, the government wants to reform the electricity markets in order to promote investment in low-carbon energy technologies. It also believes that the EU emissions trading scheme can be reformed, to deliver a strong carbon price. The government’s policies and frames are, therefore, fundamentally different from those of Political Climate.

Chris Huhne is also invoking a “consumer benefits” frame with his promotion of the government’s Green Deal scheme for energy efficiency. His speech to last year’s Liberal Democrat conference is a good example. “Under the Green Deal consumers will save energy and save money.”

Now for the hard questions.

Will “green growth” happen? Will the government – the whole government – present a consistent, credible narrative on climate change or “green growth”? Will the public believe any of it?

How will the Green Deal be marketed to UK households? Will it work? (These questions address both policy and personal behaviours)

For that matter, can "green growth” frames persuade people to make the major economic changes that are needed, or is Tom Crompton correct when he warns that that appeals to materialism cannot, in the end, build strong public support for the radical changes that are needed in the way we live and may even undermine the massive paradigm shift required? Maybe some of Solitaire Townsend’s more “vision-based” narratives could help?

Or do we need to take some other American advice, from Joe Romm for instance, and try to make sure that discussion of policies that aim to tackle global warming should be located firmly in the context of global warming?

Over the coming months, this blog will address these questions in more detail, as well as the other issues raised above about different climate change and environmental frames. Then there’s the small matter of whether the media really wants to talk about it. More on that soon.

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