Climate change is a big problem and we need to find better ways of talking about it

A team of researchers representing a range of academic departments across most of the schools in the University of California (UC) system recently published a chapter summarizing what we know about efforts to communicate climate disruption and how we can improve on them. It’s full of useful information (especially in the tables, which include things like common climate myths vs. facts and existing communication programs in the UC system). An overarching theme that I’ll focus on is that framing matters.

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Pretty as a picture by Silvia Sala, CC

What’s a frame?

Picture frames often enhance the image inside. Frames can draw attention to the parts of the image that lie inside them and obscure or detract from the parts that lie outside. Linguistic frames do the same thing. The chapter refers to framing as “an effective communication tool for drawing attention to, legitimizing, and providing an interpretive context for abstract, complex, or unfamiliar information” (p. 9). For example, one person might frame a medical procedure by saying that it has a 70% success rate, while another might frame that same procedure as having a 30% failure rate. Although they both reflect the same information, each highlights something different — either success or failure — and psychology research has shown that in many instances, people reason differently when they encounter different frames for the same idea. Truly complex concepts like climate change can’t be communicated without framing, because it’s impossible for a communication to portray everything imaginable that’s known about a topic without highlighting some information and downplaying others.

The power and ubiquity of framing show us that facts alone are not enough. Frames used to communicate about climate disruption need to be selected conscientiously in order to give people a sense of why they should care about the issue and what they personally can do about it. Climate change can be framed by highlighting the human health issues it creates, the economic gains that can be realized by addressing it, or effects on local versus global levels. Climate change can also be framed using images.

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Atlas, it’s time for your bath by woodleywonderworks CC

This image makes me think, damn, we need to save the Earth. If that one didn’t work for you, maybe this one will:

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Polar bear by Arctic Wolf CC

Considerations for Frames

There is no one-size-fits all frame for motivating people to care about and act on climate change. Instead, communicators need to know their audience and anticipate the audience’s reaction to different messages. Tailoring frames for specific audiences becomes even more challenging when audiences are culturally diverse (a very notable point, since the authors are all from California, the most populous and diverse state). But it’s a challenge worth taking up. In the state of CA, for example, a message about rising sea levels may impact someone living on the coast more than someone living inland in an area affected by drought. Anticipating what matters to an audience can help communicators choose the most appropriate frames.

Religion provides an additional opportunity for framing. The major world religions emphasize humans’ responsibility to care for their natural world, and religious leaders have begun explicitly urging their followers to take this message seriously in the context of climate change. Unlike religion, climate change is often associated with political beliefs (almost half of Republicans are skeptical of climate change while just over 10% of Democrats are). In order to get more people to acknowledge the gravity of climate change and the actions we need to take to prevent disaster, communicators should focus on reducing the political divide on the issue, for example having prominent Republican groups and “opinion leaders,” people who have clout in their communities (such as Bible study or PTA leaders), speak about the urgency of addressing global warming.

Economics and business frames are also important to hone. Many people currently see addressing climate change as bringing about job losses, but in reality job prospects in the renewable energy sector are greater than those for traditional energy sources. Communicators need to emphasize these facts as well as highlighting the major companies that are already committed to improving energy practices.

Climate change is one of the most contentious issues nationally (and globally, at least in places where people have even heard of it), and communicating any controversial issue presents challenges (the subject of a chapter in the National Academy of Science’s guide for effective science communication, which I summarized previously). Adequately addressing climate change may involve more scientific innovations, legislation, and a lot of behavior changes… but we won’t get there if we don’t also focus on communicating the gravity of the issue and what can be done about it.

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Sushi vs. Hamburger Science

I was introduced to this article, Sushi Science and Hamburger Science, last semester in one of my favorite classes, and it’s still making me think. It’s written by a Japanese biologist visiting America, who says:

I had always regarded science as a universal and believed there are no differences in science at all between countries. But I was wrong. People with different cultures think in different ways, and therefore their science also may well be different.

He first compares the cuisines of the East and West. According to the Easterner, in the West, we overcook food, but at the same time have some dishes in which the genius of the chef is truly apparent. In the East, on the other hand, many of the meals are not cooked at all, and although there are many skills needed to be a good preparer even of sushi and sashimi, the materials speak more than the cook does.

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His religion panel also sums up differences that he says are evident in many cultural practices. In general, westerners are more focused on one God, intentionality, the individual, and rational facts. While dichotomies are pervasive in Western culture, they are absent from Eastern. Motokawa sums the difference up by equating Western thought with the concept of “one” and Eastern thought with the concept of “many.”

religion panel

This “one-many” distinction is very clear in the two cultures’ beliefs about science. In the West, we assume that nature is uniform and rational, and the goal is to discover universal rules. Instead of seeking universality, Easterners focus on finding differences and specificity (which Motokawa attributes at least in part to their belief in many gods). He writes that according to Eastern philosophy, “To interpret is to create your personal world, which always closes the way to the truth.”

science panel

If this is right, it explains why 70% of psychology citations come from the West. In psychology, the goal is to discover how the human brain/mind works. This implies that every human brain (and primates and rats too, since they’re frequently the subjects used in studies to learn about humans) behaves the same way under the same traditions. Are our mentalities are so different among different cultures that we don’t even see value in studying the same things? I wonder if there’s any way to reconcile the Eastern and Western cultural beliefs in order to study the mind? Maybe this is an important step in coming closer to a true understanding, as opposed to an understanding based on constricted cultural beliefs.

If cheeseburger sushi is a culinary possibility, maybe there’s hope for reconciliation of these two very different cultures for scientific investigation... Photo: http://aht.seriouseats.com/archives/2010/07/cheeseburger-themed-sushi-available-at-yatta--truck-in-los-angeles.html
If cheeseburger sushi is a culinary possibility, maybe there’s hope for reconciliation of these two very different cultures for scientific investigation… Photo: http://aht.seriouseats.com/archives/2010/07/cheeseburger-themed-sushi-available-at-yatta–truck-in-los-angeles.html