Past vs. Future Frames for Communicating Climate Change

Climate change (is it happening? how problematic is it? and are humans responsible?) is a partisan issue. Work by Dan Kahan (which I’ve written about before) shows that conservatives are more likely than liberals to believe that climate change is not a result of human activity and that if unchanged, it will not be as destructive as many people claim. Researchers Matthew Baldwin & Joris Lammers explore the possibility that partisan differences in beliefs about climate change might result from differences in the way conservatives and liberals tend to think about time (their temporal focus).

Their starting point was that previous research has shown that conservatives focus more on the past than liberals do. Then they tested two competing frames: one was future-focused (“Looking forward to our nation’s future… there is increasing traffic on the road”) and the other was past-focused (“Looking back to our nation’s past… there was less traffic on the road”). Each participant read just one of these, and then reported their attitudes about climate change and the environment. They found that conservatives reported liking the past-focused message better than the future-focused one and also reported higher environmental attitudes after the past- compared to the future-focused frame.

Screen Shot 2017-01-08 at 5.20.38 PM.png

They replicated these findings in additional experiments with variations. For example, in one test, instead of using linguistic frames to draw attention to either the past or the future, they used satellite images, either showing a progression from the past to today or a forecasted progression from today to the future. Again, conservatives reported more proenvironmental attitudes after viewing past-focused images than future-focused ones.

Next they investigated the temporal focus that real environmental charities tend to use. Not surprisingly, they found that the charities’ messages disproportionately express future consequences, with less focus on the past. Following up on this, they presented participants with money that they could divide among two (fake) charities (one whose message was strongly past- and one whose message was strongly future-focused), or they could keep some or all of it. They saw each charity’s logo and mission statement (the past-focused one stated: “Restoring the planet to its original state” and the future one: “Creating a new Earth for the future”).

Screen Shot 2017-01-08 at 5.28.45 PM.png

Conservatives donated more to the past- than the future-oriented charity. Liberals did the opposite. Further, looking at just the past-oriented charity, conservatives donated more than liberals did. Looking just at the future-oriented one, the opposite pattern emerges. This is a very beautiful interaction (plus the researchers did a few other experiments with slightly varied methods and a meta-analysis, all of which add some weight to these findings).

Considering the finding that climate change communications rely heavily on future-focused appeals, these findings should really make us pause. Is it possible that climate change issues themselves may not actually be what divides conservatives and liberals so much, but instead the way they’re communicated might be driving much of the disagreement between them? My intuition is that framing is not entirely to blame for conservatives’ and liberals’ divergent beliefs about climate change, but this work shows that it may be a big part of the story. It certainly won’t hurt for communicators to start diversifying our temporal frames for discussing climate change.


For more consideration on this topic, see earlier posts: Climate change is a big problem and we need to find better ways of talking about it; Narratives for Communicating Climate Change; and The paradox of science communication and the new science to resolve it.

All figures from Baldwin, M. & Lammers, J. (2016) Past-focused environmental comparisons proenvironmental outcomes for conservatives. PNAS, 113(52), 14953-14957.

For a discussion of why the framing described in this paper might not be enough to change conservatives’ minds about climate change, see This one weird trick will not convince conservatives to fight climate change, by David Roberts for Vox.

Advertisements