Framing Science

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Back in the spring of 2006, Time magazine ran the cover at left warning Americans to “Be Worried, Be VERY Worried” about global warming. As I’ve written in different places (summary), this type of packaging for coverage of climate change is representative of the Pandora’s Box frame of catastrophe.

By focusing in on specific dramatic environmental impacts such as melting polar ice, sea level rise, the threat to polar bears, or the possibility of more intense hurricanes, advocates and journalists seek to dramatize a technical issue and provoke public concern and attention. As Ellen Goodman coined it: “This is your Earth. This is your Earth on carbon emissions.” Indeed, the metaphor is representative of a fear appeal strategy in health communication, much like the famous anti-drug PSAs from the 1980s.

Yet there are a couple unintended problems with this lead frame, as I have discussed. First, this line of communication plays directly into the hands of climate skeptics, only further reinforcing a deep partisan divide in climate change perceptions. As Andrew Revkin of the New York Times explains, given that the error bars of uncertainty for each of these climate impacts are much wider than the general link between human activities and global warming, these claims are quickly challenged by critics such as James Inhofe as liberal “alarmism,” putting the issue quickly back into the mental box of scientific uncertainty and partisanship.

Second, from research in health communication, we know that these types of environmental fear appeals, especially when lacking specific recommendations for how citizens can respond to the threat, also likely translate into a sense of fatalism and inaction on the part of many members of the public.

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But things seem to be changing. Gore’s Inconvenient Truth is perhaps the best example of the Pandora’s Box frame. Recognizing the limitations of this type of message strategy, his new communication initiative appears to have adapted in important ways, emphasizing new, more unifying messages. This type of message shift is represented in the latest issue of Time magazine, a special issue linked to this weekend’s Earth Day. As the cover at left suggests, gone is the fear appeal of a Pandora’s Box of looming disaster, and in is place is a moral appeal to “mobilize for the war against climate change.” The lead article to the issue opens by comparing the climate challenge to the civil rights movement, the Space Race, and the recovery from the Great Depression. It then moves into specific recommendations on how to win the “Long War,” with a heavy focus on solutions that will also grow the economy.

Comments

  1. #1 Mick
    April 18, 2008

    “The lead article to the issue opens by comparing the climate challenge to the civil rights movement, the Space Race, and the recovery from the Great Depression”

    But not an ongoing World War Two, only skeptics would see that connection.

  2. #2 doug l
    April 18, 2008

    I think you’re hitting on something very relevant here, though even the IwoJima allusion places those who disagree or who feel that the current campaign is not based on science soundly enough (call us heretics, please…denier sounds like we’re in favor of a haulocaust)are not patriotic, treasonous or are in fact the enemy’s tools.
    The enemy here in my opinion are those who would ignore the unceasing environmental assaults to habitat, water quality, bioaccumulation of metals interferring with reproduction in populations and the crushing weight of demand for consumer goods and a better life by the vast majority of the world who are hungry and insecure and look to the west’s technology to provide those things for them or they will sell off their last stand of trees to get it. I can understand the need for sounding an alarm but our leaders should be responding with calm leadership based on a thorough and objective reality. When Al Gore, who I admire, by the way, compares Earth to Venus and fails to mention Venus also recieves many times the amount of solar radiation than the Earth does, or alludes to the fact that the Northern Polar Ice cap which has lost much of its coverage is quite different from the Southern Ice Cap (one being a few meters thick and alread displacing and floating in corrosive sea-water, the other thousands of meters thick and on a continental land mass)it leads those who want to care to a conclusion that the science may not support. There are profound differences between being a model which helps us understand how climate works and a model which will actually predict climate, and to not give that difference proper emphasis provokes panic and alarm. Good decisions aren’t generally arrived at that way. Lastly, even though I like Al Gore, I was a federal employee during his vice-presidency and still recall one of his most memorable programs to end the crippling buren of paperwork which was in danger of suffocating the Federal Government. It was a program called GPRA (Government Paperwork Reduction Act)…and everyone went to all kinds of meetings and had to fill out new kinds of forms to make sure we were in compliance…and basically hobbled our effectiveness on the ground and ultimately, it did nothing except change the forms and added some web sites but if you’ve ever dealt with the Feds you know it’s not the actual paper, it’s the huge number of forms, electronic or paper it makes no difference, which one has to fill out that frustrates us and cripples our efforts and makes it less productive and less effective. And in this carbon cap program I see something very similar where a simple solution of supporting comrehensive agricultural sequestering of carbon, would provide a world with food and do more than simply hobbling the west’s manufacturing ability while ignoring the biggest CO2 producers as if they were poor undeveloped nations, while ignoring the fact that the biggest of those so-called developing nation’s economies are building gigantic military engines, space ships and skyscrapers and creating billionaires by the zillions. It’s unrealistic as is the understanding of the climate model. Yes, I too want to see an end to pollution, even if tomorrow we discover that in fact CO2 isn’t going to be the culprit. I want to see a responsible world population who loves and want to continue to benefit from a well preserved and wisely managed environment, not fears it. I want to live in a world that builds a coastal infrastructure that recognizes climate change and other causes for sea level change and understands that the environment and climate are dynamic…that there is no single “ideal” climate or sea level any more than there are inexhaustable supplies of fish or wood or whatever other myth we’ve been fed over the years by those who would mobilize our collective might, and this latest from the IPCC is very much like that, I’m afraid, but mostly afraid that we’ll squander the opportunity to achieve a comprehensive approach to the environmental problems we have instead of bet it all on the dubious idea of controlling climate with CO2 and when it fails to prevent the unexpected disaster it will leave the world’s population feeling helpless and less trusting about “science” and it’s ability to provide a measure of genuine understanding.

  3. #3 Danny Bloom
    April 24, 2008

    “As the cover at right suggests”

    ATOMIC TYPO ALERT, you meant cover at LEFT! pls fix later

    danny

  4. #4 Matthew C. Nisbet
    April 25, 2008

    Typo fixed.

  5. #5 Anonymous
    March 7, 2011

    GLOBAL WARMING IS A FAKE AND A FRAUD!