COMMUNICATING CLIMATE CHANGE: Revkin Describes an "Invisible Middle" of Scientists Concerned Over 'Pandora's Box' Claims of Pending Catastrophe


Over the weekend, Andrew Revkin at the NY Times wrote a very timely and important peice detailing the growing unease among many scientists and policy experts with the new "normal' in the framing of global warming by environmental advocates, journalists, and even some scientists. This new frame I label the "Pandora's box" interpretation, and it's something I've detailed in recent months here at Framing Science, and in several talks here in DC.

Advocates use this interpretation to define global warming as a looming catastrophe of unknown and devastating consequences that requires immediate and dramatic political action. Journalists have picked up on this frame as a way to dramatize an otherwise technical topic, employing images of polar bears on shrinking ice floes and hurricane devastation.

I have to admit, I don't blame advocates for resorting to this angle. They look at the polls and the policy context and are frustrated that the U.S. continues to lag behind the rest of the world in taking global climate change seriously.

Yet as Revkin describes, these interpretations don't necessarily fit with what he refers to metaphorically as the "invisible middle" of opinion among scientists and policy experts:

They agree that accumulating carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping smokestack and tailpipe gases probably pose a momentous environmental challenge, but say the appropriate response is more akin to buying fire insurance and installing sprinklers and new wiring in an old, irreplaceable house (the home planet) than to fighting a fire already raging. "Climate change presents a very real risk," said Carl Wunsch, a climate and oceans expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It seems worth a very large premium to insure ourselves against the most catastrophic scenarios. Denying the risk seems utterly stupid. Claiming we can calculate the probabilities with any degree of skill seems equally stupid." Many in this camp seek a policy of reducing vulnerability to all climate extremes while building public support for a sustained shift to nonpolluting energy sources.

Revkin's metaphor is a useful heuristic for any journalist to keep in mind. I interviewed Revkin back in May of 2006 for an article on media coverage of the global warming/hurricane debate that I co-authored with Chris Mooney. Here's how he described what the metaphor meant and how it guides his reporting:

The people who have the strongest allegiances [in the climate debate], are the ones who are at the edges of a bellcurve, on the understanding of anything. Overtime, what I have been trying to pay attention to is the invisible middle. Out at the ends are the people who have the most interesting voices, the ones who are the easiest to fit into the ends of the spectrum. Sometimes they have media training. But if all you pay attention to are the two poles of understanding, what does the reader learn from that?

(Revkin offers more along these lines in a published interview with Chris Mooney for Seed magazine .)

But back to what else is wrong with the Pandora's box frame on global warming. This interpretation fails because it opens up scientists and advocates to criticism from industry-affiliated skeptics. Given the scientific uncertainty surrounding the causes of many specific climate impacts, the Pandora's box tactic has led to charges of "alarmism" (another framing device) from many conservatives, most notably outgoing Senate Environment Chair James Inhofe.

So what has been the end result of the Pandora's box frame in public opinion polls? Evidence suggests that it doesn't work.

I detailed these findings in a recent AMS Environmental Seminar Series presented here in DC to many Senate staffers and policy advocates. (See Powerpoint slides.)

Given that citizens often use their partisanship as an information short-cut, polls unsurprisingly show that Democrats are significantly more worried about global warming than their Republican counterparts. Yet regardless of party affiliation, despite historic amounts of media attention to global warming in 2006, most Americans still rank global warming as a lower level concern than other contemporary issues such as terrorism, the economy, or education. Republicans rank global warming below flag burning and the estate tax in importance. (Slide #22.)

In order to transform global warming into a political priority in the U.S., advocates need to discover frames that redefine the issue while also remaining essentially true to current scientific understanding. The challenge is to define the "old" story of global warming in ways that make it personally relevant to segments of the public currently tuning out the issue.

Several examples already exist. Recently, in an angle highlighted in mainstream media outlets and Christian media, a coalition of Evangelical church leaders have framed preserving the planet against climate change as a matter of biblical morality or "creation stewardship."

Secular moral appeals have also been used in a campaign by the National Ad Council, which in early 2005 ran ran television commercials framing global warming as a matter of responsibility to future generations.

In an angle featured in the business media, other advocates have framed climate change as an "economic opportunity" rather than a burden, arguing that the U.S. is falling behind in developing innovative technologies like hybrid cars.

These are just a few examples. More work is needed to figure out communication strategies that engage the public without stretching the science of climate change in the process.

See ongoing discussions of Revkin's article at Prometheus, Grist, and John Fleck's InkStain.

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Matt- Thanks for this interesting post. I do have one question for you. You assume that climate change needs to be more of a political priority:

"In order to transform global warming into a political priority in the U.S. . . ."

Why assume that this is necessary?

Is it not also possible to ask, given the substantial political support that does already exist, what kind of policies make sense and are effective? Policy makers take a lot of action on issues that are not a political priority as defined by public opinion polls. Is is possible that global warming could be addressed despite being viewed as less important than other issues? Or does it have to be at the top?

By framing the issue as one of public support you define global climate change as a _political_ issue measured by public opinion. By instead framing it as a matter of taking actions that are now feasible, it becomes much more of a _policy_ issue. The latter requires devising creative policy options that can both make a difference and survive the political process. The former won't succeed in any case unless there are viable policy options on the table. This is one reason why the Sisyphean task of making climate change the top public priority is misguided from the start.

Happy 2007!

"Republicans rank global warming below flag burning and the estate tax in importance."

Wow. What's your source?

Thanks for a great post.

Thanks as always for the valuable feedback.

Elected officials respond to perceptions of public opinion when it comes to putting issues on the agenda and giving priority to substantive policy solutions. Polls are a major indicator of public preferences. As long as surveys reflect global warming as polling below flag burning, gay marriage, and the estate tax for Republicans, and as a lower tier concern for Dems and Independents, not much is going to get done at the Federal level on climate change.

Being an extremist on this issue draws more funding for scientists. You can understand why we may wish to fund our labs and our studies. Getting published is also easier as long as we stay on the "correct" side of the issue. I wish journalists would show more understanding of these issues.

By Melinda Gomez (not verified) on 02 Jan 2007 #permalink


Do you have comparable data for where public opinion stood on clean air and water when the CAA and CWA (or other major environmental legislation, like the TSCA) were passed in the 1970s, or ozone depletion in the 1980s, Clean Air Act amendments of 1977 and 1990, etc.? I doubt any of these issues were at the top of public concerns when major action occurred.

As you are no doubt aware, policy history abounds with examples of major or influential government action without a corresponding groundswell of public opinion. Sometimes gov't takes action that is opposed by many/most people, e.g., as often occurs when taxes are increased (see GHWB and "read my lips").

It is true that massive grassroots movements can move politics. But if that is the only strategy being pursued, my view is that it greatly diminishes the prospects for effective action on climate, as there are many other ways that government acts as well.


I'd like to see that poll re-taken now -- after the big storms in the PNW and the latest weeks of warm weather in the East. Whether it's accurate or not, people will believe global warming is a problem that needs a national solution once they feel the heat personally, so to speak. Although I suppose that plays into the "catastrophe" framing.

I can see how "reducing vulnerability to climate extremes" might not seem particularly sexy to the media. Personally I'd like to see a description or vision of what that might look like. Smaller farms scattered across more climate zones? No more houses built on shorelines and a phase out of the existing ones? Neighborhood solar collectors in sunny places like Phoenix? People (or at any rate, I) need a vision to work toward. We want to know that our actions are making a difference. "Write your congressman" is just not compelling enough.

Sorry that's tangential to your post : )

Being an extremist on this issue draws more funding for scientists.

It does? How exactly would that work? Being a scientist, I'm personally unaware of a single issue on which being an extremist can get you more funding. This must be unique to the Earth sciences. Who exactly is responsible for ensuring that you have an extremist position before approving your grant? Is it the same federal government that steadfastly refuses to take any action on climate change?

While the 1967 Air Quality Act may have been before its time, it also failed, and it was the mass movement assoicated with Earth Day that motivated the Clean Air Act amendments. The link points to a personal recollection of that time, which comports with my own. Written by the then chair of the house subcommittee on health and environment, Paul Rodgers it starts:

"Historians of the environmental movement are likely to peg Earth Day 1970 as a key turning point in the American public's consciousness about environmental problems. I believe that Congress' enactment of the 1970 amendments to the Clean Air Act a few months later was an equally significant landmark. For the 1970 amendments moved environmental protection concerns to a prominent position on Capitol Hill, where they by and large have remained ever since."

I think we may be in a similar situation here with climate change legislation and actions. These things snowball.

"But back to what else is wrong with the Pandora's box frame on global warming. This interpretation fails because it opens up scientists and advocates to criticism from industry-affiliated skeptics. "

I don't really buy this -- the industrial types don't criticize scientists because they're "alarmist", they do so because they want to confuse, and ultimately suppress, the discussion altogether. They don't need to find valid challenges to the science, they can juts make up any old crap and call it a "rebuttal". And that's what they actually do.... And the basic point of the "Pandora's Box" argument is exactly that we know damn well that global warming will cause a variety of problems, so widespread and multifarous that there is no hope of listing them on a neat little cost/balance sheet.

Of course, if we did try to give such a list, the industry challengers would just come back with "well, what's the harm if a bunch of bugs go extinct", or "who needs the Arctic, nobody lives there but a bunch of Eskimos", or even "for every city that gets drowned, we'll have a new coastline to build on".

The real problem is that the big money is caught up in corporate and social systems that see no immediate profit in facing up to reality.

By David Harmon (not verified) on 02 Jan 2007 #permalink

Let us also consider the issue of balancing. Assume a significant problem with a consensus evaluation of the issue ranging from dire to bad. Now assume that there are a few people who are interested in minimzing action with a large budget and a good public relations agency. Their rational public strategy is to say everything is rosy. The tendency to balance among the non engaged and the media means that a relatively few people can radically shift the middle.

"This interpretation fails because it opens up scientists and advocates to criticism from industry-affiliated skeptics. "

This is well countered by green-affiliated scaremongerers with doomesday scenarios.

By Hans Erren (not verified) on 03 Jan 2007 #permalink

"I don't really buy this -- the industrial types don't criticize scientists because they're "alarmist", they do so because they want to confuse, and ultimately suppress, the discussion altogether."

LOL, now who is claiming that the discussion is over?

By Hans Erren (not verified) on 03 Jan 2007 #permalink

I see a problem with Revkin's article. Note the following phrases taken from the NYT article:

"some usually staid climate scientists"
"many environmental campaigners"
"espoused by many experts"
"Many in this camp"
"A lot of people"

This type of useage is typical for author who has an opinion but little or no data to back it up.

There is little question that people exaggerate on both sides of the global warming issue. There is also little question that exaggeration is unnecessary. I frame the issue this way: How can we possibly engage in a global experiment with results that will take generations to reverse when we don't know whether the results will be benign or catastrophic?

"The people who have the strongest allegiances [in the climate debate], are the ones who are at the edges of a bellcurve, on the understanding of anything."

Not sure what this is supposed to imply.

A climate (or other) scientist who sees things more clearly than the rest may be considered "radical", but he/she may also be entirely correct.

Revolutions in science are often started by people with seemingly "wild" ideas. But the ideas were considered wild by the majority only because the majority did not understand them as well as the person proposing them.

Given a bell curve of views on what do about global warming, it is not at all clear that I should choose the view in the middle, just because it happens to be the one that most people have adopted.

What if most of the people who make up the bell curve know nothing about the issue? Should I follow their lead?

I am not implying that one of the "extreme" views in the climate debate is the correct one, just that being at the extreme does not make it incorrect.

This "bell curve" stuff might work when one is talking about "preference for toilet paper", but I don't think it works in this case.

I suspect the person who wrote "being an extremist draws more funding" is pretending to be a scientist -- Google Scholar doesn't find anything published under that name, anyhow.

Aside -- about that "bell curve" illustration with the mixed up spectrum (violet to red to yellow) -- what's it supposed to illustrate?

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 03 Jan 2007 #permalink

'Getting published is also easier as long as we stay on the "correct" side of the issue.' says Melinda Gomez.

You don't know a damned thing about getting published in science, do you? I'll give you a hint - the enterprise works in a considerably different fashion than the world of religion and/or politics, which I'm guessing is your background based on the sheer ass-hattedness of that comment.

By Rick Desper (not verified) on 09 Jan 2007 #permalink

People Get What They Deserve: Climate Change and the End of Humankind
PIGS WANTED (PGWTD), or, "People Get What They Deserve":

Climate Change and the End of Humankind
on Planet Earth

by Charles C. Commons (c) 2006-3006

The end of humankind's time on Earth is coming to an end, and I welcome it. I can't believe I wrote that, but I did. Let me explain.

God knows, we've messed things up real bad, here on Planet Earth, and now it's time to pay the piper. Oh, it's not going to end in a nuclear armageddon, no. And it's not going to end because of the so-called "Clash of Civilizations" going on now with our friends the terrorists. No, the end is coming because of climate change, and it's too late to do anything about it now. Way too late.

Our fate has been sealed.

I should be in despair but I am not. I think we are getting what we deserve. We did our best, as a human species, but our best was not very good. We blew it. Climate change, according to the Stern Report, has already pretty much made it impossible -- read that word again: "impossible" -- to tackle global warming. We are done for.

We are about to be fried, frozen, fingered. Put that in your computer file.

As a species, we are done for. Period.

And while I don'tdespair over this, neither am I gloating, no. We are headed forextinction, and you know something, we deserve it. We sealed our own fate by our foolish, greedy, convenience-addicted actions.

Maybe it was in our genes from the very beginning, this coming demise. Maybe all this was meant to be, not some non-existant god or Creator Being, but by the fickle hands of fate itself. [If there really was a God, we wouldn't be in this predicament in the first place. Think about it. We did this all by ourselves. There's no use crying over spilled milk. We're done for.]

Oh, it won't happen soon, not in this lifetime, not in my lifetime or your lifetime. Give us 15 or 20 more human generations, 30 at most, and then it's curtains. The Earth will be fried. The die is already cast, it's in the cards. There's no going back. Sigh.

As human carbon emissions continue to grow and grow, the rate of climate change will accelerate and we will experience it sooner than you can imagine.

You think life is forever. It is not.

Human life is about to be deleted from the surface of Planet Earth. I give it about500 years. Stretch it to 1000 years if you wish, and that's okay with me. This is not an exact science. But it is science. We are done for.

The simple fact, the truth, is that we are headed for the exit ramp. Our rise as a species on Earth in a long, long history of cosmic time and Darwinian evolution has been capped. And we did it to ourselves. Us. You and me.

Cars. Airplanes. Factories. Coal plants. Massive industrialization. Oil. Technology. Convenience. Greed. We couldn't stop.

Our DNA, our intelligence, did us in. It's over. By the year 2500 -- okay, the year 3000 at the latest --we're history. And you know what? It doesn't matter. Not one bit. The cosmos does not care one iota. We came, we saw, we're leaving.

Because when you look at us, our history, our backstory, what did we achieve? Miracles, yes, and then some. But these miracles have done us in. Climate change cannot be unchanged. The course has been set.There's no turning back.

Let me put it this way: the Earth's experiment with the human species and most of the planet and animal species that evolved even before us is coming to an end. And we humans did it. We pulled the levers, we pushed the buttons, we pulled the triggers.

We burned too much coal, we guzzled too much gasoline, we used too much oil, we made too many factories to make our toys and vehicles, too many motorscooters, too many cars, too many smokestacks, too many people. We just didn't know how to rein things in. And now it's too late.

Well, 500 years is a long time to plan for the end. Start planning. I'm glad I lived in the last half of the 20th century and the first part of the 21st century. It's been a wonderful life, a wonderful ride, and I learned alot.

But even I, a common man with no PHD or expertise in anything, even I can tell you it's over. You don't have to read the fine print, either.The message is in plain English for anyone to read: increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have sealed our fate. And I mean SEALED.

By 2500 -- okay, 3000, if you want to stretch it -- we will be goners. The Earth will remain, of course, good old Earth, our temporary home amidst the stars. But we, the human species, will soon be gone.

And there is not one single thing anyone can do about it. This is the sad,bare, bald, truth.

Greedy, hungry for entertainment and travel and technology, we did it ourselves, to ourselves. The rest, now, will be a long slow decline into annihilation of our species by unstoppable global warming and climate change. You might say this is depressing. I say it's reality, and we need to face reality. And start planning for the end. That is where our enterprise should go now: planning for the end of the human species.

I think that, when all is said and done, we deserved this. And people usually get what they deserve. Don't you agree?

So goodbye Human Civilization, Human Science, Human Evolution, Human Dreaming. No more Magna Carta, no more Beethoven or Mozart or Snoopy Dogg or J-Z, no more cellphones, no more PDAs, no more United Nations, no more blogging, no more cars, no more churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, shrines. Human life is soon to be a lost chapter in the Cosmos. Because of global warming and climate change.

Goodbye Humankind, it all its storied and multicolored and multisplendored variety! Ten billion people will soon be zero people. There will be no one left alive. There will not be one man standing. The Earth will be devoid of all human life, and most animal life and plant life as well. But some bacteria and slime will remain and continue...

You don't have to be a weatherman to know which way climate change is taking us. It is taking us to our end as a species. E-N-D. Period. Full stop.

Of course, I won't be here to witness those last pathetic years, weeks, days. Neither will you.

I had a good life at this time in cosmic time, and it was a very interesting exercise in conciousness, and I loved every minute of my existence. I am grateful for the very miracle of being here at all. Thank you Universe, thank you Evolution, thank you DNA, thank you Genepool!

But I've seen the future: come the year 2,500 (okay, year 3000 if you want to stretch it a bit) it's bleak. Bleaker than bleak. It's become dark at that point. The point of no return is that there is no return. READ THAT SENTENCE AGAIN SLOWLY!

We never adequately learned that lesson. Too late now. Sigh.

How much longer?

15 generations of family life, 30 at the most. And then it's over. Humankind is on its way out.

In a way, it makes sense. We did it to ourselves. We did it ourselves. We dug our own hole, while trying to build a towering temple to the sky.

It's okay. We had our chance. But we couldn't curb our appetites. Born from the swamps, we shall return to the swamps. Evolved from the void, we will return to the void. One might call it poetic justice. Celestial justice. Everlasting justice. Star life.

We came out of nothing, and we will return to nothing. Blame it on our genes, our sharp minds, our penetrating intelligence and human brains.

We are done for.

NOTA BENE: Even as you read these words, the planet's millions of engines, small and large, household and industrial, are purring, revving, singing their song -- and spewing CO2 emissions into the very atmosphere that sustains us, the very atmosphere that is now hastening our demise. At this very moment -- NOW! -- highways around the world are clogged, smokestacks are belching, gasoline is being guzzled, oil is being burned. Even as you read these words, it is too late. Too late. Too late.

Of course, you think 500 years is so far away, who cares? You should care. And you do. But it's too late........




World at sharp end of climate change and humankind will end in 3000, warns 'blogger provacateur'

by LMN News Agency, New York

The world is at the sharp end of the devastating impact of climate change and there is nothing that can be done about it, according to an American writer who calls himself a "blogger provocateur", and says humankind will cease to exist by the year 2,500 or the year 3,000 at the latest.