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LOCKED IN A POLITICAL KNIFE FIGHT? Huffington Post Responds to Framing Science on the Challenge of Communicating Global Warming

Over at the Huffington Post, David Roberts concedes my point about why the Pandora’s Box frame of looming catastrophe may not be the best way to communicate the urgency of climate change. Yet he disagrees that environmental advocates should be concerned about opening themselves up to claims of “alarmism” from climate skeptics.

This is a classic earnest progressive concern, as though if we just keep all our p’s and q’s in order, we’ll render ourselves immune to criticism. Guess what? There’s a whole class of people with careers and reputations built around criticizing greens and casting doubt on global warming. Many of them are paid to do it. No amount of scientific rectitude or rhetorical moderation will forestall those criticisms. The professional skeptics are simply not in the business of truth finding. That’s not their concern. They’re in a political knife fight. They don’t need “openings.” They don’t need “ammunition.” They’re happy to make shit up. The din of criticism does not rise or fall based on the rhetorical precision of greens or scientists. It just doesn’t. Stop worrying about it.

Though I appreciate Dave’s view, I don’t agree. And my concern doesn’t derive from a “classic earnest progressive” orientation, but rather from an expert understanding of what makes sense in terms of effective communication strategy.

When climate skeptics are given ammunition to come back with claims of alarmism, it shifts debate back into the realm of the technical certainty of the science. As a result, environmental advocates are left again without a clear, positive message about why global warming should be a collective priority for society.

Perhaps more important, evidence shows that the Pandora’s Box frame isn’t working.
It’s not activating the segments of the public that need to be alerted to the problem. 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. (See slide #22 from this recent presentation.)

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. It’s a challenge I outlined at this recent AMS Environmental Science seminar series, written up by AGI News.


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