Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Difficulty in Framing and Designing Messages about Climate Change & Sustainability: Part 2

What the FrameWorks researchers found was that climate change tends to be framed as either scary weather or as an economic issue. Both of these topics leave room for lay theorizing but not in a way that has been productive or helpful. They say that if climate change is framed as weather, people see it as natural. They recognize that it has consequences but do not see human actions as the solution.

Most importantly they say that it triggers an adaptive response. So for example, when people hear about scary weather they protect themselves with a solid SUV or move a block from the beach to prepare for the beachfront property they will one day have. Another result is that “[c]urrent weather is treated as evidence for or against global climate change, with anecdotes more common than not”(Moser & Dilling, 2007, p. 35).

So a particularly cold winter will serve as proof that global warming is not happening and a particularly rough storm will prove the opposite. So whether a person believes global warming is happening or not, the connection to weather does not assist in understanding the problem or lead to appropriate action. When framed as an economic issue, people tend to see climate change as a necessary bi-product of industrialism and it becomes a self-interest issue. Environmentalists in this frame are seen as aesthetics that want us to give up the most practical of conveniences (e.g., air conditioning is the example given). Given the bridging metaphor or “object to play with” and the public come to conclusions that lead to the opposite responses that environmentalists were intending.

To explain this Bostrom and Lashof say that individuals develop mental models of causes, effects and mitigation. They use the example of attributing chest pain to heart burn and treating it with heartburn medication. They say that many times the heartburn mental model and its associated treatment leads to mistreatment of heart attacks. The same can be true for climate change. If people are using mental models constructed to understand weather to understand climate change then the solution that they will imagine is appropriate, will not be the one that alleviates the problem. If a person equates climate change with natural cycles in weather the solution is to wait out the bad weather and make short-term or long-term adaptations.

Therefore we need to create appropriate bridging metaphors and mental models that suggest the right causes, triggers, and desirable remedial action. An important step in this process are the use of appropriate metaphor and analogy. Bostrom and Lashof support the claim by Rappaport and Hammond Creighton, that not only is weather an inappropriate symptom of climate change but the metaphor of the “greenhouse effect” is also not working for the average individual. After long time use of this metaphor it is still not producing the desired effect. People still do not understand it. All of the above authors claim that using a more appropriate metaphor such as “a thickening blanket of carbon dioxide” that “traps heat” in the atmosphere, improves understanding markedly (Rappaport & Hammond Creighton, 2007).

Frameworks researchers call for a personal action communication They explain that Americans (and probably Canadians would be at the same level) already believe global warming is happening and they understand that there are negative consequences. What is needed now is to move on from the convincing stage of communication and move on to action-oriented messages that move the conversation onto “what is to be done.” They recommend getting away from the “chicken little” approach (apocalyptic narrative) and move onto a “little engine that could” model.

Their research shows that people need to know more about the solutions. Getting away from metaphors of weather and moving to discussion that better reflects reality. Since this is a human made problem; a human made solution is the answer. They provide the following specific recommendations for communicators in order to do this:

1) Attach the message to responsibility and planning (level one framing)
2) Bring global warming down to earth-make it manageable
3) Give the public a simplifying model of global warming
4) Use reasonable not rhetorical tone to engage listening
5) Give solutions a high priority
6) Use messengers associated with suggested frames
7) Be strategic in the order of presentation of messages (start with level one framing) (FrameWorks Institute, 2007)

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