Is it Worth Trying to "Reframe" Climate Change? Probably Not.

  • 2016-03-23
  • Vox

The danger of climate change does not arouse much public passion, certainly nothing like what the facts would warrant. This drives climate campaigners crazy. Always has.

So how to get people's attention? One strategy might be to talk about climate change differently — to "frame" it differently, in the current jargon.

Over the years, climate scientists, campaigners, and policymakers have returned to this strategy (or, rather, this hope) again and again. And again.

The alternate framings are familiar by now: global warming as an economic opportunity, a way to spur technological innovation, a national security threat, a way of reducing local pollutants, a religious or moral imperative.

These other ways of describing climate change are more visceral than long-term, slow-moving, incremental risk (zzz…). It seems like they ought to be more effective in getting people to pay attention and support action.

But are they? The research on framing effects has thus far been inconclusive, to say the least.

Testing frames, scientifically

A letter published this month in Nature Climate Change attempts to settle the question. Researchers Thomas Bernauer and Liam F. McGrath, political scientists at Switzerland's Center for Comparative and International Studies, set up experiments in which people (drawn from different demographic and ideological backgrounds) were randomly assigned texts that framed climate change in different ways.

One was "climate risk reduction," the standard frame. The other three were "economic co-benefits, community building, and health benefits."

At the end, subjects were tested on three different measures of willingness to support action on climate change, ranging from personal action to policy action.

Long story short: None of it worked. The researchers found that different framings had no consistent or statistically significant effects on subjects’ willingness to support climate action.

"In summary," Bernauer and McGrath write, "we do not find any robust empirical evidence for alternative framing (justification) of climate policy being able to increase public support for GHG mitigation—whether in the sample as a whole or amongst particular groups of participants (such as climate sceptics)."