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You’ve been framed: six new ways to understand climate change

Mike Hulme of the University of East Anglia, the institution at the centre of “Climategate” and the focus of a recent data Freedom of Information request, responds to Clearing up the Climate Debate. There…

How we frame the climate change debate is important. Modified image: HamishM/muffet/flickr

Mike Hulme of the University of East Anglia, the institution at the centre of “Climategate” and the focus of a recent data Freedom of Information request, responds to Clearing up the Climate Debate.

There are many ways to frame the phenomenon of climate change. Some may be more engaging and some more helpful than others. Some may play looser with the facts. And yet no frames – even those that remain faithful to the facts - can be entirely neutral with respect to the effects that they generate on their audiences.

Take the opening item in The Conversation’s recent climate change series Clearing up the Climate Debate.

This open letter boldly states its framing narrative: “The overwhelming scientific evidence tells us that human greenhouse gas emissions are resulting in climate changes that cannot be explained by natural causes. Climate change is real, we are causing it, and it is happening right now.”

Fact. Nothing to challenge there.

But how about this alternative?

“The overwhelming scientific evidence tells us that human greenhouse gas emissions, land use changes and aerosol pollution are all contributing to regional and global climate changes, which exacerbate the changes and variability in climates brought about by natural causes. Because humans are contributing to climate change, it is happening now and in the future for a much more complex set of reasons than in previous human history.”

I’m confident too that none of my climate science colleagues would find anything to challenge in this statement.

And yet these two different provocations – two different framings of climate change – open up the possibility of very different forms of public and policy engagement with the issue. They shape the response.

The latter framing, for example, emphasises that human influences on climate are not just about greenhouse gas emissions (and hence that climate change is not just about fossil energy use), but also result from land use changes (emissions and albedo effects) and from aerosols (dust, sulphates and soot).

It emphasises that these human effects on climate are as much regional as they are global. And it emphasises that the interplay between human and natural effects on climate are complex and that this complexity is novel.

The frame offered by the 87 Australian academics who signed the “open letter” is more partial than mine and also, I suggest, is one which is (perhaps deliberately) more provocative.

It may work well if their intention is to reinforce the polarisation of opinion that exists around climate change science or if they are using scientific claims to justify a particular set of policy interventions.

Yet there are important aspects of scientific knowledge about the climate system that are accommodating to more nuanced interpretations of uncertainty and which open up more diverse sets of policy strategies.

It is these aspects which my framing is seeking to foreground.

My general point then is that how one frames a complex issue – and we all agree that climate change is complex - inevitably emphasises some aspects of that issue while de-emphasising others.

And that these emphasis effects are not neutral. They result from judgements – whether careful or careless – made by those framing the issue and they have significant consequences for how audiences receive and engage with the communication.

Framing effects around climate change are very powerful. My recent speaking tour of Australia and my book Why We Disagree About Climate Change focused on this – and why it matters.

In particular, I suggested six powerful frames through which climate change is presented in public discourse:

  • climate change as market failure,
  • as technological risk,
  • as global injustice,
  • as over consumption,
  • as mostly natural,
  • as planetary “tipping points”.

Framing climate change as market failure draws attention to a particular set of policy interventions: those which seek to “correct” the market by introducing pricing mechanisms for greenhouse gases.

Climate change when framed as a “manufactured risk” focuses on the inadvertent downsides of our ubiquitous fossil-energy based technologies. It lends itself to a policy agenda which promotes technology innovation as the solution to climate change.

Radically different, however, is the frame of global injustice. Here, climate change is presented as the result of historical and structural inequalities in access to wealth and power and hence unequal life chances. Climate change is all about the rich and privileged exploiting the poor and disadvantaged. Any solutions to climate change that fail to tackle that underlying “fact” are doomed to fail.

A related frame, but one with a different emphasis, is climate change as the result of overconsumption: too many (rich) people consuming too many (material) things. If this is the case then policy interventions need to be much more radical than simply putting a price on carbon or promoting new clean energy technologies. The focus should be on dematerialising economies or else on promoting fertility management.

A fifth frame would offer climate change as being mostly natural. Human influences on the global climate system can only be small relative to nature and so the emphasis should be less on carbon and energy policy and more about adaptation: enabling societies to cope with climate hazards irrespective of cause.

Last is the frame of planetary “tipping points” which has arisen since 2005. Climate change carries with it the attendant dangers of pushing the planetary system into radically different states. Such “tipping points” may be reached well before carbon markets, clean energy or economic de-growth will be attained and so new large-scale climate intervention technologies – a so-called Plan B – need to be developed and put on stand-by.

These six frames around climate change all attract powerful audiences, interests and actors in their support. All of them – with the exception of climate change as mostly natural – would be broadly consistent with the scientific knowledge assessed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

And yet because they are rooted in different ideologies and views of the relationship between humans, technologies and nature they filter and interpret that scientific evidence in different ways and use it to justify certain forms of policy.

The human influences on climate change – and the policy significance of these influences – are too complex to reduce public debate around climate change to a bi-polar caricature: mainstream scientists versus sceptics; believers versus deniers; liberal progressives versus conservatives.

I have shown that there are multiple framings of climate change – and there are more than I’ve offered here – in which scientific evidence, attitudes to risk, political ideology, myths of nature and so on are deeply interweaved and entangled.

It is deeply inconvenient I know, but there is no single rational response to the fact that we are an agent powerfully shaping the planet.

We all need to be aware of our own framings, our own preferences, beliefs and ideologies, when it comes to debating what we should do.

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18 Comments sorted by

  1. David Myer

    logged in via LinkedIn

    I have no doubt that Mike Hulme's framing is more conducive to "nuanced interpretations of uncertainty and which open up more diverse sets of policy strategies." And perhaps there is an element of siege mentality in the 87 scientists' simpler statement.

    The scientists and their followers are increasingly frustrated at the still large numbers of sceptics and deniers. And remember that the audience for the statement was wider than scientists, and policy makers. To a large extent, the battle is…

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  2. Chris Riedy

    Associate Professor at University of Technology, Sydney

    I completely agree with Mike Hulme about the important of framing. Which makes it interesting that this piece, and his book Why We Disagree About Climate Change, frames climate change as an incredibly complex issue with many sources of disagreement. Perhaps this framing is itself not helpful for moving towards an effective response.

    While the details of climate change and the possible responses are clearly complex, many of the solutions are simple, readily available and have broad appeal. Like renewable energy. Like energy efficiency. Like reliable public transport. Does it really help to complexify our messages when a simple positive vision of an alternative energy future is available?

    1. Paul Richards

      In reply to Chris Riedy

      Mike - thank you, good points.
      My observation is that framing adds to the confusion about the science, it's the dogged adherence to ones value system that inhibits developing knowledge and wisdom.
      More evolved individuals have encompassed the other frames within theirs.
      So have no issue accepting other viewpoints or value systems. Having held similar positions, grow up through them and although appropriate at the time now hold more evolved values.
      Personally, I lean on your fifth, but have…

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  3. Kelly Liddle

    logged in via email

    There seems to be a fair few intellectuals here.

    Could someone please debunk my theory or agree with it for that matter.

    Thermal emissions warming.

    The following study done by myself and assisted by a scientist is only to demonstrate that the warming can be mostly if not all explained by thermal emmissions or basically a large scale heat island study using energy use data. This is not intended to give any exact warming extent as average values are used and wind land cover etc are not taken into…

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  4. Mark Matthews

    General Manager

    I agree completely with Mike Hulme about the framing of the issue. Framing the issue so that it seems more reasonable is surely a good thing, even if AGW is a disaster waiting to happen (already happening...)

    I think we have an extremely confused and frightened public at present. Add to this the constant battering from the media about cost of living pressures and the usual nonsense about the world going mad and people naturally revert to any opinion that reduces the discomfort and simplifies the complexity. ie - Climate change is not real, the carbon tax will wreck the economy, etc. Bring back the good old days when we were relaxed and comfortable.

  5. Troy Barry

    Mechanical Engineer

    What an intelligent article. I would be pleased to see more of this sort of considered opinion (and less partisan politics) on The Conversation, especially when reporting on science-related matters. Don't worry about confusing your audience with material they are not sufficiently evolved(!?) to understand - assume intelligence in your readers.

  6. John McLean

    logged in via email

    Another day, another clown with a vested interest in pushing the religion. This site is as bad as RealClimate for it's biased drivel.

    "The overwhelming scientific evidence tells us that human greenhouse gas emissions, land use changes and aerosol pollution are all contributing to regional and global climate changes, which exacerbate the changes and variability in climates brought about by natural causes."

    Yes. Mike, but can you produce any empirical evidence that man-made warming has even a discernible influence on a global scale, not even one that is "significant and dangerous"?

    Of course you can't and you know damn well you can't without cutting corners and making claims that are highly selective.

    And it's not as if Mike doesn't have a vested interest, isn't it?

    1. Alex Korban


      In reply to John McLean

      John, at least 87 Australian academics who signed the open letter broadly agree with Mike so attacking his article on the basis of "vested interest" seems naive.

    2. Mark Matthews

      General Manager

      In reply to John McLean

      LOL John. Yeah sure. Mike has a vested interest in ensuring that the planet is uninhabitable for humans. I suspect that Mike gets paid regardless of AGW, he is an expert in the field.
      So John, have you got any evidence that the temperature increases we are observing are not significantly due to human greenhouse gas emissions? Perhaps you might like to enlighten us as to what the cause might be? If you do, please publish because no one wants this to happen.

    3. Kelly Liddle

      logged in via email

      In reply to Mark Matthews

      for those interested in the science please read my blog above

    4. Elaine McKewon

      PhD Candidate at University of Technology, Sydney

      In reply to John McLean

      John McLean? Are you the same John McLean who sits on the advisory panel of the Australian Climate Science Coalition ... the anti-climate science front group of the right-wing Institute of Public Affairs?

    5. Nathan Stewart


      In reply to John McLean

      Its annoying when science doesnt agree with you isnt it John? At the end of this decade, when it is shown to be warmer than the previous decade - yet again - please think of me saying "Told you so"

      Please tell us your thoughts on the recent article from Melbourne University about snowfall decreasing by 40% in the Arctic.

  7. Felix MacNeill

    Environmental Manager

    What Mike says makes perfect sense but the problem, as several people have already pointed out, is that we still have to take action. Regardless of how it's all framed - and that is certainly an important political as well as epistemological question - the problem is very real, the implications are grave andwe still have to decide what to DO about the situation. I think Chris Riedy pretty much nailed that point - the necessary actions, at least in the first instance, are clear enough, so we can't afford to let philosophical concerns impede us from taking common sense action.

  8. Andrew Glikson

    Earth and paleo-climate scientist at Australian National University

    The abstract for Mike Hulme's public lecture in Sydney a couple of months ago reads:

    "I suggest that our ultimate goal is not to ‘stop climate change’. We have mistaken the means for the end. Our goal is surely to ensure that the basic human needs of the world’s growing population are adequately met; that we move towards a development paradigm where we are living within our techno-ecological means and not beyond them; and that our societies are adequately equipped to withstand the risks and dangers…

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    1. Nathan Stewart


      In reply to Andrew Glikson

      Lets hope that converting to green energy technology takes off like the internet. Its a pity there is no real connection between green energy and pornography - or else the world would be greener than green by now.

    2. James Szabadics


      In reply to Nathan Stewart

      The internet was better at the job of communication between humans that what already exited before the internet.

      With green energy it has a poorer EROEI than existing energy sources and the capital cost per unit energy produced is much higher than existing alternatives (for now). These are the fundamental underlying reasons why green energy has not expanded as rapidly as the internet. If the internet needed government subsidy and tax to make people use it because it was not as good at facilitating human communications as the previous technology it replaced it would also have had a very slow take up rate.

    3. Nathan Stewart


      In reply to James Szabadics

      Thats very true. it is exciting to hear that we may be only 3-5 years away from renewable energy technology becoming cost competitive - like that solar paint they are talking about. China will probably go down in history as the country that saved the world by doing what they do best - mass producing at very low cost!