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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.