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What’s in a frame? Evidence and emissions should drive our understanding of climate change

The flat earth agenda must be faced head on. A Siegel/flickr

Expanding the theme of his recent book Why We Disagree about Climate Change, Mike Hulme presented an insightful analysis of the multiple ways in which climate change can be perceived.

Central to Hulme’s view is the notion of a frame: a psychological and social construct that refers to the organising principles — based on worldview and prior beliefs — that people apply to perception and communication of complex issues.

While we agree with the importance of frames, we question Hulme’s analysis for two principal reasons.

First, because he poses frames that are irrelevant or of secondary importance to the problem of characterising climate change, or are simply not consistent with the evidence.

Second, he neglects to consider one important frame that is essential to understanding the current public debate.

His analysis itself presents a truncated and polarising view of why we disagree about climate change.

Flawed framings

We agree that there is a considerable difference between a provocative frame such as “the Earth is round” and a more circumspect frame: “the Earth is a nearly spherical planet whose radius, despite being approximately equal, bulges in some places and varies with natural topography such as mountains.whose height undergoes seasonal variation according to snow cover.”

Although those two frames differ considerably, by evoking different images and different potential responses, they also share two attributes in common.

Both frames are consonant with our physical understanding of the world, and neither is compatible with the alternative – and incorrect — frame that “the Earth is flat.”

This rather obvious fact is, alas, not captured in Hulme’s analysis. Hulme does not clearly differentiate between the empirical and conceptual validities of the various frames he proposes.

This crucial shortcoming expresses itself in multiple guises.

Hulme at least tacitly presumes his frames to be mutually exclusive. This assumption is problematic.

Consider his five frames that all entail acceptance of the scientific evidence:

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

Rather than being mutually exclusive, those five frames form legitimate components of a sophisticated position on climate change that does the complexity of the issue justice.

For example, no-one would suggest that climate change is just a matter of global justice. Instead, the global-justice aspect is intimately tied to the fact that climate change is a market failure as well as the result or symptom of over-consumption.

Ignoring the fact that those frames are complementary facets of one larger frame — namely, to base one’s opinion on evidence rather than ideology — has several unfortunate consequences.

For one, it hides the crucial fact that Hulme’s final frame, namely that climate change either does not occur or is mostly natural, is based on rejection of the overwhelming scientific evidence.

Moreover, it creates the mistaken appearance that acceptance of the science is by itself insufficient to permit formation of a balanced opinion but additionally requires choice of a “frame”.

Owing to the subjective and socially-determined nature of the five frames, this denigrates the role of scientific evidence which underpins all of them. By implication, the final frame which rests on rejection of evidence appears more equal in stature to the other five frames than it deserves to be.

The Earth is round, not flat, but the presumption that planetary roundness can only be perceived by choosing between five different and socially-determined frames inevitably renders a flat-earth view less outlandish.

The second problem with Hulme’s analysis is the tacit presumption that the frames are equal in some sense. This assumption is overly simplistic.

While Hulme’s frames are relevant to the climate issue, they are not equally pertinent to the problem of characterizing the scientific risk posed by climate change.

Issues of markets, technology, injustice, and consumption are important in understanding the social and economic dimensions of the problem. But these dimensions are qualitatively different from an understanding of the physical causes and magnitude of climate change, and it makes little sense to pose them together as alternative frames.

Specifically, Hulme juxtaposes a set of second-order issues (land use changes, aerosols, natural variability) against the first-order issue (greenhouse gas forcing) as if they all had equal standing in understanding the magnitude of the climate change problem.

Land use changes and aerosols are important, but less so in characterising the future direction of the Earth’s climate. That future is largely in the hands of greenhouse gases now, since greenhouse forcing will continue to rise rapidly relative to aerosol and land use contributions.

By mixing in frames of different relevance and force, the central issues can only become clouded.

The net effect is as if one were sitting in a room with an explosive device counting down and being told not to focus on disarming the device or evacuating the room. Rather, we are told to consider other technical and social frames as if they had equal import to the problem at hand.

Have we factored earthquake risk into our plan for evacuating the room? Do we understand the economy of the arms trade and its contribution to the current predicament? Should we really act now, given the complexity of weapons design and the uncertainty that the device is actually wired correctly to explode?

We might indulge such frames, but not at the cost of losing sight of the first-order issues.

That said, we acknowledge that the force of our concerns may be deflected by the argument that Hulme was legitimately enumerating the frames that people demonstrably rely on, irrespective of their compatibility with the physical reality.

After all, psychoanalysts have been analyzing people’s dreams for a century without worrying about their grounding – or lack thereof — in psychological data.

Alas, our second principal issue with Hulme’s analysis is that it remains problematic even at a purely social-behavioral level.

Avoiding the pivotal frame

Even ignoring the clouded link between his frames and the physical world, Hulme’s analysis is incomplete to the point of being misleading.

There is much evidence that the rejection of climate science, which Hulme subsumes in his “it’s mostly natural” frame, is not merely an innocent, if misguided, interpretation of scientific data.

Instead, evidence suggests that this frame represents an ideologically-driven assault on science.

The context of this frame that Hulme fails to provide is a well-funded and orchestrated disinformation campaign against the science, and a smear campaign against scientists in which evidence is systematically distorted or even manufactured.

Hulme’s analysis is not only troubling when compared to the physical world, but it remains incomplete even at the social level of analysis to which he purports to speak.

It takes considerable effort to ignore the evidence from other social scientists, such as Professor Naomi Oreskes, who have meticulously documented the way in which organized lobby groups have sought to undermine the science. This frame is critical to permit understanding of the present situation, but completely absent in Hulme’s characterisation.

From faux frames to polarisation

By eroding the distinction between opinions that are based on evidence and those that are based on ideology, Hulme’s own guiding frame is one of implicitly accepting the validity of any frame relating to climate change.

Far from being a biblically wise and neutral stance, Hulme’s guiding frame contributes to the polarisation of opinions he so bemoans.

The Earth is round, not flat. Ideologues and vested interests are pursuing a flat-earth frame that cannot be resolved by noting that the Earth’s sphere is imperfect and its radius infinitesimally altered by seasonal snow cover.

We agree that frames are an important tool to understanding people’s perceptions and beliefs. But Hulme’s analysis obscured rather than illuminated why we disagree about climate change.

Such an approach clouds and polarises the issue, rather than promoting understanding.

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