Watch your Frames

Watch your Frames

Climate change has profound implications for our current way of life. In my adopted home state of California, this summer’s exceptional drought has me on pins and needles with every reported fire in the area.  It was a truly unnerving sight to witness firefighting helicopters fly over my backyard carrying loads of water to a nearby blaze. My first thought, as I grabbed my dog (and my laptop) was, “I’m not prepared for this.” As extreme weather events become an increasingly common and destructive force in our lives, how do we protect our communities from these harmful impacts? And how do we communicate about these serious and, at times, dire threats in a way that is not only inclusive, but also inspires hope and action?

Americans are beginning to notice that weather patterns are becoming seasonally uncharacteristic and uncommonly severe, and they are also starting to connect the dots between these shifts and climate change. As the pendulum of public opinion continues to shift (fingers crossed) in the direction of understanding the causes and implications of climate change, the next step is for communicators is to impart the need for solutions, both to reduce emissions and prepare for the wide-range of potential consequences that we are facing. When constructing this solutions-based issue frame, it is essential for climate communicators to take into account the multifaceted mental models of target audiences in order to ensure that messages carry the intended meaning.

Two words that I often hear within the realm of climate communications are “transition” and “resilience.” These are powerful terms that typically aim to connote a sense of promise and strength, but they can also be double-edged swords depending on your audience’s personal experience and values. For those who seek to build new types of communities around progressive values (i.e .the Transition Town movement), the concept of “transition” is inspirational and promising. For individuals who are comfortable with or at least content to rationalize the status quo, the idea of transition can be frightening and unwelcome.

Likewise, aspiring toward “resilience” sounds like an admirable goal, unless resilience implies the return to a previous state that is undesirable. Following an extreme weather event, for example, communities that are disproportionately vulnerable to climate impacts require not merely recovery, but revitalization to overcome systemic inequities. An understanding of your target audience’s values and mental models is essential to constructing an effective frame and ultimately developing a successful communications strategy.

Political polarization remains a significant obstacle in motivating support for strong climate policies and programs. While many Americans are seeing the link between climate change and extreme weather, others continue to be influenced by opinion elites who benefit from suppressing action by encouraging misperceptions of scientific uncertainty and the denial of risks. Nick Pidgeon and Baruch Fischhoff assert that tackling the risks and uncertainties of climate impacts is a noteworthy challenge for climate communicators. Opposition leaders capitalize on these concepts to kindle fear and provoke resistance to action.

The concepts of uncertainty and risk are not the exclusive domain of climate change. Each of us goes through life navigating and calculating potential hazards, from deciding to take up a fun new hobby like mountain biking to a mundane decision like choosing dental insurance. We continuously make decisions in a world ripe with uncertainty and risk. It’s true that climate change is significantly more complex and global in nature than hilly terrain and cavities, however, climate communicators can bring the issue close to home by focusing on the observable shifts that are already occurring in our communities. While it may seem like a trite phrase commonly reserved for bumper stickers, “Think Global, Act Local” continues to be a relevant concept.

By understanding an audience’s values and mental models, communicators boost their ability to predict whether an issue frame and its intended solutions will be rejected by a target audience’s cognitive biases. Dan Kahan’s research reminds us that protective cognition is a powerful force that leads those with individualistic values to dismiss certain environmental risks. This is often due to concerns about how the resultant solutions will restrict one’s current way of life. Kahan states that, “this form of ‘protective cognition’ is a major cause of political conflict over the credibility of scientific data on climate change and other environmental risks.” Protective cognition can cause an individual to perceive climate solutions as a dire threat to basic American freedoms.

Ignoring cultural values can thwart well-meaning attempts to motivate action. Matthew Nisbet helps us think of frames as interpretive storylines. It is through narratives structures that we develop and express our cultural values. Nisbet asserts that a successful reframing of climate change will require “remaining true to the underlying science of the issue, while applying research from communication and other fields to tailor messages to the existing attitudes, values, and perceptions of different audiences, making the complex policy debate understandable, relevant, and personally important.” A successful frame, therefore, needs to take into account whether a target audience desires, or is resistant to, specific changes in behavior and policy.

Mental models are what shape our perception and behavior. John Sterman finds that mental models are static and narrow, making it difficult for us to grasp complex systemic phenomena, like climate change. Sterman’s research underscores the need for communicators to construct issue frames that help audiences navigate the complexities (i.e. the uncertainties and risks) of climate change. Communicators can help reduce the inherent complexity of the issue by drawing linear connections to existing concerns and outline clear steps that will deliver tangible benefits. Of course, overcoming politically polarizing mental models and understanding cultural values are easier said than done. Tools like segmentation research and in-depth interviews, as well as developing authentic collaborative relationships with stakeholders, can help climate communicators avoid framing pitfalls.

Working on climate change day in and day out, it’s easy to forget that most individuals do not spend their days consumed with impact scenarios and alternative energy solutions. As I think back on the firefighting helicopter over my house, I am reminded that while each of us comes to the issue with our own set of personal experiences and mental models, when it comes down to it, protecting our loved ones from harm cuts to the core of our shared values. Building support for the specific mechanisms that will deliver this protection, from reducing emissions to preparing for impacts, is where the real communications work begins.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user d_pham