Climate Change Narratives Must Speak to the Public

07/01/2013 10:34 EDT | Updated 08/31/2013 05:12 EDT

As the American West tries to cope with the blistering, and potentially record-breaking heat wave with temperatures soaring up to 130 degrees, Western Canada is reeling from the Alberta floods, being described as "Canada's Hurricane Sandy moment" by some weather experts.

On the other side of the planet, man-made global warming is likely a significant contributing factor in Australia's "Angry Summer" of 2012-2013, the country's hottest on record that sparked devastating wildfires and widespread flooding. According to the journal Geophysical Research Letters, global warming has increased the chances of Australians experiencing extremely hot summers by more than five times, and is likely to raise the odds by even more in the coming decades.

Unfortunately, such extreme weather events are becoming all too common, as they turn out to be more frequent and furious than ever before. Environmental advocates are quick to point out the "teachable moments" by linking the drastic weather patterns to climate change. However, they need to walk the fine line to ensure that they don't come across as overzealous or self-righteous in their attempts to spur public engagement, as this could turn people off and thwart even their most sincere and genuine efforts.

Perhaps environmental advocates could draw some wisdom from cognitive science, which suggests humans think in terms of unconscious structures called "frames" that are connected to the emotional centre of the brain, and use it to enhance proper reasoning. Enlightenment thinkers, on the other hand, seem to be clinging on to their worldviews that reason is conscious, unemotional, and logical.

These views have been dismissed by George Lakoff, a Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics, who argues, 98 per cent of our reason is unconscious, requires emotion and the 'logic' of frames. In an article entitled "Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment" published in the journal Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture, he explains, facts must make sense to people in the way their minds have framed the facts, or they will be ignored (Lakoff, 2010, p. 73).

Those sentiments are echoed by the Frame Works Institute,

"A frame isn't simply a slogan repeated over and over, but rather it is a conceptual construct capable of helping us organize our world. When frames fail to do so, they are discarded in favor of other frames. But more often, when new facts are submitted that do not resonate with the frames we hold in our heads, it is the facts that are rejected, not the frames."

Clearly, facts alone aren't sufficient, nor would they enable people to reason their way to the obvious conclusions on climate change.

Speaking of frames, Ann Dale asserts in her book, "At the Edge: Sustainable Development in the 21st Century," the dominant Conservative moral frame of the environment positions man above nature, which exists for our exploitation and use, whereas a Progressive moral frame supports personal responsibility, and empathy, which associates us with other beings in the natural world, and rejects market fundamentalism.

To address climate change, we may do well to activate progressive environmental frames in politics and inhibit conservative frames. Lakoff suggests, this can be accomplished by framing the truth through language, and inventing new frames that emphasize localism, regulation of the commons and an economics of well-being.

A "localism" frame would help us understand that many of life's necessities can be made available locally. A "regulated global commons" frame would establish the notion of non-transferable ownership of the natural world, such as air and water. An "economics of well-being" frame would help us replace the GDP measuring stick with an overall well-being indicator.

An important and traditional source of information, which dramatically influences the issues relevant to the public and their policymakers, is the news media. According to the Frame Works Institute, messages conveyed by the mainstream media shape the public perception about the ways of the world. Thus, the media don't simply tell us 'what' to think about, but also influences 'how' to think about issues.

"News coverage influences what issues people think are important for government to address (agenda-setting), the lens through which people interpret issues (framing), and what information will prove relevant for social and political judgments (priming)."

In his book "Is Anyone Responsible" Shanto Iyengar delves deeper into the issue of framing by the news media. He says,

"The use of either the episodic or thematic news frame affects how individuals assign responsibility for societal issues; episodic framing tends to elicit individualistic rather than societal attributions of responsibility while thematic framing has the opposite effect. Since television news is heavily episodic, its effect is generally to induce attributions of responsibility to individual victims or perpetrators rather than to broad social forces."

Essentially the episodic frame zooms in on one single aspect, and reduces life to a series of disconnected episodes, random events or case studies, whereas the thematic frame pulls the camera back to present the whole landscape, and provides details about trends, not just the individuals. They identify shortcomings at the community or systems level that have contributed to the problem.

According to Lakoff, one of the best ways to enhance people's ability to relate and cooperate is through words "one must choose one's words carefully to activate the right frames so the truth can be understood." Such words when woven together will create an effective language, which in turn will become fundamental to our cooperative efforts in creating a more holistic paradigm. In his book "The Web of Life", Fritjof Capra states,

"The uniqueness of being human lies in our ability to continually weave the linguistic network in which we are embedded. To be human is to exist in language. In language we coordinate our behavior, and together in language we bring forth our world." (p. 290).