Climate Crossroads: A research-based framing guide


In early 2008, global warming advocates came together to begin the process of developing an overarching narrative, or Common Message Platform, to identify the shared ideas, values and explanations that provide the foundation for a national conversation on global warming over the long term. The framing guide that has been developed is informed by several sources, including the experiences of the environmental and climate communities, the thinking of strategic advisors, and a body of research conducted in recent years, as well as new research conducted specifically for this project.

In total, more than 25 environmental, climate, and social change organizations contributed to this guide. We view this document as a first step toward a unified conversation on global warming, part of an active, ongoing process that will adapt and grow as the context changes and as more evidence accumulates to provide new insights.
The following set of recommended points adds up to a platform that constructively frames global warming as a practical concern that touches everyone, and that we must act on now. Together these points present the best chance for a perspective shift that promotes greater engagement and action.
1) Use the current economic and energy context to develop lasting support for addressing global warming. In the current context, people are motivated by the idea that addressing global warming creates economic opportunity. The power of the economic frame goes beyond jobs or wealth; it taps into deep-seated feelings about America’s role in the world, our ability to provide a better and more secure future for our children, and the promise of regaining leadership.
Climate advocates can use these compelling values to bridge to global warming and keep the issue prominent in the conversation. For the long-term, we cannot afford to promote policies based on economic concerns alone – for the simple reason that the short-term economic argument and the long-term environmental case will not always coincide. We need a rationale for addressing global warming even when the economic situation becomes a less urgent priority, or can be addressed by something other than a “green” economy. Therefore, communicators should bridge to global warming to lay a foundation for the future, so the public is braced to support the range of interventions that are necessary to address the problem.
2) Emphasize the role of “too much carbon” in creating global warming and frame solutions in terms of managing carbon. The idea that “we are putting too much carbon into the atmosphere” is a simple and intuitive idea that is well suited to becoming conventional wisdom about global warming. This idea focuses thinking in a number of productive ways that build support for the right solutions:

  • Begins the conversation with a non-controversial yet compelling fact. The rise in carbon emissions is undisputed, and is clearly problematic. Even global warming deniers are largely compelled to accept the more basic fact of “too much carbon.”
  • Sharply focuses the conversation on relevant policy choices: How are we dealing with our carbon problem?
  • Clarifies the (currently unclear) role of carbon-based energy in leading to “too much carbon” and, as a consequence, global warming.
  • Encourages “big picture” considerations: Where does it come from? How much is being produced? What does it do (e.g., acidifies the ocean, blankets the earth)? How can we keep it out of the atmosphere?
  • Can be captured by simple language which has the potential to infuse the existing discourse in a viral way.

3)  Emphasize a broader and more concrete picture of what it means for the climate to change. People often think of global warming as affecting plants and animals, or as leading to slight warming around the earth. Of course, the problem is not just about temperature change, but about significant, rapid changes that are happening now in overall weather patterns – including droughts, floods, and deadly storms. People need to be reminded that global warming directly affects humans, since everything about our lives is ultimately tied to climate: food production, water supplies, health, and so forth.
4) State that we are at a Crossroads, a moment of choice. As opposed to simply suggesting that it is important to act, as we have for some years, communicators should put people in the position of making a deliberate choice between action and inaction. This approach answers the implicit question “why now?” – and frames further delay as an active decision not to address the issue.

In the current context it is compelling to cite President Obama and other leaders as believing this is a critical moment.
5) Balance discussions of problems and impacts with a vivid picture of the collective actions we can and will take. Supporters want to know that there are meaningful steps available, are engaged by explanations of how they work, and expect the steps to match the scale of the problem. While it is helpful to remind people what they can do as individuals, it is also effective to highlight the role of government in “jump starting” big changes – through both regulation (setting standards) and investing in technological development.
6) Foster a new relationship to the problem by connecting the issue with supporters’ identities. We can go a long way towards eliminating the sense of “distance” from the problem by bringing a global warming lens to people’s lives and work, connecting global warming to a sense of who they are and what they do, and creating a new relationship with global warming by showing supporters how global warming is connected to their current actions, priorities and beliefs. In this way, action on global warming becomes a natural extension of supporters’ current interests.
Authors: The Topos Partnership, Cara Pike, and Meredith Herr.

Cara Pike

Founder and Director of the Social Capital Project, an initiative aimed at growing the base of public support for green issues.

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