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Student number: 1355795

Module: 7SSG5208 Understanding Climate Change in Society

Essay title: Ethics of framing climate change
Due date: 28 March 2014
Student number: 1355795
Word count: 1812 /3000

From boiled frogs, carbon sinks, carbon cowboys to green gold, various
metaphors and lexicons have been used in climate change communication (Cohen,
2011; Nerlich and Koteyko, 2010). This essays aims to examine the ways in which
climate change has been framed and its effects. We will consider the idea of climate
change and framing theory before moving on to discuss how climate change has
been framed, particularly in the United States and the United Kingdom. Finally, I will
reflect on the ethics of framing.

What is climate change?

The terms climate change and global warming have been used interchangeably
especially in the U.S. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2007)
defines climate change as “any change in climate time over time, whether due to
natural variability or as a result of human activity”. Their definition differs from that of
the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), where
climate change refers specifically to a change in the climate due to human activity.
Both the IPCC and UNFCCC’s definitions can be classified as a lower-case reading
of climate change (Hulme, 2009).
Hulme (2009) proposed that an upper-case reading of Climate Change involves
dissecting the term as an idea, which carries diverse social meanings to different
audiences. Indeed, different understandings of climate have existed at the same time
in different societies throughout history (Heymann, 2010). For instance, Marshall
Islanders understood climate change not just as a change in the climate but in the
cosmos and society as well (Rudiak-Gould, 2011). This is because the closest
translation to climate in the Marshallese language is mejatoto, which conflate
conceptions of nature and culture. Bearing in mind that any definition of climate is
influenced by a society’s social, cultural, political and technological contexts
(Heymann, 2010), we will explore the benefits of using frames to help different types
of audiences make sense of climate science.
Student number: 1355795

What is framing?
According to Van Gorp (2007), the definition of framing remains varied in the
academia. For this essay’s purpose, I will refer frames to the “conceptual tools which
media and individuals rely on to convey, interpret, and evaluate information”
(Neuman et al, 1992, p.60 as cited in Van Gorp, 2007). A frame is an interpretive
storyline that outlines what is at stake and why it matters (Nisbet, 2009b). A frame
package usually includes an issue’s definition, explanation, problematisation,
evaluation as well as logical conclusions as to who is responsible for the problems
raised (Van Gorp, 2007). While an issue such as climate change can be framed in
many different ways (O’Neill et al, 2010), a frame can also be used to represent
different issues. Additionally, individuals or groups can employ the same frame such
as scientific uncertainty or social progress to disagree on issues like climate change
or stem cell research. In other words, a frame can include arguments that are for,
against and neutral (Nisbet, 2009b).
Goffman (1981, p.63 as cited in Van Gorp, 2007) highlighted that frames are
institutionalised in cultures, such as in myths, beliefs, values and norms. As such,
frames are often invisible and journalists, policymakers, scientists and activists often
employed them unconsciously. Nevertheless, the process of framing is a social
construction (Gamson et al, 1992, as cited in Van Gorp, 2007). It manifests itself
through conscious or unconscious use of framing devices including metaphors,
catchphrases, sound bites, rhetoric, visual images, and other references to history,
culture and literature (Van Gorp, 2007).
Frames are distinct from an individual’s cognitive mental framework, known as
schemata (Van Gorp, 2007). Schemata are an individual’s “collections of organised
knowledge” that evolve with personal experiences and attitudes (Wicks, 2001 as
cited in Van Gorp, 2007). Communicators use framing devices to activate a
corresponding schema in their target audience to get messages across more
effectively. Though frames can be considered a power mechanism in their own right,
Van Gorp (2007) pointed out that the effects of framing will always be constrained by
the audience’s interests, beliefs, experiences, desires and attitudes. Therefore,
framing is not a “magical key” for advocates to gain widespread support for any
ideology or policy (Nisbet and Mooney, 2007). On the contrary, ethical use of framing
aims to make complex issues meaningful to diverse audience while remaining true to
Student number: 1355795

How has climate change been framed?

Since former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher raised public attention to
climate change in 1988, the idea of climate change has morphed (Hulme, 2013).
Nisbet (2009a) succinctly captured the dominant frames in which climate change has
been debated in Western societies over the past few decades in Table 1.
Table 1: Typology of frames applicable to climate change
Frame Defined science-related issue as…
Social progress A means of improving quality of life, or solving problems;
alternative interpretation as harmony with nature instead of
Economic An economic investment; market benefits or risk; a point of
development and local, national, or global competitiveness.
Morality and ethics A matter of right or wrong; of respect or disrespect for limits,
thresholds, or boundaries.
Scientific and A matter of expert understanding or consensus; a debate
technical uncertainty over what is known versus unknown; or peer-reviewed,
confirmed knowledge versus hype or alarmism.
Pandora’s box / A need for precaution or action in face of possible
Frankenstein catastrophe and out-of-control consequences; or
monster / runaway alternatively as fatalism, where there is no way to avoid the
science consequences or chosen path.
Public accountability Research or policy either in the public interest or serving
and governance special interests, emphasizing issues of control,
transparency, participation, responsiveness, or ownership; or
debate over proper use of science and expertise in decision-
making (“politicisation”).
Middle way / A third way between conflicting or polarised views or options.
alternative path
Conflict and strategy A game among elites such as who is winning or losing the
debate; or a battle of personalities or groups (usually a
journalist-driven interpretation).
Adopted from Nisbet, 2009a
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Nerlich et al (2010) believes that Trumbo (1996) carried out one of the earliest
studies on climate change frames found in the U.S. and German media.
Subsequently, Boykoff (2004)’s work brought attention to the journalistic norm of
balanced reporting that resulted in biased coverage of climate change even in the
U.S. prestige press such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. In the
U.S., scientific uncertainty remains the dominant frame in climate change debates,
with increasing polarisation and partisan divide across the country (Nisbet, 2009b).
Debates have since denigrated into a conflict frame, where Democrats are
supposedly defending science from which Republicans are waging a “war” against.
However, Fletcher (2009) noted that by reframing climate change as a national
security threat or economic opportunity, communicators in the U.S. could bridge the
partisan divide and engage traditionally sceptical audiences.
More importantly, O’Neill and Nicholson-Cole (2009) found that catastrophic
framings of climate change, with fear-inducing imagery and icons, are more likely to
disempower audience and lead to fatalism, denial or apathy rather than positive
changes of behaviour and attitudes. On top of that, O’Neill et at (2010) believes that
the Pandora’s box frame reinforces the epistemological hierarchy where
geosciences dominate the representation of climate change, resulting it in being
framed primarily as an environmental issue. The disproportionate influence of
physical sciences and economics in the IPCC has resulted in the marginalisation of
other disciplines such as anthropology and communication studies. Echoing Jasanoff
(2010), they argued that citizens have to come to appreciate the cultural and social
dimensions of climate change before they could be motivated to act.
Furthermore, O’Neill et al (2010) highlighted that industrialised countries and
male have dominated the framing of climate change so far. They cited Karlson et al
(2007)’s work to raise attention to the current North/South gap in climate change
knowledge production and consumption. Meanwhile, Terry (2009) contested that the
component of gender remains missing from mainstream framings of climate change.
She posited that more attention must be paid to women’s restricted access to
information, credit and land particularly in patriarchal societies, which deters them
from engaging in climate change debates and mitigation or adaptation initiatives. Her
observation corresponded with a national study on India in 2011, which found 16% of
its 4,031 respondents knew almost nothing about global warming and this group
were disproportionately rural, female and from scheduled castes (Leiserowitz,
Student number: 1355795

Thaker et al, 2013). In contrast, a similar audience research in the US in 2013 found
that most of the correspondents are highly aware of climate change due to easy
access to the media (Leiserowitz, Maibach et al, 2013). As O’Neill et al (2010)
recommended, more efforts are needed to close the disciplinary, geographical and
gender gap in the framing of climate change.

Ethics of framing: to what extent is it ethical?

Nisbet (2009b) proposed four guiding principles for ethical framing of science.
First, he believes dialogue should be the focus of science communication efforts,
rather than traditional top-down and one-way transmission approach. Nerlich et al
(2010) explained that the “public understanding of science model”, based on the
information deficit model from the field of psychology, assumes linear transmission of
knowledge from scientists to the public. In reality, communication is often two-way
and audiences with different worldviews will interpret the same messages differently.
Carvalho and Burgess (2005) believe that media producers and consumers are
jointly engaged in dynamic meaning-making activities based on their “circuit of
culture” communication model. Therefore, climate change communicators should
have an acute understanding of their target audiences in order to tailor or frame their
messages to be personally relevant and meaningful to the receivers (Nisbet, 2009b).
Second, Nisbet (2009b) suggested that communications, be it scientists,
journalists, policymakers or activists, should always explain not just the reasoning
but also the values embedded in a specific policy action clearly. Any advocacy that
ignores or takes the political dimension for granted; focusing narrowly on the science
will only shut down debates. For instance, environmentalists often labelled those
who dispute climate science as “deniers”. However, climate contrarians sometimes
disagree with the science due to ideological and cultural beliefs rather than scientific
ignorance (Rudiak-Gould, 2013). Framing becomes useful in this case as climate
change communicators can try to use a different frames such as middle way or
economic development to reach out to potentially hostile audiences.
Nisbet (2009a) stressed accuracy as his third ethical imperative. Climate
change communicators must act as honest brokers. Distorting truth or
overdramatizing the effects of future climate change will only lead to alarmism or
worse, lost of public trust. Finally, climate change communicators should not use
framing to demonise their opponents or any particular social group for partisan or
Student number: 1355795

electoral gains. The ends do not justify the means. He added while frames help to
set the terms of debate in the public sphere, they rarely, if ever, exclusively drive
public opinion. In addition, concerned citizens should be encouraged to participate in
“bottom-up” framing of climate change issues. As Nerlich et al (2010), framing helps
climate change communicators to move towards reflective engagement, the aim
should never be to manipulate audience or distort the truth.

- ends -


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