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Environment

The Search for a Winning Climate Change Frame

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When much of the United States was being hammered by drought and brutal heat waves this past summer, there were many media stories that made a climate change connection. The ugly weather and drought-related misery prompted a sarcastic headline from Time:

Now Do You Believe in Global Warming?

The sense in climate concerned circles was that finally--finally!--climate change was hitting home. People could grasp the problem in a tangible way. It was no longer a distant and imperceptible threat. Then in August NASA climate scientist James Hansen published his op-ed and paper, cementing the perception in many minds that global warming was responsible for the extreme heat and freakish weather of recent years. (Not everyone was on board.) Whether this perception will hold once the drought ends and winter arrives is an open question. Regardless, in varied corners of the climate/communication sphere, there's been a notable emphasis on localizing global warming. It's taken different forms. For example, at Climate Central, you'll see a new report that links the increasing occurrence and severity of Western wildfires to climate change. (For a more nuanced take, this by Brad Plumer is the best I've read.) A different path has been advanced by media scholar Matthew Nisbet, who recommends reframing climate change as a public health threat. In a back-and-forth exchange with Matt this week, via an informal email group we both belong to, I've expressed my general doubts about the efficacy of local climate messaging. To be sure, I see much value in the kind of public engagement that Matt has previously suggested. Public forums that bring together multiple stakeholders (and diverse views) are a good thing. They foster dialogue, greater understanding of the topic, and respect for different perspectives. But I'm not convinced that complex causal connections between global global warming and say, West Nile Nile disease or a higher incidence of allergies, is going to make the case for climate change impacts at a local level. But Matt is not alone in seeing the value of this tack. In a NYT op-ed, historian Christopher Sellers says that today's environmental movement "should reframe climate change as a local issue" for suburban America. Sellers writes:

It's not as far-fetched as it might sound. Already, one can find suburban households, churches and homeowner associations interested in how to do things "greener," whether it's recycling or landscaping. The trick will be finding concerns that spark imaginations and mobilize group energies at this local level, and working from there.

The op-ed spurred continuing exchanges within the email group, including this response from me:

The trick is to make climate change visceral--perceived to be an immediate threat, like the polluted rivers and air that catalyzed the green movement 40 years ago. That is no easy trick, despite the best efforts of climate activists.

Andy Revkin also chimed in:

It would, in the end, have to be a trick (not Phil Jones' usage), because there's no way to honestly make greenhouse-driven climate change visceral for those who matter (climate-insulated prosperous folks and energy-impoverished developing folks with other far more visceral priorities).

Whether you agree or not, the struggle to communicate the perils of climate change goes on.

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