Should we “frame” climate change?

If we want to convince people to take action against global warming, maybe we need to take advice from advertising. A report by the nonprofit EcoAmerica, as reported by The New York Times in early May, suggests that terms like “greenhouse gas” and “carbon dioxide” turn people off.  Instead, they say, climate activists should change their rhetoric, emphasizing a “move away from dirty fuels of the past” and a “pollution reduction refund” (instead of “cap-and-trade”).

In a SEED magazine article last month (highlighted in the NYT’s Dot Earth blog this week ), climate scientists were asked what jargon really bugs them within the climate debate, and what they would do to change the conversation.

Ann Kinzig, the representative ecologist, points out that people process negative information differently than they do positive information, citing that more patients — and even doctors — will opt for a procedure if they’re told it has an 80 percent success rate than if they’re told it has a 20 percent failure rate.  In her words, so-called “sloganeering” is a first and small step towards the larger goal of deeper engagement and understanding.  She says that the right words need to be in place to make people “pause long enough to hear” an argument.  To her, language is never neutral, even in the scientific world.  In her words:

“My own personal opinion is that we (scientists) – writing and thinking in our robust homes, from a room devoted exclusively to study, fueled by three square meals a day produced in another room devoted exclusively to cooking – tend to think more negatively about humans and their impact on the nature we so love. People are apart from nature. They are ‘shortsighted’ and they ‘destroy’ environments and their behaviors need to be controlled. They are not integral parts of nature, capable of observing problems and reacting with innovation and thoughtfulness, even if that cycle is imperfect. The labels and phrases we use now reflect the values and social norms of the scientists. If we accept that language is never neutral, why not adopt the terms that resonate with a broader swath of the public?”

Read what other scientists, including geoscientists, meteorologists and social scientists, have to say about climate communication in the full SEED article.

Author: Christine Buckley

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