Communicating in the Swamp: How to Navigate Public Thinking About Climate and Ocean Change

This is the first in a series about framing ocean and climate change.

When people think about oceans this summer, they might think of a good vacation spot—a place to spread out the beach towel, pop up the umbrella, and relax under the sun as the waves lap against the shore. Or they might think of oceans in spiritual or utilitarian ways—as sources of beauty and mystery, for example, or of food or commerce.

What’s missing from this picture? A scientific understanding of the world’s oceans and the critical role they play in our larger climate system. When asked to think about oceans, studies show that people rarely describe them in scientific terms—as complex marine environments that are home to a rich, but fragile, biodiversity of plant and animal life. Research also shows that people rarely focus on the interconnected relationship between oceans, land, and atmosphere.

This poses significant challenges for experts and advocates who are working to build support for programs and policies to address ocean and climate change. If people appreciate oceans for their role in the climate system, they will likely be open to calls to protect them. But if they think about oceans as tourist destinations, a way to feed the planet, or an opportunity to do business, they may have difficulty seeing their value beyond human consumption—and will be less receptive to calls to protect them for environmental reasons. If people think of oceans in spiritual terms, on the other hand, they may conclude that oceans are too “vast” and “awesome” to affect with public policy or systematic change.

The public’s understanding of oceans is one of the many cultural models—or deeply held and widely shared thoughts and assumptions—that people use when reasoning about the environment. The FrameWorks Institute, a communications think tank in Washington, D.C., compares these cultural models to a “swamp”—a place where “gators” (or unproductive ways of thinking) can swallow up experts’ and advocates’ messages. Advocates will be better able to navigate through this swamp if they understand what’s in it.

FrameWorks, in partnership with the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI) and with support from the National Science Foundation, conducted anthropological research into public thinking about ocean and climate change and produced a comprehensive report about the swamp on ocean and climate change and the gators that lurk there. Some key findings follow:        

  • Experts say reducing carbon emissions is the key to addressing climate change and insist that government intervention is imperative. The public, however, lacks a clear understanding of what solutions would actually help and tend to focus on generic “green” activities such as recycling and other individual behaviors. In general, the public fails to recognize the urgency of the situation and the costs of delayed action.
  • Experts view carbon dioxide as the primary driver of climate change, yet the public see it as a natural part of life and assumes that what is natural cannot also be a problem. This lends credence, in the public’s eye, to the rejection of carbon dioxide as a cause of climate change.
  • Experts treat science as a source of knowledge, while the public toggles between treating it as authoritative or worthy of skepticism. While science authority is important to the public, without a clear understanding of the underlying mechanisms of climate and ocean change, people are vulnerable to erroneous assertions and bogus solutions. Science skepticism turns the topic into a political tug-of-war and redefines science as politics. Both of these outcomes are barriers to effective science translation.

In addition to gaps, the public lacks an understanding—or has “cognitive holes”—of some core issues related to ocean and climate change. The public, for example, does not see the climate as part of a complex, interconnected environmental system, and people have trouble reconciling short-term fluctuations in the weather with long-term trends in the climate.

Experts and advocates can overcome these challenges with communications tools that help people understand the science behind climate and ocean change and that fill in their “cognitive holes.” These tools include Explanatory Metaphors, Values, and other frame elements that help people understand the connections between climate and ocean change and allow them to see the climate as a system.

Previous FrameWorks research has found that comparing the atmosphere to a heat-trapping blanket cues more productive ways of thinking about how carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to warming. Appealing to certain values, meanwhile, has been shown to help people think about and support systemic solutions. These include the values of Innovation (the idea that we can solve problems with innovative thinking); Responsible Management (the idea that we must solve problems with coordination and planning); and Interconnectedness (the idea that all people are interconnected and share in the benefits of solutions).

This deeper understanding can change attitudes to and judgments about appropriate and accessible solutions. Click to learn more about other gaps and holes—and discover ways to bridge them and fill them in with productive communications tools. And read this report for a detailed review of research findings and recommendations about how to frame ocean and climate change. More recommendations will follow in subsequent blog posts in this series.


Annette Brickley

Pulling from the 2015 report, based on the 2014 FW Values research, I just wanted to clarify the recommended values for any Study Circle participants in the last two years-- this paragraph from FW says it succinctly.

"Among several values that FrameWorks tested experimentally, Responsible Management and Protection showed the strongest results. Therefore, we advise communicators to open communications with one of these two Values and to rely on them exclusively in brief communications opportunities. However, this is not to suggest that these are the only recommended Values frames. Previous research also found that Interconnection and Innovation can have productive frame effects. These themes are recommended as reliable Values cues in contexts that allow for longer communications, and work especially well with other frame elements. Specifcally, Interconnection pairs well with Explanatory Chains that illustrate the disruption of nature’s delicate balance, and Innovation is a natural ft with Solutions frame elements."