Cut through Confusion with Appeals to Protection and Responsibility

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

Advocates and experts are familiar with common—but often untrue—tropes about our environment. How can we cut through them and communicate in a way that deepens understanding about the complex science behind environmental change and builds support for the kind of systemic changes that are needed to protect our planet from further damage?

How can we communicate that the state of our climate and oceans affects all of us? That rising carbon dioxide levels in our air and water are the greatest threat to the environment, and that the solutions we need to protect our planet and ourselves must go beyond individual actions and take place at the societal level? And also that the effects of climate change go far beyond ice melt and sea rise and affect systems related to agriculture, disease, and more?

The FrameWorks Institute, a communications think tank in Washington, D.C., has conducted extensive research into these and other questions. It found that we can make a stronger case about ocean and climate change by appealing to a set of key values—ideals that are deeply held and widely shared in American culture.

Values are effective ways to open communications about complex issues because they prime readers and viewers to think about problems and solutions in productive ways. As such, FrameWorks advises nonprofit communicators to “lead with a value”—or, in other words, to open their communications materials or start conversations or speeches with values messages.

FrameWorks makes the same recommendation to those who communicate about climate and ocean change. In research conducted in partnership with the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI) and with support from the National Science Foundation, FrameWorks found that two values—Protection and Responsible Management—were especially effective in priming productive thinking about climate and ocean change. FrameWorks advises advocates to appeal to these values in their communications materials and to focus exclusively on them in short messages.

Of the two, the value of Protection (the idea that we must protect people and places from environmental harm) performed the best, especially when followed by an explanation about how climate change undermines human health. This combination of frame elements boosted support for measures to reduce carbon dioxide more than any other combination and also performed well on support for policies relating to marine protection.

The value of Responsible Management (the idea that we should take a practical, step-by-step approach to take care of our surroundings) also performed well. Moreover, it is a useful tool to counter messages that deny the reality of climate change. When articulating this value, FrameWorks cautions against rebutting these claims directly; research shows that doing so only reinforces them. Instead, use the value to make a more productive, affirmative case about our collective duty to care for our environment. In addition to countering climate denial frames, this value also suppresses the notion that concern for the environment is a radical or fringe position.

These aren’t the only effective values to use when communicating about the environment. Earlier research found that the values of Interconnection (the idea that ocean, land, and human activity affect and can harm one another) and Innovation (the idea that we have the ability to solve difficult problems with innovation and ingenuity) are also productive.

FrameWorks advises communicators to use these values in longer pieces and with other frame elements. The idea behind Interconnection (that the fate of the planet and of ourselves is interconnected) is “felt deeply but understood shallowly,” according to FrameWorks. In other words, people agree with this assertion but can’t support it with examples.

Pairing it with a detailed explanation about how climate change is disrupting nature’s “delicate balance” helps people understand this value more deeply. As Julie Sweetland, FrameWorks’ vice president for strategy and innovation, notes, this value can be used to communicate “the connection between human practices and their impacts on marine life and habitats” and to call on people to do “a better job of leaving the oceans in good shape for the next generation.”

Research also shows that appealing to Innovation, meanwhile, can overcome fatalistic attitudes about challenging problems because it triggers a sense of hope and faith in collective action. It also taps into cherished beliefs about Americans as problem solvers. This value is most effective when followed by a discussion of solutions that can work to mitigate environmental problems, FrameWorks found. One note of caution, though: Don’t suggest that “science will save us” when using this value because it might cause “ordinary” people to disengage. Also, highlight innovative approaches that align with the systemic solutions that are needed to mitigate climate change.

As Dr. Sweetland notes in her article, appealing to Innovation can communicate our “history of being resourceful, clever, and thoughtful to solve problems and generate new ideas.” Use it to urge the audience to “phase out old technologies and practices that contribute to climate change and start supporting energy innovations that benefit both our ecosystems and our economy.”

For more information about how and why these values advance and enhance environmental communications, read How to Talk about Climate Change and the Ocean, a MessageMemo produced by the FrameWorks Institute. Click here for more resources about effective environmental communications frames. And read the first and second posts in this series.

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