To Frame Climate Change, Lead with a Researched Value—Not a “Rogue” One

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

So, you want to motivate the public to take action to address climate and ocean change? One of the most important communications moves you can make is to open with a broad statement about why this issue matters to society. In short, lead with a value.

Values are widely shared cultural ideals—like our responsibility to protect people from harm and care for our surroundings. They remind people why problems like climate change matter and what they mean for our society. They encourage people to care about problems and take steps to solve them. They help build movements for change.

But this advice comes with an important caveat: Not every value builds support for systemic solutions in productive ways. Not every one works in the way we intend.

“Rogue values” are common in the field but sometimes counterproductive. The FrameWorks Institute, a communications think tank in Washington, D.C., advises advocates to stay away from them and use only those that have been tested for effectiveness.

Take the value of Scientific Authority—the idea that we should follow scientific recommendations and implement scientists’ solutions to environmental problems. Appeals to Scientific Authority basically make the case that the reason climate change matters is because scientists say it matters. It positions the issue as a matter of respect for scientific consensus, evidence, and research.

Because the scientific evidence on anthropogenic—or human-led—climate change is so strong, environmental advocates have gravitated to Scientific Authority as a key message. But FrameWorks researchers found that as a communications strategy, leading with this value undermines the cause.

FrameWorks teamed up with the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI) to develop an evidence-based strategy to communicate—or frame—climate and ocean change. In a 2014 experiment with 7,000 registered voters, FrameWorks found that appealing to Scientific Authority did little to affect attitudes about climate and ocean change or support for solutions.

Moreover, it led to two important negative results. After reading a message with the value, respondents were more likely to express comments consistent with climate change denial and uncertainty about which policies to support. Democratic respondents, meanwhile, reported weaker attitudes about the pervasiveness and significance of climate change impacts and less support for carbon dioxide reduction policies. FrameWorks’ interpretation of these results is that because there has been so much public discourse about the credibility of the science, using this argument reminds people of the supposed “controversy.” The resulting recommendation: Instead of asserting Scientific Authority, illustrate the science. Show, don’t tell. Use explanatory techniques (like metaphors and cause-and-effect explanatory chains) to unpack the content of the scientific consensus. Don't spend precious communications opportunities defending the science; take the time to translate it.

Scientific Authority isn’t the only rogue value sabotaging environmental communications.

Another common one is the “cute critters” trap—and its close cousins, environmental beauty and human pleasure. As noted in an earlier post, environmental organizations often use close ups of “charismatic megafauna” like polar bear cubs and seal pups to connect with audiences and drive support for protections. The assumption is a logical one; who could resist an image of a fawn in a meadow, with its wide eyes, white spots, and fuzzy tail? But FrameWorks has found that the “Bambi Effect”—the idea that people are more sympathetic to “cute” species than to “ugly” ones—is counterproductive. Focusing on a single animal, FrameWorks explains, doesn’t convey the interconnected nature of ecosystems or the process by which human actions affect them.

Appeals to environmental beauty—vast expanses of prairie, stunning mountain ranges, or shining seas—have a similar effect. These kinds of images are evocative and compelling; but they suggest that these landscapes matter simply because humans like to look at them. They miss the opportunity to communicate that all landscapes matter, regardless of their appearance, and that we must protect our planet not only for aesthetic reasons but also for ecological ones, too. Appeals to pleasure work the same way. Images of hikers, hunters, or outdoor enthusiasts in natural settings suggest that environmental protection is important because it brings humans joy, pleasure or satisfaction.

Another series of rogue values relate to profit, utility, consumption, and safety. Appealing to profit makes the “business” case: We should protect our environment because doing so carries economic benefits and failing to do so will cause economic losses. Appealing to utility argues that we should protect our environment because we find it useful—or handy (think farms and tools). Appeals to consumption argue that we should protect the environment to safeguard the things we eat (think sushi and cod) and need to support ourselves (commerce and tourism industries). And appeals to safety argue that we should protect our environment to ensure our safety and wellbeing. A final one is existential, arguing that certain species or places have an intrinsic right to live or exist undisturbed.

Appealing to these values isn’t “wrong.” Some people may indeed be motivated to protect the planet after seeing a cute animal or a beautiful vista. And it might make sense to make a business case with certain audiences. But FrameWorks research shows that some values—and two in particular—are most effective in building support for systemic solutions.

The values of Protection (we must protect people and places from environmental harm) and Responsible Management (we should take a practical, step-by-step approach to caring for our surroundings) boosted public support for measures to reduce carbon dioxide and protect marine environments and help counter climate denial messages.

To the extent that the climate interpretation community rallies around these two recommended values, these themes will gain prominence through the power of repetition. This message discipline is important, because the history of social movements shows that it is only when many organizations and actors coalesce around a shared frame that the movement gains ground.

To learn more about how and why these values work, read this post on tested values: Cut through Confusion with Appeals to Protection and Responsibility.

For additional information, read How to Talk about Climate Change and the Ocean; download these “reframe cards” for a summary of tested frame elements; and watch a short video of reframes in action. Click here for more resources about effective environmental communications frames.

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