Framing our sights on the climate crisis

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It is not a surprise to many of those who read this that the looming climate crisis is a ticking time bomb that should be at the forefront of personal, corporate and political strategy and action. California is in a constant state of wildfire, the Atlantic battles increasingly powerful hurricanes and millions of Americans are at risk of being harmed by extreme weather events. All around the world, extreme weather events continue to rise in intensity and quantity. Why then, you may ask, can we not come together to tackle this existential threat. Many scientists believe that improving science literacy is the solution to this problem. But will that truly unite us? 

Many scientists operate on the assumption that controversies in science and the climate crisis are grounded in ignorance, otherwise known as the “deficit model.” Operating on that assumption, the clear solution to the growth in “anti-science” and its politicization would be to improve science literacy. This could look like increased science coverage, science magazines or science-based TV programming. At the same time, what may be surprising to learn is that non-Hispanic white, middle-class, college-educated and suburban residents are less likely to be aware of and hold concerns for environmental quality compared to poorer, black and urban residents — which, at first, seems counterintuitive. According to the deficit model, a college education would lend itself to greater science literacy and therefore a greater receptivity to climate change. However, what may not immediately seem apparent is that many of our opinions are in fact based on the world around us, and it should be no surprise that wealthier people have greater access to biodiversity within their neighborhoods with proper landscaping and many green spaces. 

Clearly, education and receptivity to climate change are not necessarily tied. The deficit model falls short because people choose to base their opinions and judgments on a wide-ranging list of factors. In the case presented above, judgment was based upon personal experience. Similarly, judgment can also be formed through the lens of ideology, religion, culture, political affiliation, social identity and trust. This is where the concept of “framing” shines.

Framing is a method of connecting with certain audiences who may place various factors above science. It is an adaptive structure which seeks to simplify complex issues such as climate change into familiar forms by placing weight on a certain perspective or argument. Using a singular perspective as a “frame” creates a common point of reference and understanding between the media, scientists and the public. For example, climate change can be framed as an economic development opportunity that can lead to greater market benefits and global competition through the creation of jobs and technologies by investing in green infrastructure. Similarly, taking action to combat climate change can be framed as a matter of environmental stewardship in alignment with morality and ethics. This particular frame of morality comes from evangelical Christian leaders such as Richard Cizik and scientists such as EO Wilson to appeal to audiences that look for reasons beyond scientific fact. 

In any case, the future is unpredictable and fraught with unknown challenges that will certainly continue to test our limits, as climate change will inevitably lead to greater geopolitical instability. It takes continual effort and strength in the face of adversity to bring everyone to the same page, and luckily, framing is a powerful tool that can reach and unite people from all walks of life. 

On a personal level, while I feel ashamed to admit it, I come from an anti-science family. However, I choose to unabashedly wear this on my sleeve. I believe that sustained discussion regarding climate change and speaking in uncomfortable settings is the first step in tackling anti-science sentiments. I trust that through the idea of framing, I may at least speak in a two-way exchange of ideas and perhaps one day inspire change. 

Contact Adrian Fontao at [email protected].