Melting ice caps or asthmatic children: The challenge of framing the consequences of global warming

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NPR ran a great story this week on communicating about global warming. According to research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the public doesn’t react as strongly to messages about melting ice caps and endangered polar bears as they do to threats to their own health and the health of their children. So, what does this mean for sustainability communicators? It means that we might be using the wrong frames to motivate environmentally responsible behaviors.

Do the symbols that we use for global warming miss the mark?

We know that those who already care about an issue like global warming are more likely to pay attention and act on relevant messages, but that doesn’t help us motivate those who don’t care. The NPR article raises the possibility of tapping into the emotions of those who are apathetic about climate change, by connecting the issue with the reality of public health.

Another interesting issue that the article raised was the credibility of those who typically promote environmental messages (politicians, environmental activists, journalists, etc.) vs. healthcare workers. Health officials, as the article says, are trusted more than other sources, and as a result their messages are more readily accepted. Considering this, environmental groups might find partnerships with health officials to be more effective than celebrity endorsements (not to diminish the effectiveness of this strategy with youth) to raise awareness of the consequences of environmental damage.

As the article suggests, not everyone agrees that health and environment can be linked in this way, but one of the main proponents for this new strategy, Matt Nisbet, is quoted in the article. You can read more about his thoughts on communicating about climate change in an upcoming book that I edited with Lee Ahern titled Talking Green: Exploring Contemporary Issues in Environmental Communications. The scheduled publication date is mid-October. More to come.

As a side note: Research that I conducted with Lee Ahern through the Arthur W. Page Center for Integrity in Public Communication at Penn State University looked at 30 years of environmental communication and found that ads tended to position environmental actions as good for the earth (rather than warning that lack of actions would lead to harm to the earth). And, the ads advocated for taking action (recycling, signing a petition, etc.) rather than conserving (using less water or electricity). See more articles about findings from this project here and here.

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