Is There a Better Word for Doom?

Catalyst / by Maywa Montenegro /

Six experts discuss the merits of framing climate change, the language that troubles them, and the inherent bias of any chosen word.

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Is There a Better Word for Doom?
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If “global warming” conjures visions of intractable scientific debate, frugal living, and hemp-clad activists, you are not alone. And that’s a big problem, say experts at EcoAmerica, a nonprofit environmental marketing firm in Washington DC.

In a report to be released the first week in June — though a summary was accidentally leaked by email to the press late last month — the firm has compiled the results of extensive polling and focus-group sessions conducted over the last several years. Those studies, according to EcoAmerica, indicate that words like “global warming,” “cap and trade,” and “carbon dioxide” turn people off. The firm advises that environmental and government leaders begin talking about “our deteriorating atmosphere” and a “pollution reduction refund,” ditching greenhouse gas-speak in favor of phrases like “moving away from the dirty fuels of the past.”

“Remember to speak in TALKING POINTS — ” read the email, “aspirational language about shared American ideals, like freedom, prosperity, independence, and self-sufficiency, while avoiding jargon and details about policy, science, economics, or technology.”

EcoAmerica’s semantic suggestions add to a burgeoning body of research on the framing of environmental issues. How do people — both individually and collectively — respond to certain “green” messages, incentives, and policy plans? As psychologists and behavioral economists begin to better understand the mental processes that shape our choices, and the many inherent biases the human brain is prone to, the hope is that decision scientists will enable us to purposefully structure choices that “nudge” us the right direction — to, in a sense, trick ourselves into saving ourselves. Many environmentalists, and many within President Obama’s inner circle — a group that includes Cass Sunstein, a leader in the field — have openly embraced the frames and nudges approach. Only by tweaking human behavior, they say, will we solve a problem that is rooted in human behavior.

But Robert J. Brulle, an expert on environmental communications at Drexel University, recently warned that framing tactics can easily devolve into flaccid rhetoric. Comparing the oil industries’ ads to the suggestions from EcoAmerica, he told the New York Times, “The form is the same; the message is just flipped. You want to sell toothpaste, we’ll sell it. You want to sell global warming, we’ll sell it. It’s the use of advertising techniques to manipulate public opinion.”

Brulle went on to argue that the approach is cynical and, worse, ineffective, as it diverts attention from face-to-face engagement, the only way, he said, “to achieve real, lasting change.”

So is the framing of climate change — rethinking the words and phrases in our environmental lexicon — a valuable and important approach, or as Brulle argues, does it amount to little more than a marketing ploy?

What is some language that you would send to the compost pile — and how would you replace it?

Play By the Rules, But Be Clever

Michael E. Mann is director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, and a co-founder of the climate change website

The issue of “framing” is not mere gimmick or marketing ploy when it comes to the public discourse on environmental science. Communicating science to the public is a great challenge, and communicators must employ the full arsenal of available tools in meeting that challenge. The most important of these tools is arguably the effective choice of language.

We must find ways to translate often technical and complex scientific findings for consumption by an audience unfamiliar with the basic tools and lexicon of science. Where the science has implications for public policy, which is true for many fields in the environmental sciences — including my own field of climate change — communicators must fight against the headwind of intentional disinformation efforts, typically fostered by special interest groups that judge themselves to be threatened by the implications of the scientific findings. The contrarian disinformation machine often employs charismatic, rhetorically talented advocates who deliver their messages of doubt and confusion in carefully measured and focus-group-tested aphorisms.

Those in the scientific community who seek both to inform the public and to maintain their integrity, must, by contrast, play by the rules. Rather than engaging in the artifice of misrepresentation and cherry picking, we must find clever, simple ways to convey the facts. To do otherwise would constitute unilateral disarmament in this war.

What is the proper role of scientists in all of this? I believe it is to do the very best we can to inform society about the relevant science, which often means coming down from our ivory towers and speaking, in plain language, about the state of understanding of the potential societal and environmental risks. Very much in this vein, I co-founded the website five years ago in an effort to provide a direct conduit of information about the science of climate change science to the media, policy makers, and interested members of the public.

Often, in our communication efforts, scientists are confronted with critical issues of language and framing. A case in point is a book I recently co-authored with Penn State colleague Lee Kump, called Dire Predictions: Understanding Global Warming. The purists among my colleagues would rightly point out that the potential future climate changes we describe, are, technically speaking, projections rather than predictions because the climate models are driven by hypothetical pathways of future fossil fuel burning (i.e. conceivable but not predicted futures). But Dire Projections doesn’t quite roll off the tongue. And it doesn’t convey — in the common vernacular — what the models indicate: Climate change could pose a very real threat to society and the environment. In this case, use of the more technically “correct” term is actually less likely to convey the key implications to a lay audience. This example provides just one of the many lessons about language and framing that we scientists must take to heart if we are to be effective in our efforts to inform the public discourse.

Language Is Never Neutral

Ann Kinzig is a professor in the School of Life Sciences and Sustainability at Arizona State University. She studies the social and ecological dimensions of ecosystem services and their implications for conservation.

“Greenhouse gases” or “our deteriorating atmosphere”? “Carbon tax” or “pollution reduction fund”? Should scientists even deign to think about this type of sloganeering? Should they stoop to tactics employed by public relations firms and advertisers?

Of course they should.

Not, mind you, because of a deep-seated cynicism about the nature of civic discourse, and what that might mean about society’s capacity to solve the world’s most intractable environmental problems. Not because the majority of scientists rather alarmingly tend to think they are smarter than most, and thus more capable of successful public manipulation.

We should engage in sloganeering because the emerging scientific understanding of values, social norms, and behavior tells us we should.

People make different decisions depending on how information is presented. If told a medical procedure has an 80 percent success rate, more patients (and doctors!) opt for the procedure than if told it has a 20 percent failure rate. People hear and process positive and negative information differently.

Scientists are also discovering that short-term changes in behavior can lead to longer-term changes in values. To oversimplify, the American public initially recycled because fines or prohibitive garbage-collection costs compelled them to. They later recycled because they “wanted to” — it had become habit, or a social norm. Getting people to take the first step is essential in crafting longer-term change.

Sloganeering is the first step — the step that allows people to pause long enough to hear, to feel secure enough to engage. The longer-term change comes from a deeper engagement, a deeper understanding. These are not mutually exclusive approaches.

Scientists should also recognize that the language they use now is hardly neutral or objective. We bring our own values to the table. Those values often differ from those of the larger public, particularly the global public. My own personal opinion is that we (scientists) — writing and thinking in our robust homes, from a room devoted exclusively to study, fueled by three square meals a day produced in another room devoted exclusively to cooking — tend to think more negatively about humans and their impact on the nature we so love. People are apart from nature. They are “shortsighted” and they “destroy” environments and their behaviors need to be controlled. They are not integral parts of nature, capable of observing problems and reacting with innovation and thoughtfulness, even if that cycle is imperfect. The labels and phrases we use now reflect the values and social norms of the scientists. If we accept that language is never neutral, why not adopt the terms that resonate with a broader swath of the public?

Why Only One Framing?

Clark Miller is an associate director of the Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes and associate professor of science and technology policy in the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University.

Two competing models of framing exist. The first views framing as a tactical choice in communication. Spinning information to comport with culturally embedded narratives purportedly raises its credibility with target audiences. This model presumes an ignorant and uninformed public, with all the dangers that implies for democracy. I reject this model.

The second model views framing, instead, as how humans make sense of and give meaning to events in the world — the lens through which they interpret disparate observations, models, data, and evidence in light of their values. This model posits framing as an ineradicable element of reasoning, even in science, and a facility for rich, nuanced storytelling as a foundation for human community.

Both models recognize that humans structure their understanding of policy through narrative and story. Rather than exploiting this structure for political gain, however, the second model acknowledges that any specific policy frame is, at best, partial and incomplete. Any frame reflects only one way of looking at a policy problem, leaving out potentially critical pieces of knowledge and significance.

Humanity faces an array of grand challenges in the 21st century. It is perhaps naive, but I imagine that, confronting these challenges, government might be in the business, not of spin, but of helping people understand their full complexity. The choices before us are not whether to buy Tide or Cheer. We should not treat them as such.

A decade ago, I observed in an article in Environmental Values that the CIA, DOE, MIT, and the NAS all adopted different framings of climate change. The result was short-term policy confusion but long-term clarity about the many diverse ways that climate change cuts through human societies. I suggested one could generalize this example to building a capacity in society to acknowledge, tolerate, and even embrace multiple policy frames.

There is a tendency in the policy world to see multiple framings as a barrier to getting to solutions. I contend they are not.

Far from signaling a lack of understanding or the potential to galvanize action, multiple frames enhance understanding and improve the ability to reach diverse audiences. Each frame highlights unique facets of complex policy problems, illuminating the futility of overly simplistic solutions. Different points of view give us powerful insights into the many communities that share our planet.

Much is at stake. In responding to climate change, we are, at one and the same time, confronting one of the most critical policy challenges of our age and crafting the future of global society. Today’s policy choices will fashion the social, political, technological, and environmental foundations of humanity’s common future. How we organize these policy choices in response to what we know will have vast implications for human lives and livelihoods over the next century. If we frame our responses too narrowly, we will fail.

Dangerous Anthropogenic Jargon

Gavin Schmidt is a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and is a co-founder of His latest attempt to communicate the science of climate change can be seen in his book Climate Change: Picturing the Science, co-authored with photographer Joshua Wolfe.

The issue in communicating the science of climate change is not that people are put off by difficult concepts or jargon (though this happens), but most often that the words being used convey an overall picture of the situation that is simply wrong. Take a phrase like the “dangerous anthropogenic interference in climate” used in the Framework Convention on Climate Change and a staple of policy discussions everywhere. This implicitly forces a binary separation between a safe level of interference and a dangerous one, implying that we are going to be fine until some “tipping point” is reached. In reality, there is no such point — impacts of climate change will increase steadily as the temperatures rise just as the danger of a car accident increases the faster you go. There is no such thing as a safe speed that is valid in all circumstances and no one temperature rise that is “dangerous.” Discussion in these terms — such as stating there is only X number of years to act — simply engenders complacency on one side and fatalism on the other. Neither response is appropriate since we will always have choices to make that can make the situation better or worse in the future.

Overly messaged phrases as suggested by EcoAmerica might be helpful for advocates of various policies since they are indeed trying to sell something. Only rarely does such a reframing stick, however. And when obviously framed language infects discussions of the science, it serves only to leave the impression that the scientists themselves are selling something, which should concern anyone who worries about the over-politicization of science. Carbon dioxide is the perfect description of the gas consisting of a molecule of carbon and two oxygen atoms; it doesn’t need to be burdened with an additional focus-group-approved label. However, scientists speaking in public do have a responsibility to remember that they are talking to a wider audience that does not necessarily share the same background knowledge. They should also not forget that they are seen much more as representatives of the scientific community than as individuals — thus statements coming out of a scientist’s mouth often have a much wider implication than even she or he may recognize.

Will Green Sugar Help the Medicine Go Down?

Robert Henson is a writer at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the author of The Rough Guide to Climate Change.

If there’s one trope about global warming that makes me itch, it’s the plea to “save the planet.” Close behind is the claim that “the survival of humanity is at stake.” There are indeed epochal consequences on the way if we continue to pump greenhouse gases into the air. For some cultures and ecosystems, the world is entering uncharted and dangerous waters. However, I feel confident that Earth itself will survive. And as a species, humans are an amazingly durable bunch.

More than anything, these phrases strike me as redolent of fundamentalist religion in their drive to rescue all humanity from an ultimate threat. For the majority of Americans who already accept the science and its seriousness, we don’t need to preach to the choir — we need to motivate action. When a threat is vividly tangible, scary language can certainly help prod people into doing the right thing. I’ve used a bike helmet without fail ever since a colleague referred to a cyclist’s head smashing into pavement like a watermelon. The threat of a heat wave or a drought 10 or 20 years from now doesn’t pack quite the same punch.

Given the gulf between climate change cause and effect, it might indeed be more effective to craft a more hopeful, empowering call to action. Reframing isn’t enough, though. We’ve largely shifted from “global warming” to “climate change,” a broader term that correctly implies more than rising temperatures. But “climate change” was advocated by climate scientists as well as conservative pollsters (albeit for different reasons). I’ve seen people on both sides of the spectrum accuse the other of engineering this switch. Will a jaded public really be moved if we shift to the research-vetted “our deteriorating atmosphere,” the ominous-sounding “global heating,” or something else?

The Obama presidential campaign called on many of the principles espoused by reframing guru George Lakoff, but it took the concordance between public opinion and Obama’s viewpoint to put him in office. In this same vein, it’s policy that really matters on climate. The atmosphere doesn’t care what words we use to make emission reductions happen. Ultimately — perhaps as soon as Congress passes a climate bill — Americans will have to gamble some upfront costs in hopes of forestalling more serious economic and ecological pain down the line. And we may never know exactly what consequences we’ve managed to avoid.

No amount of reframing will change these stark facts, but perhaps it can help us to take the necessary plunge. The promise of long-term energy savings can be invoked to move us toward climate-friendly fuel sources. The vision of neighbors working, playing, and eating more locally could help reduce emissions while enhancing our quality of life. And by addressing climate change, we can help reduce risk to the most vulnerable among us — a feel-good aspect that’s ripe for upbeat framing. If a bit of aspirational language can help keep our eyes on what needs to be done, then by all means, let’s accentuate the positive.

Breaking the Perceptual Gridlock

Matthew C. Nisbet is an assistant professor in the School of Communication at American University. He studies strategic communication in policy making and public affairs, focusing on controversies surrounding science, the environment, and public health.

It is a mistake to believe that you can avoid framing in communicating about climate change or any science-related policy debate. In fact, there is no such thing as unframed information.

“Frames” are the conceptual term from the social sciences for interpretative storylines that communicate what is at stake in a societal debate and why the issue matters. This research — primarily in the fields of political communication and sociology — offers a rich explanation for how various actors, including scientists, define issues in strategic ways, how journalists from various beats selectively cover these issues, and how diverse audiences differentially perceive, understand, and participate in these debates. For each group, frames help simplify complex issues by lending greater weight to certain considerations and arguments over others, translating why an issue might be a problem, who or what might be responsible, and what should be done. In this manner, frames provide common points of reference and meaning between science, the media, and key audiences.

Not every citizen cares about disastrous environmental impacts or the alleged politicization of science by conservatives, yet among climate advocates and scientists, these mental points of reference continue to be the dominant emphasis. In order to restart the conversation about meaningful policy action, new perceptual contexts are needed, mental boxes that resonate with something a specific intended audience already values or understands.

The point is not to “sell” the public on climate change, but rather to use research on framing to create communication contexts that move beyond polarization, promote discussion, generate partnerships and connections, and that accurately convey the objective urgency of the problem. If the public feels like they are being marketed to, it will only continue to fuel additional polarization and perceptual gridlock. In shifting the frame on climate change, the goals should not be to persuade, but rather to start conversations with the public that recognize, respect, and incorporate differences in knowledge, values, perspectives, and goals.

In one prominent example of re-framing the debate, strategists Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger have led the way by advocating that climate change should not be defined as a pollution problem that requires additional regulation but as an energy problem that provides an opportunity for growing the economy and creating jobs around clean technology. This reframing moves the debate beyond a narrow constituency of environmental advocates and opens the doors for a broader climate movement that includes labor, business leaders, and the investor class. The frame was a major emphasis by both presidential candidates in the past election, is emphasized in Al Gore’s “Repower America” television ads, and continues to be a dominant focus of the Obama administration.

A second framing strategy to move beyond perceptual gridlock is offered by scientists such as E. O. Wilson and Evangelical leaders such as Richard Cizik who frame environmental stewardship in terms of morality and ethics, engaging an Evangelical audience who might not otherwise pay attention to appeals on climate change. This frame is more than just a talking point or a rebranding of the issue: When scientists and religious leaders join together around shared values to work on a common problem, it builds bonds of trust that enables long-term collaboration and that breaks down prejudices.

Finally, a unique public health frame is a promising new innovation in climate change communication. The public health frame emphasizes the potential of climate change to increase the incidence of infectious diseases, heat stroke, and other familiar health problems, especially among the elderly, children, or low-income groups. Not only does the public health frame focus on overlooked and significant human impacts, it also shifts the visualization of the issue away from remote artic regions, peoples, and animals to more socially proximate neighbors and places. In the process, the frame is inclusive of the need for not just mitigation but also adaptation actions, while also bringing new communication partners into the fold, notably public health officials and leaders from minority and low-income communities who are the most at risk and the most vulnerable.

Originally published May 21, 2009

Tags climate decision making policy truth

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