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Framing Climate Change Action Now: An Update

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Framing Climate Change Action Now: An Update

by Susan C. Strong

As the coming Paris U.N. Conference on Climate Change picks up a lot of temporary media attention, we all need to upgrade our climate change and climate action framing. That means using the best frames for every aspect of our climate change action communication: about the problems, the solutions, and even our own strategies.

For example, the most important new metaphors for explaining climate change come from the Frameworks Institute's Fall 2015 report. The Institute advocates following up on their metaphors by moving promptly to the solutions level, and they ground these metaphors in the values of "responsible management," "protection," and "innovation. " These values also form some of the background for the most effective climate action framing, which is described by Per Espen Stoknes in his invaluable new book, What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming. (1) Stoknes definitely has the key to talking about climate action in a way that works. But that can be easier said than done when every type of climate activist is at the table. That's why I think we also need a simple, non-judgmental way to frame the wild variety of climate protection solutions out there. That could help improve and speed up our strategic thinking as a climate action movement.

Let's start by looking at Framework's recommended metaphors for talking to the public about climate change. The Institute has found that the American public doesn't easily get the difference between ordinary carbon dioxide and what we've been calling "carbon pollution." The answer they say is to talk about "regular carbon dioxide" vs. "rampant carbon dioxide," (excess? runaway? "Rampant" is an elite word, alas, but we can translate.) That excess carbon dioxide creates a "heat --trapping blanket" that damages the earth's atmosphere (the air we breathe? "Atmosphere" is a bit too abstract and distant for most. Again we can translate.). They also recommend bringing up ocean acidification as a form of damage to the climate by calling the ocean the "climate's heart." This helps people understand how oceans regulate ("control"?) the climate system. Calling ocean acidification "a change in chemistry" helps to clarify that problem, and describing the impact of this change on sea creatures as "osteoporosis of the sea" is truly a stroke of genius in my view. (That's one multi-syllabic, latinate word that just about everybody knows and fears!) I especially like some of these metaphors, because they express intimate bodily analogies more people are likely to understand, a point that Stoknes also stresses.

Frameworks goes on to warn us that we should avoid the "crisis" trap when addressing the public (vs. the "responsible, protective, innovative path"), the "cute critters" trap (remote polar bears and penguins), the focus on quickly forgotten specific weather incidents and accidents, or the guilty individual action trap (solutions have to be joint, community or region based). Stoknes warns us to avoid distant, abstract, long term, scary, expensive and sacrificial sounding solution stories. (He also points out that we should talk about "resistance," not "denial," because denial is too complex a psychological and social phenomenon. "Resistance," however, can be overcome.) Frameworks suggests "highlighting existing, feasible, systems level approaches that can make things better." Stoknes, a psychologist, economist, entrepreneur, and scenario planner, gets into exciting detail about these approaches. He counsels us to tell positive stories about how we ourselves, our families, and friends can have better, happier, and healthier lives with green energy solutions, plus more jobs and money saved too.

Of course, bringing solutions into being is the climate action movement's job. As we move toward the Paris U.N. Conference on Climate Change, climate activists are readying many different proposals, strategies and tactics. Although this variety is wonderful and very encouraging, it could also make coordinated strategic thinking difficult, even lead to conflict. But as everyone knows, we need to get it together and fast. Having a simple set of frames to categorize the different types of climate protection solutions could strengthen our movement.

Re our own organizing strategies, there are basically three types: pricing carbon, exacting social and political costs, and green leapfrogging. "Pricing carbon" has to do with strictly economic methods of stopping carbon, enabled by legislation. The "pricing" strategy includes tactics like passing laws that would create carbon pollution "fees" (the best language when you want to speak of "price") or taxes, with rebates or dividends to the public, emissions caps, trading pollution permits, offsets, and so on. (See for more detail about all of these.)

The second major strategy is about exacting costs" (social, political and ultimately economic) from the fossil fuel cabal and all who support them. That strategy includes a multitude of tactics: our increasingly successful divestment campaigns, climate justice organizing, nonviolent demonstrations, local blockades (tagged "blockadia"), boycotts, law suits and investigations like the one New York state is doing right now of Exxon's lies to investors. In addition, there is the tactic of direct government regulation, happening in some states and at the federal level, as long as Obama is in office.

The third strategy could be called the "green leapfrog" strategy. That strategy includes tactics likecreating alternative green energy capacity at local, regional and state levels. Stoknes describes a wide range of other possible green leapfrog tactics, including setting up positive "nudges" to make it easier and more rewarding for people to go green. He advocates using social networks and norms in the form of local peer encouragement to carry the message about green "opportunities," "green growth," cutting waste, creating climate "insurance, "being "prepared," and being "ethical." All three of these strategies, pricing carbon, exacting (social and political) costs, and green leapfrogging are needed, and done right, they could complement each other. We simply don't have time to fight about what works best. Everyone must do the thing that calls them.

No matter what happens in Paris, all of these framing suggestions could help us move climate change action ahead in the coming year. Telling the climate disruption story using powerful, tested, metaphors works best. Telling climate solutions stories using positive frames and tactics will get us further faster. And having a few simple names for the three prongs of our "solution" strategies could help us move forward together.
Susan C. Strong, Ph.D., is the Founder and Executive Director of The Metaphor Project,, and author of our new book, Move Our Message: How to Get America's Ear. The Metaphor Project has been helping progressives mainstream their messages since 1997. Follow Susan on Twitter @SusanCStrong.
1. Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VT., 2015, 290 pp.

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Susan C. Strong, Ph.D., is the founder and executive director of the Metaphor Project. She is also the author of our new book, MOVE OUR MESSAGE: HOW TO GET AMERICA'S EAR, available on our website. The mission of the Metaphor Project is helping (more...)

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