The Framing of Climate Change: Why We Must Emphasize Pollution Over Polar Bears

Dense smog fills the air in Harbin, China. Photo from The Economic Times.

No matter what unqualified politicians may say, climate change is an undeniable fact. Scientists have confirmed that the Earth’s temperature has been rising rapidly over the past several decades, and more than 97% of active climate scientists agree that these trends “are extremely likely due to human activity.” Samples from ice cores collected in Greenland and Antarctica have clearly demonstrated that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has shot up to a point that hasn’t been observed for thousands of years, and 2016 was recently declared the hottest year in human history, making last year the third consecutive record-breaking year. All this data points towards the conclusion that we are rushing headfirst into an anthropogenic nightmare.

And yet, a recent study by the Pew Research Center found that 51% of U.S. adults believe climate change is either not caused by humans or just doesn’t exist. The survey also found that only 39% of Americans have “a lot” of trust in what climate scientists say. Clearly, an enormous chasm is present between the scientific community and the general public, and people are wondering why. Why do so many people deny the evidence that experts present? Just what is going on?

Some have blamed radical, right-wing conservatives and the fossil fuel industry for spreading misinformation among the general public. Others choose to believe that the controversy stems from identity politics and how people would rather take sides than go against party politics. Several social scientists have attributed this behavior to natural human flaws such as confirmation bias and distrust of the media. I believe that we’re approaching this issue all wrong. The real source of this controversy is ultimately how the topic of climate change is framed. In order to make skeptics take climate change seriously, we have to link this concept with something immediately tangible, immediately life-threatening, and immediately alarming.

To better illustrate my point, let me use Obamacare as an example. On January 17, 2017, the TV show Jimmy Kimmel Live broadcasted a clip in which reporters asked people on the street whether they preferred Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act. The responses were disheartening, to say the least. When asked whether she supported Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act, one person chose the latter because she was “not the biggest fan of Obama.” Another person chose the Affordable Care Act over Obamacare because the Affordable Care Act is more affordable, which he said “is obvious based on the name.” The joke is that both terms refer to the exact same thing: Obamacare is just a nickname for the Affordable Care Act.

Language is a powerful weapon, and using it carelessly could undermine an entire campaign. In this instance, the Republican establishment understood the importance of branding and aggressively pushed to link universal healthcare with President Obama, by way of the name “Obamacare.” This way, the bill would prompt anger in people before they even learned about the healthcare initiative and how it would actually benefit them in the long run.

This same problem with framing applies to the entire debate surrounding climate change. For instance, what sort of imagery does the word “climate change” invoke? I’m willing to bet that for many people, they see polar bears on floating ice, the number on a thermometer going up a few notches, glacier chunks falling into the ocean, or similar images pushed by the media. For something as urgent and life-threatening as climate change, why is all the imagery typically associated with climate change so unthreatening to humans?

While it’s easy to categorize people who don’t care about climate change as stupid or uninformed, oftentimes that’s not the case. They just don’t see the importance of taking action because they don’t yet feel threatened by it. They have other things to worry about, like job security and the economy, so they fail to see why they should sacrifice their time, effort, and tax money for something they don’t think would directly affect humans for several thousand years. This is why so many politicians who oppose the notion of climate change keep emphasizing how they prioritize jobs over fluctuating temperatures. The lack of job security is a frightening and immediate threat that is tangible to these people. On the other hand, polar bears and melting ice caps aren’t so scary. Climate activist Tom Steyer sums up the situation nicely: “One side argues morality and polar bears, and the other side argues jobs. You’re never going to win with polar bears.”

A convincing argument for climate change should focus on how human lives, including those of skeptics, would be directly harmed by not taking action, enough so that those consequences would override their concerns for the economy as a priority. Enough with the polar bears. We have to focus on the lives and well-being of people. If we don’t, we risk being viewed as detached from the struggles of working class Americans.

However, the issue of imagery is only one facet of the framing problem. In truth, the basic concept of climate change is much too weak for skeptics to register it as a legitimate, immediate threat. According to NASA, climate change is defined as “a change in the usual weather found in a place.” These changes could refer to changes in temperature or even a change in how much rain a place usually gets in a year. However, while all evidence indicates that the global climate is changing drastically, these changes are not readily noticeable by the average person. In fact, a 2014 study by the Public Religion Research Institute found that the most common reason behind climate change skepticism was that participants had not noticed any change in weather around them or that it was actually getting colder where they lived.

Understandably, skeptics find what climate scientists report hard to believe because their senses tell them otherwise. People like Donald Trump prey on this confusion and further their own agenda by providing an easy yet false solution to this contradiction: Climate change just doesn’t exist. During his presidential campaign, Trump would often jab at the notion of climate change because the weather outside was still cold.

Thus, despite the scientifically proven fact that the global temperature is changing, the focus on temperature seems like a dead end. Changes in temperature are not tangible enough to sway skeptics. But then what can we do? I suggest that we connect climate change with something everyone knows is real and dangerous: Air pollution.

According to an international study, black carbon, a major component in soot and car exhaust, was found to be responsible for both creating deadly smog in cities and acting as the second biggest contributor to global warming. Another study found that the warmer weather caused by climate change could worsen dangerous smog in the summer and the fall. Clearly, these two human threats are linked. However, unlike the idea of temperature changes, air pollution is a term that already has an extremely negative connotation. Not only is the term linked to asthma, lung cancer, and other respiratory diseases, but news reports have recently exposed the toxic living conditions in China, Mongolia, Britain, and even the United States due to the dense smog that blanket entire cities. Pictures of children wearing gas masks to school and gray smog blocking out the sunlight have already spread throughout the Internet like grim visions of a dystopian future. This frightening imagery provides extra incentive for people to strive for cleaner air.

Too few people associate climate change with air pollution and deadly smog, despite how both are caused by the use of fossil fuels. Without the horrifying implications of air pollution, the term “climate change” by itself lacks the sense of alarm that motivates people to act. While climate change may sound like an ordinary phenomenon to skeptics, air pollution has a more direct connection to the health and safety of every individual. It is a concept that everyone should be very familiar with. Even Donald Trump said it himself: “I believe in clean air. Immaculate air. But I don’t believe in climate change.” I’m sure he would have a much harder time convincing others to laugh at climate change once that term becomes synonymous with air pollution, a global hazard that is responsible for 7 million premature deaths every year.

Ultimately, we must bridge the gap between the scientific community and the general public. We must make the extra effort to not only promote scientific thought but also frame this knowledge so that anyone can understand its significance and gravity. While it may be frustrating to argue with climate deniers, science is useless if it’s isolated and shared only among experts. If skeptics of science refuse to reach out to the experts, the experts must find a way to reach out and connect to the skeptics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *