Re-framing the Climate Conversation


Gale M. Sinatra (University of Southern California) & Barbara K. Hofer (Middlebury College, Vermont)

On Sept 4th CNN hosted a climate town hall where for 7 hours, Democratic candidates discussed the issue of climate change and their plans for how to manage this looming crisis. MSNBC hosted a similar event on September 19-20, capping the network’s “Climate in Crisis” series. It was reassuring to hear that candidates avowed climate science. However, being pressed to do so is akin to asking a doctor at an American Medical Association convention to affirm faith in medical science before giving a keynote address.

When Democrats are asked, “Do you believe in climate change?” responses are usually some version of, “Yes, I believe in climate change.” On the Republican side responses range from waffling to denial. We suggest it is time to re-frame this conversation. The media, the debate interviewers, and the candidates bear responsibility for this national conversation in respect to how climate change is communicated and how citizens come to think about the problem and its solutions. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Ask about “acceptance” of the science rather than “belief”

We are seeing a shift away from questions about “belief” in science, an “inane question,” according to scientist Arvind Ravikumar. Science isn’t something to be taken on faith. Belief should be reserved for the untestable or unknowable. No one should profess a “belief” in gravity;  they accept the laws of physics. The conversation should be reframed around accepting the scientific consensus on climate change. Interviewers can reframe their approach and candidates can consider what their own language communicates and respond, “Yes, I accept the scientific consensus.”

2. Focus on sustaining life 

Conservatives and climate denialists call those who are concerned about climate change “tree huggers” who care more about the planet than people. This is an upside down perspective. The planet existed before humans and will likely exist long after humans’ time on this planet comes to an end. The goal of climate change activists is to preserve our ecosystem and biodiversity. These sustain human life. The conversation should be reframed around sustaining life, including human life.

3. Target possible actions

So-called “climate alarmists” paint a post-apocalyptic nightmare scenario of a doomed planet with humans as a doomed species in the very near future. Meanwhile, climate denialists offer a cavalier dismissal of scientists and think they are perpetuating a hoax on the public. Climate change is real, it is already wreaking havoc on our environment, and immediate steps must be taken to curb its worst effects – however, neither of these positions will lead us there. Doomsdayism leads individuals to feel hopeless, uninspired, and unwilling to take action. Denialism leads individuals to feel angry, and unmotivated or unwilling to take action. The conversation should be reframed around actions we all can take right now to accept the science alongside plausible solutions that push doomsday as far into the future as possible. Please focus candidate discussions on the steps that can be taken. Now. Tomorrow. Forever.

4. Focus on changes and not sacrifices

Wolf Blitzer asked presidential candidate Andrew Yang, “Will we all be forced to drive electric cars?” Candidates all agreed that transportation must change dramatically – but is this really a sacrifice? Others ask whether we have to give up air travel or hamburgers and plastic straws. Moderators love to focus on what they see as sacrifices, mongering fear among citizens who fear governmental intrusion. If Wolf Blitzer seems to think electric cars are such as sacrifice, we suggest he take a ride in one. Electric cars are not a panacea, there are real costs, however, they are comfortable, quiet, zippy, and don’t require gas. Some sacrifice! The conversation should be reframed around change, not sacrifice. Change is often for the better, and we can focus on strong examples of positive actions.

5. Stress collective not individual actions

Questions that focus on individual actions, such as asking Cory Booker about being vegan, again stress that it is all on us, individual actors, to change our behavior. This creates a lot of climate anxiety with individuals feeling guilty of destroying the planet if they eat an occasional hamburger. While we can all do our individual parts, collective action is going to have a much greater impact. The big CO2 emitters are not individuals, but corporations. Warren did push back on this at the climate town hall when low energy light bulbs came under attack, noting “this is exactly the fossil fuel industry wants us to talk about.”  Candidates were praised for pushing back against that framing.

6. Emphasize the creation of new clean jobs

Hillary Clinton famously said she was going to “put coal miners out of work,” which was a misstep she regretted. Yes, we must move away from jobs in the fossil fuel industry. However, the conversation must be framed around creating new jobs in alternative energy and supporting workers through a transition to new jobs at similar pay and benefits. Putting people to work is not only the right conversation, it’s the right policy, and the right thing to do. Candidates can offer examples of where this is already happening and how it can be enhanced. These examples will help the public imagine a positive employment picture that also helps alleviate climate change. Public discussions of climate change with presidential candidates are critically important. In the three presidential debates for the 2016 election, a total of 5 minutes and 27 seconds were spent on climate change and other environmental issues. We’ve come a long way in four years, considering that it is now a central focus of discussion. It is not enough to talk about it, however. We need to know how to have this discussion responsibly and effectively.

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