October 13, 2016: Fears, Frames, and the Future – Book Review Part Two

Last week we started our discussion of “What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming.” Author Per Epnes Stoknes, a Nowegian psychologist and economist, drives home the point that communication about climate change from scientists and climate activists has often been counter-productive. Too much scientific detail leaves us confused or numb. Too much gloom and doom leaves us in despair and hopelessness. Too much blame creates guilt which leads to denial.

Stoknes, relying on current research on how people react to different methods of communicating, urges that we need to frame the climate issue in new, more positive, and more hopeful ways. Instead of causing people to tune out, these new frames will get people engaged and eager to take action and demand action from political leaders. Here are a few of the “frames” he suggests.

Insuring ourselves against the risks of climate disruption is presented as a more acceptable frame than the concept of cost and loss. Instead of hearing a message that climate action will be really expensive and you will have to give up a lot of your lifestyle, we would be hearing a message that spending some now on actions will insure us against long term and possibly severe losses. We are all used to this concept of insuring ourselves and it gets received better being told your taxes are going up.

Another interesting and effective frame for climate discussions is couching the issue as a health issue. Whether we are risk from heat waves or devastating hurricanes, people can relate to the immediacy of their own health. Here in New England, for example, we see the spread of Lyme disease and West Nile virus due to warming temperatures. In much of the U.S. southern tier there is increased exposure to Zika and other mosquito borne diseases. Make it local and make it personal, and people will engage.

Other frames might include looking at climate disruption as a resilience and preparedness issue: how can our community come together to be ready for future shifts in climate. Or perhaps we frame climate change as a moral/ethical/spiritual/faith issue – we join together with a common set of values and, again at the local/personal level create community in confronting this challenge. Some might respond well to the frame of the climate crisis as an opportunity for technological innovation and the creation of new jobs and economic prosperity – climate action as an economic plus rather than a cost and a drg on the economy.

These new frames (and different groups will respond to different ways of approaching climate) can become even more relevant and powerful when we talk about climate not with charts and data, but with stories that have real meaning for everyday people. Don’t just tell us what is going wrong, but give us a story of what the future could look like when we all pull together. Imagine our community when we power our lives with clean and renewable energy that doesn’t pollute our air and water. Imagine our community when we can conveniently walk and bike to many of our tasks and activities – how wonderful to be feeling fit and energized and not stuck in rush hour traffic. Imagine all the new local jobs in the renewable energy sector and the local organic food production and processing sector. Imagine enjoying being outdoors and seeing wildlife in all the protected and restored habitats we have created.

In the past few months, my beautiful Latina 11 year old daughter has perfected her old Jewish grandmother New York accent. Given that both my and my wife’s families are Jewish and from New York, you might think she learned this from us, but in fact I think she got it from animated animal characters in the movies. As I read this book, I swear I heard her whisper in my ear in that accent as I was sleeping –  “Bubbila, enough already with the gloom and doom!” So from now on, let’s think positive, be hopeful, and find the countless win-win actions we can all feel good about.