Why Did Global Warming "Tip"? (Part II)

The issue has been reframed, and to a significant extent this reframing has helped get us out of the mire of "scientific uncertainty" and move us towards a different kind of dialogue entirely.
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In my previous post--written in anticipation of tomorrow's Live Earth concert--I presented media coverage data showing that in the past few years, global warming has seen a meteoric rise in attention at agenda setting newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post. I also discussed some possible causes, ranging from single events like Hurricane Katrina to the important public intellectual role that has been played by Al Gore.

To really understand why global warming seems to be "tipping," though, it's important to go further and examine the content of the media coverage itself. In particular, the types of narratives that journalists have been telling about global warming appear to have changed--and changed in such a way that I think the media as a whole is now better preparing us to deal with the problem and grasp its urgency.

In a much discussed 2004 article in the journal Global Environmental Change, scholars Max and Jules Boykoff described a troubling problem with media coverage of climate change at major newspapers up through the year 2002. A majority of articles, the Boykoffs found, constructed a roughly "balanced" debated over whether global warming could be attributed to human activities or merely to natural variability. In doing so, the articles tended to empower a small group of global warming "skeptics" or "contrarians" beyond what was scientifically warranted. By 1995/1996, the scientific consensus had clearly stated that the balance of evidence suggested that humans were behind the global temperature rise.

Since the years discussed by the Boykoffs' study, however, false "balance" appears to have declined. (Indeed, I've just learned that a new study by Max Boykoff, currently in press at the journal AREA, will show this.) The change is perhaps best epitomized by Dan Vergano's 2005 USA Today cover story: "The Debate's Over: Globe is warming." This shift away from unjustifiably "balanced" coverage represented a critical development: Suddenly, the science was no longer at issue, and even though some out and out "skeptics" remained, it became harder and harder to deny that global warming was a problem with human agency at its core. Indeed, many prominent commentators who had previously been skeptical of various aspects of climate science, including Skeptic magazine's Michael Shermer, The Atlantic's Gregg Easterbrook, and Reason's Ronald Bailey, have announced in the past several years that they have finally been convinced.

As balanced coverage has begun to wane, journalists have turned towards a number of new stories about the global warming issue that shift the focus away from a fight over the validity of the science. In short, the issue has been reframed, and to a significant extent this reframing has helped get us out of the mire of "scientific uncertainty"--which is just where the global warming "skeptics" want to keep us--and move us towards a different kind of dialogue entirely.

First, and due in large part to the ham-handedness of the Bush administration, reporters began reframing global warming by writing stories of scandal: Climate scientists were being suppressed by the Bush administration, and scientific information distorted, to keep global warming off the agenda and perpetuate the semblance of impenetrable scientific uncertainty. A "war on science" was being perpetrated on behalf of the fossil fuel special interests that had helped elect the president and vice-president. This was a betrayal of public trust and an abuse of power.

This way of presenting the issue helps trigger outrage in a way that "balanced" stories about climate science certainly do not. Indeed, at the New York Times, many "war on science" global warming stories, reported by Andrew Revkin, appeared on the front page.

Similarly, several other narratives have emerged which have similarly broadened the issue's appeal and, once again, moved away from a paralyzing and seemingly never-ending debate over the science.

Increasingly in recent years, the climate issue has been recast in a moral light, sometimes with an explicitly religious tone (the message of "creation stewardship" that has resonated for environmentally friendly evangelicals), sometimes with a more secular bent that emphasizes our duty not to leave a wrecked planet to future generations. The stewardship message in particular appeals directly to a core part of the Republican base: evangelicals, who might have been expected to follow party leaders in dismissing climate change as an important issue. Now that's no longer a safe assumption.

And finally, dealing with global warming has increasingly been depicted as an economic opportunity for those companies wily enough to position themselves well for a world that will inevitably see some type of mandatory restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions, rather than as a burden on the economy. Business Week magazine helped to drive this coverage framing with an August 2004 cover story by John Carey, which emphasized that "business is far ahead of Congress and the White House" in getting ready for the globally warmed future. Critically, this recasting of the issue seems likely to help make financially-oriented Americans--including market-based conservatives, who may previously have dismissed global warming--take it seriously.

In a now infamous memo, Republican message guru Frank Luntz had advised the party to talk about global warming by employing the "scientific uncertainty" frame. "Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly," wrote Luntz. "Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate...."

Each in their own way, the new global warming narratives or frames--"war on science"/public accountability, stewardship/morality, economic opportunity--get us out of this sterile uncertainty argument. And indeed, still newer narratives about global warming may be emerging which once again avoid the "uncertainty" trap: A narrative about national security, for example, or a narrative about how the impacts of climate change will disproportionately affect the developing world.

In conclusion, then, this post and its predecessor show that the climate issue appears to have reached a new phase for a multitude of reasons, including a dramatic rise in total media coverage, a shift in the form that much coverage has taken, a number individual events, and powerful agenda setters like Al Gore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the Democratic Congress. All of these developments, taken together, have brought us closer than ever before to achieving the long-term policy solutions that we need. (For more on those solutions, see Bill Scher's latest post.)

Still, we mustn't become over optimistic. Polling data still show a large partisan gap in the United States between Democrats and Republicans over whether they accept the science and whether they regard global warming as a problem. Meanwhile, for adherents of both parties, global warming is not as high a profile issue as the more traditional fare of politics: jobs, healthcare, taxes, and so on. Finally, even if journalistic narratives about global warming have changed for the better, the mass media still care much more about Paris Hilton than our changing planet.

So while we've come a long way, we still aren't there yet--and until we are, the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will only continue to increase.

(Note: This post draws upon the contents of a public lecture entitled "Speaking Science 2.0" that I have delivered on numerous occasions with American University professor Matthew Nisbet. The discussion of "frames" for global warming arises from Nisbet's research.)

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