Hey Framers, what do you think of this?

Here’s an interesting article in BBC which suggests that more hysterical messages on climate change might fall on deaf ears.

Professor Mike Hulme, of the UK’s Tyndall Centre, has been conducting research on people’s attitudes to media portrayals of a catastrophic future.

He says strong messages designed to prompt people to change behaviour only seem to generate apathy.

His initial findings will be shown to a meeting run by the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

The study compared the responses of a group of people shown sensational media coverage with those given the more sober information from scientific reports.

The initial findings suggest that those shown doom-laden messages tended to believe the problem could come to a head further into the future. This group also felt there was little they could do to affect the planet’s future.

“Not only is this not a good way of presenting climate change science, but even in trying to effect change, it’s self-defeating,” Professor Hulme said.

Now as someone who can’t stand it when I read hysterical articles on the environment like those from the indepedent which decry everything from cell-phones killing bees (the evidence is pretty poor) to “electronic smog” from wireless internet connections causing people to get sick.

For an example of this contrast between good scientific reading that informs rather than terrorizes, compare the Independent’s version, to the New York Times’ far superior article. The Independent’s writing on the environment, in my opinion, undermines legitimate environmentalism by making environmental concerns look, well, stupid and insane.

I’ll be curious to see this actual research come out so we can check out the methodology, but based upon the range of messages I’ve seen on the science of environmentalism, I welcome a call for less idiotic and hysterical coverage. At the very least I think it makes people disbelieve legitimate information about threats to the environment. For a lengthier article from Hulme see this one from the BBC, or some of his other writings. I think he’s got a point about the message, and if the research really shows that the messages have to be framed differently, then it’s something we should consider when we write about the science of climate change.


8 responses to “Hey Framers, what do you think of this?”

  1. He says extravagated claims simply generate a feeling of helplessness in the public.


    He says strong messages designed to prompt people to change behaviour only seem to generate apathy
    … This group also felt there was little they could do to affect the planet’s future…

    It’s more than just that — The message needs to be framed in a way that will appeal to me and everyone else that believes random weird things such that we are part of something together. That’s going to be hard.

    Example: As an existentialist, I believe that I will die. Appealing to me that I should change so that others can continue to live their clearly wrongheaded philosophies sort of misses the point. Try to get fundagelicals to stop accelerating the End of Days intentionally. It’s contrary to their philosophy, so probably not going to happen.

    Secondly, if you come to me asking me to change my behavior for the greater good, the first thing I’m going to say is, “OK, what are you going to give up? You didn’t care to elevate me to your level, so I’m assuming you’re ready to come down to my level.” If you ask the bottom 6.5B people to give up luxury, comfort, air conditioning and highly consumptive lifestyle, what are the top .2B going to give up? Will we all have a common stake in the outcome? Redistribution of that bad wealth? Healthcare for all? Universal access to high quality education? Ability to bypass research paper paywalls?

    Somehow I don’t think so — I was watching something on PBS the other day where they mentioned the overclass buying up properties in the new weather zones (…and you thought that Ted Stevens $200M bridge to nowhere was a waste). It seemed clear that the plan is to pack up, create new, well protected, gated communities and leave the rest of us to duke it out.

    But I’m not moving into a quonset hut unless the H-dogs and Bill Gates occupy the quonsets right next to mine. Instead, I’m going to piss in their pool given any chance. The study puts it tastefully — generates apathy, I’m telling you how the average middle-class thinks, unvarnished.

    You got to frame it so it looks like we have an equal stake in survival – and hide the fact that some will survive by the skin of the teeth while others will do better and give up less.

    It’s not impossible to frame this — get the guy that got pore Alabama folk to turn down the tax reform a few years back. Or Frank Luntz. Or the guy that convinces pore people that taxing huge incomes is a bad idea because they might win the lottery and then have to pay high taxes.

  2. Hulme’s study supports what we argue at Science: on climate change, the Pandora’s Box or catastrophe frame doesn’t work. It opens environmental groups up to counter-claims of alarmism and only appeals to the already concerned.

  3. valhar2000

    Well, this one hit close to home. It was not so long ago that I discovered that I actually am an environmentalist, just not a kook.

    This must be like people who loose faith but do not call themselves atheists because they think the difenition of the word is “person who eats babies while dancing in the moonlight with the devil”.

    Those kind of catastrophist messages always get on my nerves.

  4. So the advice is “don’t make outrageous and alarmist statements to get attention or rouse to action, because it will backfire.” Sounds all right to me.

    However, since you ask about framing, I predict that climate denialists will use this to say that the IPCC, Realclimate etc., are alarmist and that there is no scientific consensus. The very last paragraph of the BBC story, in which we are anxiously reassured of Hulme’s climate credentials, shows that at some level the BBC are aware of this.

  5. Andrew Dodds

    Hmmm.. Does this also apply to Economists who tend to predict that any action on global warming will lead to immediate economic meltdown?

  6. valhar2000

    Hmmm.. Does this also apply to Economists who tend to predict that any action on global warming will lead to immediate economic meltdown?

    You could probably apply s few cards to that kind of statement; the 7 of Hearts, the 6 of Spades, the 6 of hearts come to mind…

  7. The Independent’s writing on the environment, in my opinion, undermines legitimate environmentalism by making environmental concerns look, well, stupid and insane.

    And some of us suspect that this is deliberate

    I’ve noticed a classic “wash-rinse-repeat” cycle: make ludicrous claims about some new data which far exceed what anybody in the scientific community is saying, show that said claims are ludicrous, blame scientists for exaggeration. It’s a journalistic perpertual motion machine that lets you continuously recycle your old coverage whilst giving the impression that those crazy boffins are, well, crazy. No need to impact the bottom line of your major advertisers.

  8. MikeB

    Professor Mike Hulme does seem to get a lot of media time, and his role in raising awareness of climate change has been an important one, but increasingly I’m wondering about the message that he’s giving out.

    Its certainly true that the media has exaggerated some aspects of climate change (the ’11 degree rise in temperture’ being one such example), but its in the nature of the media to find drama in what they report. It could also be argued that considering the possible effects of climate change mapped out by the IPCC, http://www.ipcc.ch/SPM13apr07.pdf, & http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/6532323.stm they don’t really have to try hard in order to do so.

    The article quoted above makes the seemingly reasonable case that exaggerated claims tend to make people simply switch off or doubt that they can do anything. However, the problem is that, according to other polls, fifty percent of young people worldwide (who you would have thought to be most aware of climate change) do not even know about it, http://www.bbc.co.uk/pressoffice/pressreleases/stories/2006/12_december/04/poll.shtml, and in the UK , a regional survey found 41% of people were simply unwilling to change lifestyles in any way to combat climate change http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/north_yorkshire/6509241.stm
    If the news is exaggerated, it seems many are still not even listening.
    The mention of Hardaker and Collier is perhaps unsurpising, since it was Pallab Ghosh who pushed the non-story of their non-disagreement with the AAAS back in March on the ‘Today’ programme, although it is lazy journalism.

    I’m actually more concerned with the earlier BBC story you linked to http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/6115644.stm, and the statements Professor Hulme makes in it.

    His ‘framing’ from last November is that ‘phrases such as “climate change is worse than we thought”, that we are approaching “irreversible tipping in the Earth’s climate”, and that we are “at the point of no return”‘ are overstating the case, and that such language is ‘environmental drama and exaggerated rhetoric’. Now, he might have a case with regard to certain headlines, but you don’t have to be Fred Pearce or Mark Lynas to worry about tipping points http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4660938.stm, http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F3091EFC3A5A0C778CDDAC0894DF404482, and the IPCC itself has concluded that the we are indeed at the point of no return in terms of global tempreture change.

    He’s then quoted him as saying ‘Some recent examples of the catastrophists include Tony Blair, who a few weeks back warned in an open letter to EU head of states: “We have a window of only 10-15 years to take the steps we need to avoid crossing a catastrophic tipping point.”
    James Hansen has been saying we have no more than 10 years for some time, , as have others ( http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4202649.stm ) so the 10-15 year timescale was hardly revolutionary, and Hansen’s track record shows that he’s someone we should take seriously http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2004/12/index/index.php?s=ipcc&submit=Search&qt=&q=&cx=009744842749537478185%3Ahwbuiarvsbo&client=google-coop-np&cof=GALT%3A808080%3BGL%3A1%3BDIV%3A34374A%3BVLC%3AAA8610%3BAH%3Aleft%3BBGC%3AFFFFFF%3BLBGC%3AFFFFFF%3BALC%3A66AA55%3BLC%3A66AA55%3BT%3A000000%3BGFNT%3A66AA55%3BGIMP%3A66AA55%3BFORID%3A11%3B&searchdatabase=site, but you could argue that he was just one person, often regarded as a maverick.
    So what about the IPCC, which Hulme refered to in a BBC radio programme from January 2007 as ‘the gold standard’? In fact, the IPCC seems to be saying that we have less time than that http://www.unfoundation.org/SEG/ & http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/News/International__Business/World_has_eight_years_left_to_save_climate_says_UN_report/articleshow/2005843.cms, and has argued that we have no more than 8-13 years. Since Mike Hulme was presumably fully aware of the latest research when he he denouncing ’10-15 years’ in November last year, how is it that the IPCC came up with ‘8-13 years’ less than six months later, despite no change in the IPCC reviewed data. Is the IPCC’s own statement to be seen as ‘catastrophist’?

    His fellow climate researchers may also take exception to his view that the Exeter conference of February 2005 on “Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change” ‘served the government’s purposes of softening-up the G8 Gleneagles summit through a frenzied week of “climate change is worse than we thought” news reporting and group-think….By stage-managing the new language of catastrophe, the conference itself became a tipping point in the way that climate change is discussed in public.’. Thats a very serious charge to make against both the experts who took part, and the UK government, and it would be interesting if he stands by that statement.

    He then come up with another reason for the language of the report – ‘Third, the discourse of catastrophe allows some space for the retrenchment of science budgets…It is a short step from claiming these catastrophic risks have physical reality, saliency and are imminent, to implying that one more “big push” of funding will allow science to quantify them objectively’.
    Is there any evidence for this, despite the repeated use of the charge by climate chnage deniers? Its perfectly true that the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology has had several centres (tragically) cut, and some money redirected towards climate change reseach http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/news/story/0,,1730378,00.html, but this has perhaps more to do with bad administration and short-sighted UK government policy than a grap for cash.

    I first heard his view on ‘media hysteria’ in a BBC Radio programme called ‘The Investigation’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/theinvestigation/pip/cjkmk/ a (transmitted in January) ,in which he constantly referred to the IPCC AR4 report (which was forthcoming at the time of transmission, although heavily trailed) as the guide for any claims. If authors or scientists went further than the IPCC, then they were going perhaps further than they should (such as Stern had done),was again his message.

    When the IPCC AR4 report actually came out after the programme was transmitted, the predictions were in fact sufficiently worrying for most people to argue that being overdramatic was not really a problem http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/6532323.stm.

    And since Scientific American http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?chanID=sa006&articleID=5B9E73AD-E7F2-99DF-3F71280BCE41ED77&colID=5 , Andy Revkin http://select.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F30C14F73E5B0C718CDDAB0894DF404482&n=Top%2fReference%2fTimes%20Topics%2fPeople%2fR%2fRevkin%2c%20Andrew%20C%2e and Bill McKibben (amoungst others) have argued that the IPCC is essentially a conservative estimate of what may occur, especially since it did not include some of the more recent (and very worrying) data on the melt of the Greenland ice sheets, etc, the IPCC report (either AR4 or the full report)can be regarded as relatively optimistic.

    Do the media over-egg climate disaster? Possibly. I want accurate information about climate change in the press. But in a world where Monckton, Melanie Philips, Nigel Lawson and TGGWS are all given a great deal of attention, I think the public is in far more danger of denalism and apathy rather than any problem with hysteria. The reality is scarey enough, so we don’t need to exaggerate it, but we don’t need to downplay it either.

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