The role of framing and message-tailoring in communicating climate change

Communicating climate change is a tricky business. Giving people facts about, for example, increasing global temperature or rising sea level doesn’t always result in positive changes in behaviour. A different – and perhaps more effective – strategy is to use framing-based approaches and tailor climate messages for different audiences.

Framing involves emphasising certain elements of an issue over others, shaping the way the issue is understood. There is a growing body of academic literature that examines the effectiveness of framing climate change in different ways, with most studies based in the US and UK, and some in Australia. There has been an almost exponential rise in publications from 2004, which shows this is currently a hot topic in research. The most commonly studied climate frames are public health, national security, scientific uncertainty and (so-called) dire messaging.

So, which frames are most effective in gaining support for climate change policies and encouraging pro-environmental behaviours? If these frames can be identified, then communication practitioners have a good idea of how to tailor their messages and enhance their communication outcomes.

Public health is one of the most researched frames with the majority of studies being based in the US or UK. This type of framing may mention impacts on health from poor air quality or extreme weather events like heatwaves and floods. To test the effectiveness of this frame, studies commonly measure variables such as ‘support for climate change mitigation policies’ (Badullovich, 2018). If support increases after the audience has been exposed to the frame, then the frame is considered effective.

For US audiences, the public health frame is quite effective in gaining support for climate change policies and it generally inspires hope about climate change. This frame makes climate change more personally relevant (Nisbet, 2009). It removes distant problems like melting ice sheets and replaces them with very near problems, occurring in an individual’s own country, state or even city. There are multiple studies pointing to the effectiveness of this particular frame, but there is one important limitation. Experimental studies examining this frame have focused primarily on the US (Badullovich, 2018) where there is strong polarisation on the topic of climate change.

Is it then safe to assume these implications hold true for other parts of the world? Unfortunately, the short answer is no.

Climate change scepticism and ideology are strongly correlated in the US, more so than in any other nation. This means we can expect the effectiveness of a frame to be dependent on a person’s values and ideologies, which will vary with geographical location and culture.

The framing literature is useful because it helps us to determine not just the effective frames but also the ineffective frames. One example is national security. This frame emphasises the threat climate change poses to national security through, for example, migration or food security (Bolsen and Shapiro, 2017). Much like the public health frame, the effectiveness of this frame has been almost exclusively studied in the US. The studies that look at this frame generally find it makes participants angry. Their anger leads to them not wanting to support positive climate change policy and can increase scepticism. This means that, on currently available evidence, it is best not to emphasise the national security frame if you’re trying to encourage a particular public to support climate change mitigation policies.

Another branch of the framing literature looks at the effectiveness of one frame compared to another. Some examples are the differences between talking about climate change rather than global warming, or framing climate change in terms of local rather than distant effects, and dire messaging versus hopeful messaging. These comparisons can be useful in determining which variation of a frame is most effective. In some cases, one is considerably more effective than the other, an example is the dire versus hopeful messaging frame comparison.

We are accustomed to hearing about the adverse effects of climate change and how things may get worse in the future – in other words, dire messages about climate change. But are scare tactics the best way to get people to change their attitudes and behaviours? According to the literature, not necessarily. On the one hand, framing climate change solely around risks is unlikely to be an effective strategy for most audiences – it may make people feel hopeless, helpless, or even increase climate change scepticism. But framing climate change using only positive messages of hope about the potential benefits of a low-carbon future has also been questioned, as it may make people feel unrealistically complacent.

So what can we take away from the current research surrounding climate change framing?

It is clear that some frames can result in positive outcomes, while others can have the opposite effect. Public health is one frame that can build positive outcomes for support of climate change policy. On the other hand, national security generally has the opposite effect, can often result in anger, and can perpetuate climate change scepticism.

While there is no simple way to ‘activate’ certain emotions in climate change communication, research suggests there is a balance to be struck between ‘scary’ messages and messages that emphasise the constructive measures that people can take to reduce the risks of climate change.

It is important to remember that most of this research has been conducted on US and UK audiences, and frame effectiveness is shaped by culture, values, and ideology. This means a frame that is effective in the US may not be an effective frame in another country with different ideologies and beliefs.

As the body of literature is growing rapidly, it is reasonable to suggest that it won’t be long until we know more about frame effectiveness in other major parts of the world.

Simply presenting the facts isn’t enough to form a clear and effective message. Framing can be an effective tool in tailoring messages to resonate with particular audiences, and research is helping to shed light onto the frames which help achieve the best outcomes. This research can be directly applied to communication efforts, and knowledge gained from this kind of work can help to steer the direction of climate change communication practitioners.

These conclusions are drawn from a Masters research thesis by Nicholas Badullovich, conducted at the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science and Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University.

Burning Questions

How effective are given frames (e.g. public health, national security) across different geographies, ideologies and values sets?

Do other countries have strong connections between political orientation and climate beliefs/attitudes, in the way the US has?

By Nic Badullovich, Australian National University

Adam is the Research Director for Climate Outreach. Adam manages Climate Outreach’s research portfolio, directs Climate Outreach’s collaborations with academic partners, and leads the Climate Visuals programme.

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