A Question of Framing

Sun, 2009-05-24 17:41Jeremy Jacquot
Jeremy Jacquot's picture

A Question of Framing

What a difference a year can make. While the consensus on the Hill may not have grown stronger in the interim—I’m looking at you, House Republicans—the American public seems to be increasingly wising up to the idea that global warming is, in fact, a real threat and not some nefarious liberal plot to deprive it of its God-given right to pollute.

That is the principal finding of a new survey, entitled “Global Warming’s Six Americas,” that was released this past week by the Center for American Progress. The survey, which the authors describe as an “audience segmentation analysis,” splits the American public into six distinct groups based on their level of engagement with global warming: alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful, and dismissive.

The authors polled 2,129 American adults in the fall of 2008 on a variety of issues related to global warming, including risk perceptions, policy preferences, and values.

The results indicate that a slight majority of respondents (51 percent) are either alarmed or concerned about it and support a strong national response. Another 19 percent (cautious) believe it is a problem though they are not convinced that it is an urgent threat.

The disengaged respondents (12 percent) have not lost much sleep over the issue but could easily be persuaded otherwise. The remaining fraction—the doubtful and dismissive (18 percent)—fall somewhere between the Roger Pielke and Rush Limbaugh/Michael Steele camps.

Though these results may not appear notable in of themselves—after all, the majorities that believe global warming is a grave threat in other countries are much larger—they do reflect a significant shift in public opinion over a short period of time. Indeed, the previous version of the survey, which was released last December (and taken in the summer of 2007), found that only 41 percent of respondents were either alarmed or concerned by global warming (19 percent and 22 percent, respectively).

The percentages of respondents identified as cautious or unconcerned were almost identical (20 percent and 12 percent, respectively). On the other hand, the percentage of respondents that considered themselves doubtful or dismissive was appreciably higher (27 percent).

Given that efforts by the rightwing and their allies in industry to misinform the public have proceeded apace, if not accelerated, over the last year, that is a fairly sizeable change. It is also notable that all segments, except for the doubtful and dismissive, support an international treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, a strong majority supports the regulation of carbon dioxide as a pollutant.

In light of all the attention lavished on global warming and green issues during the presidential election, these results are about in line with what I would’ve expected to see—and somewhat contrary to the findings of a leaked EcoAmerica report that suggested that the term “global warming” was not helping sell the message.

I’ve never been a fan of talking points and messaging, especially in the context of scientific issues like global warming and stem cell research, and have been skeptical of efforts by EcoAmerica and others—however well-meaning—to “rebrand” the term to make it more palatable to the mythical “Joe Sixpack.”

Any attempt to re-package the science, let alone the term, damages the credibility of the research community and risks politicizing an issue that should (ideally) know no ideology. I’ve always been of the mind that a majority of the American public is receptive to scientists’ message; it just needs to be phrased simply and effectively (which is easier said than done, of course).

In a recent online discussion hosted by SEED, Michael Mann and Gavin Schmidt of RealClimate made essentially the same point, arguing that scientists must use all available tools to communicate the facts of global warming to a lay audience—but they must always do so by “playing by the rules.” As Mann explains:

Rather than engaging in the artifice of misrepresentation and cherry picking, we must find clever, simple ways to convey the facts. To do otherwise would constitute unilateral disarmament in this war.”

For his part, Schmidt pooh-poohs the notion that scientists need messaging strategies to convey the severity of global warming:

Overly messaged phrases as suggested by EcoAmerica might be helpful for advocates of various policies since they are indeed trying to sell something. Only rarely does such a reframing stick, however. And when obviously framed language infects discussions of the science, it serves only to leave the impression that the scientists themselves are selling something, which should concern anyone who worries about the over-politicization of science. Carbon dioxide is the perfect description of the gas consisting of a molecule of carbon and two oxygen atoms; it doesn’t need to be burdened with an additional focus-group-approved label.”

While I am sympathetic to the views of some of the other participants, many of whom point out that framing and messaging, though often used ad nauseam, have been shown to work in many circumstances, I am one of those who believes that the science should be able to stand on its own merits.

Having worked with scientists for many years, I can honestly say that they are among the most skeptical individuals that I have ever met; any new theory or idea that is introduced, however inconsequential it may seem, is often subject to a barrage of criticism and doubt.

It can take several years, if not decades, before some ideas are accepted by a majority of scientists. As Elizabeth Kolbert notes in her latest piece for The New Yorker (sub. required), the idea that a six-mile-asteroid rammed into the Earth at the end of the Cretaceous (known as the Alvarez hypothesis), causing a mass extinction, was initially treated with disbelief and contempt.

It was only a decade or so later, after more evidence to support the hypothesis was discovered, that the idea moved into the mainstream. The reason that an overwhelming majority of scientists agrees on the basic tenets of global warming is that there are literally decades of research to back it up.

With a solid, though somewhat flawed, cap and trade bill set to pass the House, and a new administration that is solidly focused on the issue, I am optimistic that the consensus among the general public will only continue to strengthen. It will take time before the release of a study like MIT’s latest, which predicts a 10°F increase by 2095 and 866 ppm, causes the same degree of alarm in the public that it does in me, but it will eventually happen.



The visualizations are good examples.

Michael Mann “playing by the rules”!!!


It would be funny if it wasn’t so hypocritical coming as it does from the Mann who literally airbrushed out the real climate history of the last 1000 years with his contrived “Hockey Stick” reconstruction.


Once again. Phlogiston trots out its denialist drivel.

As has been pointed out numerous times Michael Mann’s excellent temperature reconstruction has been confirmed by different teams using different proxies.

Your point was?

Climate Criminal says “As has been pointed out numerous times Michael Mann’s excellent temperature reconstruction has been confirmed by different teams using different proxies”.




Omitted in these “confirmations” are the fact that the people described as ” different teams” are none other than Wahl and Ammann, serial coauthors with Michael Mann, students of Mann, who are not independent of the controversy. Indeed, they largely use (without citation or attribution or even acknowledgment to Michael Mann) arguments originally published by their apologist-in-chief, Gavin Schmidt, at Surrealclimate

Quite apart from their lack of independence, neither Ammann nor Wahl qualify as statistical authorities. Ammann did his undergraduate work in geology; Wahl in divinity (how appropriate!!).

Readers interested in a truly independent view of the matter are far better off consulting the North Report, the Wegman report, (particularly) Wegman’s Reply to Questions and Richard Smith’s account of the 2006 American Statistical Association session. All of these individuals are vastly more eminent statisticians than Ammann and Wahl. Wegman, in particular, has been Chair of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Theoretical and Applied Statistics and is a legitimate statistical expert. His comments on the Wahl and Ammann preprint are telling and I have reproduced some here:


Mann’s decentred methodology is simply incorrect mathematics …. I am baffled by the claim that the incorrect method doesn’t matter because the answer is correct anyway.”


It is not clear that Dr. Mann and his associates even realized that their methodology was faulty at the time of writing the (Hockey Stick) paper.”


Our findings from this analysis suggest that authors in the area of paleoclimate studies are closely connected and thus ‘independent studies’ may not be as independent as they might appear on the surface.”


That Wahl and Ammann include the PC4 bristlecone/foxtail pine series (using different proxies- Ha! Ha!) are significant reasons why we believe that the Wahl and Amman paper does not convincingly demonstrate the validity of the MBH methodology.”


Overall, our committee believes that Mann’s assessments that the decade of the 1990s was the hottest decade of the millennium and that 1998 was the hottest year of the millennium cannot be supported by his analysis.”


So, having read this. do you wish to reconsider your statement, Climate Criminal?

So much for Phlogiston sticking to the science.

Yes, I am sticking to the science, Stephen. Look at the references in my last post.


“Surrealclimate” is a blog, no more or less than other blogs, such as “ClimateFraudit”, to employ a description that has been used here.


If Surrealclimate fits your description of science, rather than advocacy, then it is your opinion and you are entitled to it. Just as I and others are entitled to hold different opinions. 


Last time I checked, it is still (just) a free Country.


Yup, still a free country as is well evidenced by this blog. Free to be ignorant and boast about it before all of us, helping us tremendously to understand the the quality of deniers’ thinking.

Please, John, astound me with the strength of your intellect and your undoubted ability to frame a cogent and constructive argument. I’ sure that you must be able to help us to understand the unsurpassed quality of Alarmist thinking.

Phlogiston, I really do feel for you.  I don’t know what your stake in this might be, but you are clearly having a lot of trouble getting past a massive mental block on the science.  For that matter, you seem to be a bit confused about what science actually is, but I digress …

What I read in that article is very simple: starting with the industrial revolution, humankind began pumping excess CO2 from fossilized sources into the atmosphere at an accelerating rate.  At first, it was just a minor player in climate-making.  Solar variation could still – for awhile – explain fluctuations in the climate (along with, of course, a whole slew of other natural factors …). But as industrialization intensified and Henry Ford made the automobile economical to the exponentially expanding middle class on a massive scale, the anthropogenic generation of CO2 ramped up, and now, the natural variation of the sun cannot reasonably explain the current trends in climate. 

Keep in mind, this article is not a “study.” Go back and check it out.  For my part I am going off to read a good book.  Phlogiston, I wish it weren’t true.  I really do.  But it is.

Fern Mackenzie

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Phlogiston, I really do feel for you. I don’t know what your stake in this might be, but you are clearly having a lot of trouble getting past a massive mental block on the science. For that matter, you seem to be a bit confused about what science actually is, but I digress … Thanks to you very much for this great post.
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