An image of Earth taken from the VIIRS instrument aboard NASA satellite Suomi NPP. (NASA/NOAA/GSFC/Suomi NPP/VIIRS/Norman Kuring)

It’s not easy being green. Reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to fight global warming means entire economies — and individual citizens — face short-term opportunity costs. Policymakers have a tough time pitching the promise of longer-term benefits in the distant future.

In countries that produce the largest share of global GHG emissions, the public doesn’t seem too concerned about the environment. The United States, for instance, is one of the lowest scorers on the Pew Research Center Global Attitudes survey.

How do we boost the public’s appetite for climate policy? Many policymakers and interest groups want GHG reductions — and the eventual decarbonization of the energy system. The public hears about — and tunes out — the looming risk of environmental degradation if we don’t start fixing the problem now. Scientific research and the unprecedented global scientific collaboration within the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) back up the calls for action.

What if we talked about climate policy very differently?

That’s a lot of scientific firepower, but it has spurred only modest progress to date. While the delegates at the recent Paris climate summit heralded its success, some climate researchers project that the current pledges will still lead to warming of 2.7 degrees Celsius, exceeding the 1.5-to-2 degrees discussed in Paris. In addition, the Paris deal relies on states’ voluntary emissions reductions, in the form of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) — so public opinion will likely play a greater role in shaping the trajectory of climate change reductions in the future.

Many climate policy consultants, activists, academics and policymakers are now using an alternative approach to galvanize climate policy changes. Their plan is to make climate policy, well, sexy. The most popular motivations give a personal and emotional appeal: A cleaner environment means economic benefits (technological innovation, green jobs), community building (creating a “better” society) and public health benefits.

More policy announcements are beginning to use these justifications. For example, President Obama emphasized how the Clean Power Plan would improve public health, reduce electricity bills and create thousands of new jobs.

Can “reframing” really work? Some recent research shows this approach can make the public more supportive of climate policy.

We tested whether “reframing” can build support for climate policy

We undertook two survey experiments in the United States to see whether such reframing boosts public support for climate policy. Since the United States has contributed most to the global warming problem, finding a way to beef up U.S. public support for climate change mitigation could have beneficial global repercussions. The study’s results are published in Nature Climate Change.

The survey divided study participants into three random groups. The baseline category was the climate risk-based justification. The survey randomly assigned each group to consider one the three alternative frames (justifications) for climate policy:

  • Economic co-benefits — how reducing carbon dioxide emissions would lead to new scientific breakthroughs and new industries, which means new jobs and more sustainable economic development.
  • Good society — how reducing carbon dioxide emissions would help us become more aware of how we live and impact each other. It would also make people more considerate and less selfish.
  • Health benefits — how reducing carbon dioxide emissions would cut the number of cars on the road and reduce traffic injuries and fatalities. It would help people become more physically active and reduce air and water pollution, thereby curtailing many forms of illness.

Our analysis shows that the reframing does not seem to work. We measured what each of these frames might actually mean for public support for climate policy. In the following figure, all average framing effects are very close to zero, and are statistically insignificant.


Source: Bernauer, T., McGrath, L. (2016): Simple re-framing unlikely to boost public support for climate policy.
Nature Climate Change DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE2948.

Does it matter whether participants believed that the climate is changing because of humans? Since previous research suggests that reframing could be particularly effective among people who are skeptical and unlikely to support climate change policy, we also looked at whether individuals’ climate skepticism, climate awareness and political ideology affected the results. Again, we find little evidence for the effectiveness of reframing.

The answer was no. 

We think that our findings are more plausible than previous framing studies. For instance, environmental issues take a back seat in the current U.S. presidential primaries, particularly within the Republican Party. Voters are likely to look to their own party or ideological loyalties, or gauge how a candidate will act on other political issues, to make their voting choices. This means that simple efforts to reframe justifications for ambitious climate policy are bound to have little effect when strong partisan forces are at play.

Will simple spin-doctoring in climate change communications change how people view environmental policy? We don’t think so. Reframing climate change mitigation from avoiding something bad (risk reduction) to creating something good (innovation, jobs, good society, better health) does not offer an easy fix.

Rather, public figures should stick to emphasizing protecting the climate.

To make ambitious climate policy more acceptable to the public, the primary justification should remain climate risk reduction. Here’s why: Reframing involves opportunity costs, in terms of time, money, political capital and public attention. As long as the benefits of simple reframing remain unclear, there is a risk that reframing actually detracts from the climate-risk-based justification. And the scientific community, governments and civil society around the world have invested heavily in this effort.

Thomas Bernauer is a professor of political science at ETH Zürich. Liam F. McGrath is a postdoctoral researcher at ETH Zürich.