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Talking Global Warming

A consortium of national environmental groups sponsored research conducted by the FrameWorks Institute to identify the most effective way to deliver messages about global warming.


An issue only becomes an issue when it shows up in the news. It isnt just the amount of coverage, but the way the issue is framed in the news that matters.

Strategic Frame Analysis is the process used to analyze how messages are received, and recommend how they should be delivered. It is based on the following ideas:

  • People use mental shortcutsa small set of concepts that enable us to assign meaning.
  • Understanding is frame-based, not fact-based. These frames constitute worldviews and widely-held assumptions.
  • Incoming information provides cues that connect to the pictures in our heads.
  • News gives most people the information they use to think. The news creates a frame. Frames are created and triggered by symbols, metaphors, and messengers that give visual and verbal cues.
  • They trigger shared and durable cultural models.
  • They trigger pictures in our heads that let us know what the message is about.
  • They help us define and explain, help us reason and make choices.

If the story (about global climate change) doesnt yield the policy discussion and decisions that we want, we need to change the way we tell the story.

We have a hierarchy of frames that direct our thinking:

  1. Big ideas, universal values e.g., freedom, fairness, choice
  2. Issue types, e.g., civil rights, environment, health
  3. Specific issues, e.g., rainforest, mass transit, public finance reform

These frames/values/ideas/issues can be in conflict, even at the highest level
How a story is told, including the words and images used, will direct us to connect the information with certain frames in our minds. For example, an article about arresting immigrants after 9-11 connects to one track of thinking or another depending on how the story is told.

Level OneBig idea, for example, freedom or authority
Level TwoIssue type, for example, civil rights or law enforcement
Level ThreeFor both tracks of thinking and frames, the specific issue is arresting immigrants.

Frames connect to different levels of thinking.
Context matters. We reason within a frame. We think systemically.
Elements of a frame: context, messengers, numbers, visuals and symbols, models and metaphors.
How the public thinks (or doesnt) about an issue depends on what frames are available to them.

Currently, the dominant frames for global climate change are scary weather and economics.
Scary weather triggers people to think, This is an act of God, and outside human control. There are no solutions. Theres nothing I can do. Economics triggers, Fossil fuel is a necessary evil. Environmentalists are ascetics.

Americans believe global warming is real and will have negative consequences. This is an accomplishment! We dont have to spend time convincing people of this anymore. No more negative messages are needed. People are turned off by rhetoric and a harsh tone; these do not lead to engagement. We now need new tactics, a new message to focus on solutions.

Metaphorically, we need to shift our story from Chicken Little to The Little Train that Could.


  1. Use big ideas to frame our message. Best: Responsibility and planning. Also: Stewardship, competence, ingenuity, vision, problem-solving, practical solutions.
  2. Bring global warming down to earth and make it manageable. Shift from proving to explaining. Emphasize the impact on humans and shorten the time horizon. Emphasize prevention, not adaptation.
  3. Give a simplifying model of the mechanisms of global warming. Heres the best one tested: Global warming is caused by a manmade blanket of carbon dioxide that surrounds the earth and traps in heat.
  4. Use a reasonable, not a rhetorical tone to engage listening. Dont use bad, dramatic images; use images of solutions.
  5. Give solutions a high priority, and use them early in any communication. Highlight existing solutions and future innovations. Example: Incentives should be created to rush solutions into the market.
  6. Use good messengers: Businesspeople, people from the faith community, scientists, innovators, problem solvers.
  7. Use a strategic sequence in communications to tell the story correctly. Start with Level One big issues, then Level Two issue type, then Level Three specific issue. Give people the path of reasoning, otherwise people will default

Recommended order of presentation:

  1. Start with responsibility and planning
  2. Introduce the environment before global warming
  3. Introduce the simplifying model
  4. Highlight existing and future solutions
  5. Explain specific policy solutions
  6. Describe consequences and impacts
  7. Make an explicit call to action. Challenge people as problem-solvers and leaders.

Sound good? Then Download the presentation now! (Again, this file is huge, about 215 MB and only works on PCs)


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