We don’t need to know the science of climate change inside and out in order to care or want to act to fix the problem. Non-scientists count on the experts to get the details right. But having a handle on the basics can be a game changer. Why? Gaps in our understanding about the mechanisms of climate change along with the metaphors we use to explain and visualize the problem dictate which solutions seem logical. Here’s an illustration:
Say you think of carbon dioxide as the natural and necessary stuff we breathe out and that plants take in. It’s part of nature. You can’t imagine how natural stuff could ever be bad enough to seriously damage the climate. And say you also aren’t clear how climate change is happening; you remember “something about a hole in the ozone letting too much heat in…” You want to do the right thing for the climate, so you recycle and turn down the thermostat and do your part to keep pollution out of the water.
If that’s your starting point, then it might not seem obvious to you that an economy-wide effort to cut fossil fuel emissions and shift to clean energy sources is the best way to tackle climate change. Indeed, getting you to buy in to appropriate actions may be a heavy lift.
The bad news is that this is a common starting place. FrameWorks Institute research on climate change and oceans, conducted on behalf of the National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCCI) and supported by the National Science Foundation, revealed that most people don’t really have a good grasp of the basics. In fact, the most common default patterns of thinking—correct and incorrect—and the most prevalent information gaps about the problem are leading people astray.
The good news is that FrameWorks has done extensive messaging research in the US and Canada to develop simple, memorable explanations of climate science basics that get people thinking in productive ways about causes and solutions. You can boil these down to four explanatory metaphors, simple, familiar visual comparisons that quickly explain abstract scientific concepts. Testing show that these particular “mental pictures” did help people see the links from causes all the way to solutions.
These explanatory metaphors an important part of consistent and compelling climate change narratives, answering a key question: What are the mechanisms at play here—and what’s going wrong? Our messages should address two other questions as well: Why does this issue matter to us at all? What should we do to move forward? We do this by connecting the issue to shared values and emphasizing solutions.
(Stay tuned for more on FrameWorks’ tested values messages and the most damaging communications traps to avoid).
Quick, simple ways to say how climate change works
Most people misunderstand the central mechanism of climate change. Unfortunately, “greenhouse gases” is not a visual explanation people readily understand or are likely to repeat. Testing showed that climate change is too often confused or conflated with the ozone hole, toxic and solid waste pollution, littering, and other unrelated environmental problems. And while most North Americans see human activity as a cause of climate change, too great a share don’t have a clear understanding of just what activities we are actually talking about or how exactly those activities impact the climate. It’s important to consistently link the cause—burning fossil fuels—to our explanations of the science.
On top of that, people don’t understand the role of carbon dioxide in climate change in the first place. They confuse it with carbon monoxide or assume that because carbon dioxide is a natural part of the life cycle, not an “unnatural pollutant,” it must be essentially harmless. With this perspective, it is difficult to fathom how it could cause all this damage.
You can see why plans to reduce fossil fuel use may not necessarily seem like the best answer.
That’s our cue to redirect. FrameWorks offers two rigorously tested ways of explaining these basics in just a few words, and in two visual metaphors. First, instead of the greenhouse metaphor, it’s more helpful to explain that burning fossil fuels forms a heat-trapping blanket in our atmosphere. Consistently starting with fossil fuels as the source and explaining how it keeps heat from escaping helps people understand the causes of climate change and more clearly see cutting emissions as a logical solution.
Second, talking about regular vs. rampant carbon dioxide met people where they were, thinking that carbon dioxide is natural, and helped show them how burning fossil fuels is making for excessive amounts and throwing the natural balance out of whack.
These two metaphors, used together, helped people see that too much pollution from fossil fuels is the cause and helped shift thinking about solutions from the default individualist orientation—focusing on personal steps like recycling, hybrid cars, and turning off the lights—to system-wide, community solutions.
Next up: Most Americans simply haven’t heard of ocean acidification. When they do hear about it, they default to thinking about acid rain or dumping solid and toxic pollution into the water. In turn, they are likely to suggest fixes like banning chemical dumping, not necessarily cutting fossil fuel use or using clean energy like wind and solar.
But FrameWorks’ explanatory metaphor—osteoporosis of the sea—helped people to understand what acidification is and to draw reasonable conclusions about how to address it. In fact, explaining ocean acidification in simple, familiar terms that relate to people’s understanding of their own bodies, proved one of the most powerful ways to boost the sense of urgency for climate change solutions and to make the case to limit the use of fossil fuels.
Finally, when people think of climate change, they tend to focus only on warming. They don’t think of the climate as a system where land, sea, and atmosphere are connected and in delicate balance. In turn, they’re confused by climate impacts that don’t on their face appear to involve higher temperatures. That’s why it is difficult to see how climate affects weather, especially cold snaps, floods, or storms. FrameWorks found it helpful to compare the role of the ocean in regulating the climate system to the way our hearts function to keep our bodies healthy and regulate our temperature and circulation. The earth’s oceans function as the climate’s heart, keeping the system balanced and healthy. Just like a human body, when the heart is not performing well, the rest of the system is thrown off. This is a helpful starting place for explaining all kinds of strange and severe weather.
Here is your cheat sheet for deploying these simple and effective climate science “pictures” in your work.
Methodology: FrameWorks’ Strategic Frame Analysis is a combination of qualitative, quantitative, and experimental testing. This particular research project draws on insights from over 18,000 people over many years.
Bales, S.N., Sweetland, J., & Volmert, A. (2015). How to Talk About Oceans and Climate Change: A FrameWorks Message Memo. Washington, DC: FrameWorks Institute.