Climate Framing: Public Health Rather than Environment, National Security?

Researchers say climate frames reflecting public health, rather than environmental or national security issues, may do more at persuading those ‘as yet unpersuaded.’ Cautions expressed about a ‘boomerang’ or backlash effect from national security framing.


Research findings by some widely recognized climate communications scholars suggest that “potential threats to human health” are more effective in convincing the “as yet unpersuaded” than messages focusing on environmental harms or increased national security risks.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation said the research indicates that “the environmental frame that activists frequently adopt when discussing the need to combat climate change may not be the one most likely to persuade the as yet unpersuaded.” The Princeton-based foundation describes itself as “the nation’s largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to health and health care.”

Messaging for ‘More Hope … Less Anger’

The foundation said the research team — led by Matthew C. Nisbet of American University and Edward W. Maibach of George Mason University — found that public health-framed climate messages generate “more hope and less anger than the national security or environmental themes.” The foundation said the researchers interviewed individuals across the “Six Americas” six audience segments representing Americans’ attitudes on climate change (The six range from “alarmed” to “dismissive,” with the in-between groups labeled as “concerned,” “cautious,” “disengaged,” and “doubtful.”)

The research team — which included Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale University (publisher of The Yale Forum) and Teresa A. Myers, of George Mason — had study participants read news articles reflecting the environmental, public health, or national security framing.

“People in the various audience segments reacted differently to some of the messages,” the foundation wrote in an August 13 posting at its website. But it quotes the researchers in their published study in the journal Climatic Change Letters: “Results show that across audience segments, the public health focus was the most likely to elicit emotional reactions consistent with support for climate change mitigation and adaptation.”

‘Unintended Feelings of Anger’ from National Security Framing?

In what may come as a surprise to many, the researchers also found a potential “boomerang” effect from the national security frame for audience groups “already doubtful or dismissive” of climate change.

“That finding could give pause to environmental advocates who have sought support from conservatives by pointing to Pentagon studies warning of threats to national security posed by the destabilizing effects in some regions of the world of violent storms, drought, mass migration, and pandemics resulting from climate change over the long term,” the foundation wrote.

National security framing of climate change messages could end up, the foundation wrote, “eliciting unintended feelings of anger.” Again quoting the researchers’ published paper:

It is possible that members of the ‘doubtful’ and ‘dismissive’ segments perceived the [national security argument] to be an attempt to make a link between an issue they may care deeply about (national security) and an issue that they tend to dismiss (climate change), or they felt the article was attempting to co-opt values they care strongly about, thereby producing a negative reaction.

Far from helping to persuade those deeply concerned about national security, climate change messages based on that framing “seemed to fan the flames of their opposition,” the researchers wrote.

Fear of Audiences ‘Deactivated’ … No Sense of Hope

The foundation paraphrased Nisbet as saying climate change messaging “can become ‘deactivating’ for people, not just if it evokes anger, but if it leaves people without a sense of hope for a solution, or if the problem seems too complex to address.” While those in the “alarmed,” “concerned,” and “cautious” audience segments respond with hope to climate messages based on either environmental, public health, or national security frames, those in the “disengaged” category see in the public health frames “something within their realm of control, something that can make their lives better.”

The foundation quoted Nisbet as cautioning climate advocates not to present the risks of a warmer climate as being “so threatening that it feels overwhelming to people …. if you don’t provide specific things they can do about it, they can become fatalistic, or just deny the threat.” The group’s research pointed to more energy-efficient cars and buildings, cleaner energy sources, more accessible and affordable public transportation options, and improved food quality and safety, and pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly cities and towns as the kind of “action items” that can instill hope rather than fear.

Shift Focus from Polar Bears … to a ‘Moral Responsibility’

“By focusing on public health, you connect climate change to real risks, backed up by emerging science,” Nisbet said. “You shift the focus of the impact of climate change away from remote polar regions and symbolic animal species like polar bears and penguins, and localize the impact to a particular region or city. And you put a human face on the problem,” thereby conveying “a sense of moral responsibility in terms of protecting the innocent and the vulnerable.”

That “moral responsibility,” he said, “is a more widely held value” than environmental protection per se.

Just how and whether the research finds its way into real-world climate communications over coming months — and how, for instance,  it might relate to communications on issues such as weather anomalies and related impacts on food supplies and costs — will warrant close watching and analysis.

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6 Responses to Climate Framing: Public Health Rather than Environment, National Security?

  1. joe arrigo says:

    Whatever works.

    It seems that an entrenched ideology doesn’t make people resistant to facts, it “blocks” the facts. Their ideology stands guard to circumvent any new information from threatening their beloved belief system and from reaching their intellect where they can truly assess that information.

    If changing the messaging can bypass the sentry at the gate, it’s worth a try.

  2. Robert Marston says:

    Public health? I wonder if this group was primarily composed of conservative retirees?

  3. gws says:

    Is public health on people’s minds? Hmmh.
    Has it ever been on people’s minds in the US? Say among the top 5 issues?

    Academics know about the links between environment, public health, national security, etc. Fix the way we produce energy and you have fixed most other issues … but it is not trivial conveying this to the general public.
    Maybe we should start talking about the economy instead … if I am not mistaken, that has always been among the top 5 issues.

    • Larry says:

      I don’t think the economy presents a winning argument.

      If I say to someone who is dismissive of climate change that “we can mitigate it now for $500 billion or wait until later and it will cost $5 trillion”, they just say “it’s not real, so how about we don’t spend anything” or “we can adapt and it won’t cost money”.

      If I say “a green economy creates jobs”, they say “domestic fossil fuels create jobs”.

      The public health threat, on the other hand, presents a distinct and unarguable advantage to shifting away from fossil fuels. Even if a person doesn’t believe in global warming or thinks the impacts will be minimal, it’s clear that fossil fuel pollution negatively impacts health.

      • GWS says:

        Larry, yes of course these arguments are made, and some of them for the same ideological reasons that other facts are dismissed. Insofar, there is no “winning” argument because you are not likely to change the ideology of the person you are arguing with. You just need to get them thinking.

        My point is a different one:
        To get started on an argument about how to address global warming, you need a point of mutual interest. Most people nowadays are not interested in public health until their own or a close person’s health is affected, and they do not hear about it on the news much at all because the media does not connect the dots any more. The economy and jobs may therefore be a better starting point for a discussion because people care.
        Of course the conversation may heat up, but the facts are again on the “green” side, and you can bring in the health effect costs on the economy as well.
        Whatever works.
        My own experience is that the jobs argument generally trumps all others … people rather “get sick” then loose work; consider, e.g., any discussion about permitting new coal-fired power plants, aka public health concerns have never really stopped such projects.

  4. Sam says:

    I’m still glad I wrote my senior thesis on Climate Change and National Security… but the results of the study are definitely disheartening to hear. It is a serious national security issue, as well as public health and environmental of course, whether people feel like that’s “co-opting” or not.