Frames Trump the Facts

June 29th, 2004

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The July/August, 2004 issue of Sierra Magazine has an interesting interview with Berkeley’s George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics, on the “framing” of environmental issues.  (A side note, Lakoff seems to be a hot commodity as he also appears in the July/August issue of The Atlantic Monthly in an excellent article by James Fallows on the upcoming presidential debates.)

After being asked to define “framing,” Sierra asks Lakoff “How about “protecting the environment”? Is there a frame embedded there too?”  Lakoff’s reply includes the following:

“Environmentalists have adopted a set of frames that doesn’t reflect the vital importance of the environment to everything on Earth. The term “the environment” suggests that this is an area of life separate from other areas of life like the economy and jobs, or health, or foreign policy. By not linking it to everyday issues, it sounds like a separate category, and a luxury in difficult times.”

Then Sierra asks “What’s the alternative?”  Lakoff replies:

“When environmental issues are cast in terms of health and security, which people already accept as vital and necessary, then the environment becomes important. It’s a health issue–clean air and clean water have to do with childhood asthma and with dysentery. Energy that is renewable and sustainable and doesn’t pollute–that is a crucial environmental issue, but it’s not just environmentalism. A crash program to develop alternative energy is a health issue. It’s a foreign policy issue. It’s a Third World development issue.

If we developed the technology for alternative energy, we wouldn’t be dependent on Middle East oil. We could then sell or give the technology to countries around the world, and no country would have to borrow money from the International Monetary Fund to buy oil and then owe interest. This would turn Third World countries into energy producers instead of consumers. And it’s a jobs issue because it would create millions of good jobs in this country. So thinking and talking about environmentalism in limited terms like preservation of wilderness is shooting yourself in the foot.

That’s why the frame is so important. Most environmentalists believe that the truth will make you free. So they tell people the raw facts. But frames trump the facts. Raw facts won’t help, except to further persuade the people who already agree with you.”

This seems right on to me (as my students will attest!).  Four years ago, here is how Dan Sarewitz and I characterized the global warming debate in an article titled “Breaking the Global Warming Gridlock” which appeared in The Atlantic Monthly:

“In politics everything depends on how an issue is framed: the terms of debate, the allocation of power and resources, the potential courses of action. The issue of global warming has been framed by a single question: Does the carbon dioxide emitted by industrialized societies threaten the earth’s climate? On one side are the doomsayers, who foretell environmental disaster unless carbon-dioxide emissions are immediately reduced. On the other side are the cornucopians, who blindly insist that society can continue to pump billions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere with no ill effect, and that any effort to reduce emissions will stall the engines of industrialism that protect us from a Hobbesian wilderness. From our perspective, each group is operating within a frame that has little to do with the practical problem of how to protect the global environment in a world of six billion people (and counting). To understand why global-warming policy is a comprehensive and dangerous failure, therefore, we must begin with a look at how the issue came to be framed in this way. Two converging trends are implicated: the evolution of scientific research on the earth’s climate, and the maturation of the modern environmental movement.”

Here are links to the Sierra interview with Lakoff and to our 2000 paper on climate change.  (And for a more recent and wonky analysis of framing and climate change policy see this paper of mine, just out in Issues in Science and Technology.)

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