Who Framed Global Warming?

This article was originally published by Joe Brewer of the Rockridge Institute on April 1, 2008.  It was also published on Celsias.

Photographers are well aware of the use of frames. The boundaries placed around a scene cause our minds to recognize central features and disregard whatever lies outside the border. Thus, when we see a picture hanging on the wall that shows a waterfall in the center of the image with a stream running down toward us, our minds fill in the rest by assuming that the water continues to run beyond the frame. This happens naturally, despite the contrary existence of a wall immediately below the photo, because we draw inferences based on the logic of the frame.

Conceptual frames shape our thinking in a similar way. The concepts we use provide borders and modes of thought for drawing inferences beyond them. These borders also focus our attention, just as the central image of gushing water in the photograph may cause us to overlook small pebbles (or even large boulders!) below the falls. These pebbles are unimportant the way the photo has been framed.

So who framed global warming? Like the photographer, they would have selected concepts that focus on some aspects of this complex issue while disregarding others. The logic of their frame would evoke inferences well beyond the borders of the thoughts they expressed. Just as nature photographers seek to glorify the beauty of the natural world and advertising photographers seek to glorify the products they are attempting to sell, we need to ask ourselves what linguistic architects’ have sought to glorify in the climate debate. By analyzing the language used to shape public discourse about global warming, we can begin to see the hidden agenda in the structures that hold prevalent stories together.

Let’s start with global warming. The word warm as it pertains to heat (rather than feelings or emotions) is the state of having a moderate degree of heat or a moderately high temperature. It is generally understood as being within or just outside the range of comfort, as suggested by the sentences “It is warm in here.” and “Could you turn the thermostat down, it’s too warm for me?” When combined with the word global, we get a phrase that means moderate increase in temperature across the entire world. This doesn’t sound too bad at all, and certainly is not cause for alarm.

Unfortunately, global warming is misleading in two ways. First, moderate heating (though technically accurate when considering the relative change in temperature) at worst is suggestive of drifting slightly outside the range of comfort. Some have even considered a little warming to be a good thing, due largely to the intuitive understanding that being warm is the same as being comfortable. In reality, the small relative change is extreme in both magnitude and rapidity. The speed and scale of change together are unprecedented in the four billion year history of our planet.

Secondly, the notion of global warming suggests that the entire planet is warming uniformly. This general idea is off in a number of ways because the warming is occurring in the atmosphere (and over time mixing heat into the oceans), not in the solid earth, and the temperature will increase most in the lower atmosphere (accompanied by cooling in the stratosphere above it). Furthermore, the heating will be more pronounced near the North and South Poles than near the Equator and the increase is merely an average that hides the fact that extreme cold (and hot) weather will become more prevalent with the increasing intensity of storms throughout the mid-latitudes. These details are often overlooked in public discourse, which allows for the possibility of confusing the public with seemingly contrary information that has been taken out of context.

Greater mischief can be found in the term climate skeptic. Literally combining these words means one who does not believe in the existence of climate. An absurd claim like this would not remain stable in people’s minds if it stood alone. Instead it has taken on a more subtle meaning, that a climate skeptic is one who lacks confidence in the expert knowledge of climate scientists. The devious nature of this phrase, and its less absurd common meaning, arise because it is part of a story that resonates deeply within us.

The story I am referring to is the Story of Theories as Myths, which is a story about how controversial explanations come along and get spread around. It is based upon the powerful metaphor A Theory is a Myth. Conservative think tanks have worked for years to spread this story around. Its biggest push came with the battle of Creation versus Evolution. The fallen hero in this epic battle has been the mighty Scientific Theory. Once understood to be the best available explanation that accounts for a broad range of diverse evidence, scientific theory has been reduced to the status of speculative myth. While scientists still understand the term theory in its traditional parlance, the mainstream public has been grossly misled.

This has happened because the concept for theory is contested, in that its meaning is dependent upon context. A common understanding of theory is that it is a speculation or guess, as in “a decision made based on experience rather than theory.” This meaning arises when the context distinguishes theory from direct knowledge. Scientists have a different understanding of theory, which is that a theory is a set of statements or principles that adequately explain a group of facts or phenomena. In this context a theory is a robust kind of knowledge that provides a coherent explanation for how different facts are related to each other.

This shift in meaning has lead to the question I am often asked when I mention that I am a climate scientist, “Do you believe in global warming?” An affirmative answer tells the inquisitor that I am a member of the Climate Change Cult. I believe the unprovable as a testament of my faith. Just as the existence of God cannot be proven, and is therefore a matter of faith, I am confirming my belief in the supernatural hand that shapes our climate. A negative answer tells the inquisitor that I am a man of rational proof. No absolute evidence exists to support this myth and my practical nature has compelled me to take the logically safe position.

This dichotomy exists because I accepted the Story of Theories as Myths when I accepted the question at face value. Instead, I need to reframe the question in a manner that reflects the nature of scientific knowledge in a more honest and valid way. I can do this by declaring “It is not a matter of belief. Rather, I have seen the compelling evidence and am convinced that no better explanation exists. Therefore, I must conclude that global warming is occurring.” This answer is built upon the metaphor A Scientific Theory is A Valid Explanation. I have reframed the question to reflect the fact that science is not built on myths, but on competing arguments based on observable facts.

On the subject of misrepresenting science, another common phrase in the global warming debate is consensus science. This derogatory term equates scientific consensus with consensus of opinion. It is designed to suggest that the basis of agreement is the questionable foundation of opinionated preference. In reality, scientific consensus is the conclusion of hotly debated, conflicting arguments that arises when all relevant facts are considered and all valid criticisms are accounted for. Consensus arises grudgingly because the standards of truth are extremely high among scientists. The fact that over four thousand scientists have agreed on the merits of the claim that global warming is happening (and that it is principally the result of human activities) is cause for strong confidence in this conclusion. As any scientist will tell you, the world of observational fact is the strictest arbiter of truth we have ever come into contact with.

Perhaps now we have covered enough material to reveal a general pattern. What could the hidden agenda behind these common phrases possibly be? The language architect (or more accurately the legion of architects) has cleverly framed the language of this debate to downplay the risks of climate change. Global warming is a soothing phrase that does not evoke alarm in the mind of the listener. Effort has been made to distort our understanding of science and to undermine the solid conclusions of a large number of experts. Already we can see that something nefarious is going on. The architects of language have drawn our attention away from the truth. They have crafted the following story:

Once upon a time there were a few people under the impression that something bad was happening to our planet’s climate system. They banded together with like-minded friends and formed a coalition to scare us with a fantastic doomsday scenario. Luckily, we have found that the warming they were talking about is not such a big problem. Heck, it might even be a hoax perpetuated by the Climate Change Cult.

Those of you who enjoy fictional tales of creative fancy may recognize this story. It is the Cliff Notes version of Michael Crichton’s book State of Fear. Are you surprised to see this famous author promulgating us with fictional tales? Of course not, he is in the profession of entertaining people with extensive lies. After all, he is a fiction writer. But it is an interesting coincidence that his fanciful tale matches so well with the narrative crafted in right-wing think tanks for a number of years now.

The strategy revealed by this analysis is a combination of redirection and confusion. A great deal of effort and resources have been poured into the hijacking of language away from the true message. Here is an alternative story that captures the essence of truth more accurately and fairly:

Civilizations grow in complexity when new technologies are discovered. Sometimes these technologies alter society in unpredictable ways that harm the civilization. At the dawn of the industrial revolution, our civilization started a dangerous experiment. We began burning fossil fuels. Unbeknownst to us, we polluted our planet in a way that created long-term and far reaching risks of harm to our children and grandchildren. We erringly tipped out of balance with the natural world. When we learned of the imminent calamity in our midst, we were initially skeptical and afraid to accept the implications of our dangerous experiment. But after years of study we now know that the harms are real and something must be done to prevent an escalation of danger for our civilization.

In this story we can see that no one is personally to blame for the initial experiment. We merely lacked foresight when we took the step into industrialization. But now that we have confidence in our understanding of the problem, we have a moral obligation to do something about it. Anyone who actively attempts to befuddle or redirect us now is to blame. They have not taken the moral obligation to protect our communities from harm and are working to preserve their self-interests at the expense of the public good.

We need to take action to clean up this mess. As Al Gore has said, “the consequences are unacceptable!”

Cognitive Policy Works specializes in providing organizations and individuals with frame analysis, policy briefs, strategic advising, and training.

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