Framing, Narrative and Messengers

In this next section we will talk about how to use the above perspectives to apply principles and good practices that are specific to climate communications and which fall generally into three inter-related dimensions of strategic communications: determining the right messenger; framing the issue effectively; and providing engaging and values-driven narratives. You will notice that the approaches described below also support the core needs identified in Module Two for psychologically supportive climate engagement: safety; connection; and authentic action.

The work of communicating about climate adaptation is fundamentally one of communicating risk. As Pike, Eaves, Huva et al (2015) write, “People assess risk based on their values, worldviews and identities; facts are filtered through these pre-existing beliefs and ideas” (p. 4). The following sections provide ways of working with values, worldviews and identities through the skilful use of framing, narrative and messengers.  Put together, they create a framework in which communicators can speak authentically and honestly about the risks of climate change and the imperative for adaptation, but using tools such as framing, narrative and trusted messengers. As Marshall (2015) argues, “We have a virtually unlimited capacity to accept things that might otherwise prove cognitively challenging once they are supported within a culture of shared conviction, reinforced through social norms and conveyed in narratives that speak to our “sacred values” (p. 229).

Framing: Possibilities and Pitfalls

There are several ways to think about the idea of framing messages and why it matters. As Blue (2018) writes, “Framing refers to the ways in which problems are defined, causes are diagnosed, and remedies are suggested. Framing is an inherent and normal part of communication. Since we cannot avoid framing, the best we can do is to acknowledge its effects and manage its consequences.”

Similarly, Marshall (2014), offers some of the common ways that climate change is framed or “defined… as an economic problem, a technological problem, a moral problem, a human rights problem, a governance problem, an ideological battle between left and right worldviews, or a lack of respect for God’s creation.” Marshall argues, as does Blue (2018), that “each approach will generate different responses, different ways to share the costs and, especially, different language with which to justify action.”  Blue (2018) further reminds us that while “risk-based technical approaches are common,” they can also be limiting and that “alternative approaches to the framing of mitigation can also “foreground… inequality and the need for justice to address the causes and consequences of climate change.”  Blue (2018) argues that engagement and communications practitioners need to be mindful of the framing they provide, particularly in contexts of public engagement, as the framing itself can open up or foreclose possible options and solutions.

For example, Callison (2017) points out that the framing of climate change and adaptation in the context of Indigenous communities’ experiences and responses can be both a perpetuation of colonial narratives, as well as an opportunity to represent a resilient future. As a starting point, Callison reminds us that, “Indigenous people are seldom the narrators or producers of these stories, nor are they often the primary audience.” In the following passage, Callison goes on to describe the significance of shifting from a “refugee frame” to a “human rights frame,” which “has become a powerful intervening frame that affords agency to indigenous people, and offers a distinct antidote to the victim and proof frames (Maldonado et al., 2013Links to an external site.).”

In their research with the people of Kiribati, Dreher and Voyer asked what frames they would like to see media use when reporting on their island communities. The people of Kiribati responded by saying they wanted to be known as the Kateia Kei Kei (translated as “People of Hope”), as “active ‘change agents’ developing climate change response strategies including ‘migration with dignity’” (p. 73). Kiribati residents vigorously rejected being seen as refugees, but rather as proactively working toward meeting their community’s needs through judicious planning and foresight. They argued instead for a human rights perspective so that they are not merely framed as “proof of what developed countries will face” (p. 67).

Callison (2017) provides an additional example of the way that framing the nature of the problem shapes the solution. Describing the work of the Inuit writer, advocate, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Callison writes,

In her autobiography…[she] describes … her desire for the majority of the world’s population who live in cities to recognize the “profound interconnectedness” of the global environment such that they could relate to “vulnerable communities around the world, as a shared humanity” (p. 221). In some ways, Watt-Cloutier turns vulnerability as a frame upside down with this statement so that connectedness makes everyone vulnerable and the burden of change a shared one.

Finally, Marshall (2014) reminds us that, because “We interpret climate change through frames, which focus our attention, but limit our understanding… allowing us to exclude or ignore meanings…” we need to “resist simple framing and be open to new meanings” (p. 233).


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Strategic Dialogue and Engagement for Climate Adaptation Copyright © by Simon Fraser University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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