Got Frames? Why How We Frame the Environment Matters

A review of George Lakoff’s 2010 article “Why it matters how we frame the environment”… a publication of vital importance to climate change communications, in my opinion!

iceberg framed.jpg Framing is Everywhere

As George Lakoff points out, framing is everywhere in the news. Coverage of environmental issues and global climate change is no exception. Whether global climate change is framed as a pollution and deforestation problem caused largely by factory farming and animal agriculture, a lack-of-nuclear-power problem, a “dirty coal” vs. “clean coal” problem, a “action = damage to our economy” problem, or a language – climate change vs. global warming – problem, how the issue is framed over time affects how media consumers think about their environment.

Stuck in the Old Ways

Many material and physical scientists still subscribe to the old view that “information is everything” when it comes to leading the public to the right conclusions and decisions on a scientific issue. According to the old view, reason is conscious, unemotional, logical, abstract, and universal (Lakoff, p. 72). We can see a how scientific and hard science research ideals would match up with this definition of reason. According to Lakoff, people engaged in environmentalism – folks in public policy, science, economics and law – “still have the old, false view of reason and language. As a result, they may believe that if you just tell people the facts, they will reason to the right conclusion,” (p. 73).

Average temperatures over the surface of our entire planet have increased by about 1.5°F since the beginning of the industrial era in 1880, in a phenomenon now known as global climate change. According to NASA, a steady increase in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere – driven by human activity – is the most important long-lived cause of climate change ever observed. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have increased more than 36% since pre-industrial times, and are now higher than they have been in 650,000 years.

What frames of thought came to your mind when you read that paragraph? Have a clear picture of what global climate change means for our current way of life? Are you motivated to take both personal and political action on global climate change?

Citizens actually use unconscious, emotional, and frame-driven forms of reasoning when considering a particular issue. “It turns out that the results of the fundamental material science of the environment are not sufficient to change enough brains.” – Lakoff, p. 79.

Framing? What?

rain flickr by Ravages.jpg We keep talking about framing and frames. But what is framing, anyway? Framing has been described as the basis of social constructivism or shared meaning between media sources and public audiences (Scheufele 1999). While agenda setting tells the public what to think about, media frames make certain attributes of a topic or issue stand out, stressing the importance of specific values, facts and considerations within a message on a particular topic (Nelson et al 1997, p. 569; in Scheufele 1999, p. 116). Framing distills a complex issue down into a particular ‘storyline’ that sets “a train of thought in motion for audiences about who or what might be the cause of a problem, the relevance or importance of the issue, and what should be done in terms of policy or personal actions,” (Gamson and Modigliani, 1989, in Nisbet, 2011b, p. N/A, section 4.3).

Media frames must compliment individual frames of reference, otherwise known as ‘schemes’, in order to be effective. Individual frames are unconscious cognitive structures that guide how we think of the world around us, structures that take the physical form of circuits of neural cells in our brains (Lakoff p. 71). According to Lakoff, “All thinking and talking involves framing,” (p. 71-72).

Individual frames call on emotions, past experiences, and oft repeated media frames in order to guide new incoming information into contexts and concepts that we can understand. Frames or “schemes” can be activated by specific words or visuals, and vary for the individual. For example, if I say “peanut butter”, you may think “… and jelly sandwich” or you may think “swollen tongue” based on a relative’s severe allergy to peanuts. For me to tell you what I want to tell you about peanut butter, I have to anticipate the frame of reference that you will bring to hearing the word, which could vary from a “complimentary food frame” to an “allergy frame” based on your past experience. Then again, if you have never tasted peanut butter and you don’t know anyone who either likes, dislikes, or is allergic to peanut butter, my talk of the word probably won’t mean much to you at all.

peanut framing.jpg

So Why Does Framing Matter to Climate Change?

According to Lakoff, conservative vs. liberal political identities carry with them very different frames of the environment. Indeed, these frames may have little to do with the environment itself, but rather with the economy, food, security and trade (Lakoff p. 76). When considering the environment and global climate change, conservatives are apt to think in frames that include “greed is good” and “benefits vs. costs” frames, “short-term profit” frames, and negative frames of the “Liberal Elite”, whereas liberals are more prone to think in “environmental stewardship” and “personal responsibility” frames (p. 76).

Concepts that are seemingly absent within frames of the global climate change issue are the need for environmental political action and a global economy that thinks in terms of well-being vs. financial growth at the cost of our environment. We need frames that combine some of the most important issues within global climate change: the need for localized food and energy production, transitions away from oil-based products and economies, population control, the idea of common ownership of the air we are polluting, and adaptation to a changing climate.

But, as Lakoff points out, frames can’t be created out of thin air, or used as short-term messaging ploys. This simply won’t work. Frames have to be build up over time, by matching media frames to individual frames, citizen values and personal experiences. Without individual frames of reference for key environmental concepts, how can short-term messaging bring about desired attitude and behavior responses from citizens?

“… I can remember when, in the 1970s, I first heard that earth’s temperature might rise a degree or two. In seconds, my reaction was “Omigod!” I had studied enough thermodynamics to know how huge an amount of heat that was… enough about species to understand how vulnerable they (and we) are to subtle changes in climate… like other scientists, I believed at that time that if we all just got the scientific word out, the world leaders would see the great and do the right thing." – Lakoff, p. 79.

Not So. Currently, most citizens do not have the “scientific” frame to understand the implications of global climate change for their own lives and futures when presented with the facts. Compelling pro-action messages on climate change need to be a long-term commitment of scientists and environmentalists. Messages are going to need to focus on emotions, values, and contexts that the average citizen can place in his or her existent “environment” schema.

Environmentalism: The natural world is being destroyed and it is a moral imperative to preserve and reconstitute as much of it as possible as soon as possible (Lakoff p. 80). If only the environmental movement were framed so simply in the public’s eye (or traces of neural circuitry, rather).


Gamson, W. A., & Modigliani, A. (1989). Media discourse and public opinion on nuclear power: A constructionist approach. American Journal of Sociology, 95, 1-37.

Lakoff, G. (2010). “Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment.” Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture 4(1): 70-81.

Nelson, T.E., Clawson, R.A., Oxley, Z.M. (1997). “Media Framing of a Civil Liberties Conflict and Its Effect on Tolerance.” The American Political Science Review 91(3): 567-583

Nisbet, M. C. (2011b). Public opinion and political participation. In D. Schlosberg, J. Dryzek, & R. Norgaard (Eds.) Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society. London, UK: Oxford University Press.

Scheufele, D. A. (1999). “Framing as a theory of media effects.” Journal of Communication 49(1): 103-122.

1. Flickr by mollybeee and Rigmarole

2. Wiki

3. Flickr by Ravages

Lakoff, G. (2010). Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture, 4 (1), 70-81 DOI: 10.1080/17524030903529749