Why the Framing of our Climate Discourse Matters

By: Michelle Austreich

Art by Terrica Joseph

How did we get here? Where do we go from here? The way we frame climate conversations plays an immense role in dictating who pays attention and who keeps scrolling. It's difficult-- if not impossible-- to appeal to the masses when talking about something as unpleasant as the literal destruction of our planet. But regardless of existentialism, we need to rethink how we talk about climate change.

The United States tends to frame climate change as an issue in desperate need of further discourse, which is ironic because we are one of the main contributors to the problem as a whole. In fact, our main concern tends to be the rhetoric and not the responsibility. Waiting at the starting line for everyone to arrive is a waste of time, especially when many don't even plan on showing up. Standing idly by and depending on bipartisan discourse to address the problem is not only naive but dangerous. By the time everyone is on the same page, we'll be in agreement over how to disperse the ashes.

The Power of Language

As a sociology major, I think a lot about the language we use to discuss pertinent issues and the impact of the social construction of environmental issues. As I see it, the environment and society can only be understood in conjunction with each other; they are not just standalone pieces. In order to truly understand environmental issues, you always have to account for the human component - both how natural processes affect human life, and how the social practices that organize our existence and influence our innovation have ecological impacts.

What we frame as purely environmental also exists on a spectrum of inequity, as these issues do not just exist in a vacuum. Most environmental problems can be linked to the belief that resources are infinite and we are humans are entitled to as much as we can take. It is this selfish attitude of entitlement that is erasing the future for all, even though only a few call the shots.

Political Polarization and the Environment

A recent study about the cognitive psychology of climate change found that "political orientation may bias attention to climate change evidence, altering the perception of the same evidence" and generally, the United States has had a history of politicizing important issues, especially those rooted in science. Political polarization has existed long before Trump and will continue on after, and it's fairly evident to see that he is just a symptom of division, not the root cause. His divisive rhetoric has exacerbated the mistrust in institutions, more commonly within the Republican party. This growing mistrust has fueled climate-change denial, and most recently, denial of the danger of the pandemic. It is not difficult to follow the history of cognitive bias against climate change: from the Koch brothers' Heartland Institute to Big Oil funneling funds toward climate denial, the money doesn't seem to be changing course anytime soon.

International Responsibility

The "Trump Effect" has made it easier for international populists to shirk responsibility on their own terrain, and the massive influence that the United States possesses in the global arena needs to be reclaimed and reformatted accordingly. Regardless of politics beyond our borders, the United States has a huge narrative control issue, where skepticism thrives and important issues are politicized left and right. Our priorities that needs to be revisited outside of political rhetoric, and a line must be drawn, not out of malice or to "agree to disagree", but out of priority.

Rhetoric Surrounding The Green New Deal

To give a simple example of language dictating how an idea is received, look no further than The Green New Deal. Most mainstream headlines focus on cost of the deal instead of its goals (i.e. saving humanity, no small feat). Regardless of your opinion on the proposal, it's important to actually look at its contents before dismissing it solely based on the high price tag. Fox News plays into its viewers' fears by claiming that the deal will cost households $600,000, and The New York Times describes it as a $16 trillion plan. Are any other proposals more scrutinized? Is any other proposed government spending automatically analyzed in this critical light? Worrying about the cost of preventing the problem rather than worrying about the problem itself is a classic example of what our society prioritizes: why worry about the future when I only care about being rich now?

"Sleepwalking Towards Apocalypse"

In her book 'On Fire: The Case for a Green New Deal', Naomi Klein writes "Aren’t we all guilty, in one way or another, of sleepwalking toward apocalypse?" and I couldn't agree more. While spending the summer in California, I shamefully watched people consider themselves resilient for skipping their beach day while the state burned. We must stop perceiving these natural disasters as simple inconveniences, blips in daily life that will soon pass. The uptick in severity of natural disasters is only expected to worsen. The individual costs of these disasters is steep, so why not try to mitigate not only the financial costs, but also the loss of lives and livelihoods?

We must stop talking about climate change as having major consequences in the future: the future is right now. We must educate ourselves and challenge one another to engage in change, or risk continuing on in our blissful bubble of ignorance.

We are way too comfortable watching the planet annihilate before our eyes, and this needs to change. Environmental problems impact the future of all existence on Earth, it's time to talk about them as such.


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