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The Problem with Global Warming = Media Framing

In a recent post, B.L. Ochman echoes the concerns raised by Asi Sharabi about global warming and why it continues to fail to motivate broad-based social action. Asi issued a challenge on his blog for marketing professionals to step up and offer some perspective and advice. Environmental education and social marketing, as Ochman points out, are extremely important. Seth Godin also nails it: "Because you don't see your coal being burned (it accounts for more than 50% of US electricity) and because the stuff coming out of your car is invisible, and because you don't live near a glacier, it's all invisible."

To follow on Ochman's and Godin's comments, I would add a couple points that place the blame a little more squarely on mainstream news reporting of the issue. More specifically, media framing of the issue.

People don't really confront global warming in their daily lives (at least not yet). Instead, it's experienced through news stories. And news stories do two things in particular which create very significant challenges for not only citizen activism and mobilization, but also for political leaders advocating for policy change and regulatory innovation.

  1. Global warming is always framed with a time horizon that talks about implications for people's lives in only the most distant, future terms. Or distant lands - e.g., arctic ice sheets.
  2. The pursuit of perceived balance and fairness in the media has resulted in the perpetuation of the idea that there is scientific debate about global warming.

There are several byproducts of this dynamic. One is that people, for the most part, lack the motivation to dig into deep information about the issue.  Instead, their distant, future-oriented understanding of personal implications leads to superficial attention to the details of scientific evidence and only peripheral acknowledgment of the nuances of policy decisions, or for that matter, opportunities to make marginal lifestyle changes that could have a significant long term impact.

When you're not paying attention to the details, other cues and heuristics start to play a more significant role - judgmental shortcuts replaced reasoned consideration of evidence and arguments.  In the current fragmented media environment coverage of global warming tends to be charged with narrowly focused partisan messages and political agendas that serve as shortcuts for judgments about the merits of environmental policy and social action.

In my mind, social capitalists, entrepreneurs and leaders inside of media organizations need to develop broad, coordinated campaigns that refocus attention on immediate, backyard implications of policy decisions. And these campaigns must be focused on core values that motivate attention and involvement. I think this call to action by Asi is exactly the kind of initiative that will make a difference.  For too long, environmentalists and ecologists have looked at marketing professionals with disdain for promoting consumerist values and launch mass consumer brands with such detrimental impact on the global environment.  I think it's time to work together to build the new environmental movement, which is truly a new imperative for us all. 

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June 26, 2006 | Permalink

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