Every photograph, drawing, painting, or movie shot is carefully framed. Frame is a box in each of these cases. An artist directs your attention by arranging what goes into the box and choosing what to leave out.
New arrangements mean new thoughts, new ideas, and new questions, which add up to new choices. This makes framing a serious business. Each wrong subject an artist puts into the frame-box, and each important detail the artist leaves out, means their work will be dismissed by a slice of their potential audience. Too many framing mistakes and they'll reach no audience at all, and generate no effect.
Like art, every message has a box-like frame. What's in the message? How is that arranged? What is left out? By thinking in terms of framing, we can dramatically improve the global-scale messaging of Climate Risk. When enough people accept the message, and the message is framed so that we alter our future choices, everyone wins.
Consider the Mona Lisa.
What is in frame but shouldn't be? Hard to say. What would you add to the frame to improve it? Hard to say. Apparently, it's perfectly framed.
If the subject of the Mona Lisa had a Cheshire grin or resting bitch-face, we'd have a legitimate reason to dismiss it. If there was a red wagon on the road in the background, we'd have a legitimate reason to dismiss it. But it has neither. The smile is just enough and the background is a neutral landscape.
You've probably noticed that many people have dismissed the messaging around the Climate Risk. Why? Because the framing is poor. Not because the people dismissing it are wrong, ignorant, or malicious, but because the message's frame includes subjects that don't belong and excludes subjects that are universally appreciated.
Like we dismiss nearly-perfect works of art, we dismiss poorly framed messages with no regard to how earnest the messenger is or how valid the message is.
To achieve complete Climate Risk buy-in, we must find the perfect framing for its message. In this Part 1, I'll lay out five common subjects that each trigger millions of people to immediately dismiss a message.
The Main Frame
You've noticed that I'm calling it Climate Risk, yet you know exactly what I'm talking about. Not Global Cooling, because the Earth could just well warm up (or stay the same). Not Global Warming, because we just had Global Cooling. Not Climate Change, because the climate is always changing. And not Climate Crisis, Climate Chaos, or Climate Catastrophe, because we've experienced only a small fraction of the potential effects so far.
Climate Risk is good framing because nobody can dismiss Climate Risk outright. Credit to whoever coined it.
Risk is the high ground. Humanity has always faced Climate Risk in the form of ice ages and volcanic ash shading the sun, so we'd be fools to collectively ignore a risk that could have devastating consequences.
Anyone who seriously claims that there is zero climate risk can be dismissed as a charlatan. Anyone who claims that the risk is non-zero but infinitisimal will have to justify it against historical evidence and the inevitability of black-swan events.
Risk is familiar ground because we deal with it every day, both individually and collectively. The insurance and finance industries are based on it. We understand the risk of arriving at work in the nude. We understand the risk of stock market bubbles forming and then bursting.
Can we quantify this Climate Risk? Well, let's figure it out. Risk of what, exactly? Let's look deeper. What can we do to mitigate that risk? Let's explore our options. What should we do, now that we understand the risks better? Let's test small, measure carefully, dismiss what doesn't work, and apply what works at larger scales.
We are well-guided by our long experience with Earthquake Risk, Shipping Risk, Flood Risk, Tsunami Risk, Supervolcano Risk, and Superintelligence Risk. Insurance and hedging are real things. How much Climate Insurance are you carrying? What is your Climate Risk hedging strategy? We'd each be well served to have answers to these questions and to expect good answers from our neighbours.
Framing the problem as Climate Risk fits a pattern we already understand, leading us through established thought processes and down well worn behavior paths.
The Message Frame
Right now, there's a frenzy of trial-and-error happening with Climate Risk messaging. Look at any photo from the recent Global Climate Strike and you'll see a wide variety of messages. Variety is good, for now. Yet the credibility of the main message is often undermined because so many easily dismissed subjects are included in frame.
Remember, people don't need a good reason to dismiss a message. Any reason will do because dismissal is our default response. We're pattern-matching fanatics who love to pinpoint what's out of place from a mile a way. Everyone behaves this way and so everyone knows this is universally true. Why fight it?
1. No fuzzy or abstract concepts
First, we must eject the idea that people respond to abstract concepts.
Abstract concepts like "Stop the destruction", "Evidence over ignorance", or "Listen to the cries of the world" feel good to say but are easily dismissed. They require mental effort to internalize and envision.
Are distant people I don't know in trouble? So are many of my neighbours, and so am I. Did people in the past make mistakes? Of course they did. Is a natural disaster looming? Buzz off, I'm eating. Will people in the future might be harmed? I'm worried about paying the mortgage. Could people harm me in the future? I don't care until they start making serious noise about it.
Eject the abstract and the fuzzy.
2. Forget logic and reason
We must also rid our message of the notion that logic and reason, whether in the form of facts or arguments, are involved in our individual choices. They aren't. We didn't reason ourselves into our everyday choices and we're not going to be reasoned out of them.
Emotional responses drive us. Habits, rituals, and automatic responses drive us. Seeing what other people are doing, or not doing, drives us. People we trust guide us.
Eject any appeals to logic and reason. Forget arguing.
3. Don't mention special interests
Since Climate Risk affects us all, the messaging that works won't emphasize specific groups or narrow demographics. For example, while it's great that unions are behind a movement, or that students giving enthusiastic support, prioritizing these groups is to deprioritize all of the others. That's enough reason to dismiss the message.
Furthermore, if the choice of groups or interests can be interpreted as being politically aligned, then that message will be seen by many as inherently political and easily dismissed.
Best to eject all mentions of specific groups or special interests.
4. Don't expect people to do something new
If we believe the solution to the climate crisis begins with new behaviors, we're going to be disappointed. "Don't be a fossil fool" is clever but it demands new behavior.
People are extremely biased toward doing what they've always done. Inertia is a real thing. We can know our habitual behavior doesn't work very well, or that it hurts us those near us, but we'll keep doing it.
Eject the idea that new behavior is easily achieved.
5. No judgment, blame, or othering
While it might feel good to judge and blame others, it's counterproductive. "They" are not the problem. Often, "they" do what they do because of "us", and even for us. Everyone believes they have good reasons for doing what they're doing.
Oil, coal, and ore stay in the ground when demand drops and prices fall below extraction costs. Trendy shoes and next-gen cellphones sit on the shelf when we care about other things.
Whoever feels blamed or scape-goated by a message, even indirectly, will dismiss it. Whoever perceives that they've been marked as an Other will similarly dismiss such messages.
Eject any hint of blame or othering.
With so many oft-used subjects tossed onto the trash heap, you may be feeling personally attacked. Sorry about that. It's for the best.
The next time you encounter a Climate Risk message, see what it looks like once you've ejected these easily dismissed subjects from its frame. Slice out any other subjects that need to be ejected. Then test the newly framed message on friends who are apathetic, skeptical, or even denialist. Test the message on friends who are anxious fanatics.
What happens when you do? Perhaps you'll discover common ground with all of them.
In part 2, I'll explore subjects that are safe to include in frame. Which combination of subjects will be effective? We shall see.