Purdue Climate Change Research Center

All (Climate) Politics Are Local? Exploring the relationship between framing of scientific projections of local climate change impacts and sub-national policy design

Funded by GPRI and PCCRC seed grants

In the absence of strong national policies, some “sub-national” political units (states, provinces, etc.) have taken a leadership role in climate change policymaking, both in the United States and abroad. Consistent with research on causes of sub-national policy variation in environmental policies (Daley and Garand 2005; Sapat 2004; Hays et al. 1996; Ringquist 1994), perceptions of local vulnerability to climate change have emerged as part of the explanation for this variation in climate policy choices (e.g., Rabe 2004). At the same time, the pattern is far from consistent: Louisiana, for example, is doing far less about climate change than New Hampshire, despite arguably facing greater vulnerability to several commonly accepted climate change risks.  This variation generates an initial research question: Why does scientific information about vulnerability to climate change affect different state policies differently?

Given this importance of differing perceptions of risk from climate change, this study will ask what factors might significantly shape the interpretation of scientific information about predicted local climate change vulnerabilities.  Research has shown that public (Hays et al. 1996) and elite (Kathlene 1995; Cohen 1997) beliefs may have significant and independent influences on the policy process in this regard. Recent research in economics, sociology, and political science points to the vital role of “framing” in shaping how information affects subsequent beliefs and attitudes about an issue.  The simple definition of “framing” is when different contextual descriptions of the same choice affect how people respond, even in the face of identical factual conditions. The powerful influence of framing on the interpretation of information, especially information related to controversial and complex issues, suggests such effects could be quite relevant to the interpretation of climate science information (see Hulme 2010; Stehr and von Storch 2009; Malone 2009).  Thus, our general hypothesis is that framing effects may help explain divergent perceptions of risk from similar climate change analyses.  This hypothesis, if validated, could help explain differing political outcomes among areas facing similar projections of risk from climate change.

Research on the power of framing effects has documented their importance in human interpretations of information in a growing variety of contexts. Re-framing the same information in terms of gains versus losses (“percentage of people saved” versus “percentage of people dying”), for example, leads many individuals to make different decisions despite the logical equivalence of the options under either frame (Tversky and Kahneman 1981).  Similarly, different frames can affect public approval of the same policy by invoking different social norms.  More respondents express tolerance for permitting a Ku Klux Klan rally when it is described as a “free speech” issue, for instance, versus an issue of “maintaining public order” (Nelson et al. 1997).  Different frames can also influence citizens’ behavioral intentions: Clawson and Waltenburg’s (2008) study of public reactions to a controversial affirmative action policy demonstrates that citizens are less likely to express a willingness to protest when the policy is framed as a Supreme Court ruling rather than a decision coming from the bureaucracy.

In much of this research on framing, scholars expose citizens to a given frame and then assess the resulting effect on opinions.  This does not mirror real political debates, however, where frames and so-called “counter frames” are widely found in the same communications (Chong and Druckman 2007a; Sniderman and Theriault 2004).  In the hurly-burly of politics, typically one side promotes information with a frame and the other side counters with a different frame.  Citizens make policy judgments and political evaluations in competitive rather than one-sided communication contexts. Furthermore, media norms require journalists to present two sides of an issue (Entman 2005).  Therefore, it is quite common that when a news story reports on climate change and includes quotes from noted scientists, the story will also contain quotes from climate skeptics (who may or may not have any expertise on the issue at all) (Boykoff and Boykoff 2004).  In the name of objectivity, journalists give climate “skeptics” a voice and therefore promote competitive frames on this issue (Oreskes and Conway 2010), which may well reduce the plausibility of some climate science claims (e.g., Malka et al. 2009).

Researchers are just beginning to examine how citizens' opinions are influenced by exposure to competing frames (Chong and Druckman 2007b; Jerit 2009).  One conclusion from this initial research is that high quality, or “strong,” frames can influence public opinion even when rebutted by competing frames.  Whether a frame is strong is determined by a variety of factors, but includes the idea that a strong frame relies on logical arguments backed up by evidence.  Understanding what a “strong frame” might look like in terms of presenting climate science, therefore, is a potentially important step in understanding and improving the role of climate science information in public policy dialogue on this issue, including at the sub-national policy level.

Scholarship on framing has primarily focused on the effects of frames on citizens' opinions.  This is understandable given the important role that aggregate public opinion plays in the formation of public policy, especially on salient issues (Monroe 1998; Page and Shapiro 1983).  Nevertheless, it is also crucial to understand the influence of frames on elite decision-makers.  Framing research demonstrates that individuals' prior beliefs and values influence how they respond to framing attempts.  Given that political elites differ from citizens in a number of ways, including having significantly more political knowledge and holding substantially more ideologically consistent attitudes than citizens (Converse 1964), results of framing research conducted on citizens cannot be generalized to elites.  Yet elite attitudes and beliefs exert a strong influence on policymaking, often independent of or contrary to public opinion (Kingdon 2003; Kathlene 1995; Kau and Rubin 1993). Thus, in this project we propose to test the influence of framing effects, including the role of counter-framing, on the interpretation of climate science information by both the public and policy elites.


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Primary Investigator

  • Leigh Raymond

Contact Information

Purdue University
203 S. Martin Jischke Drive
MANN 105
West Lafayette, IN 47907