Hey, hot enough for ya? Global warming, more like global melting, amirite? It’s so hot out there even the coal lobbyists are rolling up their sleeves. It’s so scorching they’re using Rush Limbaugh’s hot air to cool down the offices at GOP HQ. It’s so sweltering even Glenn Beck’s hugging polar bears. It’s so hot I don’t even know what I meant by that last one.
Point being: it’s been a pretty hot summer in many parts of North America, and this has inspired numerous climate change commentators to point out that global warming is very real and happening right now. Which is true. But here’s the question they should be asking themselves: Is it effective communication? Does it help to dismiss falsehoods and mobilize action on climate change? Does it make any sense to talk about weather as a way of talking about climate change?
I’m inclined to think it doesn’t. Quite the opposite — it plays into a terribly ineffective frame for public engagement on climate change, one that equates the infinite variability of the weather in any one place with the status of the Earth’s climate as a whole. This conversation validates the frame used by climate change denialists by its very structure.
I’ll come back to the fine details. First, in brief, framing — this is linguist George Lakoff’s term for the conceptual frameworks, mental constructs and metaphorical lenses we use to process new information. Lakoff:
We think, mostly unconsciously, in terms of systems of structures called "frames." Each frame is a neural circuit, physically in our brains. We use our systems of frame-circuitry to understand everything, and we reason using frame-internal logics. Frame systems are organized in terms of values, and how we reason reflects our values, and our values determine our sense of identity.
So let’s return to the weird weather frame for climate change. On the one hand, climate scientists have been saying for many years now that the first significant signs of climate change will be greater numbers of increasingly extreme weather events — hurricanes and tornadoes and blizzards, record flooding and drought, and, yes, heat waves. And because these events are acute, destructive and widely observed, they’d seem like ideal cases in point for the emerging climate crisis.
But hold on a moment and consider the frame. Weather is by its nature unpredictable, and it is understood — scientifically as well as at gut level — as beyond our control. As Kate Sheppard of Mother Jones notes in her brief response to this summer’s heat wave, it was beyond asinine for Sen. James Inhofe to use the snowy winter of 2010 as evidence that climate change wasn’t happening, because not only is the weather in Washington, D.C., dependent on numerous factors beyond greenhouse gas emissions, but weather is not climate and record snowfall is itself a likely sign of climate change.
For a particularly exasperated — and amusing — take on the futility of this conversation, take a minute to listen to this radio sketch by U.K. comedy duo Mitchell & Webb (progenitor of a parodic right-wing catchphrase — "It's still bloody cold in my flat!" — right up there with this cheese-eating surrender monkeys sobriquet from "The Simpsons").
Over at Desmogblog, Chris Mooney actually acknowledges the problem without following through to the recognition that it’s a lousy frame. He points out that tornado season is a poor framing device, because the scientific link between global warming and any given tornado is more tenuous than it is between warming and heat waves; he even notes the profoundly irrational “seasonality of public concern” about global warming, with more than half of Americans telling pollsters that heat waves strengthen their belief that climate change is real while about the same number say that record snowstorms convince them it isn’t happening.
Here’s Mooney’s rather startling extrapolation from this evidence: “That's why summer is always the time to talk to the public about global warming, and we need to recognize that other parts of the year probably aren't as good.”
Actually, no. We need to recognize that weather is the wrong frame for public engagement about climate change, because weather is not climate. It suggests not something permanent, long-term, and inescapably negative but something immediate, variable, and inexplicable. It fogs the debate, and it basically forces news coverage to include caveats like this one from a Christian Science Monitor story about the intense heat wave of 2010:
“You can’t say any one heat wave is caused by global warming. But you can say that what global warming does is it makes events just like this more likely,” says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change.
It may well be — as a new report suggests — that the best way to mobilize public action on climate change is to not talk about climate at all. It might simply be too complex, too slow in coming, and too long-term in its impacts to serve as an effective motivational tool. I’ll come back to that debate in a later post.
For now, though, there’s one thing as clear as the bright blue sky above me on this unseasonably cool day here on the Canadian prairie at the end of a hot spell during a remarkably wet year: The weather will never tell a single story about climate change. For that reason alone, it’s a frame as unreliable as the long-term forecast. Climate activists and commentators need to abandon it entirely.
Or, as the greatest of all British comedians once put it: Don't mention the war!
To avoid talk of the war 140 characters at a time, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.