“Scientists have warned about the ‘greenhouse effect’ for years. Now it is no longer a scientific nightmare; it has arrived.”

FAVOURITES – 27 January 2010 – Are these lines, you might ask, from Al Gore’s famous movie or maybe from Tim Flannery’s influential 2005 book The Weather Makers, or the 2008 Garnaut Climate Change Review final report?


The Sydney Morning Herald published these words in mid-1988. The article went on to detail record- breaking heat and drought in North America and elsewhere and scientists linked these weather effects with predictions for climate change. It was one of many similar stories at the time.

A year later, then Liberal NSW premier Nick Greiner told the Financial Review, ‘The (NSW) Government also plans to adopt the international goal of a 20 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by the year 2005…this would be achieved by expanding the use of solar, wind and hydro energy, and increasing the use of natural gas as a transport fuel.’

And the Hawke Labor government, flagging binding emission reduction targets later in the year (and a one billion tree planting program), made human-induced climate change a centrepiece of its 1989 statement on the environment.

“Significant climate change…would have major ramifications for human survival and settlement patterns as well as for our environment more generally. And it would almost certainly be accompanied by social and economic dislocation.

There is much that can be done immediately to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels.

There is considerable scope for immediate action to enhance energy efficiency and energy conserva tion…particularly true for transport and the residential sector.”

The Hon R.J. Hawke, Prime Minister of Australia, July 1989, Our Country, Our Future (Statement on the Environment)

What changed in the intervening years to bring inaction and uncertainty in Australia on this greatest environmental challenge? The documentary evidence indicates it was not the science that changed but the communication framing of the scientific messages, reflecting policy and cultural shifts amongst opinion leaders. Communication framing – how it works and at what levels – is thus worth a closer look.

A perspective on framing: It’s what audiences hear

Indeed, framing of science information in the public discourse is coming under increased scrutiny from communication and other researchers (Bubela et al. 2009). Understanding how communication is framed is a multidisciplinary task that challenges some accepted understandings of the relationship between scientist or science communicator and the general public.

The so-called “information deficit model” of science communication, for example, is again being examined. The deficit model argues that more factual information, or more of the same, will overcome deficiencies in public understanding of a scientific finding or innovation. However, controversial science and society messages face many influences and interpretations that have little to do with the scientific facts.

This understanding is supported by findings from my interdisciplinary doctoral research project in science communications. The research looked longitudinally at communication of anthropogenic climate change in Australia between 1987 and 2001 and how that intersected with a changing political landscape, as well as with media structural factors and ideological influences.

In the course of my investigation, framing of information emerged as a consistent theme. As politicians and policies changed, communication frames changed – in fact, were radically revised – regardless of the scientific facts, the one area that did not change dramatically (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 1990, 1995, 2001 reports). To appreciate what happened, it is worthwhile reviewing some contemporary research findings about framing.

Framing is critical to both how a message is communicated and how it is ‘heard’. Propagandists (Bernays 1928) and more recently cognitive scientists, educators and students of linguistics appreciate that it is not what you say that matters so much as what people ‘hear’. This understanding also emerges from psychological theory (Piaget 1950, and others).

The theory is most widely researched for its applications in education (e.g. Yager 1991) and suggests that people hear or process information on the basis of the sum of their past experiences and their core values, not least through the filters of professional training, religion or ideology. Further, the frames and agendas that guide society’s construction of everyday reality are relayed by metaphorical use of language, and by elite opinion leaders, who, together with the media, set the dominant narrative for public discourse.

Related is the evidence gathered by this project and others that, very often, there is no direct line from science ‘facts’ to the public. Often, agenda-setting in Australian society (Ward 1995) is a matter of how policy-makers and politicians ‘hear’ and then ‘frame’ the science information, which is then reported by the media, which has its own structural framing devices such as ‘balance’ (Nichols and McChesney 2005).

Cognitive scientist George Lakoff – who has applied the study of conceptual pathways and related use of metaphorical language to contemporary politics (Lakoff 2005) – suggests that rhetorical framing by politicians and the media will steer the public discourse regardless of the facts or evidence. The findings from my study would support that.

In the public/political arena, a common rhetorical technique is to give a positive emotional value to messages in order to signal how to think about things.

The mental constructs of freedom, family, jobs, our national interest, are embedded as core values and carry positive emotional loads that can be tapped with related metaphors (e.g. Lakoff argues that speaking of the national interest evokes the positives of family in many people’s minds).

Theoretical findings by Lakoff and others are given credence in practice by public relations professionals such as Frank Luntz, who extensively advised members of the US Republican Party, as the government of the day, on climate change strategy (Luntz 2003). In addition to engaging people’s core values, he advised the exploitation of scientific uncertainty to promote inaction and also that people identified as scientists should stoke the uncertainty discourse.

The evidence suggests that similar strategies were adopted in Australia during the 1990s.

As ‘jobs’ and ‘family’ and ‘national interest’ were linked to messages of uncertainty, and that ‘responsible’ science needs more research, the public was persuaded to wait and to count the dollar costs, forgetting that between 1987 and 1991 they were responding to leadership frames about risk insurance, responsible global citizenship and that early action would deliver the lowest long-term cost.

Thus, despite scientific facts staying largely the same, the public understanding may change: in this case, away from certainty about causes and the need to take early action and towards the narrative that ‘scientists can’t agree, so it’s in our national/family interest not to act now.’ The documentary evidence available from the public domain, including government documents, newspaper reports and interview data, indicate that a dramatic message reframe of this nature occurred in Australia starting in the early 1990s, under successive national governments.

Early framing yielded CO2 reduction target

The public record shows that the risks posed by ‘the greenhouse effect’, its causes and consequences, were clearly and unequivocally communicated, not only by the 1990 IPCC report, but prior to that by Australian scientists, media and politicians. A contemporary survey of public understanding (Henderson- Sellers and Blong 1989) called the state of public knowledge in Australia the best in the world at the time.

Much of the credit during those years went to direct communication by scientists through ground-breaking conferences and by talking to reporters. Equally significant, their messages were accepted by political leaders and media – culminating in an early (interim) national CO2emission reduction target.

That target, 20% below 1990 levels by 2005, reflected similar commitments in many other countries -almost universally overlooked now.

To respond decisively was framed as a moral and equity issue and a matter of risk management that affected everyone in society. Government documents and newspaper reports indicate that until at least 1992 it was a given in public discourse that the ‘greenhouse effect’ was pollution caused by human activities.

It was very uncommon to frame the science as a debate, or to stress uncertainty or to see it as a special interest ‘green’ issue. Response was often framed as a ‘win-win’ possibility, lowering costs due to energy conservation and offering opportunities for innovation and new industries.

But as the 1990s progressed, and economic rationalist policies reshaped the energy markets and other institutions, anthropogenic climate change (as the phenomenon was re-named) was framed by politicians and the parliamentary press gallery as first and foremost a political drama. The frame became Australia battling for its ‘national interest’ and for Aussie jobs against hostile and uncomprehending overseas forces and green special interests at home loading costs on the mainstream. The end product was Australia’s refusal to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

Politicians embellished with rhetoric like ‘We’re leading the world on climate change’ despite minimal action on the ground. (Frank Luntz would have approved. He advised that the public likes the ‘We’re number 1’ theme, regardless of the facts.)

Conclusion: Science consistent, but understanding reframed

The evidence indicates that while the science remained fairly consistent over time (apart from greater likelihood of rapid change and regional detail in later IPCC reports), public understanding was framed one way, then deconstructed and reframed.*

The full extent of that reframe becomes apparent by further comparing the discourse of the past 10 years (which most readers will recall to some extent) with the public knowledge available 20 years ago.

For example, compared with later IPCC reports, framing and language are strikingly direct in the first, 1990 IPCC scientific assessment report. The executive summary states unequivocally:

We are certain of the following:

Emissions resulting from human activityare substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane…(CFCs) and nitrous oxide. These increases will enhance the greenhouse effect, resulting on average in an additional warming of the Earth’s surface.

The main greenhouse gas, water vapour, will increase in response to global warming and further enhanceit. (p. xi)

The early knowledge is also summarised succinctly in the conclusions of the 1988 Toronto conference of governments International Conference on the Changing Atmosphere: Implications for Global Security which, along with the communications work of domestic scientists, significantly influenced Australia’s early commitment to an emission reduction target.

Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war. The Earth’s atmosphere is being changed at an unprecedented rate by pollutants resulting from human activities, inefficient and wasteful fossil fuel use and the effects of rapid population growth in many regions…

Far reaching impacts will be caused by global warming and sea-level rise, which are becoming increasingly evident as a result of continued in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases… The best predictions available indicate potentially severe economic and social dislocation for present ane future generations… It is imperative to act now.

(Henderson-Sellers and Blong 1989, p. 2)

To summarise, my research found that this language of certainty was only one of the communication elements that changed in the discourses shaped by policy-makers, media and scientists in the past 20 years. The box illustrates some of the most potent reframing in public communication identified in the research, comparing (1987-92) with the mid-1990s onward.


Bubela et al. 2009, Nature Biotechnology 27, 514-18.

Bernays E. 1928, Propaganda. New York, Horace Liverwright.

Henderson-Sellers A., Blong R. 1989, The greenhouse effect: Living in a warmer Australia. Kensington, NSW University Press.

Lakoff G. 2005, Don’t think of an elephant. Carlton North, Scribe.

Luntz F. 2003,The environment: A cleaner, safer, healthier America. pp. 131-46, Luntz Research Companies Straight Talk.

Nicolls J., McChesney R. 2005, Tragedy and farce: How the American media sell wars, spin elections, and destroy democracy. New York, New Press.

Piaget J. 1950, The psychology of intelligence. New York, Routledge.

Ward I. 1995 (2001 edition), Politics of the media.South Yarra, Macmillan.

Yager R.E. 1991, The Science Teacher 58(6), 52-9.

* Australia was not alone in this activity.  For example, German researchers Weingart, Engels and Pansgau reported in 2000 that while Germany had a good social consensus for a long time about climate change and the need for action, what they called ‘patterns of communication disturbance’ – or we might call reframing – can undo that consensus.

Maria Taylor <maria.taylor@anu.edu.au> is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Public Awareness ofScience (CPAS), Australian National University.

Early framing of climate change (1987-92)

  • Scientists’ voice and expertise are (perceived as) clear and accepted.
  • We all face this risk together in our family, nation or world.
  • Environment is on equal footing in the public discussion.
  • We have responsibilities as world citizens.
  • If we act now, we mitigate the severity of futureclimate change.
  • It’s a win-win situation with energy savings, environmental protection (one billion trees) and new jobs.
  • Some regulation on behalf of achieving these goals is OK.
  • Our political and media leaders tell us this, so we agree.

Later framing of climate change (mid-1990s onwards)

  • Scientists’ voice (perceived as) uncertain; scientists don’t agree.
  • It’s ‘them’ (the greenies/UN/Europe) interfering with the prosperity of the rest of us.
  • We’re exceptional and don’t have to join global changes to energy production.
  • There will be a techno fix down the road: nuclear,clean coal.
  • If we respond at all, changes have to be voluntary by business or consumers.
  • Our political and media leaders tell us this, so we agree.

First published in Chemistry in Australia <www.raci.org.au/chemaust>

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