Does Gore Contribute to the Communication Crisis?
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
A busy day but a quick analysis of breaking news:
Gore's Inconvenient Truth has been a stunning success in generating news coverage to his preferred "pandora's box" framing of the "climate crisis" and in mobilizing a latent base of concerned citizens. His perspective is likely to only be amplified after winning the Nobel prize.
But as we describe in our framing article at Science and as I explain at NPR's On the Media, there still remains a Two Americas of climate change perceptions. Over the past year Democrats have grown even more concerned about the issue while Republicans remain relatively unmoved.
I provide context to these challenges in a study published in the recent issue of the journal Public Opinion Quarterly, in which I analyze 20 years of public opinion trends in the U.S. on global warming (major implications). Despite Gore's breakthrough success with Inconvenient Truth, public opinion today is little different from what it was in May 2006 when the movie was released.
Here's how I described the problem at NPR's On the Media:
And so, what's going on here? It's because several Democratic leaders, like Al Gore, and even some scientists are really adopting what I call the catastrophe frame or the Pandora's Box frame, really focusing in on specific climate impacts that might be scary or frightening, such as the possibility of more intense hurricanes.
When you move in that direction, where the science is still uncertain, you open yourself up to the counter argument that this is just simply alarmism. It's very easy for the public, then, to simply rely on their partisanship to make up their minds, and that's why you have this two Americas of public perception.
Gore says he plans to donate 100% of the Nobel prize money to changing public opinion on climate change, but if he is going to be successful, he needs to promote alternative frames and interpretations of the issue and pair these messages with less partisan appearing opinion leaders. In fact, Gore should take note of E.O. Wilson's message and efforts at working with Evangelical leaders.
Despite Gore's success, there's still a lot more research and work to be done in figuring out alternative meanings of global warming that go beyond just a focus on crisis and that can activate key segments of the American public.