Apocalyptic Rhetoric, Mistakes, and Changing Behavior: How to Rhetorically Frame Climate Change Communications (Part 1)

Apocalyptic Rhetoric, Mistakes, and Changing Behavior: How to Rhetorically Frame Climate Change Communications (Part 1)

Foust, C. R. & O’Shannon Murphy, W. (2009). Revealing and Reframing Apocalyptic Tragedy in Global Warming Discourse.

Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture, 3(2), 151 —167.



Foust and O’Shannon Murphy’s analysis, “Revealing and Reframing Apocalyptic Tragedy in Global Warming Discourse” is founded in a collection of US elite/popular press reports from 1997-2007; their methodology entailed searching headlines/lead paragraphs for “climate change,” “global warming,”  and “catastrophe,” gleaning their collections for appropriate/matching headlines. Once they collected the most relevant reports, they began to identify/analyze rhetorical trends in the media’s framing of climate change, and to subsequently recommend more effective rhetorical framings of climate change science, especially as the rhetorical framing is understood to be capable of persuading the public of engaging with/advocating /taking responsibility for their (mistaken) actions.  Ultimately, the authors emphasize that when climate change is communicated using a particular rhetorical frame (apocalyptic rhetoric; comic apocalypse) past and current behavior (the behavior that has contributed, to whatever extent, to the increase in greenhouse gases/global warming/climate change) can still be changed; that there is still enough time in which we can respond to signals/feedback loops effectively; that there is still enough time – and reason – to change behavior. It’s important to emphasize the difference, though, between “enough” and “infinite” … the authors emphasize “enough,” meaning that given the scientific research hypothesizing climate change (which, as Meyer emphasizes, is “enough”) we must act now, in response to consistent hypotheses, and not when those hypotheses are certain (as that is highly unlikely).

I want to emphasize the following ideas (listed below) because the authors’ explanation of each idea informs my understanding of climate change communications, especially in terms of the ideas’ implications for a public understanding of climate change (i.e. an interpretation of that understanding as a willingness to change behavior in response to climate change). Emphasizing the authors’ framing of these ideas is also significant for understanding and practicing their conclusions – suggestions for rhetorical frames that they believe to have more potential for effective communication of climate change so that expedient and effective policy is possible.

Outline of Ideas:

*Climate Change vs Global Warming (again)

  • Apocalyptic Rhetoric
  • Tragic Apocalypse
  • Comic Apocalypse
  • Agency, Temporality, and Telos
  • Fate
  • Crisis
  • Catastrophe
  • Thinking

Climate Change vs Global Warming (again)

In terms of my personal experience concerning debates over the “correct” terminology (global warming or climate change) I want to emphasize what I see as the most productive terminology from the perspective of decision-making/policy-making: neither term. I’m suggesting that neither “climate change” nor “global warming” is (at least any longer) an effective term for inciting an understanding of/engagement with the responsibilities entailed in the various impacts of population, affluence, and technological advancement, etc. The term I am beginning to embrace as an effective alternative is “resilience/resiliency”.

One of the very first conversations I had about “resiliency” was with Dr. Daniel Yeh, Resilient Tampa Bay Planning Committee Chair, who made it abundantly clear to me that the primary challenge of climate change communications was attempting to move these conversations out of political paralysis/political partisanship – which was the result of framing these conversations around either climate change or global warming – and into a publically-supported, politically productive choice for sustainable, fulfilling, responsible ways of life. The way out was to stop framing in terms of either climate change or global warming and to start framing in completely new terms, in terms of “resiliency.” One of Dr. Yeh’s primary challenges to Resilient Tampa Bay participants concerned this re-framing – he asked, “Can we speak about climate change without using the terms “climate” or “change”? In advocating resiliency as the (new) terms of the debate, he was answering his challenge with a confident “yes.” And I agree. “Resiliency” moves us beyond the debate over whether climate change is really happening or not and who is more/most responsible for it, and into acceptance: despite uncertainty, despite “facts” or “proof” of the degree to which climate is changing, what we are certain of is that “human activities … contribute to the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases; the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing exponentially; greenhouse gases trap heat; trapped heat will increase the temperature of the Earth” (Meadows, Meadows, & Randers 116-117). We’re certain that an increase in greenhouse gases will increase Earth’s temperature; so “resiliency” is rhetorically framed in such a way that it accepts and reinforces this certainty without dabbling over the degree to which greenhouse gases have increased, who has contributed what amount to the increase, or the degree to which we ought to be concerned with temperature increases. In accepting the certainty of change – and most importantly, in understanding the implications of certain change (which has been predicted, in varying degrees of overshoot, by Meadows, Meadows, & Randers’ World3 computer modeling system) – we are able to move out of paralytic debate and into thinking about more responsible, sustainable, and fulfilling behaviors. Where “climate change” and “global warming” describe the state of things, “resiliency” demands action; it describes a reaction to the state of things, an intention to take advantage of “enough” time; to respond with positive changes for positive results.

In relation to Foust and O’Shannon Murphy’s articulation of the difference/s between climate change and global warming, the authors cite that early on in their research, they discovered that – contrary to their assumptions – the two terms were not simply unintentionally interchanged, but rather that “… the terms may relate to various frames. ‘Climate change’ suggests non-human (natural) agency as the driver for warming, while ‘global warming’ positions human activities as the main cause (and comic‘‘cure’’) of rising surface temperatures and their effects (Bolstad, 2007 cited in Foust & O’Shannon Murphy 155) … more on their realization, and what that realization means for the terms, and the viability of new terminology like “resiliency” tomorrow …

Part Two will address the remaining ideas and their implications for climate change communications and decision/policy-making


About klangbehn

Doctoral Candidate: Rhetoric of Science University of South Florida 4202 E. Fowler Avenue Tampa, FL 33620-5550 View all posts by klangbehn

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