How to Rhetorically Frame Climate Change Communications: Implications of Apocalyptic Rhetoric as Tragic versus Comic
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).
In an earlier post, I articulated the distinction between these terms, which – now – seems inadequate for the depth to which the authors explain how these terms are opposed … the original distinction, given my understanding of the context of Brulle’s argument (which concentrates on global warming, referring only to global warming throughout the analysis, and only to “climate change” when quoting) and a background informed by Todd Myers’ “Climate Change: Where the Rhetoric Defines the Science” (http://www.washingtonpolicy.org/blog/post/climate-change-where-rhetoric-defines-science) was that global warming described a particular environmental problem more generally related to/within the broader context of climate change. I originally differentiated between the two terms as follows:
- “Global warming: Brulle’s consistent use of climate change science in terms of “global warming” emphasizes a singular problem of climate change science; the heating of the Earth, rise in Earth’s temperature, and the implications for public policy, etc. that seeks to address this particular problem
- Climate change science: often used by climate change experts/scientists etc. to allude to the broader implications (one of which is global warming) of climate change.
- Therefore, Brulle’s consistent use of “global warming” focuses his perspective on the communicative dynamics – the rhetoric – of this particular environmental problem.”
Given more time and insight, however, I need to revise these definitions, because their implications are definitely more critical than I had originally understood. Here’s what I understand now, regarding the rhetorical differences between the two: the implication of “global warming” is that humans are the primary cause of rising temperatures, but also that because humans are the primary cause, they are capable of changing their behaviors so that they are no longer pressing the Earth’s limits. “Global warming” implies humans’ responsibility on multiple levels, and throughout time. If humans are primarily responsible for causing rising temperatures, then they are also primarily responsible for learning from their mistakes and changing their behavior. Responsibility, then, works both ways, and throughout time: past mistakes can be remedied, if the rhetorical framing of global warming/climate change is communicated in terms that directly identify what can still be done – in the present and in the future – terms that speak specifically to public values, terms that allow for civic engagement, and terms that balance fear with opportunity. If resiliency means turning threats into opportunities, then a rhetoric to communicate climate change to the public must be a rhetoric that enables civic engagement (communication of challenge appraisals); an apocalyptic/comic rhetoric because such a rhetoric remains hopefully optimistic that there is still adequate (although decreasing) time in which to transition to a sustainable system. As explained in previous posts, when rhetoric neglects to articulate effective actions/solutions for productive behavior in response to environmental problems/global warming, or when it is founded solely on fear alone, without specific actions to remedy mistakes/unsustainable lifestyles, etc., the actions that do follow are maladaptive; they’re not consistent, collective, or significant in addressing the change – global change – that is necessary in sufficiently addressing an environmental problem like global warming.
Climate change is – as Foust and O’Shannon Murphy describe – the term used to frame non-human agency (natural causes) as the primary force causing temperature rise. So given this frame, it would follow that those communicating “climate change” to the public aren’t implying humans’ responsibility, but rather what Foust and O’Shannon Murphy describe as an apocalyptic/tragic rhetoric, one that points to Fate as determining the consequences of an environmental problem like global warming (which ultimately means that humans have no choice but to accept catastrophe; the ultimate rhetorical move against civic engagement, per Brulle).
All in all, Foust and O’Shannon Murphy’s perspective complicates and enhances an understanding of the differences – especially the rhetorical differences in the implications – between “global warming” and “climate change” and, furthermore, brings my own understanding of the significance – and the problematics – of these terms full-circle. Even if “global warming” and “climate change” are in fact rhetorically significant for implying one perspective or another regarding the cause of temperature rise (humans or nature/Fate) what’s ultimately important is that despite the fact that we’re uncertain of the degree to which one or the other has caused the situation, we are certain that global warming exists and – most importantly – that simulated consequences of it all point to varying degrees of catastrophe if we do nothing. This is why I find “resiliency” so appealing – because it implies reaction, action in response to temperature rise, and not a preoccupation with who/what is responsible for causing the situation in the first place. From my perspective, the most productive issue to take up is determining what “changes in behavior” are likely to curtail overshoot, and once these are articulated, funding research and development concerning how to successfully communicate those changes to the public in a way that speaks to public values, and motivates real, sustainable, fulfilling change for the longevity of all species.
*I’ll be using “global warming” throughout this post in order to remain consistent with the authors’ use of the term in “Revealing and Reframing Apocalyptic Tragedy in Global Warming Discourse”.
So onward with the list …
The authors frame their analysis of climate change/global warming reports’ framing in terms of an apocalyptic rhetoric, which they define as a “linear temporality (increased greenhouse gas concentrations–> warming –>catastrophic effects) emphasizing a catastrophic end-point that is more/less outside the purview of human agency.” Apocalyptic rhetoric suggests that climate change is currently framed in terms of crisis, meaning that – in the majority of cases – the media frames climate change as an environmental problem that is uncertain, but determinedly catastrophic; meaning that interest in productive responses to the crisis are discouraged because of the inevitability of a catastrophic telos; a catastrophic end point.
The authors break-down apocalyptic rhetoric into two categories: tragic apocalypse and comic apocalypse, each of which has a frame that either promotes or discourages action; which I want to complicate by framing in terms of resiliency (the turning of threats into opportunities).
Tragic apocalypse constitutes global warming as a matter of cosmic Fate, meaning that regardless of humans’ willingness to engage in positive actions to remedy past mistakes/unsustainable lifestyles, they are victims of the catastrophic effects of global warming/climate change. Such an ideology forecloses human agency – responsibility – to engage in understanding and acting in response to climate change.
The most significant implication of apocalyptic/tragic rhetoric is that because Fate/nature has caused global warming, because global warming is simply the “uncontrollable state of things,” that humans aren’t responsible for engaging in productive responses to it, in part because, following logically, their responses would be in vain. An apocalyptic/tragic rhetoric follows that if Fate is determining a rise in the Earth’s temperature, for instance, that Fate has ultimate control over humans’ condition. An apocalyptic/tragic rhetoric implies that humans have no agency in their own fates concerning climate change/global warming.
Concerning a public understanding of apocalyptic/tragic rhetoric, the most important consequence of such a rhetoric is that it discourages civic engagement. As discussed earlier, when the public – stakeholders – aren’t engaged in/supportive of science/global warming hypotheses, it doesn’t stand much of a chance for long-term success when/if it becomes policy.
Comic apocalypse frames global warming as the consequence of humans’ mistakes regarding unsustainable lifestyles, and understands tragedy as only one of the potential consequences of global warming. If humans persist in their mistakes, it is believed that such behaviors will manifest in catastrophe, but that catastrophe isn’t the only (fated) consequence. Comic apocalypse follows that if humans recognize their mistakes/unsustainable lifestyles and practice the agency – responsibility – that is necessary in changing such behaviors, then humans’ agency will manifest in positively influencing their fate.
The authors articulate the nuance of an apocalyptic/comic rhetoric:
“by distinguishing between crisis and catastrophe, the comic variation suggests that the tragic telos is only one potential ending to the climate change narrative, contingent upon whether humans alter their behavior in an appropriate manner”
An apocalyptic/comic rhetoric promotes humanity as mistaken, rather than evil, allowing space for bringing ideologically disparate communities together. In this rhetorical frame, time is open-ended, with human intervention possible; but as it’s important that we recognize the comic frame as “charitable but not gullible” (Peterson, 1997, p. 44 cited in Foust & O’Shannon Murphy 163)
An apocalyptic/comic rhetoric implies that humans still have enough time to act responsibly concerning how they ought to change their behaviors so that they can (globally) begin transitioning to a sustainable society.
Concerning a public understanding of global warming via an apocalyptic/comic rhetoric, it is understood that in enabling time and potential (in the form of specific solutions/changes in behavior), humans will be able to engage in understanding and acting in favor of global warming mitigation, and such actions will move growth/throughputs, etc. back within the Earth’s limits (Meadows, Meadows & Randers).