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Communicating Climate Change

Annotated resources for teaching climate change from interdisciplinary perspectives. Contributions are welcomed by the sponsor, NSF EPSCoR, and initial contributors Dr. Y. Houy, UNLV Honors College, and Dr. P. Starkweather, UNLV School of Life Science.

Framing Public Discussions

Language shapes cognitive understanding of concepts and issues; Framing concepts and issues within particular terms or metaphors is instrumental for communicating the urgency of climate change risks, or the importance of accepting particular policies to mitigate climate change (Lakoff 2010). This insight by linguist and cognitive scientist Dr. George Lakoff is being used by some climate change risk communicators as key communication tool (Brewer & Lakoff 2008).

The framing of public discussions is particularly important for skeptical and reluctant audiences (see “Climate Change Denial”). For example, in order to communicate the urgency of acting on climate change, communicators should be reframing climate change into climate “crisis,” according to Lakoff (Lakoff 2010, “Linguist weighs in”). He argues for the importance of strong, evocative, and precise language to communicate the threats of climate change: "This is no small matter because the fate of the earth is at stake. The science is excellent. The scientists’ ability to communicate is lacking. Without the words, the idea cannot even be expressed" (Lakoff, 2012, para. 10).

Strong, evocative language is, of course, not the only ingredient in making sensible, research-based everyday changes and public policy to mitigate or adapt to climate change: any (re)framing needs receptive audiences among influential stakeholders. When faced with ideologically-driven and organized climate change denial, any reframed discussions on climate change is likely to experience formidable opposition.


Brewer, J. & Lakoff, G. (2008). Comparing Climate Proposals: A case study in cognitive policy. The Rockridge Institute.

Lakoff, G. (2010). Why it matters how we frame the environment. Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture. 4:1, 70-81.

Lakoff, G. (2010, February 21). Linguist Weighs in on Framing Climate Change. Retrieved from:

Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment (scholarly article)

Lakoff, G. (2010). Why it matters how we frame the environment. Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture. 4:1, 70-81.


In this article linguist and cognitive scientist Dr. Lakoff discusses the concept of “frame” in relation to cognitive and brain science, and explains how framing relates to ideological language and how it activates ideological systems. In particular, the article discusses how using the term “climate change” instead of “global warming” lessens the perceived impact. 

Comparing Climate Proposals: A Case Study in Cognitive Policy (scholarly case study)

Brewer, J. & Lakoff, G. (2008). Comparing Climate Proposals: A case study in cognitive policy. The Rockridge Institute.

From the introduction: “There are two aspects of policy: cognitive policy and material policy. Material policy consists of the nuts and bolts, what is done in the world to fulfill policy goals. Cognitive policy is about the values and ideas that both motivate the policy goals and that have to be uppermost in the minds of the public and the media in order for the policy to seem so much a matter of common sense that it will be readily accepted. This article is intended to reveal the essential role of understanding in the political process… Here we present the cognitive policies behind two proposals for addressing the climate crisis… The Lieberman-Warner bill is currently under consideration in Congress. Cap and Dividend is a proposal we believe should be considered because it might gain greater public support and increase understandings of key ideas for addressing the challenges of global warming. Our goal is to demonstrate the importance of taking the mind into account in the policy-making process.”

Full report as well as a pdf downloadable version:

From Frames to Resonance Machines (scholarly article)

Ivakhiv, A. (March 2010). From Frames to Resonance Machines: The Neuropolitics of Environmental Communication. Environmental Communication. 4:1, 109-121.

Abstract: “George Lakoff ’s work in cognitive linguistics has prompted a surge in social scientists’ interest in the cognitive and neuropsychological dimensions of political discourse. Bringing cognitive neuroscience into the study of social movements and of environmental communication, however, is not as straightforward as Lakoff ’s followers suggest. Examining and comparing Lakoff ’s ‘‘neuropolitics’’ with those of political theorist William E. Connolly, this article argues that Connolly’s writings on evangelical-capitalist and eco-egalitarian ‘‘resonance machines’’ provide a broader model for thinking about the relations between body, brain, and culture. Environmentalists, it concludes, should pluralize their ‘‘frames’’ and pay greater attention to the micropolitical and affective effects of their language and practices on the communities within which they act, communicate, and dwell.”

Cultural Cognition Project (ongoing research study)

The cultural cognition project studies how cultural values shapes public perceptions of risk, and public policy. Understanding the cultural values of specific audiences is highly useful in understanding what frames would be effective in communicating climate change risks.

Scholarly Articles on Framing Climate Change

Recent articles on how to frame climate change productively:

Nisbet, M. (March 2009). Communicating climate change: Why frames matter for public engagement. Environment 51:2, 12-23.

Sterman, J. (Oct. 2011). Communicating climate change risks in a skeptical world. Climatic Change. 108:4, 811-826.

Myers. T., Nisbet, M., Maibach, E., & Leiserowitz, A. (Oct. 2012). A public health frame arouses hopeful emotions about climate change. Climatic Change. 113:3, 1105-1112.

Communicating the Science of Climate Change (scholarly article)

Somerville, R. & Hassol S. J. (Oct. 2011). Communicating the Science of Climate Change. Physics Today. 48-53.


This article is an overview of what two veteran climate science and risk communicators, Dr. Somerville, a research scientist who worked on the 2007 IPCC report, and Dr. Hassol, who specializes in communicating about climate change, see as key lessons.“Effective communication is usually not a lecture but a conversation that involves what people really care about. People generally care less about basic science than about how climate change will affect them and what can be done about it. Furthermore, climate change is often framed as an environmental issue, when it should be more appropriately framed as an issue threatening the economy and affecting humanity’s most basic needs: food, water, safety, and security.”


The article cites specific research findings that many members of the public would be interested in, and models how these scientific findings can be communicated effectively, and pitfalls to avoid:

Framing Global Warming (2008 blog)

This blog, by cognitive scientist Joe Brewer, gives an overview of the cognitive power of framing environmental problems:

Other blogs by Dr. Brewer give suggestions on how to frame the climate change debate productively:

Climate Storytelling (2012 blog)

Climate Storytelling blog:

James Balog, the lead character in the prize-winning film “Chasing Ice,” encourages those interested in communicating climate change science and risks to use story-telling techniques: “He encouraged using ‘passionate emotional responses’ by those directly affected to help make key points. … He encouraged climate scientists doing field research to better recognize the story-telling potential of what they might otherwise be dismissing as mundane and routine work. ‘I never use the word “anthropogenic” or “anthropocene” in public, Balog said. I use the term “human-caused.”’ He encouraged scientists to use skilled graphics designers — and strategically chosen colors — and to recognize their own, and substantial, inadequacies in this area.”

Economic Framing (2012 blog)

This blog post summarizes how former President Clinton frames climate change issues through an economic lens. This is in contrast to the science-based framing used by Clinton’s Vice President, Al Gore:

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