“ClimateGate”: A Catchphrase That Instantly Flips the Frame On Climate Scientists

Framing Science blog logo Matthew Nisbet furthers the discussion of climate change framing to the recent "ClimateGate" spin and its impact on Copenhagen. He comments that climate skeptics, not environmental groups, are using the "public accountability" frame right with the goal of evoking the idea that the climate scientists were doing something wrong and hid it. Framing is powerful and if effective, will activate their base and further degrade support for climate solutions.

Posted Dec. 6, 2009
By Matthew Nisbet, Framing Science

In a paper published earlier this year at the journal Environment,
I explained how claims and arguments relative to the climate change
debate can be classified and tracked using a typology of frames that
are common to science-related issues.

With the recent controversy over the East Anglia stolen emails, one
of these common frames has come to dominate discussion leading up to
Copenhagen. What's different this time around is that climate skeptics
and conservatives are applying the frame, rather than liberals and
environmental advocates.

This specific frame defines a science debate narrowly in terms of "public accountability and governance":

Is research or relevant policy in the public interest or
serving special interests? The emphasis is on matters of control,
transparency, participation, responsiveness, or ownership; or debate
over proper use of science and expertise in decision-making
("politicization.")

In the Environment paper, I described how historically the
public accountability frame has been used by Democrats,
environmentalists, and science advocates in an attempt to raise concern
that conservatives, industry, and the Bush administration were ignoring
scientific expertise in favor of economic interests and/or ideology.
Common frame devices used to instantly evoke and lock in this interpretation were allegations over a "war on science"
and the "manufacture of uncertainty." As I wrote in the paper, while
this frame might mobilize a liberal base it also likely inadvertently
leads to further disengagement among the broader public, who are likely
to see claims about a "war on science" as just more elite, partisan
bickering.

The irony now is that conservatives and climate skeptics have
discovered the utility of the public accountability frame to inflame
and mobilize their base while also (intentionally) deactivating concern
about climate change among the broader public.

The now commonly used term "ClimateGate" to refer to the case of the
East Anglia stolen emails is an extremely effective frame device that
instantly–if not falsely–conveys that there is wrongdoing,
politicization, and a cover-up on the part of mainstream scientists.

Focusing events have the potential to powerfully amplify the
resonance of a frame pushed by advocates. If the focusing event imbues
a preferred storyline with even a tiny bit of validity, it can catapult
a much stronger and broader frame into dominance. The case of the East
Anglia emails, now defined in conversation as "ClimateGate," threatens
to follow this trend. We will have to watch closely to see if the
storyline cast by conservative skeptics and media becomes one of the
classic examples of frame resonance in politics.

For a relevant case study on how an event can launch a politically
preferred frame of reference into prominence, see this post from 2005
where I detailed how Hurricane Katrina fueled a larger narrative about the the Bush administration as a presidency in a "state of denial."

I will be discussing more on this issue at the workshop on climate change communication held
Sunday at the annual meetings of the American Geophysical Union in San
Francisco. More than 115 attendees have registered and there will be
ample time allotted for questions and comments with the panelists.

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