Framing Environmental Problems

Last week, I implied that as the answer to what is nature? changes, so do the consequences. Today, I will explain how to make use of this point through the concept of environmental framing.[i]

Defining Environmental Framing

A formal definition for environmental framing can be difficult to grasp all at once, so let’s step back and explore a related and more familiar idea: stories. In a famous essay on story-telling in environmental history, William Cronon compares two opposing interpretations of the 1930s Dust Bowl.[ii] The first tells a heroic tale of determined settlers persevering in the face of a wrathful (and very dry) nature. The second tells a tragic tale of man-made disaster caused by settlers who failed to adapt properly to the unstable Great Plains environment. The important point here is that the lessons to be learned from each story differ as starkly as the stories themselves: the first urges more daring agricultural development in the American West, while the second urges caution and conservation. When making sense of historical events, Cronon explains, the way in which a story is told matters:

When we describe human activities within an ecosystem, we seem always to tell stories about them. Like all historians, we configure the events of the past into causal sequences—stories—that order and simplify those events to give them new meanings. We do so because narrative is the chief literary form that tries to find meaning in an overwhelmingly crowded and disordered chronological reality. When we choose a plot to order our environmental histories, we give them a  unity that neither nature nor the past possesses so clearly. In so doing, we move beyond nature into the intensely human realm of value.[iii]

(Hi)stories carry power, but people also tell stories about what’s going on today, and even stories about what might happen in the future (an everyday example is when the meteorologist makes a 5-day forecast). The process of storytelling is the same: order events into causes and effects to simplify and give meaning to what we experience and observe. Again, the key point here is that giving events meaning brings them into the “intensely human realm of value” and makes claims about what people should do. To return to the main topic, we can think of environmental framing as a tool for critically analyzing the stories told about people and nature. This tool can help us see the connection between how people order knowledge of reality into causes and effects and how people seek to order social and environmental relationships.[iv] Environmental framing thus connects the knowledge of people and nature with the power to make changes in the world.[v]

Example: Climate Change

Now that we’ve covered the analytical purpose of environmental frames, I will demonstrate with the example of climate change. We’ll start with basics. Climate change results from an increase in the level of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere. The most notable has been CO, a byproduct from burning fossil fuels. GHGs cause an atmospheric greenhouse effect that traps heat, originally from the sun, which would normally escape from the earth back into space.[vi] The extra heat warms the earth’s surface and lower atmosphere, causing a host of serious problems ranging from rising sea level to more extreme weather.[vii]

Increasingly, people view climate change as one of the most dire crises of our times. But even among the large majority who agree[viii] that climate change poses a pressing problem, there is wide variation in how this problem is framed. For the sake of example, I will only present two pieces of evidence. First is a 2009 blog post from climate activist Bill McKibben, a founder of the non-profit[ix] Second is a 2010 feature article from The Economist.[x] Below I quote some of the relevant excerpts.

(1) Bill McKibben, in reference to a landmark paper in the journal Nature[xi] that proposed an atmospheric concentration of 350ppm CO2 (associated with a temperature rise of 2° C) as the upper boundary for “a safe operating space for humanity”:

[A]s a planet we’d need to get off coal by 2030 in order for the planet’s forests and oceans ever to bring atmospheric levels back down below 350—that’s the toughest economic and political challenge the earth has ever faced.

But it’s not as if we have a choice. The most useful thing about having a number is that it forces us to grow up, to realize that the negotiations that will happen later this fall in Copenhagen aren’t really about what we want to do, or what the Chinese want to do, or what Exxon Mobil wants to do. They’re about what physics and chemistry want to do: the physical world has set its bottom line at 350, and it’s not likely to budge. (emphasis added).[xii]

(2) The Economist, responding to the dismal prospect that “a plausible programme for keeping climate change in check” would result from another major international meeting:

Global action is not going to stop climate change. The world needs to look harder at how to live with it…

A 2009 review of the cost of warming to the global economy suggests that as much as two-thirds of the total cannot be offset through investment in adaptation… But adaptation can still achieve a lot…

The green pressure groups and politicians who have driven the debate on climate change have often been loth to see attention paid to adaptation, on the ground that the more people thought about it, the less motivated they would be to push ahead with emissions reduction. Talking about adaptation was for many years like farting at the dinner table, says an academic who has worked on adaptation over the past decade. Now that the world’s appetite for emissions reduction has been revealed to be chronically weak, putting people off dinner is less of a problem. (emphasis added). [xiii]


From these two short excerpts, two different ways of framing climate change emerge. In the first, humans have without a doubt overstepped the bounds of our biosphere by burning too many fossil fuels. Faced with the physical facts, the only option for our continued survival[xiv] is to scale back, way back, on industrial growth and development. In the second, while industrial development has led to costly problems related to the environment, economic growth cannot and should not be stopped. Only further innovation and development can provide solutions.[xv] The policy implications diverge greatly. One way points toward renewable energy, energy efficiency, and subsistence-oriented economies. The other toward big infrastructure, high-tech research, elaborate insurance schemes, and lots of capital investment.

I have grossly oversimplified the climate change frames for the purposes of example. Many nuances are in play, and there is plenty of room for compromise and even complementarity between mitigation and adaptation to climate change. Nonetheless, these two articles illustrate one core tension underlying all effort to address climate change: the promise of development versus the risk of overstepping natural bounds.

In summary, environmental frames help us analyze how different interpretations of the relationship between people and nature are connected to different claims about what should be done. Now that we have discussed what environmental frames are used for, next week’s post will discuss in finer detail how to use environmental frames.


[i] I taught this concept last semester for my advisor, Alastair Iles. I owe much of this discussion to that experience.

[ii] Cronon, W. 1992. A place for stories: Nature, history, and narrative. The Journal of American History. 78(4): 1347-1376.

[iii] Ibid, 1349.

[iv] There is much more to be said on this point, and I will return to it in future posts on science and society, determinism, and co-production.

[v] The savvy reader will recognize that I am referencing Michel Foucault here. The canon of Foucaultian theory is too enormous to cite here, but The Foucault Reader, edited by Paul Rabinow, will do for my purposes.

[vi] NASA covers all of this information in detail here:

[viii] I will not address the critics of climate change science here, as by and large they represent industries which profit enormously from the status quo. The reasons for which these critics frame climate change as a hoax or as a purely natural phenomenon linked to periodic solar cycles have been addressed extensively elsewhere, and are too obvious to be of much interest for the purposes of this discussion. The really interesting exercise is to identify the political implications that people do not wear on their sleeves when they frame environmental problems. This example will only brush the surface in that regard.

[ix] Bill McKibben, “The Science of 350, the Most Important Number on the Planet,” which lays out the mission statement for the climate action group

[x] “Facing the Consequences.” The Economist. November 25, 2010.

[xi] I use McKibben’s blog post in part to avoid any possible pay-wall problems. Here’s the citation: Rockström, J., Steffen, W., Noone, K., et al. 2009. A safe operating space for humanity. Nature. 461(7263): 472-475.

[xii] McKibben

[xiii] The Economist

[xiv] McKibben quoting the abstract for the Nature article, “above 350 you couldn’t have a planet ‘similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.'”

[xv] For example, see the passage that reads, “Economic development should see improvements in health care that will, in aggregate, swamp the specific infectious-disease threats associated with climate change.”



Filed under Basic Concepts

3 Responses to Framing Environmental Problems

  1. pbaur

    This post clocked in about 1,500 words, which is way over my 700-1,000 word goal. Part of this was due to the large block quotes used to illustrate the example, but also I probably bit off a bit too much for one blog post here. Climate change is just too complicated to make a quick example effectively, and as is I haven’t really done justice to the two frames I sketched out.

    Also, writing more concisely takes a lot of time! My drafts are always long, verbose sentences with a million clauses. To make clarify and trim down the chaff I have to spend about three times as long editing as I do writing.

  2. You know frames can be very expensive. Sometimes more costly that the work of art itself!

  3. Pingback: Undetermining Determinism | Patrick F Baur

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