Frame and Blame
Social Media and the Environmental Movement
The climate change movement has been controversial since its beginning in the 1970s and has been framed from almost every angle. Supporters and opponents have turned it into a story of villains and victims and made it a heated debate. In Rise and Fall of Social Problems, Hillgartner states that social problems go through an oscillating cycle of attention, and, because climate change is a slow moving process, there is less news coverage and these oscillations tend to be slower with less drastic peaks and valleys. There are a variety of players in this process, which Joel Best sums up as scientists, activists, media, and politicians. The four work in tandem to shape public perception of current issues. The experts are scientists and climatologists, of whom 97% worldwide believe in climate change while the remaining three percent either believe that it is not anthropogenic or that it is not occurring at all. Activists for climate change remediation believe that it is a dire situation, while opponents argue with the validity of the science and allege proponent alarmism. The media slant information based on their political affiliation and funding sources. Politicians are also separated by party affiliation and are heavily influenced by lobbyists. So, do the facts behind the framing match up with public perception? According to a recent poll done by Yale and George Mason Universities in May 2011, only 64% of Americans believe that climate change is occurring, and only 47% believe that it is man-made. According to another study done at Yale, when by Anthony Leiserowitz asked citizens how they thought scientists understood global warming, only 13 percent knew that 97% of scientists believe that it is anthropogenic. Public knowledge and sentiment is the basis for all action taken on social problems, so it is important to look at the framing of the environmental movement in order to understand the origins and motivations behind public sentiment of the environmental movement. The potential of social media is just now being recognized by framers of the environmental movement for its infiltration into the public and should also be examined for full potential.
It is interesting to see how closely the media and public perception conform to framing by scientists, activists, politicians, and lobbyists, and it is impossible to discuss the effects of one framer without considering their relationship with the others. Prominent environmental advocate Christopher Stone claims that the American public is well educated on climate change; however, in their book Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming, Hoggan and Littlemore argue that the scientific process is highly misunderstood by the general public and is leveraged by skeptics to create uncertainty. The scientific process is never one hundred percent accurate or certain. In addition, the term theory is used to describe scientific statements that have been sufficiently proven, while the lay definition of this word is a ‘guess’. As Bill McKibben states in his article, “Climate of Denial”, political and industrial leaders use the uncertainty of science to their advantage,
“Cloud the issue as much as possible so that voters, already none too eager to embrace higher gas prices, would have no real reason to move climate change to the top of their agendas. I mean, if the scientists aren't absolutely certain, well, why not just wait until they get it sorted out?”
Only 28% of British news coverage depicts a human contribution to warming as significant, and the other 72% includes a skeptic viewpoint or denies that it is anthropogenic. Many popular news stations are sponsored by big companies that have a great deal of money and power that pay the exorbitant prices of ads and the news stations would not want to risk these contributions by running stories that say climate change can be attributed to their products. CNN, for example, is funded by “clean coal” and natural gas, making it politically difficult to do unbiased stories on these two industries. People tend to stick to a set news provider and are therefore presented with a slanted version of current events, for example, the conservative Fox News and decidedly liberal New York Times. As Mark Catoe states in his answer to the Quora question on the passion behind the climate change skeptic movement, people are convinced by “motivated reasoning…a brain reflex that inclines us to believe what we already believe – in spite of new information that comes our way.” Since acceptance of climate change is something that conditionally affects one’s entire lifestyle, people have great subconscious incentive to continue with what they already believe. As Chris Mooney states in his article “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science,” psychology plays a large role in reasoning:
“Reasoning is actually suffused with emotion (or what researchers often call ‘affect’). Not only are the two inseparable, but our positive or negative feelings about people, things, and ideas arise much more rapidly than our conscious thoughts, in a matter of milliseconds—fast enough to detect with an EEG device, but long before we're aware of it…We push threatening information away; we pull friendly information close. We apply fight-or-flight reflexes not only to predators, but to data itself.”
Psychology plays a large role in people’s opinions of the environmental movement and directly motivates them to continue with previous notions of skepticism. Motivated reasoning limits people from opening up to pitfalls in their argument and keeps them closed to new developments.
Economics is a huge part of the climate change debate and is used by every framer from each side of the debate. Environmental groups argue that investing in sustainable technologies will create long term green jobs, while conservatives believe that environmental regulations stifle business. A great infographic from Grist portrays climate change activists’ response to skeptics and those that believe the movement is a hoax. It points out the irony in the economic claims and reads:
“Which makes more sense? Regional environmental groups and community activists are spending their limited operating budgets in a massive conspiracy with 90% of the world’s scientists to create a worldwide hoax and crash the global economy or big oil companies are spending their obscene profits to bribe anyone they can to protect their profits and limit any future liability their pollution may cause.”
According to a recent poll taken on LinkedIn, money is the biggest motivation behind the skeptic movement. Big businesses, with invested interest in unsustainable operations, invest money in convincing the public not to move away from over-consumerist culture. Lobbyists from large companies frequently make significant contributions to political campaigns. Bill McKibben, a well-respected environmental activist, looks critically at motivations behind industry that keep the U.S. far behind Europe on climate change issues.
“But in any given year the payoff for shifting away from fossil fuel is incremental and essentially invisible. The costs, however, are concentrated: If you own a coal mine, an oil well, or an assembly line churning out gas-guzzlers, you have a very strong incentive for making sure no one starts charging you for emitting carbon.”
Many companies fail to look at big picture costs such as health effects and irreparable degradation of the environment and, instead, only focus on profits for the current quarter. As Michael Eisner, former CEO of Disney once said, “We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make a statement. We are here to make money.” Businesses reap monetary benefits from denying climate change and convincing their customers to do the same. On the other side is the green jobs market, which claims that jobs can be created from investments in sustainable products, energy, and resources. However, the unique American culture of freedom of choice makes the population resistant to behavior change recommendations. The authors of Dead Heat describe our history with pollution and the evolution of our materialistic economy, recounting the cultural foundations of industries. For example,
“…coal burning took hold in England in the 1600s after the widespread clearing of forests…In America, however, abundant forests provided both pioneer and city dweller with all the wood they needed for decades after others had turned to coal…This sort of excessive energy use still prevails in America today.”
As McKibben states, “We had the single hardest habit to break, which was thinking of energy as something cheap.” In addition to our freedom of choice ideology, the United States is also deeply driven by consumerism. Americans simply do not like being told what to do. One example is Human Achievement Hour, countermovement to the annual global action of powering down for one hour on the last Saturday of March for the awareness of climate change. According to their website, “Human Achievement Hour is an annual event meant to recognize and celebrate the fact that this is the greatest time to be alive, and that the reason we have come so far is that people have been free to use their minds and the resources in their environment to experiment, create, and innovate.” They also highlight that “future solutions require individual freedom not government coercion.” The American culture was founded on the idea of consumerism. The colonists’ final straw with the British was based on taxes. From this has sprung the idea that prices should be driven continuously lower and that the economy should grow infinitely. However, infinite growth is not possible on a finite planet.
Two other commons ways of framing the environmental movement from the supporters’ standpoint are global versus local and top down versus bottom up. These two frames refer to the way that climate change should be mitigated. Who is responsible and where should the motivation come from? Should grassroots organizations motivate people to practice behavior change? Will this have a big enough impact? Most environmentalists would argue for top down change with pressure generated from local grassroots organizations. Durkheim would have also been interested in this because he thought about social order over the individual and about the concept of mechanical versus organic solidarity.
Social media provides unique solutions for the environmental movement. It has significant reach into the general public and has great power to infiltrate everyday life, which can have a large impact on a company or organization. Donors are more likely to give when they can see the direct impact their money creates and the transparent inner workings of the group. In addition, people who might not otherwise be reached might see the group or see that their friend had recently interacted with its social media content. Peer to peer recommendation is the most valuable type for consumers, viewers, and company officials, because people trust their family and friends over anyone else. An increased fan base can also be used to show constituent support to government officials, increasing their incentive for grant funding to non-profit organizations. Not only do social media give positive reinforcement between peers, but it can also be used to create an Internet form of peer pressure. If one sees that all of their friends believe in climate change from postings or “likes,” that person is more likely to believe in it themselves, despite actual knowledge of the topic. In addition, solutions to climate change are rooted in innovation, which is sparked by informed discussion, debate, and collaboration, something that social media has the power to generate, organize, and disseminate.
Harrison Rainie and Barry Wellman’s Networked: The New Social Operating System is important for social media’s applications to the environmental movement. It states that the social network revolution gives more opportunities to reach beyond traditional social world of tight groups and small communities. It is easier to be in touch with more people than ever before, and the Internet revolution increases people’s power to gather information and communicate.
“Although people often view the world in terms of groups, they mostly function in networks. In networked societies, boundaries are more permeable, interactions are more diverse than others, connections shift between multiple networks, and hierarchies tend to be flatter and more recursive.”
They also argue that the network revolution creates a shift in the basis of achievement from individual to societal. Technology is part of broader social change. Many people fear that the Internet has alienated people from each other and the environment, but social networking sites challenge that. Meetup.com is “the world’s largest network of local groups” that meet in person regularly, and it has the goal of “using the Internet to get off the Internet.” As Durkheim argued, the biggest problem for modern society is size, complexity, and diversity. The success of Meetup.com contrasts with Putnam’s Bowling Alone, which shows that communities have become disconnected. Communities are now centered about much more abstract things rather than crops and nature. This is a large part of apathy toward the climate change movement and social media can be one of the solutions. 
When the experienced environmental bloggers of Experts’ Opinions on Sustainability were asked about their opinions on the role of social media in the environmental movement, the overall response was a significant one. Although the sample is biased, their career choice and the rapid expansion of the environmental blogosphere can attest to the true growth of the field. Among answers were the ideas of heightened transparency (Brendan Seale, The Interconectedness of Things), which increasing awareness for the interconnectedness of the world and thus how actions have wide reaching effect. Meris Michaels, of Towards Better Health emphasized calls to action, and Celesa Horvath succinctly said,
“In a nutshell, social media and emerging technologies effectively democratize knowledge and information, causing a shift in the patterns of communication between and among stakeholders, and driving increased transparency and accountability. In effect, social media facilitate advocacy and action.”
There are, however, some setbacks to the abundant use of social media. There is now an overload of information and there are dozens of examples of this type of misleading advertising mostly involving large companies and their PR departments. The challenge of a plethora of information can be overcome with weeding technologies such as feeds and categorically divided news, but the misleading information aspect is much more challenging. Jessica Reeder, of Love and Trash, writes,
“One of the biggest roadblocks for the environmental movement has always been disinformation, which often comes from hearsay and punditry…Social media allows experts and brands to develop a trusted voice that people feel they can rely on. By offering consistency and good information, by being reasonable and trustworthy, environmental activists are better able to dispel rumors and spread knowledge on important issues. Unfortunately, this works the other way as well.”
Social media can be used to improve a brand’s image over time. Many companies now use their CSR (corporate social responsibility) campaigns as a direct form of marketing to the conscious consumer, a path that environmental organizations are starting to pick up on as well. Social media are used by environmental organizations and large corporations alike to improve public sentiment. The flipside ‘greenwashing’ which the FTC defines as “unqualified general environment benefit claims – such as calling products ‘green.’” One notable examples of this is the Levi’s Water<Less Jean advertisement, which would make one think that the jeans, made from water-intensive cotton, no longer take any water to produce. In reality, the brand means that the jeans take less than average amounts of water to produce. But the campaign is flawed in many ways: which part of the supply chain are they starting at? What is their comparison point? Another example along the lines of environmental deception is the advertising by BP after their catastrophic oil spill, claiming that the gulf had been returned to previous conditions. The three pronged recycling symbol stands for collection, processing, and marketing development, and emphasizes that green products need to not only be produced responsibly, but must also used and disposed of in an environmental conscious way. The FTC is currently looking to regulate green claims and third party certifiers like the Rainforest Alliance Certification and Fair Trade Certifications have been independently created to validate claims. Many times, companies will think about how they can claim that they are green and pick the smallest actions that will have he biggest PR impact. However, including their shortcomings can help build trust between the advertiser and the consumer. Social media creates the ultimate amount of transparency and allows consumers to see through these shallow campaigns.
The reputation of a movement is crucial to progress in solving the social problem. While Stone believes that the environmental movement is strong and concludes, “Thus, while the environmentalists might do well to keep image in mind, I doubt they have an image they need to run away from, or for that matter could run away from…,” many would disagree. The war of activists is stereotypically seen as hippies versus capitalists. The power of the people is to pressure corporations and the government. An all too common sentiment is that the general public just cannot make a significant difference when it comes to climate change, but their demands on companies and politicians are enough to make a big splash. Collaboration is the only hope for finding solutions to the environmental movement and social media is the ultimate tool for this. The potential for the climate change movement in social media is vast.
"Why Is the Climate Change Movement so Passionate?" LinkedIn. Ed. Sara B. Allan. LinkedIn, 20 Nov. 2011. Web. 7 Dec. 2011. <http://linkd.in/vxOK4x>.
Best, Joel. Social Problems. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2008. Print.
Catoe, Mark. "Why Is the Climate Change Denier Movement so Passionate?" Quora. 22 Oct. 2011. Web. 07 Nov. 2011. <http://www.quora.com/Why-is-the-climate-change-denier-movement-so-passionate>.
Randall Collins and Michael Makowsky, The Discovery of Society, Chapter 6. New York: McGraw Hll, 2005.
Glover, Matthew. "Global Warming - The Debate." Renegade Conservatory Guy. 30 July 2010. Web. 26 Apr. 2012. <http://renegadeconservatoryguy.co.uk/global-warming-the-debate/>.
Heiferman, Scott. "Scott Heiferman Professional Biography." Meetup.com. Web. 27 Apr. 2012. <https://sites.google.com/a/meetup.com/scott-heiferman-professional-biography/>.
Hilgartner, Stephen, and Charles L. Bosk. "The Rise and Fall of Social Problems: A Public Arenas Model." American Journal of Sociology 94.1 (1988): 53-78. Print.
Hoggan, James, and Richard D. Littlemore. Climate Cover-up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming. Vancouver: Greystone, 2009. Print.
"Human Achievement Hour 2012." Competitive Enterprise Institute: Free Markets and Limited Government. Competitive Enterprise Institute, Mar. 2012. Web. 27 Apr. 2012. <http://cei.org/hah>.
Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., & Smith, N. (2011) Climate change in the American Mind: Americans’ global warming beliefs and attitudes in May 2011. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. http://environment.yale.edu/climate/files/ClimateBeliefsMay2011.pdf
Anthony Leiserowitz in Harris, Richard. "Climate Change: Public Skeptical, Scientists Sure : NPR." NPR : National Public Radio : News & Analysis, World, US, Music & Arts : NPR. NPR, 21 June 2011. Web. 07 Nov. 2011. <http://www.npr.org/2011/06/21/137309964/climate-change-public-skeptical-scientists-sure>.
McKibben, Bill. "Climate of Denial." Mother Jones. The Foundation for National Progress, May-June 2005. Web. 1 Apr. 2012. <http://motherjones.com/politics/2005/05/climate-denial>.
McCright, Aaron M. and Riley E. Dunlap. 2000. “Challenging Global Warming as a Social Problem: An Analysis of the Conservative Movement’s Counter Claims.” Social Problems 47(4): 499-522.
Mooney, Christopher. "The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science." Mother Jones. The Foundation for National Progress, May-June 2011. Web. 26 Mar. 2012. <http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/03/denial-science-chris-mooney>.
Nelson, Gabriel, and Amanda Peterka. "FTC Proposes Crackdown on 'Greenwashing'" The New York Times - Energy and Environment. The New York Times, 06 Oct. 2010. Web. 26 Apr. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/gwire/2010/10/06/06greenwire-ftc-proposes-crackdown-on-greenwashing-42606.html?pagewanted=all>.
Oppenheimer, Michael, and Robert H. Boyle. Dead Heat: The Race against the Greenhouse Effect. New York: Basic, 1990. Print.
Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. Print.
Rainie, Harrison, and Barry Wellman. Networked: The New Social Operating System. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2012. Print.
Stewart, James B. Disney War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. Print.
Stone, Christopher D., and Garrett James Hardin. Should Trees Have Standing?: Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects. Los Altos, CA: W. Kaufmann, 1974. Print, 157.
Zimmerman, Jess. "Infographic: The Idea of a Climate Change Hoax Makes No $)%*@ sense." Grist. Grist Magazine, Inc., 27 Feb. 2012. Web. 3 Apr. 2012. <http://grist.org/list/infographic-the-idea-of-a-climate-change-hoax-makes-no-sense/>.
 Hilgartner, Stephen, and Charles L. Bosk. "The Rise and Fall of Social Problems: A Public Arenas Model." American Journal of Sociology 94.1 (1988): 53-78. Print.
 Best, Joel. Social Problems. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2008. Print.
 Glover, Matthew. "Global Warming - The Debate." Renegade Conservatory Guy. 30 July 2010. Web. 26 Apr. 2012. <http://renegadeconservatoryguy.co.uk/global-warming-the-debate/>.
 Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., & Smith, N. (2011) Climate change in the American Mind: Americans’ global warming beliefs and attitudes in May 2011. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. http://environment.yale.edu/climate/files/ClimateBeliefsMay2011.pdf
 Anthony Leiserowitz in Harris, Richard. "Climate Change: Public Skeptical, Scientists Sure : NPR." NPR : National Public Radio : News & Analysis, World, US, Music & Arts : NPR. NPR, 21 June 2011. Web. 07 Nov. 2011. <http://www.npr.org/2011/06/21/137309964/climate-change-public-skeptical-scientists-sure>.
 Stone, Christopher D., and Garrett James Hardin. Should Trees Have Standing?: Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects. Los Altos, CA: W. Kaufmann, 1974. Print, 157.
 Hoggan, James, and Richard D. Littlemore. Climate Cover-up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming. Vancouver: Greystone, 2009. Print.
 Hoggan and Littlemore.
 McKibben, “Climate of Denial.”
 Glover, “Global Warming – The Debate.”
 Catoe, Mark. "Why Is the Climate Change Denier Movement so Passionate?" Quora. 22 Oct. 2011. Web. 07 Nov. 2011. <http://www.quora.com/Why-is-the-climate-change-denier-movement-so-passionate>.
 Mooney, Christopher. "The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science." Mother Jones. The Foundation for National Progress, May-June 2011. Web. 26 Mar. 2012. <http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/03/denial-science-chris-mooney>.
 Zimmerman, Jess. "Infographic: The Idea of a Climate Change Hoax Makes No $)%*@ sense." Grist. Grist Magazine, Inc., 27 Feb. 2012. Web. 3 Apr. 2012. <http://grist.org/list/infographic-the-idea-of-a-climate-change-hoax-makes-no-sense/>.
 "Why Is the Climate Change Movement so Passionate?" LinkedIn. Ed. Sara B. Allan. LinkedIn, 20 Nov. 2011. Web. 7 Dec. 2011. <http://linkd.in/vxOK4x>.
 McKibben, Bill. "Climate of Denial." Mother Jones. The Foundation for National Progress, May-June 2005. Web. 1 Apr. 2012. <http://motherjones.com/politics/2005/05/climate-denial>.
 Glover, “Global Warming – The Debate.”
 Stewart, James B. Disney War. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005. Print.
 Oppenheimer, Michael, and Robert H. Boyle. Dead Heat: The Race against the Greenhouse Effect. New York: Basic, 1990. Print.
 McKibben, “Climate of Denial.”
 "Human Achievement Hour 2012." Competitive Enterprise Institute: Free Markets and Limited Government. Competitive Enterprise Institute, Mar. 2012. Web. 27 Apr. 2012. <http://cei.org/hah>.
 Human Achievement Hour 2012.
 Collins, Randall and Michael Makowsky, The Discovery of Society, Chapter 6. New York: McGraw Hll, 2005.
 Rainie, Harrison, and Barry Wellman. Networked: The New Social Operating System. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2012. Print.
 Collins, Randall and Michael Makowsky, The Discovery of Society, Chapter 6. New York: McGraw Hll, 2005.
 Heiferman, Scott. "Scott Heiferman Professional Biography." Meetup.com. Web. 27 Apr. 2012. <https://sites.google.com/a/meetup.com/scott-heiferman-professional-biography/>.
 Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000. Print.
 Nelson, Gabriel, and Amanda Peterka. "FTC Proposes Crackdown on 'Greenwashing'" The New York Times - Energy and Environment. The New York Times, 06 Oct. 2010. Web. 26 Apr. 2012. <http://www.nytimes.com/gwire/2010/10/06/06greenwire-ftc-proposes-crackdown-on-greenwashing-42606.html?pagewanted=all>.
 Stone, 147.
 Stone, 156.