- 1 Abstract
- 2 What are Advocacy Groups?
- 3 Evaluation of Advocacy Group Efforts
- 4 Mass Communication as a Tool for Change
- 5 Defining Types of Environmentally Significant Behavior and Environmental Activism
- 6 Antecedents to Environmental Activism
- 7 Purpose of Study
- 8 What is Persuasion?
- 9 Frames
- 10 Gain-Loss Frames
- 11 Emphasis Frames
Environmental non-governmental organizations have become increasingly important players in social movements and catalysts behind policy change. These organizations often use computer-mediated communication, such as mass emails and social media, to facilitate civic engagement (Obar, Zube, & Lampe, 2012). Previous research suggests that certain attitudes and beliefs can be targeted via strategic messaging to elicit a desired behavioral response.
Two goals of this dissertation were to determine what strategic messages—specifically message frames and emotional appeals—environmental organizations use in their communication with members and how effective those frames and emotional appeals are at eliciting a behavioral response associated with environmental activism (e.g., signing a petition, making a public comment, RSVPing to a rally or event).
Evidence supports the effectiveness of well-documented message frames, such as gain-loss frames and emphasis frames that highlight a specific dimension of an issue (e.g., climate change is a public health frame, moral frame, national security frame, etc.) at predicting environmental policy support and activism behaviors. Furthermore, evidence also supports the effectiveness of various emotional appeals (e.g., fear appeals, hope appeals), but suggests that some emotional appeals may result in inaction depending on the circumstances (O’Keefe, 2016).
In study 1 of this dissertation, I content analyzed 213 action alerts sent between May 2016 and May 2017 from three environmental organizations in the Northern Virginia area. I coded for well-documented message frames in the environmental communication literature and emotional appeals that have been applied to the environmental context.
Results from study 1 indicate that tenets of the extended parallel process model that have been modified for large-scale, environmental problems (i.e., climate change) were present in over half of the emails. Oher results from study 1 indicate that environmental frames, public health frames, economic frames, and moral frames emerged most frequently in the action alerts, compared to other message frames.
In study 2, I examined the effectiveness of those communication strategies at eliciting behavioral responses (i.e., link clicks) included in the email. Contrary to expectations, none of the communication strategies included in the analysis significantly predicted performed behavior. Further, only the economic frame significantly predicted behavior when the types of behaviors were disaggregated. In addition to other findings, implications for theory and practice, limitations, and future research opportunities are discussed.
What are Advocacy Groups?
Advocacy groups, which are often known as non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and social movement groups, tend to be integral parts of politics, but are independent of government. According to Prakash and Gugerty (2010), advocacy refers to “systematic efforts (as opposed to sporadic outbursts) by actors that seek to further specific policy goals” (p. 1). To achieve these goals, advocacy groups may strive for grassroots mobilization, political participation, and consumer activism, many of which can be achieved through communication. Organizations often use computer-mediated communication, such as mass emails and social media, to facilitate civic engagement (Obar, Zube, & Lampe, 2012).
Evaluation of Advocacy Group Efforts
Broadly, environmental advocacy groups focus their efforts on diverse environmental objectives, ranging from environmental conservation, endangered species protection, and climate change mitigation. Environmental advocacy groups use public education campaigns, lobbying efforts, grassroots mobilization, campaign contributions, political endorsements, and even litigation to meet those objectives (Kraft, 2001).
According to Jimenez-Castillo and Ortega-Egea (2015), environmental messages delivered via the internet are likely to spur people’s self-reported personal action. For example, the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, which provides information about the public health risks of burning coal, has succeeded in retiring 255 coal burning plants in the United States through educational campaigns, lobbying, and grassroots mobilization that encourages local activists to get involved at the community level.
Social-cause organizations also have been using their influence to encourage consumer activism for decades. In 2015, the Sierra Club put forth the “Shell No!” campaign and held 20 events in 15 states for a “Shell No! Day of Action” in protest of Obama administration’s approval of Arctic drilling. Hundreds of members attended the rallies in hopes that President Obama would postpone new offshore oil-and gas exploration in the United States (Rogers, 2015). Although President Obama did postpone the exploration, there is no evidence—save for anecdotes—to support that the protests had a direct influence on his decision.
Determining direct causation between environmental advocacy campaigns and long-term policy change is difficult. In part because every advocacy campaign employs different tactics and makes an ask tailored to the specific target audiences (Gaworecki & Tomaselli, 2018). Further, there are numerous pathways of influence that are at play when examining the effectiveness of environmental campaigns, including societal norms and structural barriers, which makes it difficult to develop a one-size-fits-all formula for an effective advocacy campaign. However, researchers have found evidence to support that environmental activism campaigns tend to be successful in the short-term (i.e., the specific goal of the campaign is met) (Gaworecki & Tomaselli, 2018).
To meet those specific goals and reach that success, advocacy groups must mobilize their audiences. Advocacy groups use online mass media channels, such as social media, websites, and emails to communicate with their members and other parties. In fact, these organizations use the internet to lobby (through email), to disseminate messages, and to encourage offline environmental mobilization and activism (Pickerill, 2003). Doyle (2009) reported that international environmental NGOs often encourage their members to become online activists by signing up for alerts, emailing government officials in support of causes, and taking part in online campaigns in order to meet the objectives set forth by the organization.
Mass Communication as a Tool for Change
Much like there is question of the effectiveness of advocacy campaigns in general, mass communication efforts (i.e., emails) are scrutinized as an enabler of “clicktivism.” Clicktivism—the use of social media and the Internet to advance social causes— much like “slacktivism,” is perceived as minimal effort engagement that could have long-term, negative consequences, such as encouraging “clicktivists” whose petitions and comments overshadow other meaningful efforts and are generally ignored (Shulman, 2009).
Schulman refers to this as “click-through democracy” and argues that advocacy organizations employ this method to foster “increased visibility, membership, and organization-sustaining donations” (p. 30). He notes that these action alerts may result in increased membership and donation, but there is little empirical data emphasizing policies changed. Shulman says, “the big-name advocacy groups such as the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, and World Wildlife Federation, stake their reputation, in part, on membership size” (p. 30).
His point being that it is difficult to measure whether action alerts are effective at meeting the overarching goals of the organization. Findings from his study indicate that action alerts mostly resulted in an influx of redundant comments sent to policy decision-makers, which does not actually make a difference. Karpf (2010) disagrees with Shulman’s critique of the utility of action alerts. First, he argues that email action alerts represent a new-age tool for citizen engagement that are similar to those used in the past (e.g., form letters, post-cards, petitions).
Consistent with this notion, Van Laer and Van Aelst (2010) developed a typology that differentiated two types of action: “real” actions (i.e., demonstrations, donations, and sit-ins); and “virtual,” Internet-based actions (i.e., online petitions and emails). Both are facilitated by the internet and lead to some sort of activism that can make a difference in policy. Furthermore, Shulman’s argument stems largely from the rule-maker’s perspective (i.e., the EPA) and focuses on public comments to policy makers, which ignores other call-to-actions that are included in mass emails.
Additionally, Karpf responds to Shulman’s critique of mass email campaigns and argues that mass email campaigns do not exist. Rather, email is a tactic that is one part of an entire campaign strategy. Mass emails accompany media advertisements, social media content, public education, in-person protests, all of which can lead to grassroots mobilization. Finally, he contends that flooding decision-makers with comments or overshadowing deeper engagement does not represent how advocacy groups are using this tactic.
Advocacy groups encourage their members to send pre-written letters to government officials, decision-making agencies, and companies, not to ruin the day of the agency official tasked with sifting through all the public comments, but to represent collective outrage and illuminate the importance of the issue, which was accomplished with non-digital communication before the prevalence of the internet.
Additionally, federal agencies are rarely the target of these comments. Karpf found through content analysis that e-petitions were the most frequent request, followed by contacting congress, and local action. Only 5.4% of the call-to-actions included contacting a rule-making agency.
This discussion of online activism between two scholars represents an important debate about the effectiveness of action alerts. Advocacy groups like to claim that reaching their goals is the direct result of collective action. This motivates the members to continue acting and shows policy makers that these groups are not to be taken lightly. However, the question about effectiveness still stands. Do these emails make a difference?
Karpf (2010) provides anecdotal testimony that action alerts are a useful tactic. The responses from members demonstrate member support, enhance a lobbying tactic by exemplifying public support, and become a go-to list for future actions around the issue. The effectiveness of the call-to-actions at changing policy is difficult to measure due to the complexity of campaigns and the numerous working pieces in politics. However, in this dissertation, I strive to determine how effective emails are at gaining the responses they request, which represents a form of environmental activism and may indirectly influence policy.
Defining Types of Environmentally Significant Behavior and Environmental Activism
Contrary to common presumption among researchers, pro-environmental behavior is not a one-size-fits-all term for actions meant to help the environment (Stern, 2000). Rather, environmentally significant behavior encompasses distinguished behavior types that have different antecedents and consequences. Stern (2000) posits that environmentally significant behavior can be “reasonably defined by its impact: the extent to which it changes the availability of materials or energy from the environment or alters the structure and dynamics of ecosystems of the biosphere itself” (p. 408).
He further divides environmentally significant behavior into two types: the first type of behavior directly influences environmental change (e.g., clearing forest or disposing of household waste). The second behavior type is indirectly significant and causes environmental change by “shaping the context in which choices are made that directly cause environmental change” (p. 408). These behaviors tend to affect policy and can have greater impacts than behaviors that directly influence the environment.
Environmental activism is a type of environmentally significant behavior, which is often defined as a function of specific behaviors, such as being part of an environmentalist movement, engaging in political behaviors to address environmental concerns, identifying strongly with a social group, or signing a petition and donating money to a cause (SGuin, Pelletier, & Hunsley, 1998).
Stern (2000) conceptually distinguishes environmental activism from what he terms “nonactivist behaviors in the public sphere,” meaning that there are individuals who do not engage in activist behaviors (e.g., signing petition, joining a march, etc.), but support the goals of the movement (e.g., supporting environmental regulations or willingness to pay higher taxes for environmental protection) (Dietz, Stern, & Guagnano, 1998).
Other types of environmentally significant behavior include private sphere environmentalism, which focuses on the “purchase, use, and disposal of personal and household products that have environmental impact” and behaviors influencing the non-political actions of organizations to which they belong, such as a group of engineers designing products in a more environmentally-friendly way (Stern, 2000, p. 409).
Research suggests that distinguishing between types of environmentally significant behaviors is conceptually and operationally necessary and statistically reliable (Dietz et al., 1998; Stern et al., 1999). Results from a factor analysis determined that private-sector household behaviors (i.e., private sphere environmentalism), environmental activism behaviors (i.e., environmental activism), and willingness to make personal financial sacrifices for environmental goals (i.e., nonactivist behaviors) all loaded on different factors, thus supporting Stern’s position of distinguishing these behaviors.
A large body of research has examined the effectiveness of message design on pro-environmental behaviors, such as reusing a towel in a hotel or recycling, but there are fewer studies that examine environmental activism—behaviors that are not “direct influence behaviors” (e.g., recycling) or “non-activist behaviors” (i.e., supporting movement goals)—as the behavioral ask. This dissertation research provides an opportunity to investigate the influence of various messages on environmental activism (e.g., signing a position, contacting a representative, attending a rally).
Antecedents to Environmental Activism
According to Mohai (1985) determinants of environmental activism include money availability, any kind of expert knowledge (e.g., fundraising, knowledge of law, organizing), or any knowledge that would lead to taking political action.
Additionally, a sense of personal efficacy or belief that one’s actions can contribute to solving the environmental problem, general environmentalist disposition, behavior-specific norms and beliefs, and perceived outcome expectations tend to be necessary antecedents for engaging in environmental activism and other environmentally significant behaviors (Guagnano, Stern, & Dietz, 1995; Mohai, 1985; Stern, 2000). Further, understanding the health risks of environmental issues, such as poor outdoor air quality, is associated with environmental activism (SGuin, Pelletier, & Hunsley, 1998).
Climate change activism, which is a subset of environmental activism, has similar antecedents that have been examined more recently. Normative support, perceived effectiveness of the behavior (i.e., response efficacy), risk perceptions, perceived barriers to action, and injunctive beliefs (i.e., should leaders be doing more to combat climate change) all predict political activism (Fielding, McDonald, & Louis, 2008; Lee, Kim, Kim, & Choi, 2014; Roser-Renouf, Maibach, Leiserowitz, & Zhao, 2014).
There are opportunities for advocacy organizations to craft messages around these beliefs. For example, van der Linden et al. (2015) suggests emphasizing climate change as a personal risk (thus highlighting threat severity and threat susceptibility); leveraging social norms; and using gain-loss frames to present policy solutions to encourage support for climate change policymaking. Additionally, Stenhouse (2015) recommended using threat and efficacy messages to encourage political participation. This current research further examines the role that persuasive messages play in encouraging environmental activism behaviors.
Purpose of Study
In this dissertation, I answer two main questions: 1) what emotional appeals and frames are environmental groups using in their action alerts to their members? and 2) which of these tactics are most effective at eliciting specific behavioral responses? To answer these overarching questions, I conducted complementary studies.
The first study examined the emotional appeals and frames used by environmental organizations in their communication to members, specifically the emails sent through mailing lists. The utility of email communication between environmental groups and members is well-documented (see Kraft, 2001; Hestres, 2017), but there have been few systematic reviews of the types of messages that these organizations use when communicating about environmental issues. Specifically, I collected the action alert emails sent from May 2016 to May 2017 from three environmental advocacy groups in the Washington, D.C., Virginia, and Maryland area.
The names of the organizations were kept anonymous per the agreement with the collaborators. I analyzed these emails for persuasive strategies, specifically frames and emotional appeals, to see which well-documented communication strategies emerged in the data. The second study examined the response rates (i.e., the proportion of recipients who took the requested action out of total emails sent) that corresponded with each action alert. Results showed which message factors were most effective at eliciting the behavioral response (e.g., political participation, financial support).
In the following chapter, I review the evolution of persuasion theory and discuss message design as a critical piece of the persuasion process. Additionally, I review the literature and provide conceptual and operational definitions, hypothesized consequences, and evidence of effectiveness in general and environmental contexts of each frame and emotional appeal included in study 1. Subsequently, I identify gaps in the persuasion literature and provide a rationale for why environmental organizations are appropriate and insightful sources to study.
What is Persuasion?
The concept of persuasion can be traced back to the 4th century B.C., when Aristotle identified the persuasive aspects of source, audience, and words presented (i.e., the message). Those components are still integral parts of the persuasion process, but the definition has become more nuanced over time. Simons (1976), for example, defined persuasion as “human communication designed to influence others by modifying their beliefs, values, or attitudes (p. 21).
Miller (1980) provided a similar definition and referred to persuasive communication as a message that intends to shape, reinforce, or change the response of the receiver. Other scholars highlight persuasion as a communication process in which the communicator seeks to elicit a desired response from his receiver (Perloff, 2003).
Defining persuasion can be troublesome in that the definition may be too broad for some researchers and too narrow for others. In fact, O’Keefe (2016) expressed reluctance to give a concise definition to persuasion due to the inevitable criticism that would follow. Rather, he recognized five common features of persuasion: it is successful, it is intentional, the audience is autonomous, it is achieved through communication, and it involves a change in the mental state of the receiver, which leads to behavior change. According to Hestres (2014), environmental organizations have an engaged audience who already care about the issue and do not need an attitude change.
Thus, it may seem that environmental organizations are incapable of persuasion because a change in mental state may not occur with their specific audience. However, O’Keefe (2016) clarified that oftentimes persuasion goes beyond general attitude change. Sometimes, the focus of persuasion will be on a specific belief about the object or subject. Environmental NGOs may want to target specific beliefs about an environmental problem with an already-concerned audience (e.g., it is a public health issue, it is a moral issue) in order to foster behavior change, rather than focus persuasion efforts on the general attitude about the environmental problem (e.g., it is bad).
Further, O’Keefe (2016) posits that for some behaviors, the key to eliciting a behavioral response might not revolve around attitudes toward the problem, rather it involves changing the audience’s perceived ability to perform the desired behavior. Messages strategies (e.g., efficacy messages) can persuade people that they can act, and their actions will be effective at mitigating the problem or contributing to the group’s success.
Targeting specific beliefs can aid in closing the “value-behavior gap” that exists between pro-environmental attitudes and consistent behavior (Hitchings, Collins, & Day, 2015; Kennedy, Beckley, McFarlane, Nadeau, 2009; Kollmuss & Agyeman, 2010). In other words, people may be concerned about the problem, but they do not behave in a way that is consistent with those values. Levine and Kline (2017) confirmed this pattern when they found that people’s public opinion increased after viewing a positive stimulus, but the performed behavior decreased, compared to the control group.
This inconsistency may be, in part, due to lack of efficacious beliefs, specifically people’s actions may not align with their values because the action seems “too difficult” or that action appears to be “a waste of time” because other individuals are choosing not to adopt recommended behaviors (i.e., behavior) (Ockwell, Whitmarsh, & O’Neill, 2009). Additionally, there are personal and social influences that hinder the direct relationship between environmental concern and behavior (Gifford & Nilsson, 2014).
Generally, barriers to environmentally significant action tend to be structural (e.g., poverty, climate-averse infrastructure), social (e.g., feeling disempowered, perceived inaction by others, norms) and/or psychological (e.g., environmental numbness, emotional regulation) (Gifford & Nilsson, 2014; Kollmuss & Agyeman, 2010: Ockwell, Whtmarsh, & O’Neill, 2009).
But strategic communication can attempt to reduce or even circumvent these barriers, specifically the social barriers. For example, Hart and Feldman (2015) found that certain efficacy messages highlighting the ease at which others were participating in the action resulted in increased internal efficacy, meaning that individuals felt more confident in their abilities to perform the action.
Environmental NGOs—that already have an engaged audience who hold favorable attitudes toward the environment—could focus their communication strategy on public involvement efforts and behavior in order to empower their audience and reiterate that others are participating in the action.
These groups can focus on action mobilization, which is a process that is most focused on action rather than raising awareness and consensus (Klandermans, 1984). Hestres (2014, 2018) corroborated this sentiment and concluded that these organizations may be best positioned to induce political mobilization by already-concerned and motivated audiences. Furthermore, organizations need not focus on general attitude changes, rather they should use persuasive tools (i.e., message framing) to motivate their supporters to act, which can occur through message design.
There are numerous behavioral theoretical frameworks that can inform message design to elicit behavioral responses, such as theory of reasoned action and theory of planned behavior (Ajzen, 1985; Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980). However, I will focus this dissertation on specific message design theoretical frameworks: frames and emotional appeals.
I will focus on traditional message—or news—frames, specifically gain-loss frames and emphasis frames. I also will explore the concept of emotions-as-frames and emotional framing, which considers emotional appeals as a type of message frame. This literature review summarizes well-documented frames and emotional appeals that one would expect to see from environmental groups and reviews their effectiveness at eliciting behaviors related to environmental activism.
In the following section, I will discuss framing theory (Entman, 1993; Tversky & Kahneman, 1981, 1991) and emotional appeals theoretical frameworks (e.g., the extended parallel process model) as they apply to large-scale environmental issues. Additionally, I provide a rationale for why environmental organizations may use these tactics to elicit a behavioral response from their audiences and why this area of study warrants further exploration.
Framing is a popular area of research that spans across numerous disciplines: communication, psychology, sociology, and political science, to name a few. Framing has evolved since its first conceptualization in 1981 from narrow scope (gain vs. loss messages) to a broad scope (emphasis framing) (Entman, 1993). Furthermore, framing literature not only includes message framing, which will be the focus of this dissertation, but also frames in thought, which refer to how individuals perceive an issue (Entman, 1993). The following sections will discuss the evolution of framing theory and how it has been applied to environmental communication.
Conceptual definition. Tversky and Kahneman (1981) first conceptualized framing and developed prospect theory by portraying the favorability of a risk message that emphasizes a gain compared to a message that emphasizes a loss.
In the seminal research, participants would read a paragraph explaining that the United States is preparing for a major disease outbreak. They would decide which program to combat the disease was more favorable. Tversky and Kahneman referred to these alternative programs as decision frames (1981). Although the consequences presented are the exact same, one program presents gain and the other favors loss.
Results showed that individuals tend to find risk-averse solutions more favorable when the consequence is positive (e.g., saving 200 people outright rather than taking the chance everyone could die). On the other hand, when the consequence is negative (e.g., 400 people dying outright or gambling for no deaths), individuals prefer risk-taking solutions that could possibly result in total survival. In sum, gain-loss frames are messages that emphasize the potential gains or losses that stem from action or inaction.
Operational definition. Gain-loss frames are considered equivalency frames that present the same outcome, presented differently. By nature, gain-based frames are messages that emphasize the benefits—or gains—of adopting a behavior. Loss-based frames are messages that emphasize the consequences—or losses—of not adopting a behavior. It is important to note that traditional gain-loss frames in health communication literature appear to differ from climate-related gain-loss frames.
In one study, an example of a gain frame read, “the mitigation of climate change will prevent further significant warming, which is projected to be greater in the winter in the north and greater in the summer in south and central Europe” (Spence & Pidgeon, 2010, pg. 664). Another study conducted by Nabi, Gustafson, and Jenson (2018) used the following gain-frame: “Further, the report concludes that using cleaner sources of energy—such as solar and wind power—would result in improvements to air and water quality, thereby promoting good health and climate stability” (p. 453).
This operationalization deviates from the typical operationalization of gain-loss frames in the health communication literature, which highlights a personal gain or loss for adopting an individual behavior (Rothman & Salovey, 1997). Therefore, the patterns for health behaviors may be different in an environmental context.
In this dissertation, environmental groups are asking members to perform an individual action (e.g., donate money) as well as discussing the overarching goal of solving a large-scale environmental problem (e.g., climate change mitigation), which presents two behaviors. One is the individual behavior, while the other is a collective behavior.
Therefore, it is necessary to determine the appropriate operationalization of gain-loss frames in this context. Given that the goal of this study relies on the performed behavior (e.g., donating money via link), the message will be considered a gain-loss frame only if it articulates that the gain or loss will result from the individual behavioral request. However, gain-loss frames that rely on collective action and lead to collective gain or loss will be coded as a collective gain-loss frame.
Hypothesized consequences. The goal of equivalency frames is to elicit a behavioral response from the receiver. In many cases, this is a personal health behavior that will lead to gain, if adopted, or some loss, if ignored. Previous research states that loss frames work best with behaviors that people perceive as risky, such as going to the doctor to detect an illness, while gain-based frames work best when the behaviors seem low risk, such as preventing an illness through diet and exercise (Rothman & Salovey, 1997; Salovey, Schneider, & Apanovitch, 2002).
Support for this pattern is mixed, so recent research has examined certain moderating factors that can explain under which conditions these types of frames are most effective. Previous research has shown that moderating factors that influence the effectiveness of gain-loss framing are perceived susceptibility of the risk, emotional reactions to the message, and content within the message (Gallagher et al., 2011; Latimer, Salovey & Rothman, 2007; Rothman, et al. 2006).
However, the significant effects of some moderating factors, such as perceived susceptibility was not replicated in a more recent study (Garguilo and Ewoldsen, 2014). In a more in-depth examination of moderating factors, Garguilo and Ewoldsen found that one’s knowledge about a health issue and how severe the issue is expected to be can influence the size of the framing effect (2014).
Effectiveness of gain-loss frames. Studies have shown each frame can be effective at eliciting behavior responses depending on the nature of the behavior. For example, loss-based frames (i.e., consequences of failing to perform a behavior) were more effective than gain-based frames at persuading participants to engage in detection behavior (i.e., cancer screening) (Meyerowitz & Chaiken, 1987; Rothman, Salovey, Antone, Keough, & Martin, 1993). Moreover, gain-based frames can be advantageous when the desired behavior is preventative (e.g., handwashing) (Updegraff, Emanuel, Gallagher, & Steinman, 2011).
Although single studies have shown these effects, there is still no clear-cut pattern based on frame and nature of behavior. However, results from meta-analyses support the findings that gain-based frames may be beneficial in respect to disease prevention, but results are not consistent across topics (Gallagher & Updegraff, 2012; O’Keefe & Jensen, 2008).
Effectiveness of gain-loss frames in an environmental context. Few studies have examined gain-loss framing in terms of environmental activism, but environmental communication scholars have examined their impacts on attitudes and environmental intentions. Lu (2016) found that emotional appeals (hope and sadness) can interact with gain-loss frames to predict information seeking and policy support. Nabi, Gustafson, and Jenson (2018) reported similar findings that emotions (fear and hope) mediated the relationship between gain-loss frames and advocacy behavior.
Additionally, Spence and Pidgeon (2010) determined that gain frames were superior to loss frames in increasing positive attitudes toward climate change mitigation and increasing risk perception. However, it is important to note that the stimulus materials described a potential collective loss and gain that would stem from climate change and climate change mitigation, respectively.
Conceptual definition. Framing as a sociological construct relies less on an equivalence-based frame and more on emphasis frames, which examine how individuals construct meaning. Nisbet’s (2009) definition of framing summarizes emphasis framing well. He describes framing as presenting “certain dimensions of the complex issue with greater apparent relevance” (p. 17).
This type of frame focuses mostly on emphasizing one consideration about an issue, rather than portraying an equivalent gain-loss frame. Additionally, framing attempts to change the weight of a given attitude, rather than the content of an attitude (Chong & Wolinsky-Nahmias, 2005). This conceptual definition of framing addresses the ecological validity concerns associated with gain-loss framing.
In other words, how often will the average individual be exposed to two logically identical solutions and be prompted to choose the most favorable? Rather individuals will probably see an issue presented in a specific way, thus highlighting the “most important” dimension of the issue. This paradigm shift expanded the equivalence-based framing that stemmed from Tversky and Kahneman and is now used frequently in communication research. Research indicates that both conceptualizations and operationalizations of framing have merit and a role to play in persuasion (Vraga et al., 2010).
Operational definition. Emphasis framing is difficult to operationalize because there are infinite issues and frames to employ that are issue specific. Chong and Druckman (2007) posit that “a frame in communication can be defined only in relation to a specific issue, event, or political actor” (p. 106). A frame will be different depending on the issue and time period (e.g., frames used for social security reform look different depending on the administration).
Emphasis frames should be deliberate and clearly draw the receiver’s attention to the issue and its highlighted dimension. Entman (1993) says that “to frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described” (p. 52).
Hypothesized consequences. Typically, research in political science and communication focuses on how frames influence the attitudes and internal frames of the audience. The general term for this is framing effects (Chong & Druckman, 2007). The relationship that framing has on attitudes and behavior is mediated and moderated by several variables. Mediators include availability and accessibility of the frame and motivation to evaluate the frame. Core values, such as ideological leanings or political identities tend to be the clearest moderator of framing effects (Shen & Edwards, 2005).
Effectiveness of emphasis frames. As stated above, the effectiveness of emphasis framing is issue-specific. Studies have examined whether framing is an effective strategy to change attitudes and behavior. Most studies focus on the effectiveness of framing at changing a receiver’s perception about an issue and their overall general beliefs, which often mediates the relationship between framing and behavior change. Fewer studies have examined the effectiveness on behavior change itself, but some research indicates that framing can be a successful tool for behavior change.
Binder, Childers, and Johnson (2015) found that issue framing surrounding funding in California had measurable effects when the issue was less salient (i.e., had less campaign attention). When issues were salient and well-known to the public, framing effects did not influence the actual election. This could be attributed to the audience already exposed to message framing from the campaign or already developing an opinion about the issue.
Effectiveness of emphasis frames in an environmental context. The following section defines well-researched frames in the environmental communication arena and examines their effectiveness at changing attitudes and predicting behavior.
Environmental frame. Environmental frames are used frequently to discuss environmental problems and encourage people to act. Environmental frames are messages that emphasize the negative consequences on the environment, the planet, and/or wildlife that stem from the environmental problem and/or use the benefits to the environment as a reason to adopt a behavior.
Environmental frames can be effective at eliciting emotional responses, such as hope or anger, among individuals who are concerned about climate change (Myers, Nisbet, Maibach, & Leiserowitz, 2012). Other scholarship finds environmental frames, among others, to be ineffective at eliciting attitude change or behavioral response. Attitudes such as, belief in anthropogenic climate change, political ideology, and prior level support for climate change mitigation policy were the only significant predictors of current climate change mitigation support.
Message frames—environmental, national security, or an economic counter frame—did not have any significant effect (Nisbet, Hart, Myers, & Ellithorpe, 2013). Sapiains, Beeton, and Walker (2016) found the messages emphasizing action to protect the planet and wildlife to be the least effective at influencing behavioral intentions, compared to the other four experimental frames (identity, urgent moral action, and economic gain).
Political frame. Although the traditional frame of a climate change is an environmental frame, environmental problems (i.e., climate change) are increasingly viewed as political issues (Myers, Nisbet, Maibach, & Leiserowitz, 2012). Although receivers may consider climate change to be a political issue because of the narrative that surrounds mitigation (i.e., partisan conflict), environmental groups may be less inclined to use messaging that describes climate change as a political issue.
Politically-charged framing or language choices tends to be ineffective at changing attitudes, especially those disengaged with the issue (Benjamin, Por, & Budescu, 2016; Bolsen, Druckman, & Cook, 2014). In fact, leveraging one’s political identity when discussing climate change has no significant effects for liberals and a negative significant effect for conservatives on attitudes toward climate change.
Organizations may discuss various political actors and processes that could help or hinder progress on solving environmental problems, such as a congress person’s voting record or a president’s decision to halt pipeline construction. Mentioning a political official or policy process is inherently political, but not necessarily a political frame for an environmental issue. If this were the case, political frames would always be present in messaging from environmental organizations because political activism is a critical piece of their missions.
Thus, in this dissertation, political frames are messages that explicitly mention environmental problems as political issues or emphasize the reason for acting as a benefit to the political landscape/political official/political party. Boydstun, Gross, Resnik, and Smith (2013) describe political frames as explicit statements that indicate whether a policy issue is good or bad for a political party.
Similar sentiments, such as messages that indicate whether a decision on an environmental issue will be good or bad for a political official, will also be considered. Environmental issues are politicized, especially societal problems such as climate change, which is a partisan topic in the United States (McCright, 2011).
Hence, the inherent political narrative that accompanies environmental messages. For the purposes of this dissertation, the environmental issue as it relates to political parties and/or a political official must be the main and deliberate focus of the message for the strategy to be considered a political frame.
Public health frame. Public health frames are messages that emphasize the harmful health effects of environmental issues, especially climate change and/or climate solutions that are beneficial to health. A public health frame has the potential to provide a relatable, effective, and motivating frame about the risks and effects of climate change (Maibach, Roser-Renouf, & Leiserowitz, 2008).
Weathers and Kendall (2016) found that framing climate change as a public health issue is becoming a common practice in the news media. Although the total number of articles about climate change have decreased since 2007, the proportion of articles discussing the association between climate change and public health impacts increased from 13.9% in 2007 to 27.2% in 2011.
Research indicates that the public health frame, focusing on the health impacts of climate change and the health benefits of mitigation policy, is an effective frame that resonates well with audiences and increases attitudes toward mitigation effectiveness (Maibach, Nisbet, Baldwin, Akerlof, Diao, 2010; McCright, Charters, Dentzman, & Dietz, 2015). Finally, public health frames can bridge the political divide. A study found that that across audiences who believe in climate change and audiences who deny climate change, the public health frame was the most likely to produce emotional reactions consistent with climate change mitigation and adaptation support (Myers et al., 2012).
Economic frames. Economic frames are messages that highlights the financial importance of addressing environmental issues for the sake of the economy or financial gain (Bernauer & McGrath, 2016; Sapiains, Beeton, & Walker, 2016). Economic frames often include mentions of the potential economic gain from transitioning to renewable energy sources but can also be used as a negative frame highlighting the economic cost of mitigation (Nisbet et al., 2013).
Evidence supporting the effectiveness of economic frames in terms of policy support and behavior is mixed. Some research shows that economic frames’ effects on policy support and behavioral intention do not statistically differ from the treatment average (Bernauer & McGrath, 2016).
On the other hand, Spaiains, Beeton, and Walker (2016) found that economic frames were more effective than “traditional climate change communication frames,” which included climate science and a moral call-to-action, when asking about their political participation, indicating that economic frames may be a useful tool to evoke a behavioral response.
Most importantly, there are different schools of thought on whether economic frames are suitable for individuals who are concerned about climate change. Severson and Coleman (2015) found that frames that focus on economic inequity between people may reduce the ideological divide in climate policy support, which supports that economic frames could potentially be effective for concerned audiences.
However, Schwartz et al. (2015) posit that promoting saved money as a reason for action may not have positive effects for people who care about climate change because they may become less motivated. Schwartz et al.’s findings regard enrolling in energy saving programs, which can be distinguished from environmental activism. Therefore, it is plausible that the findings may be different depending on the type of behavior. Although these findings do not offer direct insight into how economic frames influence behavior, but the evidence presented indicates it is a persuasive avenue that is worth exploring.
Energy independence frames. Energy independence frames are messages that emphasize mitigation as a means to free the country from dependence on foreign oil (McCright, Carter, Dentzman, & Dietz, 2016). Energy independence frames can lead to support for the expansion of renewable energy and clean energy policies (Aklin & Urpelainen, 2013; Lockwood, 2011).
Energy independence frames are also tied into national security (i.e., less reliance on foreign oil, more U.S. security) which conceptually should resonate with individuals who deny the importance of climate change. However, empirical studies examined how the national security frame worked among conservative audiences, results were inconsistent and seemed to be counterintuitive.
Findings indicated that framing climate change as a national security issue generated anger among climate change skeptics, rather than hope (Myers et al., 2012). A possible way to combat these undesirable emotions is to connect national security with energy. Ungar (2007) notes that linking security issues and uncertainty regarding energy supplies may be an effective way to “market” climate change gain public adherence.
Aklin and Urpelainen (2013) framed the benefits of clean energy policies as a vehicle to reduce America’s dependence on Middle Eastern oil in comparison to other frames (economic benefits of green energy policies, economic consequences of green energy policies, negative consequences to the coal industry). Each frame was effective in isolation (positive frames resulted in increased support and vice versa), but the survey found limited differences in support across frames when the positive counter frames were present in conjunction with the negative frames.
National security frame. As mentioned above, national security frames describe environmental problems (i.e., climate change) as a threat to national security and describe mitigating or adapting to these problems as beneficial to national security. Climate change is increasingly recognized as a national security issue (Malone, 2013).
In fact, political officials have publicly framed climate change as a national security issue, threatening to aggravate poverty around the world and impede the preparedness of U.S. military and forces (Benac, 2015). Further, combat veterans have portrayed clean energy to improve America’s national security (Aklin & Urpelainen, 2013). Although presenting climate change as a national security threat is recognized as a valid concern, little evidence supports its effectiveness as a persuasive tactic.
National security frames are messages that “highlight risks to U.S. national security and the benefits to national security of adaptation and mitigation-related actions” (Myers, Nisbet, Maibach, & Leiserowitz, 2012).
Research has shown that national security frames have little to no effect on the belief that climate change is human-caused, especially when viewed in conjunction with a human-caused climate change counter frame (McCright, Charters, Dentzman, & Dietz, 2015). However, in the McCright et al. study, respondents exposed to a national security frame did report that policies directed toward reducing GHG emissions—a mitigation tactic—will positively affect the U.S. national security, even in the presence of a counter frame.
Additionally, a study found that national security frames can induce different emotions (i.e., hope and anger) depending on the audience. Individuals who dismissed the existence of climate change reported increased anger when exposed to the national securety frame while individuals who were alarmed about climate change reported greater hope (Myers, Nisbet, Maibach, & Leiserowitz, 2012).
Moral frames. Research shows that moral framing is an effective communication strategy to influence behavior (Roser-Renouf et al., 2016; Wolsko et al., 2016). Moral frames are conceptualized as messages that refer to presenting the moral—most often affecting vulnerable humans—dimensions of an environmental threat and/or presenting a duty to act because of the inherent rightness of doing so (Severson & Coleman, 2015). Emphasizing climate change as a moral issue can help individuals overcome some psychological barriers, such as avoidance of the issue and apathy that individuals may have to accepting climate change (Moser, 2016).
Researchers have examined the effects of moral framing, specifically looking at moral frame effectiveness for individuals with different political identity. Wolsko et al. (2016) found that moral framing influenced conservative audiences’ environmental attitudes and behaviors. When environmental activism is presented as a moral, patriotic issue, there was a positive effect on conservative audiences.
To frame climate change as a moral issue may differ depending on the intended audience. Studies have parsed the “moral” frame and found that morality resonates differently depending on numerous influences, such as psychological traits and political ideology (Haidt & Graham, 2007). This can aid the acceptance of positive information, but also strengthen misinformation. Individuals frequently rely on heuristics—or mental shortcuts—to evaluate information in a way that strengthens and validates their previously-held beliefs. Although a moral frame m