The Divide Between Science and Narrative in Climate Change Policy

Climate change has been a national policy issue for nearly 30 years. Despite a longstanding consensus among scientists on the urgency of climate change, there has been little effective movement towards curbing greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Narratives have been at the forefront of climate debates. In her chapter on Climate Change in The Environmental Case, Judith Layzer writes; “Both sides launched all-out public relations campaigns, well aware that whoever succeeded in authoritatively defining the problem was likely to dictate the solution” (392). This quotation highlights the important role narratives have played in climate change policy. Both those who would like regulation and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and those who sought continuation of the status-quo used story narratives to make their cases. These story narratives utilized morals and emphasis framing. The following paper will examine how story narratives were used by both proponents of greenhouse gas regulation and opponents of greenhouse gas regulation by first detailing how both groups utilized morals and then by examining emphasis frames used by both groups.

The initial narrative used by proponents of regulating greenhouse gases was not very compelling. Layzer writes; “The villains were ordinary Americans, with their wasteful lifestyles; the victims, at least in the short run, were small island nations; and the effects appeared to be at least a generation away – hardly an imminent crisis” (392). The moral of this narrative is declining and, since the audience is presumably the villain, it is unlikely to elicit sympathy. Later parts of Layzer’s chapter mention a cap and trade program for greenhouse gas emissions proposed by the Obama administration. Since the cap and trade policy places the burden for reducing emissions on businesses, it is likely that there was re-framing of the narrative which had focused on individual emissions to a narrative which focused on corporate emissions. Re-framing the villains from individuals to corporations makes for a more compelling narrative; however, if done to a great degree the shift could relieve individuals of responsibility for their own carbon emissions.

Those who opposed regulations of greenhouse gas emissions made environmentalists the villains in their story about climate change. Layzer writes; “Some skeptics accused environmentalists of using science to achieve political ends – scaremongering to promote radical solutions to a problem for whose existence there was little evidence” (394). This quotation positions environmentalists as villains and gives the story of climate change a neutral moral by denying that there is any problem to solve. Layzer notes that environmentalists were also villainized in a narrative which claimed, “Warnings about climate change were part of a larger, coordinated effort to ‘establish international controls over industrial processes and business operations’” (394). This narrative includes a declining moral since the supposed autonomy of businesses is taken away. The declining moral contrasts with the climate change denial narrative’s neutral moral. Narratives which villainized environmentalists and had declining or neutral morals were used to argue against regulating greenhouse gas emissions.

Those who opposed regulating greenhouse gas emissions relied on emphasis frames to make their arguments. Opponents of greenhouse gas emission regulations emphasized the uncertainty of climate change science. This emphasis frame was bolstered by a multimillion-dollar campaign to undermine the scientific consensus on climate change (399). Opponents promoted the minority of climate scientists who were skeptical of climate change which increased the credibility of their denial argument (393). Emphasizing the uncertainty of climate science complements a story which frames environmentalists as villains and contributes to a neutral moral regarding the progression of climate change.

Those who sought to regulate carbon emissions emphasized the effects of climate change on individual cities and communities (407). This emphasis frame worked to turn what had been conceptualized as a global problem into a local problem. This emphasis frame likely affected local policy. For example, Layzer notes that many states have plans to limit greenhouse gas emissions and that many cities have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, an international plan to limit greenhouse gas emissions (408). While it is unknown how much emphasizing climate change as a local problem contributed to policy, this frame makes the issue of climate change more salient to Americans.

Narratives and framing have played a critical role in national policy debates over greenhouse gas emissions. Narratives and framing remain paramount even as research continues to illuminate the wide-ranging effects of climate change. Layzer notes that the salience of climate change as a political issue needs to increase to see action on climate change. However, without a change in narrative from either side of this debate, there is unlikely to be an increase in the salience of this 30-year-old policy issue.



Layzer, Judith A. 2016. The Environmental Case: Translating Values into Policy. Fourth edition. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, CQ Press.

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