A sign with the words 'one world' and a painting of the earth.
(Photo: Markus Spiske / Unsplash)

Have you ever asked yourself why opinions about climate change diverge so much? Why nobody simply tells us the scientific truth? It seems that everybody has different truths.

Without even being aware of it, our opinion is often influenced by frames. A frame is the way in which facts are presented. It highlights an aspect that is important to us. By using abstractions and metaphors, frames connect to what we already know or believe. They therefore have the potential to play an important role in the acceptance of climate change and new technologies to reach climate goals.

Gerdien de Vries is assistant professor at TU Delft and an expert on the use of frames related to Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). She explains that frames are a useful tool to explain complicated matters. Frames can provide the necessary information to help people critically weigh up risks and benefits.  “Frames often have a certain intention or angle and highlight economic or environmental values. I think people need to know that framing exists.”

‘People need to know that framing exists’

The benefits and drawbacks of capturing and storing carbon from burned fossil fuels have been discussed for years. Climate agreements and short term goals have put CCS back on the political agenda.

With her background in psychology, Gerdien de Vries has published works on important psychological mechanisms that could explain the emergence of opposing attitudes. “People often develop opposing attitudes towards sustainable technology because they don’t accept what is communicated, by whom and how it is communicated.” If frames are too positive or unbalanced, they may persuade people in the short term, but in the long term, people may become suspicious.

This is especially so when the parties that are expected to give balanced information, such as governments or scientists, only highlight one side of the story. The public then perceives manipulation and believes that certain information is being withheld. While oil companies or populist politicians are suspected of spreading information that is beneficial for their own goals, governments and scientists are expected to provide neutral information.

To scientists and policy makers in north-west Europe, CCS seems a highly promising technology. They celebrate the benefits of ‘clean coal technology’. However, residents of areas where pilot projects are planned are highly concerned. Even though researchers claim CCS to be safe, opponents are afraid of leaks, calling CO2 Klimagiftgas (climate poison). Greenpeace claims that CCS is only a short term solution, comparing it to the storage of nuclear waste (Endlager).

Trust and Biases

Trust towards a certain technology or institution is broken easily. Restoring that trust is significantly more difficult because people are more receptive to negative information. An interesting example of saying the same thing in different ways is given in a publication by Mathew White. If people are categorically told that something is ‘bad’, they tend to believe it more quickly than if they are told that it is ‘less good’.

Research has shown that people are more sceptic on information that claims that something is not beneficial. People tend to rather believe frames that say something is really bad. On the other hand, people rather do not believe that something is truly beneficial. They prefer to believe that something is not harmful and therefore trust sources that use this frame.

However, while it seems contradictory, if people are categorically told that something is ‘good’, they are more sceptical and tend to believe it sooner if they were told that it is ‘not harmful’.

People tend to stick to their existing beliefs. Wouter Poortinga, Professor of Environmental Psychology at Cardiff University, found that people do not believe empirical evidence that contradicts their existing worldview, while people feel that information that is in line with their beliefs, confirms their view. Gerdien de Vries confirms that frames might be socially beneficial and encourage people to process facts related to their worldviews critically.

‘ I think you need to use frames to connect to peoples’ minds’

Making audiences aware of the effects of frames might decrease emotional opposition and enable the constructive processing of information. Frames can be perceived as manipulative. When carefully addressing existing worldviews openly and in a balanced way, frames might stimulate people to consider facts critically. This might increase the acceptance of novel sustainable technologies.

About fifteen Science Communication master students take the subject Science Journalism at TU Delft every year. One of their assignments is to write a feature article on their original field of expertise. Vera de Jong is one of them. She combines her Complex System Engineering Master at the Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management with Science Communication to gain insights into the acceptability of the energy transition and sustainable technologies. She attended the journalism course last year and wrote this article. Delta asked her to publish it here on the Delta Lab to encourage this year’s students to do the same. So keep an eye out for their articles With many thanks to InterSECtion, the study association of the master study Science Education and Communication.