The global warming deniers seem to be winning the war to save the earth from a fiery extinction. It’s hard to fathom why when the arguments against them seem so logical, arguments like those so cogently presented here by my friend Ron Boothe. The earth truly is becoming warmer overall. The polar ice caps and the major glaciers of the world are melting at an alarming rate. The sea level is rising even faster than predicted. Climate all over the earth is being significantly affected. And a major contributor to the problem is our continued production and use of fossil fuels. These are incontrovertible and proven facts. Furthermore, recent polls show that a significant majority of the American public believe them to be true. Why, then, can’t something be done about it?
One reason is that, for decades, the conservative politicians and pundits have been controlling the public discussion of this issue and many others-education, health care, foreign policy, the market, voting rights, taxation, government spending, etc. That’s because they have developed great skill at framing the issues. They’ve convinced us the war powers act applies to the ‘war on terror’ even though ‘terror’ is not an army, it’s an emotion and cannot be defeated on the battlefield. The solution to so-called ‘failing schools’ is touted as competition, union busting and punishment. They continue to extol the benefits of a ‘free market economy’ despite the reality that none of it’s basic tenets are true. And the list goes on.
It would be a mistake to label global warming deniers as merely stupid or stubborn, unable or unwilling to see the ‘truth that would make them free’. From our vantage point it may certainly seem that is the case, but we must at least consider the possibility that they are operating in a sane and logical manner, one that fits nicely into their value system and their world view. If that is true, then, as progressives, we need to find ways to reframe the conversation so that it reflects our values and principles. Not so much for the purpose of changing the minds of hard core conservatives, but to turn the heads of those who are conservative on some issues and progressive on others. That’s the view of cognitive scientist and professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, George Lakoff.
For more than 50 years Lakoff has been studying and writing on linguistics, syntax, metaphors and metaphorical models, framing, argumentation, brain science, and the conceptual frameworks that follow from them. For the past fifteen or so, he has focused more on politics, trying to understand and describe the differences between conservative thinking and progressive thinking. In one of his first book length works in this area, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, (University of Chicago Press, 1996, 2002) he uses the family metaphor to explain those differences. He labels conservatives as belonging in what he calls the ‘strict father’ metaphor and liberals (progressives) in the ‘nurturant parent’ metaphor, fully recognizing the limitations involved in the metaphor naming process.
Descriptions of these metaphors are found in all of his subsequent books, three of which I highly recommend: The All New Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014), Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006), and The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide To Your Brain and Its Politics (Penguin Books, 2008).
Lakoff’s major point is that, whenever we attempt to negate a conservative frame, we inadvertently strengthen it. Whenever we urge someone to not think of an elephant, it’s impossible for them not to think of whatever an elephant means to them. Each time a person does that, their concept of an elephant becomes clearer and more detailed, strengthened. That’s logical, after all. That is precisely what we do when we are trying to memorize a speech, a poem or a piece of music. We repeatedly call up its ‘frame’ until we are able to automatically repeat what we wish to memorize. So, arguing our point while using the other side’s frame is like shooting ourselves in the foot.
In terms of the global warming issue, our real goal is to reduce drastically the production and use of fossil fuels, thereby slowing and eventually stopping the rate of warming we now experience. Someone who denies man’s role in global warming will not be convinced that reducing CO2 emissions will have any effect whatsoever. Even those who might admit that global warming is an actual phenomenon. Another frame needs to be employed. Lakoff suggests an eternal energy frame. Wind, sun and bio-fuels are never going away. Fossil fuels will. Fossil fuels are dirty, so is nuclear energy. Wind, sun and bio-fuels are clean, no disposal sights need be developed to get rid of the waste. Or to clean up the messes current mining and transportation routinely create. Also, why should taxpayers have to pay for that clean up? That ought to be a cost of doing business at the very least. A conservation frame could also be developed. Lots more could be included in our efforts to wean our and the rest of the world off fossil fuels.
But getting those ideas into the public debate will take time and effort. Time and effort by lots of people. We can begin by including them in our conversations with each other, discussions with our families and friends, with letters to the editor of local newspapers, short articles and comments on blogs-this one and Pierce Progressives could be a good start. Some words to use can be found in another of Lakoff’s books, The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking (Free Press, 2012). See Chapter 18. But, as Lakoff has said, we better hurry. We don’t have much time.