From Science to Justice: What Explains Framing Shifts in Climate Activism?

By Jennifer Hadden

Climate activism seems to be everywhere: from the wheat fields of Nebraska, to the halls of the United Nations, to university campuses all over the world. The massive People’s Climate March in November, 2014 brought more than 300,000 people to the streets of New York. Big events are also being planned for the next UN climate meeting in Paris, along with continued pressure in capitals, universities, cities, and corporations all over the world.

Hadden post, photo1

Source: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque Available at:


In my recent book on international climate activism, I argue that one of the big developments in climate activism has been a shift in the way that activists are framing the climate issue. Social movement scholars Snow and Benford discuss framing as a process of constructing meaning for participants and supporters. In my research, I observe that there has been a noticeable recent shift within the climate movement from a science-based way of framing climate issues to a justice-based framing.

A science-based framing highlights the socio-ecological processes that generate global warming and motivates action as a response to a scientifically demonstrated crisis. The well-known documentary An Inconvenient Truth provides a great example of this approach: in the film and related speaking tour, Al Gore draws on emissions data to demonstrate that the current trajectory is “off the chart” and that action is needed to redress ecological imbalance.

The science-based approach has been the classic way to frame the climate problem, and is still used by many of the heavy-hitters like Greenpeace and WWF. But this approach is not without its detractors. Some activists argue that a scientific framing justifies proposals that elevate urgent action, often at the expense of broader social equity concerns. It is argued that this framing also serves to normalize a technocratic, top-down international regime as a necessary solution, ignoring other kinds of possible solutions and institutional arrangements.

The justice-based approach has broader aims. A framing that focuses on climate justice highlights important equity issues regarding who is affected by climate change and who must bear the costs of mitigation. To take just one example, those associated with the climate justice movement often organize confrontational protest events to draw attention to the stories of those individuals who are currently suffering from climate change related extreme weather events.

These two framing approaches are theoretically compatible. But the tensions between them have generated a huge amount of division within the global climate movement. My book documents how debate over climate justice framing was one of the key wedges driving apart the movement at the time of the 2009 Copenhagen Summit. This ultimately led to the fragmenting of the international climate advocacy network, which I argue had important consequences for outcomes in Copenhagen.

But what were the longer-term consequences of this framing dispute? Drawing on my coding of NGO documents and newsletters from 2005 to 2014, I find that over the long run, the climate justice framing has become the more popular way of discussing the climate issue. Early adopters were already using the term in 2005, but after 2009 the majority of organizations decide to reorient their framing in this direction.

Why did this framing shift occur? I suggest four reasons:

  1. Legitimacy: Early adopters of this approach were often steeped in the politics of the environmental justice movement and the global justice movement. For these actors, a justice-based framing resonated with their pre-existing ideological and political preferences.
  2. Demonstrated Success: The climate justice framing appeared to have some almost immediate success, as my book demonstrates. It was quickly picked up by reporters, who seemed to be attracted to a new angle for reporting on the climate issue. Climate justice language was also adopted by some important state actors, giving it additional legitimacy in the international context.
  3. Increased Engagement: a shift away from a science-based framing corresponds with well-known public polling that demonstrates that focusing on ecological catastrophe is actually de-motivating to potential movement participants. Climate justice framing also represents a way beyond the media’s “climate disaster fatigue” that many cite as a barrier to public engagement.
  4. Movement-Building: adopting the climate justice frame helped the movement grow beyond the environmental community. Framing can trigger identification, helping a movement to make linkages between its issue area and those of movements on other substantive topic. The framing process is one tool to help a movement can become broader and more diverse, which is what I observe in the climate movement. The movement now encompasses indigenous communities, youth, women’s group, anti-war activists, and occupy activists in large numbers.

The convergence of the justice-based framing has helped to unite the climate movement. But will it enhance the ability of the movement to influence climate policy? Here, I offer three notes of caution. First, some activists fear that the climate justice framing may be co-opted as it diffuses, losing some of its original intent and its critical ‘bite’ as it is taken on by more reform-oriented actors with different political orientations.

Second, I’ve argued that climate justice framing may broaden participation of related social movement organizations and activists, but other research suggests that it may not help the movement achieve engagement with individuals outside the activist community. Alberston and Busby’s recent experimental work finds that a moral framing of the climate issue did not increase engagement among respondents; in contrast, an economic framing increased engagement among those with high knowledge. Aklin and Urpelainen’s work goes further in suggesting that the framing process may simply not be a very powerful tool for mobilizing public support on climate.

Third, the climate justice movement is still deeply divided on how to relate to formal political institutions. For those seeking direct influence on the inter-state climate negotiations, for example, the climate justice framing may imply policy positions that take them very far away from the political realities of current inter-state politics. This could potentially contribute to their marginalization in this context, prompting a move to the ‘outside’ of the negotiations.

But this may or may not be a problem for the movement’s effectiveness: policy change is not the exclusive or immediate goal for many climate activists. As one organizer explained to me, the struggle for many groups like is to create broader normative contestation; “to make coal the new cigarettes.” Many activists in this community believe that only profound normative change will be enough to transform both individual attitudes and government policies on climate protection.

This may well be sound strategy. But creating broad-based social change takes a lot of time, which is a pretty big concern when it comes to climate change. The big question now is whether this social transformation will outpace or lag behind the ecological transformations already occurring in our rapidly warming world.



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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Global Climate Movement

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