Rethinking the Health Frame: Values and the EPA’s Climate Change Regulations

As part of a recent weekly address, President Obama announced the EPA’s new draft regulations on carbon emissions. In that address, he adopted the frame du jour in climate change circles, concentrating on the health threats posed by climate change and emphasizing their gravity — what we call the “health frame.” The president spotlighted the health impacts of “carbon pollution,” arguing that the sources of carbon emissions threaten the health of Americans and that, in their first year alone, the new regulations would help avoid “up to 100,000 asthma attacks and 2,100 heart attacks.”

The president’s adoption of the health frame constitutes a logical appeal to public engagement but, as FrameWorks’ research shows, on its own, this frame will do little to convince the public of climate change’s existence, seriousness, and the viability of solutions available to us.

The health frame’s current popularity stems from the plausible intuition that helping the public understand that climate change affects people, not just polar bears, will motivate them to take the issue more seriously. And the frame can be effective if it is used the right way. The problem with simply describing the health impacts of climate change and playing up their seriousness is that, while this may convince the public that climate change is a big problem, it also triggers the public’s sense of fatalism — that the problem is so serious that there is little that can be done to fix it.

With a small tweak, the president’s message could have been much more effective. The health frame’s power to motivate can be effectively harnessed if the discussion of health impacts is embedded within an effective values frame. As FrameWorks’ research shows, the value of Protection  — emphasizing the need to shield people from harm and reducing risk by protecting habitats — enables communicators to circumvent the fatalism trap by orienting people toward collective action. In this way, Protection prompts people to treat needed policies as actionable steps that can make a difference. When Protection is coupled with basic information about health impacts, the result is a highly effective message that not only convinces people that there’s a real problem but also generates support for needed policy measures.

In short, when it’s used along with Protection to emphasize solutions, the health frame works.  Left to its own devices, the health frame does little to advance robust policy thinking.

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