Social Math for Climate Change: Young People Have Never Experienced a Colder than Average Month

With Hurricane Sandy slowing fading from the media’s limited attention span, it is time for advocates to “widen the lens” and tell a more persistent and compelling story about the effects of climate change. One way to do this is to use social math. has a great social math example  based on the latest weather data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  The original data from NOAA states:

“The average temperature across land and ocean surfaces during October was 14.63°C (58.23°F). This is 0.63°C (1.13°F) above the 20th century average and ties with 2008 as the fifth warmest October on record. The record warmest October occurred in 2003 and the record coldest October occurred in 1912. This is the 332nd consecutive month with an above-average temperature.”

To contextualize this data so that the public has a better idea of what this actually means, Grist writes:

“If you were born in or after April 1985, if you are right now 27 years old or younger, you have never lived through a month that was colder than average.”

Social math involves making numerical information more meaningful for the public. It is about making concrete comparisons of information to familiar concepts. succeeds in communicating the temporal trends in warming by comparing this data to the age of a young adult.

Where the rest of the article falls short, however, is in using social math as part of a well-framed story. If you simply contextualize data without also integrating other framing elements, such as values, metaphors, and solutions, then it is likely that the public may feel apathetic or helpless in regards to what that data means for them. The rest of the article compares the effects of hurricanes to droughts and concludes by saying:

“There’s not much else to say. At this point, we’re just doctors taking a fading pulse. Or, I suppose, tracking a rising fever.”

Wow. Talk about depressing.

At FrameWorks, we are working with informal science educators at zoos and aquariums throughout the country to help them better communicate climate science through framing. When translating science data into social math, we recommend:

1- using values to help the public understand why this information is important,

2- making concrete comparisons of information to familiar concepts, and

2- enabling the public to understand the broader impact of the information and consider appropriate solutions.

So, while we do think using this example of comparing weather changes over time to the life span of a young person is good, we would propose that the rest of the story include:

1- tested values of responsible management (e.g. “We know we need to responsibly manage the hurricane and drought effects of climate change),

2- a tested metaphor of “heat-trapping blanket” to connect causes (fossil fuel consumption) to warming trends, and

3- linking the story to solutions that match the scale of the problem (clean technology, renewable energy, and energy conservation).

When joined with tested framing elements, social math has the power to connect meaningless data into meaningful impact. And, in this example that links time to effects, it has the power to turn an episodic story about one storm into a story that is about the long-term future of our society.



How to Connect Extreme Weather to Climate Change? Use Social Math

“No longer is global warming an abstract concept, affecting faraway species, distant lands or generations far in the future. Instead, climate change becomes personal.

Its hand can be seen in the corn crop of a Maryland farmer ruined when soaring temperatures shut down pollination or the $13 billion in damage in Nashville, with the Grand Ole Opry flooded and sodden homes reeking of rot.”

– Scientific American, June 2011

Americans now recognize that extreme weather patterns are the new norm. The latest report from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication finds that:

  •    “82 percent of Americans report that they personally  experienced one or more types of extreme weather or a natural disaster in the past year;
  •  35 percent of all Americans report that they were personally harmed either a great deal or a moderate amount by one or more of these extreme weather events in the past year; and
  • Over the past several years, Americans say the weather in the U.S. has been getting worse – rather than better – by a margin of over 2 to 1 (52% vs. 22%).”

How can climate advocates link extreme weather changes back to climate change? Rather than simply report stats about the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events (as scientists are prone to do), advocates can use the strategy of social math to better communicate the scale and impact of these trends.

Social math involves making numerical information more meaningful for the public. We do this by:

1- using values to help the public understand why this information is important,

2- making concrete comparisons of information to familiar concepts, and

2- enabling the public to understand the broader impact of the information and consider appropriate solutions.

Let’s look at an example to understand how social math works. Consider the following unframed statement:

“In 2011, Americans experienced a record-breaking 14 weather and climate disasters that each caused $1 billion or more in damages, in total costing approximately $53 billion.”

This statement includes abstract figures that make it difficult to understand the scale of economic impact. How much is $53 billion? Compared to what? What is the value of this information? Why should the public care?

One way we can improve this statement is to compare the amount of money spent on repairing weather-related damages to the amount of money spent on clean energy solutions. Clean energy projects, which include investments in renewable energy, are known to reduce the carbon emitted in the atmosphere. This translates into less weather and climate disruptions from carbon’s “heat-trapping blanket effect.

When looked at from this perspective, we can invoke the “pay now or pay later value” to encourage citizens to support funding for clean energy projects as part of our country’s goal to be prosperous in the future. Instead of spending money to repair costly extreme weather-related damages in the future, we can invest our country’s money in solutions today that are more cost-effective in the long run.

Using the “pay now or pay later” value and social math, let’s reframe this statement to draw a relationship between money spent on clean energy solutions and money spent on weather-related damages. Here’s a potential reframe:

In 2011, Americans experienced record-breaking weather and climate disasters that cost our country approximately $53 billion. That is more than eight times what our government spent on financing clean energy projects in the same year. We can either pay now or pay later to address climate change. It is our duty to responsibly manage our country’s financial resources wisely. An important way we can do this is by investing in clean energy projects today that can benefit us all in the future.”

What other unframed stats have you come across in regards to extreme weather and climate change? Leave your examples below in the comments section with your ideas on how best to reframe them with values and social math.





Translating Facts into Meaning: Infographics Gone Wrong

Communicating the “facts” doesn’t always have to be in writing. Infographics can be a great way to visually apply social math to real world situations. By placing the less familiar aspects of an issue within a recognizable context, we can greatly enhance public understanding of important social issues.

Sometimes, however, the message gets lost in the medium.

Take a look at this infographic called, “Pooponomics.” It was designed by Mint (an online money management system) to communicate the connection between economic spending and human waste. Continue reading

Social Math-ing the Tax Cuts

From the New York Times 12/5/10. (click on the image to open a larger version in another tab)

Thanks to our colleague Wendy Frosh for passing this along to us this week.

As I perused the list, what struck me is how easy to think some of these analogies are, but how difficult some others are.

$60 Billion is equal to providing free college for all students enrolled full time currently? Or universal pre-K for all 3-4 year olds? Those two examples are likely to bring the figure home for many Americans. Both pre-K and college also implicitly tie the figure to a value – preparing children and youth, our country’s future.

But equating $60 billion to a 15% reduction in corporate income tax? Well, I don’t know how much that is to begin with, so that’s hard for me to wrap my head around.

There are other framing implications, as well. I imagine the intention of this list was to show a diversity of items that we could otherwise buy with that sum – but it struck me to see paying for college juxtaposed against a reduction in the corporate income tax. It certainly gets one thinking!

I wonder if any of our fellow framers have ideas for meaningful comparisons? Or if you noticed any other framing issues in this little fiscal fact sheet?

Reading for Social Math

Here are three great examples of social math from a casual Sunday’s read in my local paper, the September 26, 2010 edition of the Washington Post.

Example #1: Economic Inequality

For two generations after World War II, a blue-collar man could support his family; buy a house, car and washing machine; and send his kids to good public schools.  The typical blue-collar household in 1973 was more than twice as well off as the equivalent household 25 years later.  (Joan C. Williams, “Learn to bridge the class divide,” B5)

Why is this good social math?  If tied to an assertion that US fiscal policies are undermining its values (think American Dream), this brings it home in a way that gets out of the them vs. us trope of the rich vs. the poor and, instead, shows the impact on the average Joe.  Note that we don’t have to learn how much the house, car and washing machine cost – which would have muddled this message. We just get the take away number: more than twice as much, 25 years later.  A causal chain that placed economic policies in the middle of the equation would have made this even better.

Example #2: Conservatives Attack Spending

They say a billion seconds ago, my parents were children, a billion minutes ago, Jesus was alive, a billion hours ago was the Stone Age, but a billion dollars ago, at the rate the federal government is spending, was six minutes ago.  (Rand Paul quoted in Perry Bacon, “In Kentucky race, a strategic divide,” A3.)

Why is this good social math?  Because it is designed to amplify the largeness of the debt and to subtly infuse it with the conclusion that this is immoral (see Jesus) and retrograde (see Stone Age).  It makes these points under the ruse of a kind of historical allusion, instead of a rhetorical accusation.

Example #3:  Emphasizing Impact

In a story about the cells secretly removed from a dying woman in 1951 and their transformative impact on medical science…

Laid end to end, (Henrietta Lacks’ cells) would circle the earth three times. ..and their combined weight is an estimated 50 million metric cells.”(Darryl Fears, “Unsung hero of modern medicine hailed,” A6.)

Why is this good social math?  Cells are tiny. We know that.  The fact that they could circle the earth three times – huge!  Subtly, this gets us over the reality that this woman had a medical procedure for which she did not give approval.  Oh well, it seems to signal to us, consider the impact!  Issues of science are especially ripe for social math, as people struggle to consider exactly how important or impactful a particular finding might be.

Can’t wait to see what next Sunday’s paper washes up on shore….Are you seeing good and bad examples in your local papers, online and in broadcast media? Can you share your harvest with your fellow FrameWorkers?