Climate Change as a National Security Issue: Examining Framing Effects Across Party

Published date01 March 2022
Date01 March 2022
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2022, Vol. 50(2) 199212
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X211053213
Climate Change as a National Security Issue:
Examining Framing Effects Across Party
Jason Gainous
and Melissa K. Merry
Research suggests that framing climate change as a national security issue can shape opinion about climate change. This research
is less clear about what exactly constitutes a national security frameand what aspects of this frame are most persuasive. We
use a survey experiment to compare the relative effects of three types of national security frames we identify. Results sho w that
a frame centered on energy dependence had the strongest effect and was the most consistent across partisanship. Surprisingly,
the effects ran in the opposite direction for Democrats and Republicans on both outcomesnegative for Democrats and
positive for Republicans. We also show that the energy dependence frame moderated the inf‌luence of respondentsaffect
toward political candidates and parties on their climate change attitudes. The results suggest that the energy dependence frame
can shape public opinion, but that it must be tailored to particular audiences to avoid backf‌ire effects.
framing, national security, climate change, global warming, communication
As the inevitability and dire consequences of climate change
become increasingly clear, policy action to address the
problem lags behind. According to a 2019 United Nations
report, greenhouse gas emissions reached a record high in
2018, and current measures will be insuff‌icient to prevent
global average temperatures from rising more than 2-degrees
Celsius (the upper limit of what is considered a safelevel of
warming) (Dennis, 2019). Scholars of public opinion have
identif‌ied numerous impediments to action, not least of which
is low salience (van der Linden et al., 2015). In particular, few
Americans pay close attention to news about climate change
(Funk & Kennedy, 2016), and the public consistently ranks
climate change as a lower priority than most other policy
issues (Brulle et al., 2012). Another major political hurdle in
the United States is the increasing ideological divide between
Democrats and Republicans, with polls indicating that
Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to worry
about climate change and to believe that it is a result of human
activity (Brenan & Saad, 2018;Pew 2018). This polarization
is largely attributable to the fact that citizens rely on cues from
political elites (who are also deeply divided on the issue)
(Quealy, 2017;Tesler 2018).
In the effort to overcome both low salience and political
polarization, scholars have devoted much of their attention to
framing, or the use oflanguage to highlight particular features
of climate changeforexample, its causes, consequences, and
related solutions (see Nisbet, 2009). Drawing from a vast
literature demonstrating that framing can inf‌luence public
opinion and behavior (see Chong & Druckman, 2007), social
scientists have soughtwith mixed successto uncover
framing strategies that could yield similar results for climate
change policy. In this study, we investigate one frame that
previous researchhas identif‌ied as a promising avenueto reach
political conservatives: a focus on the national security im-
plications of climatechange. This frames persuasive poten tial
derives from thefact that it aligns with conservative valuesand
policy priorities (Lucas, 2018;Wolsko et al., 2016). While
numerous framing studies have tested the impact of national
security framing on publicopinion (see, for example, Aklin &
Urpelainen, 2013;Bernauer & McGrath, 2016;Myers et al.,
2012;Wolsko et al., 2016), this line of research has yielded
inconsistent and, some would say, disappointing results.
Rather than dismissing the frame, we argue that past re-
search has been hampered a lack of precision in the def‌inition
of the national security frame. To address this, we separated
the frame into three distinct themesthat is, global insta-
bility, localized threats, and energy securityand used a
survey experiment to examine the degree to which these
Division of Social Science, Duke Kunshan University, Kunshan, China
Department of Political Science, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY, USA
Corresponding Author:
Jason Gainous, Division of Social Science, Duke Kunshan University, No. 8
Duke Avenue, Kunshan, Jiangsu 215316, China.

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