Enabling change in our Society, Environment and Economy (SEE)

Framing Environmental Issues

October 2013, by Claire Gardner, SEE-Change Intern

The importance of framing in environmental communication

To anyone involved with sustainability and environmental problems, the difficulties of motivating pro-environmental action in others is one of the biggest challenges we face. Sometimes, even motivating ourselves is hard enough.

There are many ideas floating around about how we might ‘make people care’, or act on that care, but how do we know what actually works? Unsurprisingly, there are no clear and easy answers, but there are several psychological theories about why people act in environmentally friendly ways, each with their own empirical support. For this article, we’ll take a look at just one.

Stern’s (2000) value-belief-norm theory provides a framework for linking several factors in a causal chain that together should result in pro-environmental action. These factors, as indicated by the theory’s title, are our values, beliefs and norms relevant to a certain action or problem.

There are three separate clusters of values that can promote environmental concern, and these are egoistic, altruistic and biospheric values.

  • Egoistic values are those concerned with the self, such as your individual welfare, health, lifestyle, future etc: values which we all hold.
  • Altruistic values are those concerned with the welfare of others; children, community, other social groups and humanity in general.
  • Holding biospheric values is believing that nature has some intrinsic value, and is worth protecting for its own sake.

Environmental problems can threaten all of these on some level, and so environmental concern can potentially result from any of these values if one believes that a particular problem will affect the valued object (be it nature, other people or oneself).


Next we come to the importance of beliefs in environmental action; if we believe that what we hold dear is threatened by some environmental problem, then the next step  requiresthat we believe that we have the ability to reduce that threat before we will commit to taking action.

The final factor is one’s pro-environmental personal norms, which can be described as the sense of obligation to take action. These norms may result from individual feelings of responsibility or wider social norms that demand certain standards of behaviour.

Put all together, environmental action will only result when we believe that something we care about is threatened by an environmental problem, we also believe we can do something about it, and we think that we should.

If we accept this theory, we can see why promoting action on environmental issues requires far more than simply informing people of the problem. Their values must also be engaged – why the problem is , and how and why they should help.

What this theory also shows is the potential for huge differences in individuals’ motivations for taking action (or reasons why they don’t). Thus, it is important to know who your audience is, and what they think.

If someone does not care much for animals they will see little value in protecting the habitats of endangered species, especially if it requires action that is demanding and not expected by society at large. Of course, we could get into a debate about what people ‘should’ value, or how we might change their values, but the first is fraught with potential for misunderstandings, and the second just plain difficult.

Whilst value change should not be ignored, there is considerable room to communicate current environmental challenges in ways that engage existing values. For example, buying local produce can be seen as good for local farmers, a healthy alternative to processed food, or a climate friendly, emission reducing activity. To some of us it may be all three, but chances are, one of these reasons will resonate more strongly than other for each individual.

The way that we think about problems, or certain actions, or even ideas in general can be called ‘frames’ in that they draw a boundary between what we consider relevant, or what our mental associations are, and what we don’t include.

The media is particularly good at framing topics in ways to get our attention, but frames run deeper than marketing spin or three word slogans.

All communication is framed – it is the way we achieve shared social meanings and understandings of the world. Frames can be specific to certain contexts, or broader ideological narratives, engage with certain values, social and political ideals, metaphors and emotions.

The level of engagement or motivation that we can hope to attract hinges on the way we frame environmental problems, and requires careful thought.

Extra Reading:

With thanks to our


  • ACT Government Environment and Planning
  • The Association of Independent Schools of the ACT (AISACT)
  • Catholic Education Office (Archdiocese of Canberra and Goulburn)
  • Education and Training Directorate
  • ACT Government