Has Pope Francis Changed the Framing of Climate Change Discourse Online?

Sunday, February 14, 2016
April Eichmeier, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI
Scientific and political frames have dominated the discourse on climate change. But now a moral, values-based frame is has emerged more than previously. Though long a concern of grassroots organizations and other, lower-profile religious authorities (e.g. E.O. Wilson, Rick Warren), Pope Francis has made climate change a central tenet of his papacy. With his Encyclical and recent visit to the United States, some say he has injected a discussion of moral values into the mainstream, public conversation about climate change, where others have been less effective outside their close adherents. Our objective in this study is to explore whether, and to what extent, the morality and ethics frame has become a higher proportion of discourse relative to other frames. To gauge whether the moral frame is becoming a higher proportion of discourse, we choose to analyze a census of Twitter posts (tweets). Applying Nisbet’s typology of frames applicable to climate change, we used computational linguistic software to analyze a census of tweets related to Pope Francis and climate change; collection of the tweets started shortly before the encyclical was released in June 2015. Twitter is an ideal medium for analysis in that it permits researchers to study immediate discourse among an audience that has the ability to interact in real-time with virtually anyone worldwide and researchers have successfully analyzed opinion about a variety of scientific issues on this particular social media platform. Furthermore, Twitter offers a unique perspective in that it contents are spontaneous and unsolicited, facilitating an examination of how audiences discuss climate change in an unmanipulated environment. Results showed a high volume of tweets regarding Pope Francis and climate change, with clear elevated levels of activity around the encyclical and the Pope Francis’s visit to the United States. The Pope was a frequently mentioned topic in climate-related tweets during the time period of analysis. Current analysis leads us to suspect that the moral and ethics frame online spikes in discourse around events, then levels off as time passes. Whether or not this new frame will be sustained has important implications for climate change debate and action.