In between science and decision: A study of policy frames and the global climate discourse

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science


Stuart J. Thorson


Science, Policy frames, Global climate

Subject Categories

Political Science | Social and Behavioral Sciences


Conflicts over environmental decisions--decisions related to how space and accompanying biological forms and physical resources are utilized, regulated, preserved or conserved--often reveal deep discord among the policy frames constructed by issue stakeholders. Such discord poses particularly challenging obstacles to policy making when the issue under debate is new, without familiar clues for understanding, complex, with many clues to be taken into account, contradictory, with different elements suggesting different courses of action, or rich in cross-cultural and cross-sectoral interactions. Under these conditions the policy discourse can become an intractable struggle over subjective ideas, beliefs, and perspectives, each of which--absent agreed upon objective criteria for issue interpretation--seems to have as much validity as the next. Research on policy frame discordance provides important insights about the nature of intractable policy conflicts and may reveal pathways for consensus building.

The research presented in this study characterizes and compares composite policy frames held by a cross-section of elites as they talk about the issue of global climate change. Participants were interviewed using Q Methodology supplemented with informal interviews. Q Methodology, often described as the "scientific study of subjectivity," involves researchers presenting individuals with a range of belief-statements about social issues and asking them to sort these statements according to their personal belief system. Composite factors emerging from the comparison of how all individuals sort each statement, coupled with interview results, are then interpreted, compared, and expounded upon by the researcher.

Data from this study indicates that there are at least three policy frames that characterize the global climate discourse at one particular point in time: Transcendentalists, Policy Activists, and Cautious Incrementalists. Each of these frames reveals a unique way of understanding, explaining, and responding to climate change. Moreover, discordance among frames appears to contribute to dissensual policy conflict by allowing different stakeholders to enter the debate at different intellectual locations, by diversifying the way that key terms and concepts are understood, and by expanding the goals and decision-making methods favored by issue stakeholders. The prospects for enhancing issue tractability through issue reframing within facilitated dialogue groups is addressed and advocated.


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