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Climate change as catastrophe or opportunity? Climate change framing and implications for water and climate governance in a drought-prone region


Given recent events in US climate policy, such as the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, understanding local (e.g., city and state) efforts to address climate change is increasingly imperative. Climate change–framing research has shown that people are motivated or deterred by different framing of issues in policy documents and other discourse. Considering this, there is a dearth of understanding of framing decisions in climate change–related policy documents that often inform how different levels of government communicate about and act to address climate change. We contribute a content analysis of framing in climate change–related policy documents tied to three western US cities/states (Phoenix, AZ; Denver, CO; Las Vegas, NV) that are particularly vulnerable to climate change. We discover that climate change is most frequently framed in terms of negatives/losses, both in water-related and climate change documents. Other common frames differed between the water-related and climate change–specific documents. The practical implications of climate change framing decisions are discussed in the context of recent political events in the United States. We emphasize the significance of understanding how local level actors frame climate change, as researchers and government officials have acknowledged the burden of responding to climate change progressively falls to local actors. We call for increased research on framing decisions and their connections to the perceived solution space, or suite of possible actions, to strengthen efforts by local actors to contribute to addressing climate change generally and to sustainably govern water resources specifically.

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This material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant SES-1462086, Decision Making Under Uncertainty: Decision Center for a Desert City III: Transformational Solutions for Urban Water Sustainability Transitions in the Colorado River Basin and the Environmental Resilience Institute, funded by Indiana University’s Prepared for Environmental Change grand challenge initiative.

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Correspondence to Abigail Sullivan.

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Sullivan, A., White, D.D. Climate change as catastrophe or opportunity? Climate change framing and implications for water and climate governance in a drought-prone region. J Environ Stud Sci 10, 1–11 (2020).

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  • Environmental governance
  • Cities
  • Urban
  • Discourse
  • Content analysis
  • Climate change