Positively Resilient? How Framing Local Action Affects Public Opinion

By Sara Meerow (Arizona State University) and Fabian Neuner (Arizona State University)

Cities face a variety of hazards, from rising temperatures, to increasingly intense storms, to sea-level rise. Addressing these challenges will require local governments to enact ambitious plans and policies. Historically, such efforts have been framed in terms of sustainability, adaptation, or reducing vulnerability. More recently, resilience has become the buzzword. For example, many cities, such as Boston and Miami, have developed resilience plans and high-profile funding initiatives have purported to build resilience.

Why resilience? When explaining the growing popularity of resilience, scholars and policymakers have often argued that it provides a more appealing frame and that resilience has a more positive connotation than alternative terms. This matters because public support for policies and plans are critical for them to succeed. If policymakers want to increase public support, they need to frame environmental actions using terms that resonate with constituents. However, despite claims that resilience is more appealing, empirical evidence is lacking.

Our study set out to, first, test whether framing policies around resilience as opposed to sustainability, adaptation, or vulnerability would indeed increase support for such policies and whether people would perceive these efforts as more important. Second, we were interested in how the public perceives these terms.

We conducted three survey experiments where some respondents were randomly assigned to read a statement about efforts to make their city more resilient, while others were randomly assigned to read the same text but using the wording ‘more sustainable’, ‘more adaptive’, or ‘less vulnerable’. We then asked respondents how supportive they were of these efforts, how important they thought they were, and how they conceptualized the term. Because we randomly assigned respondents to the experimental conditions, we were able to test whether the terms used significantly affected attitudes and interpretations.

While our results showed that framing did matter, we surprisingly did not find any support for the hypothesis that resilience is a more attractive frame. If anything people were more supportive of actions framed around sustainability. Moreover, there was no significant difference in perceived positivity between resilience, sustainability, and adaptation. The variation in definitions for the four terms provided by respondents suggested that people associate them with different things. Thus, in our second survey we took the terms that most differentiated the different frames and asked respondents which words they associated with their assigned frame. We found that sustainability was more associated with pro-environmental actions, such as renewable energy and recycling, whereas resilience was more associated with disasters, vulnerability with crime and security, and adaptation with change more broadly, such as technological innovations.

These different associations made us wonder: perhaps sustainability is a more appealing frame because of its association with the environment? We tested this in another survey, randomly assigning people to the same prompts as before while further randomly varying whether the prompt explicitly mentioned the environment.

When the question prompt did not mention the environment we saw the same difference in responses between the “sustainable” and “resilient” conditions, with respondents being more supportive when the term “sustainable” was used. However, when the prompt explicitly mentioned the environment, this difference disappeared and there was no significant difference in support for the measure between the “resilience” and “sustainable” conditions. These results suggest that the increased support for sustainability stems from its association with pro-environmental policies. Thus, if climate and environmental action is going to be framed around resilience, this association needs to be made clearer to the public.

The fact that the public does not necessarily associate resilience with environmental actions might actually provide an opportunity for some policymakers in constituencies where environmentalism and sustainability are politicized. While we focused on the U.S. public perceptions, resilience may still be valuable to decision-makers as a concept that bridges different sectors and disciplines.

Read the UAR article here.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Author Biographies

Sara Meerow is an assistant professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University. Her work, at the intersection of urban planning and geography, focuses on urban resilience, climate change adaptation, and green infrastructure planning.

Fabian Neuner is an assistant professor in the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University. His research focuses on political psychology and political communication.