By Michael Shank


Researchers and practitioners in the field of conflict analysis and resolution have realized the important contribution environmental conflict plays in the ever-evolving field of conflict theory and conflict practice. Simultaneously, conflict researchers trained in positioning theory, identity theory, discourse and narrative analysis, are similarly exploring new ground in the field of communicative practice – and what this means for conflict practitioners now venturing into the fields of media and policy – in order to analyze how parties and stakeholders to a conflict will position and reposition their identities via publicly-stated frames and narratives.

This research is rooted in conflict theory and positioned at the nexus of all three theoretical frontiers: environmental conflict and communicative practice as manifested in media and policy spheres.

This research examines the intractability of one particular environmental conflict, that of climate change, and explores how intractable positions and frames have been employed between the parties and stakeholders to the conflict, leading to greater intractability and an inability of the conflict stakeholders to ultimately address and resolve the environmental conflict at hand.

This research seeks to understand why one party to the conflict – the public and its role in the civil sphere – has been involved in analyzing, and consequently believing in, the existence of this environmental conflict but absent from the conflict resolution process. This research also seeks to understand why two other key stakeholders – Mainstream Media and Members of the US Congress – similarly believe in the existence of climate change but fail to act on that belief and work to resolve this environmental conflict.

Using conflict theory contributions from studies in communicative action, structuration theory and the dialectic of control, among others, this research explores the severed linkages between stakeholders’ attitudinal positions vis-à-vis environmental conflict and stakeholders’ behavioral trends vis-à-vis environmental conflict.

The research concludes by suggesting policy prescriptions for stakeholders to reposition the environmental conflict in a way that meets the underlying needs of the stakeholders involved, while building a bridge between the attitudinal and behavioral gaps that currently exist.

This qualitative research effort is based on interviews with key informants in Media and among Members of the US Congress who have participated in and been responsible for shaping and positioning environmental conflict narratives on climate change in the public and civil sphere. Additionally, the research effort employs content analysis of data on public opinion, media reporting and congressional legislation and website content.

The main research questions stemming from the original dissertation proposal are these: What are the positions motivating Congressional and Media engagement on this issue? What new narratives will enable increased Congressional and Media stakeholder engagement? What is required for these new narratives to emerge?

In the conflict analysis and resolution field, there is scant literature addressing this nexus of environmental conflict, media and policy. Most of the literature comes more recently from the field of environmental sociology and emerges primarily within the last twenty to thirty years. This research, consequently, adds new data to the ever-emerging field of environmental conflict analysis and conflict resolution and adds to existing conflict research on the importance of positions, frames and narratives in enabling stakeholders to engage in conflict management, transformation and resolution. It does so by addressing the power brokers shaping these climate-related conflict narratives, positioning this environmental conflict in the civil sphere, and highlighting the role and responsibility of the elite informants and the public in utilizing these conflict narratives.

This research, in sum, finds a disparity between climate attitudes and climate behavior. For all three stakeholders –the public, the Media, and Members of the US Congress – the attitude and belief in anthropogenic climate change is quite strong, while behavior consistent with this belief, whether personally or professionally, is quite weak. This disparity, however, is not as pervasive when analyzing other security threats on par with climate change, like terrorism. Theoretical analysis of this discrepancy, within civil, economic and political spheres, illuminates possible cause for why the belief-behavior gap exists and what new positions and frames are necessary to close this gap.

Climate Conflict Positions and Frames Motivating Stakeholder Engagement