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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Igniting a Clean Energy Economy and Winning the Frame Game: Tackling Costs Head-on

Green hard hatCross-posted from the Breakthrough Blog...

As the Senate opens up debate on the Climate Security Act today, one thing is clear: proponents of climate solutions face a simple, compelling and potentially powerful populist message from the opposition. It goes a little like this…

Capping greenhouse gas emissions will hurt Americans, American families, the American economy, America, etc.

As supporters of the Climate Security Act call on Congress to “Act Now!” to tackle climate change, the corporatist, fossil fuel-lovin’ right-wing of the Republican party has a ready response: doing something will do far more harm than good. Regulating emissions will raise energy prices at a time of economic uncertainty, hurt American families (especially the poor), and export jobs overseas. In short, it will cripple the American economy.

In response, proponents of climate action hold up cost containment provisions in the bill (which only concede the economy-threatening potential of the climate bill!), make half-hearted appeals to break our dependence on “foreign oil” (as if that was the bill’s primary motivation) and use the still vague language and imagery of “green jobs” to point at the economic development potential of a clean energy revolution. However, as David Roberts of Grist points out, “the positive case for climate action has no powerful elevator speech.” And it certainly doesn’t have one powerful enough to counter the opposition’s appeal to economic fears centered on the issue of costs.

As Roberts writes, advocates of climate solutions need a powerful counter-message. WE need a message as simple and effective as the opposition’s, one that tackles the cost issue head-on.

Roberts offers this message as our elevator pitch: “cutting emissions will rescue American families.
Right now our economy is lashed to a sinking ship, the USS Fossil. The price of fossil fuels is rising (yes, that includes coal). For reasons that are structural and unlikely to change, gasoline, heating oil, and coal electricity are going to get more and more expensive for the foreseeable future. Worse, prices are going to be volatile and unpredictable.

Unless we want to go down with the ship, we need to start building an ark. By freeing us from fossil fuels, climate legislation is designed to avoid a future of high and volatile prices. …That's the simple message: fossil fuels and their patrons are a threat to American families. … It's the fossil lobby vs. American families. A future of rising prices and sordid geopolitical entanglements vs. a future of stable energy sources, vibrant domestic industries, and healthy American people. ... Fear vs. courage.

Roberts is right. We desperately need a powerful counter-message, an inspiring rationale for climate action that tackles the issue of energy costs head-on. Until we get one, we’ll lose the frame game to Do Nothing Delayers and Drill and Kill Republicans.

He’s almost right in the message too. Almost, I say, because rather than try to put capping carbon, or even “cutting emissions” at the center of our message, we should go straight to the solutions. We should have a simple and powerful message that puts igniting a clean energy revolution at its heart.

Cutting emissions is part of the message, but it’s just a part. It’s critical, but it doesn’t have to be at the center of our frame. In fact, as long as we put emissions reductions at the center, any message that addresses costs and economic concerns will be secondary, an outgrowth or add-on, a corollary (if powerful) co-benefit.

Igniting a new clean energy economy freed from our addiction to fossil fuels and recharged by investments in energy efficient technologies and renewable energy is a much better counter to the opposition’s focus on costs and economic risks than a continued focus on emissions reductions. The emissions reductions are a corollary (if powerful) co-benefit here, not the center of the frame. (This shift goes beyond just messaging too, of course, and affects the content of the policy proposals in subtle but critical ways as well…)

In short, right-wingers and fossil fuel barons say climate action will cripple the American economy. Our response so far has been, “maybe, but it’ll be worth it.”

Instead we need to say:
No! YOU would have us cripple the American economy, keeping it shackled by an ever more costly and increasingly devastating addiction to fossil fuels.

WE will ignite a clean energy revolution that frees America from expensive and volatile energy costs, shatters our dependence on fossil fuels, and builds a more prosperous and sustainable future.

For example, when James Inhofe says, “Any [climate] action has to provide real protections for the American economy and jobs, and we must protect the American families,” (as he did today in the New York Times) we can say:
Igniting a clean energy economy and breaking our dependence on fossil fuels IS how we provide real protections for the American economy and jobs. It IS how we protect American families.

The Drill and Kill energy “solutions” proposed by Republicans like James Inhofe and Newt Gingrich, in contrast, condemns Americans and America to a cycle of ever increasing fossil fuel costs and the deepening consequences of our addiction to oil, coal and natural gas. That is the great threat to the American economy.

The REAL solution to soaring energy costs is to ignite a clean energy economy powerful enough to end our addiction to fossil fuels, re-ignite America’s economy, solve the climate crisis and build a more sustainable, just, and prosperous future.


Anonymous said...

As energy costs continue to increase, it is becoming more critical for the world to transition to an alternative fueling infrastructure. Just as financial advisors recommend that people should diversify a financial portfolio, as a society, we should explore and develop a range of energy alternatives including wind, solar, hydro, and other alternatives – all can be used to produce hydrogen, an alternative fuel being explored globally. Hydrogen carries the promise to guide us away from depending on imported fuel, while simultaneously improving our environment by reducing greenhouse gases.

A few weeks ago, posted a survey a few weeks ago asking readers if hydrogen was a viable solution. If these results reflect the sentiment of the nation, recognizing the survey is not scientific, then for us to meet our own expectations, as a nation, we must come together by stressing to our government and business leaders to support the development of an alternative energy infrastructure. This will allow for hydrogen to be produced from water using renewable resources and improve the overall effectiveness of renewable energy. In the meantime, we must also use the resources we have available to establish a hydrogen infrastructure. As a representative of the Hydrogen Education Foundation, I am helping people to understand that both a hydrogen and renewable energy infrastructure can grow side by side paving the way to a sustainable energy future.

To learn more about the benefits of hydrogen, we invite everyone to please visit

WattHead said...

Miguel, thanks for your comment. I certainly agree that we need to make major investments in a new energy infrastructure across the board. To kick our fossil fuel addiction, we'll need to tackle coal and natural gas in electricity generation, petroleum for transportation and natural gas for home heating. We certainly need an alternative fueling infrastructure for transportation.

However, I'm not convinced hydrogen has a major role to play in our energy future. The laws of chemistry and thermodynamics simply aren't on Hydrogen's side. Especially not when we have an existing, ubiquitous energy transmission infrastructure in place: the electricity grid. Based on my research, our most promising alternative transportation options involve the electrification of transport (i.e. plug-in hybrids and electric rail) and sustainably harvested cellulosic biofuels for the remaining liquid fuel needs.