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Monday, February 22, 2010

Thoughts on Framing Climate Change

By Leigh Ewbank. Cross posted from The Real Ewbank

The climate blog It’s Getting Hot in Here featured an excellent post on the framing of climate change at the weekend. Taj Schottland, a senior at the College of the Atlantic, has developed three frames for communicating climate change and associated policies to political conservatives. To appeal to conservative audiences, Schottland recommends:

  1. Replacing the term ‘climate change’ with ‘climate security’ to better explain the ways in which the changing climate adversely affects America’s economic health, national security and prosperity.
  2. Highlighting clean ‘energy advancement’ as a way to avoid the negative connotations associated with reducing emissions and by implication economic growth.
  3. Emphasising the objective of cap-and-trade policies to ‘harness the power of the market.’

Regardless of whether you agree with Schottland’s suggestions, it is encouraging to see that climate advocates are examining the ways in which climate change is framed. And perhaps more importantly, that they are developing new frames to communicate the impacts of the phenomenon to a wider audience. Given that the construction of one capture-all frame is virtually impossible, we need multiple frames to appeal to people across the political spectrum, and build the broad public support needed for government action.

How to frame policy responses effectively is another challenge for climate and renewable energy advocates. Take the Australian Government for example. It frames its climate change policy as a carbon pollution problem and has proposed a cap-and-trade scheme as the appropriate policy response. Unfortunately for the Government, the policy is poorly understood by the public and has failed to gain the support necessary to pass the Australian Senate.

I have presented ‘nation building’ as an alternative way to frame climate and energy policy in Australia.

The idea of nation building is not unique but Australians have a particular admiration for government projects that strengthen the nation. Investment in renewable energy and associated enabling infrastructure are central to our response to climate change and its ability to be framed in terms of nation building is a strategic leverage point. It is capable of winning a greater degree of public support than the complex market mechanism the Rudd Government—and many climate advocates—seek to implement. This approach demonstrates the potential to mitigate and adapt to our changing climate without the phenomenon being the central frame for policy responses.

An American version of the approach is most visible in the work of progressive think tank the Breakthrough Institute, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, and others who present a global ‘clean energy race’ as a national challenge worthy of national attention. This strategic lever is reminiscent of the USA/USSR ‘space race’ of the 1960s. The ‘race’ narrative guides action by drawing attention to the important role of public investment, and America’s ability to develop advanced technologies to overcome the Soviet challenge. The clean energy race appeals to those who want the United States strive towards greatness and have a keen sense of national competitiveness. Engaging in a clean energy race will require the US to invest in deploying clean energy and fully utilise its capacity for innovation.

Of course, the clean energy race is more than just an intelligent narrative. It is a reality. A recent report by the Breakthrough Institute and Information Technology and Innovation Foundation finds that the United States is lagging behind Japan, South Korea and China on several key measures of clean technology competitiveness. The potential for gaining public support and action from Congress is greater with the clean energy race narrative than policies centered on reducing carbon emissions.

Getting the United States to engage in the clean energy race is a win win in terms of climate change. It will ensure the increased innovation and deployment of clean energy, decarbonising our global economy and reducing the price of renewable energy for all.

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