Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Framewatch: George W. Bush and climate change

With last week’s big speech on climate change, President Bush stuck to his gambit of trying to put off adopting meaningful targets or pursuing effective strategies until another day. Maybe that should be, until another administration.

It was also a handy case study of how the political right and the sceptics try to frame climate change. Framing, you will recall, is about giving people a way to think about politics, through a model or structure or question so that they see the political choices in your terms.

President Bush’s way of framing climate change can be traced back to a 2002 memo from the pollster Frank Luntz called "The Environment: A Cleaner, Safer, Healthier America”. Mr Luntz warned that the Republicans were “getting killed” on green issues. He showed President Bush and his allies how to block action and sidetrack debate on climate policies:

"The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science...Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate . . . "

Luntz suggested that President Bush should abandon the phrase "global warming" in favour of "climate change” on the basis that it is “less frightening”. “While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge,” the memo said. The president seems to have followed the advice.

Luntz also advised the president to use phrases such as "common sense” and to avoid pro-business arguments wherever possible.

In 2006, Frank Luntz recanted, saying that he now accepted the scientific consensus on global warming and had changed his position. Luntz was clear that he didn’t feel responsible for what the US government was doing with his advice.

President Bush’s speech from last week has now been deconstructed by Andrew Revkin and bloggers on Dot Earth. They highlight the contradictions between the president’s rhetoric and his record.

As for framing, President Bush keeps calling climate change an “issue” rather than a “problem” or a “challenge”. He frequently uses words like “rational”, “balanced” and “strong” to describe his policies.

I noted how Bush’s frame sets up a false choice around possible solutions to climate change. The main one is higher energy bills and reduced prosperity versus investing in low emission technologies.

Surely, no one supports policies that would cause big jumps in power prices, especially not now. Climate change should not be a Trojan horse for protectionist policies. But Bush’s frame collapses under the weight of the Stern Report, which showed that the economic costs of inaction exceed the costs of action to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. There are many cost-effective energy technologies that can currently be used to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, many pre-commercial technologies can be brought to the marketplace in the near future (with the right policies) to further reduce emissions cost effectively.

The key is carbon pricing. But the Bush administration still won’t back a cap and trade system, the only carbon pricing on offer in the US right now. There’s no proof that great economic damage would result from bringing in cap and trade. The IMF has suggested that the right mix of carbon cutting policies would not necessarily harm the world economy.

Likewise, energy efficiency doesn’t fit into Bush’s frame. Yet the McKinsey Global Institute showed in 2006 how the growth rate of worldwide energy consumption could be cut by more than half over the next 15 years through more aggressive energy-efficiency efforts by households and industry. The energy savings, the report said, can be achieved with current technology and would deliver savings for consumers and companies. The potential savings have been estimated at billions of dollars.

Last year, a McKinsey report studied 250 carbon abatement options and found that a mix of tested approaches and emerging technologies could deliver significant carbon savings at low cost; the costs would be lower an the savings higher if there were big gains from energy efficiency. Nearly half of the options studied could be delivered at “negative cost” and most of those delivered increased energy efficiency in households and buildings. The report also stressed the need for fast, sustained, economy-wide action.

In short, the right soutions for climate change can also help to grow the economy. (Check out the green feature in Time magazine this week)

Now, what was that about “rational” policies and “balanced” solutions?

I think it’s time to reclaim the frame.

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