Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Framing Global Warming

Like any tough issue, how you frame the problem can greatly shape the debate. That's what is happening on the anthropogenic global warming issue.

At first it was framed as a scam perpetrated by corrupt scientists exploiting fear to rake in government grants. Then, year after year passed while those with an enormous financial interest in debunking the "junk science" failed to come up with any peer-reviewed science to back their claims. It should have been a piece of cake with hundreds of billions of dollars hanging in the fossil fuel industries balance. When they failed miserably they fell back on the "denial industry", hiring the same outfits that R.J. Reynolds once used with some success to persuade the gullible that there was no link between cigarettes and cancer.

Still, the denial industry has earned its pay by feeding enough skeptics what they wanted to eat. In doing that, they put back any serious effort to curb carbon emissions by several years. Not a total victory for Big Oil and Big Coal but a very handsome return on their investment anyway.

So with the "rearguard" crumbling, the next line of defence is to frame AGW as an economic issue. This is even better for the fossil fuel industry because it gives rise to xenophobic stalemate. Entire nations engage in finger-pointing rhetoric to dodge having to actually slash emissions. There are plenty of moral arguments to go around and, the best thing, they're on significantly differing footings. Our side, the dirtiest and most advantaged, conceal the fact of our gluttonous consumption by recognizing only total emissions. Their side, the less advantaged and vastly more populous, recognize per-capita emissions. On a per capita basis, China puts out a small fraction of our GHG emissions. India? Don't even go there. Both sides have moral justifications that they can use to hide behind and they're doing it.

What everyone seems willing to go to any lengths to avoid is the third way that the global warming issue can be framed. It's the one they fear most and make almost any effort to avoid mentioning. It's the issue that frames anthropogenic global warming as an instrument of suffering, displacement, even death on massive scales suffered not by those who sit back and argue over who has to go first but by the very people who have contributed almost nothing to atmospheric carbon levels.

Do you think these people have the luxury of caring which nations should first cut their greenhouse gas emissions or how to accommodate sustainable economic growth among the developed world or whether emissions should be assessed on a national or a per capita basis?

Once you frame global warming in the context of its true victims, all the moral and economic justifications become empty pretence. In the context of those who suffer and will continue to suffer more and more from our excess, the debate becomes relatively simple: how do we do the right thing by these people; how do we cut greenhouse gas emissions as much as possible as quickly as possible; how do we restore their right to a homeland and peace and even life itself?

There are times when you have to put aside your arsenal of justifications and stand up and do the right thing. Why are we so afraid of that?


ALW said...

I don't understand what you're arguing - are you saying there is no economic cost involved in combatting climate change?

The Mound of Sound said...

No, I'm not saying that at all. Of course there will be economic costs in combatting climate change just as we have reaped great economic benefits in the process of creating AGW. I want you to look past the economic wall to the people for whom these fine points are irrelevant. Look at those who are facing drought, famine, displacement, resource wars, and many other threats yet who gained nothing and contributed nothing in creating AGW. Frame the global warming debate in the context of how many of these people we're going to visit with its consequences and how severe those consequences will be allowed to become. Do you think we have the right to do that?

Phillip Huggan said...

Actually, alw, there are some big economic gains in the short term from some strategies. Google around for B.Clinton's 1998 six part plan (I'd link it but this computer is about to crash). Things like paying low income families for green appliances, building insulation, recoup investment within two or three years (big oil/coal are the main losers and lobby blocks).
Over a period of 1-3 decades, infrastructure/education investments in growing sectors like wind turbine manufacturing facilities (and technicians/engineers) and LEED buildings, recoup construction costs.
Over a multi-generational time-frame, pretty much any green investment doubles the rate of growth of other investments, since all green investments (plz don't count corn ethanol subsidies or fertilizer cost increases) function to keep hundreds of millions to billions of labourers from starving or thirsting to death. Almost as importantly, the reduced terrorist incidence in a green world will prevent nations from over-spending on security.

The Mound of Sound said...

I totally agree, Mr. Huggan. Thanks for the comments.