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Eric Knight: Why Do Politicians Break Promises About Tackling Climate Change?

October 12, 2012

The problem may not be their lack of integrity, but how we frame the issue.

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Image from Flickr via Joel Abroad

By Eric Knight
By arrangement with On the Commons.

In 2007, an Australian prime ministerial candidate told the electorate that climate change was the greatest moral, social and economic challenge of our generation. Within four years of being prime minister, Kevin Rudd had not only dropped his government’s carbon-pricing policy for political reasons, he had also lost the leadership of his own party, making him one of the few prime ministers in Australia’s history to suffer that fate.

How do we make big decisions in a world that has a short attention span? When it comes to complex social challenges such as climate change, it is common to hear politicians invoke the language of moral crusade. Politics is presented as a battle between good and bad, moral and immoral, self-interested and altruistic. I want to suggest that, for many complex problems, it is not morality that gets in the way of decision-making; it is communication. We all want a better future for our children and grandchildren. The challenge is agreeing on the tools we use to get there.

This struck me in a conversation I had in mid-2010 with Kumi Naidoo, the international executive director of Greenpeace, on a train from Oxford to London. By any account, Naidoo is an impressive individual. He grew up on the rough side of Durban, South Africa, in the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1980s, he won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford to study politics, and afterwards returned to his homeland to fight apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and then to lift his countrymen from poverty.

By framing the climate-change debate as a contest between belief and scepticism, we called on people to make a false choice.

There is much to admire in Naidoo’s personal story. But as I spoke to him about the politics of climate change, I could not help but disagree with him. For Naidoo, persuading people of his point of view on climate change was all about images. It was about showing pictures of, and telling stories about, how climate change was affecting people. It meant showing the sinking islands of the Pacific and the droughts of Africa. One effective example, he told me, was a picture he had seen of the dry weather in Australia. As he had passed through London’s Heathrow airport, he had seen, on the front page of a major daily newspaper, an image of a fish lying dead in Australia’s Murray Darling River. The headline read: “Is Australia the first country to suffer from climate change?” Just that visual, Naidoo said, was more powerful than the words in the article.

It’s Not As Obvious as Today’s Weather

Showing dramatic pictures of the weather is a compelling way to frame the debate, but it is also the wrong one. If you held the opposite view to Naidoo on climate change, you would also turn to the weather to make your point. As President Barack Obama flew out of Copenhagen after the international Climate Change Conference in December 2009, he flew into a snowstorm – both literally and figuratively – on the east coast of the US. At the time, Obama was proposing the creation of a federal agency on climate change. Yet it seemed absurd to make the case for global warming at a time of incredible cold. The weather was why some people were skeptical about climate change. By applying the wrong frame of reference, we set out on the path to failure.

Fighting climate change through the optic of the weather is tactically appealing for one obvious reason. The weather is visible, whereas carbon emissions are invisible.

Invisibility tends to be a common theme among today’s complex social problems. Because they are intangible that we struggle to get people to pay attention to them. Take immigration. It is easy to see foreigners. But to identify at first glance whether they have entered the country legally or whether they are net contributors to society is, frankly, impossible. Finance is the same. Hard currency represents only a fraction of the money flowing around the world. It is the invisible flows of capital that have the power to bankrupt nations.

In the 1940s, the cognitive psychologist Karl Duncker described our tendency towards “functional fixedness”. We are drawn to what is immediately obvious and visually compelling. As a result, we often miss the quieter logic of things. This was not a comment about human rationality: we make perfectly rational decisions, but within a blinkered or narrow frame of reference. Our ability to solve complex problems is more closely correlated with the way information was presented to us than with our underlying intelligence.

The answers that will define our prosperity are not necessarily global or averaged; they are local and specific. They are the solutions that work with a particular set of individuals given their histories and contexts.

Herbert A Simon, the 1978 Nobel Laureate, described this phenomenon as “bounded rationality”. His work informed the research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who would later define a field of research in behavioural economics. But this work was usually geared towards economics rather than politics. Rarely did these researchers ask questions about how public-policy debates played out in the collective conscience, even when the implications were significant. What happens when you substituted bankers for voters, and purchasing decisions for the fate of the globe?

Asking the Wrong Questions

Returning to the case of climate change, I believe we have misframed this issue in two ways. The first involves the question: is climate change a problem worth worrying about? Early on, this question was framed as a choice between believers and sceptics. Al Gore captured the world’s attention in 2006 when he set out the scientific evidence for climate change in An Inconvenient Truth. Those who disagreed made the opposite case. But both sides were guilty of the same mistake: they called on the public to make a scientific decision when too few of us had the qualifications needed to make a reasoned judgement. The relevant question was always authority rather than science. Whom should we choose to believe, when we ourselves lack the relevant expertise? By framing the climate-change debate as a contest between belief and scepticism, we called on people to make a false choice.

The debate has been further complicated by misframing a second question. Assuming that climate change warrants our attention, what should we do about it? This issue is too often presented as a choice between environmental protection and economic growth: you could save the planet or you could consume endlessly, but you could not do both.

This second dilemma involved a conceit about consumption. Imagine a world in which people fly endlessly around the world, drive enormous cars and eat doughnuts all day. If each of those activities were carbon-neutral, none would make a spot of different to climate change, yet we would still have a problem with them. Gluttony is an age-old dilemma, but addressing climate change has more to do with the carbon intensity of production than it does with consumption. Technology is the invisible key.

Sustainable development expert Tim Jackson’s analysis of our technological trajectory, which builds on the work of biologist Paul Ehrlich, paints a gloomy picture of the future. Over the past two decades, the carbon intensity of every dollar of global GDP consumed has only improved by about 0.7 percent annually. Assuming that the world’s population swells to nine billion and our incomes grow beyond the global average of $5,900 a year, it will be the planet that suffers. Technological innovation is “nothing short of delusion”, Jackson writes in Prosperity Without Growth. “There is as yet no credible, socially just, ecologically sustainable scenario for continually growing incomes for a world of nine billion people.”

But Jackson’s analysis is mistaken for a single reason: he studies the global citizen, when no such thing exists. The world is not made up of average global citizens. It is made up of people who live in smoggy, industrialising China, or remote, rural Africa, or technologically progressive Europe. When you study the statistics of the International Energy Agency by nation rather than by average, a different picture emerges. The developed world has undergone a technological renaissance, with per capita carbon emissions in decline, while parts of the developing world continue to pull themselves out of poverty. The question is not about whether we can progress technologically; it is about whether we can deploy the technological innovations of the developed world in the developing one.

Jackson’s error goes to a deeper and highly counterintuitive point about the solutions to complex social problems in an era of globalisation. The answers that will define our prosperity are not necessarily global or averaged; they are local and specific. They are the solutions that work with a particular set of individuals given their histories and contexts. Some commentators find this view disconcerting because it lacks the certainty of a single, universal idea. That is also, however, what makes it closer to reality. Our future will be defined by leaders who can communicate a common vision but who have the skills to decentralise the execution of that vision. Only by animating local communities to reach their potential will we unleash a way to innovate in fragmented world.

How the Commons Can Reframe the Debate

In 1990, the late political scientist Elinor Ostrom set out in her book Governing the Commons an intriguing and controversial argument about how the world worked. Contrary to popular imagination, tragedies of the commons could be solved. “Many analysts – especially in academia, special-interest groups, governments and the press – still presume that common-pool problems are all dilemmas in which participants themselves cannot avoid producing suboptimal results,” Ostrom wrote.

Her view was that complex problems could be solved when communication was free, vision was shared, trust was high and communities were mobilised from the bottom up rather than the top down. It was not an ideological position; it was an empirical one, borne out by case studies originating in places ranging from remote fisheries in Turkey to fragile ecosystems in the Swiss Alps.

This perspective challenges conventional thinking about our prospects for a better world. It injects modesty into singular, universal notions about progress and places faith in people, with their ears to the ground, coming up with our best answers. We are already beginning to see the emergence of creative solutions to climate change, ranging from the invention of the Ambient Orb –-a consumer-electronics device that changes colour as the price of electricity increases—to the pre-industrial lifestyles emerging in New York’s inner-city boroughs and, more broadly, a bottom-up approach to international climate negotiations.

What sits behind each of these solutions is a belief in transferring power to the people. We have the capacity to solve our trickiest problems and, in some cases, are already doing so. But we need leaders who can help us to apply the right perspective to the world around us and focus our minds on answers that sometimes lie just out of view.

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