Have we been talking about climate in the wrong way?

The climate conversation is stuck.

In almost every Western country, climate change has become a battle between the left and the right. Stop to think about that for a second. But as Russell Kirk said, nothing is more conservative than conservation. It doesn’t make logical sense that conservation of our standard of living in the face of climate change has become an issue that is so polarised along political lines.

Person-to-person vs. nation-to-nation discourse

We recognise that the person-to-person discourse needs to change, but we haven’t made attempts to shift the discourse at the level of nations.

We’ve seen two movements trying to change the person-to-person discourse, one each emerging from the left and the right. There’s the divestment movement, spearheaded by Bill McKibben, that calls for us to all wash our hands financially of oil companies. Then there’s Bob Inglis, as card-carrying of a Republican as you can get, advocating free-market solutions to climate.

But at the level of nations, we’re stuck.

The problematic discourse of emissions reductions

The only solution to climate change we’re discussing now is cutting emissions. The current climate discourse is a discourse of constraint and of frugality. Unappealing, and ineffective.

I heard an interview with Professor Steve Rayner of Harvard who noted that if we had decided to talk about climate change in a different way, we could have made larger strides towards mitigating climate change than we have now.

The largest lesson I took away from his podcast is that our climate discourse is taking place within a certain framework out of many possible frameworks. It’s like your doctor telling you to eat more veggies and offering only steamed cabbage as the possible solution. The current framework isn’t working.

Ever since Kyoto, the focus of international treaties has been of emissions reductions targets. In Paris, the goal is to “build a tangible, credible action plan, along with clear targets”. In Canada, the prime ministerial candidates attack each other for whether they plan to cut emissions down to Kyoto targets, and by when.

Why the emissions reductions framework is a problem

Professor Steve Rayner has a good point – climate change has become an avenue for us to pursue specific political preferences. More explicitly put, the only solutions for climate change discussed now are those that the left would embrace and the right would not.

On a world scale, we have China hesitant about its sovereignty. No, China says, we don’t want you to come in and scrutinise us and how we do things and tell us what we can and cannot do. Understandable. Try spending a day with your mother looking over your shoulder and tsk-tsking. In the States, the Republicans have voted down every(?) climate bill, even a bill on symbolic language just acknowledging climate change [link].

Canada’s not all that much better. The amount of respect the left has for the right is barely enough to fill a balloon.

Why the only solution on the table now is emission reductions

The most valuable aspect of Professor Rayner’s excellent lecture and podcast on the Guardian’s Science Weekly stream is the focus on how the climate discourse has been formed and how that format is stalling the conversation.

There were three frameworks we followed:

  1. The ozone regime: But this regime didn’t address the amount of emissions, but change in production technology
  2. US sulphur trading: Enormously successful. But they were dealing with a small number of traders, with one single regulatory regime, just sulphur. There’s a huge number of greenhouse gases, more than just CO2.
  3. Strategic weapons reduction treaties: Mutually verifiable stage reductions. But China hates this, and culturally, that makes sense. Canada would dislike it as well. Same as the states. Again, imagine your mother looking over your shoulder.

Yes, these seemed like viable and natural sources of inspiration for dealing with climate change. But they’re not. And now we’re locked in a discourse of frugality.

Don’t call it “cutting”. Call it “modernising”.

Professor Rayner had a good point. We don’t have to all agree on why we do something. That doesn’t matter. We just have to agree to do it.

So instead of cutting emissions, let’s modernise our energy technology.

That has a better ring to it, doesn’t it? Now climate change is no longer a discourse of constraint but one of improvement. Modernising technology makes me think that my standard of living is going up. Cutting emissions? That makes me furrow my brow.

It can appeal to a whole range of parties with different interests. A firm Conservative who believes strongly in the free market? The market is instrumental to innovation. A social justice advocate? Alleviating poverty and reducing environmental degradation requires reliable sources of energy. For firmly sovereign states – “we don’t want anyone telling us what to do” states – having independent, reliable sources of energy is a key priority.

That sounds a lot better than doubling down, cutting emissions, increasing government regulations, and holding each other accountable.

Re-read the previous paragraph again. My response is to sigh in resignation. It sure may be unnecessary, but it will be unpleasant. It’s a discourse that smells of limitation and looks almost suspiciously tailored to the concerns of the left.

What should our new framework be?

Here is, perhaps, the most important thing to remember:

  • We don’t have to focus on reducing emissions in order to reduce emissions.
  • There has to be elements in the framework that different parties can value.

There are a couple of options. Professor Rayner’s suggestion is modernising technology. For agriculture, we could talk about investing in long-term methods that would ensure continued yield. For finance, we could talk about the security of investments.

Here’s the meat of it: our current discourse is not working and we’re not stuck with it. Let’s find another way of dealing with the issue.