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Obama changes the conversation on climate change

Barack Obama is framing the need to act on carbon pollution as being about human health — preventing asthma, heart attacks etc. Might that work here?

When cutting carbon emissions is sold as a way to avoid flooding in Bangladesh, it may not interest Australians. But what if it were sold as a way of preventing your child from getting asthma?

United States President Barack Obama announced a new climate plan this week. He didn’t opt for the usual climate change backdrop — a wind farm, perhaps an area hit by a heatwave or flood. Instead, he was here:

Hi everybody, I’m here at Children’s National Medical Centre in Washington DC, visiting with some kids being treated here all the time for asthma and other breathing problems. Often these illnesses are aggravated by air pollution, pollution from the same sources that release carbon and contribute to climate change.”

Obama didn’t even mention “climate change” for the first 46 words. He framed the issue as being about cleaning the air we breathe to protect the public’s health — particularly children, the elderly, and people with heart or lung problems.

In case you missed the message, Obama has a separate video meeting kids with asthma. “Malia [his daughter] has a little bit of asthma,” he confides in them. The President then speaks to medical centre staff: “We’re using this as a backdrop to highlight that there are also health effects to climate change that have to be attended to.” The staff nod.

This messaging experiment could prove interesting for Australia, where efforts to “sell” the need for action on climate change to the public have struggled.

Here, the goal of cutting carbon emissions has mostly been framed by politicians and green groups as based on the need to curtail global temperature increases. The time frames and effects often seem distant: temperature rises by 2100, effects on Himalayan glaciers. The jargon is baffling — mitigation, adaptation, parts per million.

The result: a politician who promised to remove carbon pricing and limit ambition to reduce emissions won the 2013 election at a canter. Tony Abbott is now poised to scrap just about every climate/renewable energy scheme there is. The CSIRO last year found that more than 50% of Australians do not think human-induced climate change is real. In a poll out today, the Lowy Institute found 45% of people think global warming is a “serious and pressing problem,” down from 68% in 2006.

So could the Obama messaging experiment work here? One side of carbon pollution — i.e. carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases — is that it traps the earth’s heat, leading to global warming. But there is another, more immediate impact. These pollutants accumulate in the air we breathe and cause health problems. It’s an old-fashioned idea of pollution — smoke stacks pump out particles and gases that make people sick.

A Standford study found CO2 emissions cause deaths, respiratory illnesses and asthma. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says particulate emissions from coal-fired power stations — call it “black carbon” — is associated with premature death and respiratory and cardiovascular problems.

So if coal-fired power stations are creating pollution that’s hurting people’s health, it makes sense to restrict pollution from these power stations. It’s a simple message and one people can relate to themselves and their families.

It’s not a tack much tried in Australia, as academic Rosemary Lyster points out in The Conversation, although some scientific research has been done on the subject.

Crikey did a sweep of the websites of groups lobbying to reduce carbon pollution and found immediate health effects of that pollution are not emphasised.

The Australian Greens focus on climate change, clean energy and a “safe climate”.

The Climate Institute focuses on tackling entrenched fossil fuel interests and technological opportunities in clean energy (there is a link to a report that looks at health impacts).

Greenpeace emphasises coal mining, renewable energy and the Great Barrier Reef, plus a dated reference to the health impacts of coal dust. The WWF focuses on “global warming, climate change and the acidification of our oceans”.

As for Julia Gillard, this is how she sold her carbon tax back in 2011, in a long speech with no reference to the impact of carbon pollution on human health:

The carbon price is … a vital economic reform which will build our clean energy future. So I want every Australian to know why I am pursuing this. Yes, climate change is a threat to our environment. Yes, being left behind as the world moves is a threat to our economy. But I am not just doing this to protect Australia against threats. I am doing this because I see a great opportunity we can seize. I see a great clean energy future for our great country.”

Compare that approach with this infographic put out by the White House to sell its new climate plan, which is quite ambitious (cut carbon emissions from power plants by 30% by 2030, on 2005 levels). The plan relies on the EPA working with states to reduce emissions — it amounts to Obama using his power to demand the states do something on emissions, while leaving the methods up to them. It is not a national carbon pricing scheme, which Australia has (Obama couldn’t get that through Congress). Nor is it similar to Abbott’s Direct Action scheme, which is a federal grants scheme to emitters.

Click on it to see the full version:

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  • 1
    wayne robinson
    Posted Wednesday, 4 June 2014 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Well, carbon is a natural element. It’s the major part of diamonds. If you’re against carbon from coal-fuelled power plants, then you also against diamonds, diamond engagement rings and marriage. What are you - some sort of gay activist?

    (Note - I don’t actually believe what I’ve written. Don’t complain to me…)

  • 2
    Chris Hartwell
    Posted Wednesday, 4 June 2014 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    So both the world’s economic superpower (and the USA) are coming to the party on emissions reductions. We were in the leading pack - not 1st by a long shot, but maybe fifth or sixth. Now, we haven’t just stopped to let the other countries run past us, oh no - we’re actively running back to the starting line.

    And that’s enough metaphor-mixing for a cocktail.

  • 3
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Wednesday, 4 June 2014 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    …every climate/renewable energy scheme…”

    There’s one outstanding framing issue right there - the equation of climate action with renewable energy. To advance the former is hard enough without tying it to the shortcomings of the latter.

  • 4
    Jackol
    Posted Wednesday, 4 June 2014 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    There are big, obvious logical failings in the ‘health’ argument for reducing carbon emissions, and it is therefore a risky political path to take. The Obama administration has decided to take that risk - presumably they have judged that they have a better chance of winning the public debate going down this (flawed) road.

    If you argue that we need to reduce particulate emissions, fine, but it is possible to reduce particulate emissions while having no impact (or while having an adverse impact) on carbon emissions. Using particulates or some other pollutants to ‘piggyback’ an argument about reducing carbon is disingenuous and I think will fail in any public debate. Worse, employing these logically unsupportable arguments will be used as evidence by anti-AGW interests that there actually is no real case for reducing GHG emissions.

    We need to reduce GHG emissions because of their impact on climate. Spurious arguments about asthma are not going to help win that debate.

  • 5
    AR
    Posted Wednesday, 4 June 2014 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    I have long believed that the woefully ineffective but highly emotive warnings of doom & disaster as a result of greenhouse gases causing climate change were a skillful double (possibly even quadruple)bluff by the nuke lovers (hi Duffer!).
    Think of the mechanics - eventually the masses would demand, not a reduction in cheap energy but that the bogey man go’way and the Establishment would offer the only “solution” that appeals to them, nukes.
    Highly centralised, massively subsidised, vastly corrosive of civil liberties and the dumbest, most expensive and most dangerous way ever devised to boil water.
    Makes CDOs look an ethical blue chip investment.

  • 6
    Posted Wednesday, 4 June 2014 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

    Focusing on health is a great strategy. Yes it is conflating two issues (coal pollution and reduction of GHG emissions), and yes it would be possible to tackle those issues separately, but it makes sense to combine the two in order to get people on board. Plus global warming has significant impacts on health besides the pollution from coal-fired power plants, so the campaign has scope to broaden out to take those other impacts into account. Daniel Voronoff made this point really well in 2011 with this article: http://www.climatecodered.org/2011/08/real-climate-message-is-in-shadows-its.html

  • 7
    Cathy Alexander
    Posted Wednesday, 4 June 2014 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    That’s an interesting take Jackol. I think you’re right about the risk - this strategy may not work at all for Obama. It is conflating two separate issues; immediate lower-atmosphere health effects of emissions from power stations, and medium to long term effects on the climate (a chemical process which happens higher up in the atmosphere). That may confuse the punters.

    However, the fact that Obama may be using the ‘figleaf’ of particulate emissions to try to reduce CO2 emissions - which you say is disingenuous - does not necessarily mean the strategy would not work.

    After all, however accurate and well-intentioned some Australian politicians’ efforts have been to convince the public to act on climate change, they haven’t worked very well!

  • 8
    graybul
    Posted Wednesday, 4 June 2014 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    For those who accept Climate Change, as I do; should we invert the issue and applaud Abbott’s denialism? For his denialism will surely see the demise of his Government!
    Regretfully, there would be a price. Apart from maximising impacts of an accelerating Climate Change, Australia inevitably misses out on major technological opportunities, employment and re-training of workforce . . we also forgo decades of economic development. Abandonment of a National cutting-edge fibre to residence NBN, reflects Abbott’s “future proofing” priorities.

  • 9
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Wednesday, 4 June 2014 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    G’day to you too, AR. You got us. And we would have got away with it too, if it wasn’t for you meddling…

    Meanwhile outside the tinfoil mystery machine, perhaps the biggest risk of the Obama gambit is the free kick it gives to gas, which has low particulate emissions but isn’t a lot better for the climate than coal.

    Just for AR, here’s an alternative infographic, noting the energy output capability of each is the same (so can be directly substituted): https://twitter.com/Energyinacc/status/451506293279178752/photo/1

  • 10
    Andrew Dolt
    Posted Thursday, 5 June 2014 at 12:13 am | Permalink

    There is no need for either fossil fuels or nuclear energy to provide power. Renewable energy could supply all our needs, now. The myth that renewables can’t provide base load power and we need nuclear energy is almost as unhelpful as the myth that AGW is a hoax created by a conspiracy of lefties, greenies, climate scientists, insurance companies, the Pentagon, the Pope, the Earth etc etc. I suspect the humans most likely to survive the AGW ecocide will be those who get off the grid and generate their own solar/wind electricity, to power their electric cars and their other energy needs.
    http://theconversation.com/baseload-power-is-a-myth-even-intermittent-renewables-will-work-13210

  • 11
    wayne robinson
    Posted Thursday, 5 June 2014 at 7:26 am | Permalink

    Andrew,

    And food? And water?

  • 12
    MJPC
    Posted Thursday, 5 June 2014 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    Andrew,

    One only need to look at the Rocky Mountains Institute website to see where renewables are going in the USA and it’s a lot further than is in this country. It’s not only solar panels and windmills, its also using less base load power by making buildings more energy efficient, changing street lighting, innovations in transport.
    As the climate increasingly becomes hostile the groundswell for change will rise.
    Anyone holding on to carbon technology is flgging an increasingly sick looking horse

  • 13
    Cathy Alexander
    Posted Thursday, 5 June 2014 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Mark Duffett #9 excellent point on gas.

    AR #5 one big flaw in your theory: Fukushima. How long will it take the punters to forget the images of sad kids in those space suits?

  • 14
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 5 June 2014 at 9:12 am | Permalink

    Cathy - less time than it took them to believe that “climate change is crap”. Never underestimate the propensity for self serving delusion.

  • 15
    Cathy Alexander
    Posted Thursday, 5 June 2014 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    interesting AR, but sometimes self-serving delusion can act in the interests of environmentalists! In this case, the delusion that a nuclear power plant in Aus would malfunction and give people cancer (Fukushima, Chernobyl).

    Same with GMOs - a lot of science says they do not harm human health, yet still people fear Franken-genes (at least for some products, not canola etc). And that arguably irrational fear suits quite a few environmental groups who are anti-GMO.

    Maybe where the green movement has been going wrong is in not pandering to self-serving delusion often enough, AR?

  • 16
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 5 June 2014 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    Cathy - sup with the Devil? Pandering to self delusions of adequacy is what gave us the current government.
    PJK,quoting his mentor, Big Jack Lang said “always put your money on self interest coz at least y’know it’s trying”.
    This is a common error - “self interest” is not the same as “perceived self interest”, else people would not smoke, eat junk food nor vote for junk politicians.
    But they do and Big Billon$ have been thus acquired.

  • 17
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 5 June 2014 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    … as well as “Big Billion$”.

  • 18
    Raaraa
    Posted Thursday, 5 June 2014 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    This sounds like a great strategy to sell to those “but what’s in it for me?” crowd.

    @1 wayne robinson, it’s funny you mentioned that. There are people actually using that sort of argument and it’s no joke.

    Of course we could tell them that they’ve been consuming the poisonous element Chlorine all this time. It’s part of the molecule we consume as salt - Sodium Chloride.

  • 19
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Thursday, 5 June 2014 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Andrew Dolt, the assertion that renewables can provide all our power, now, is contestable to say the least. Just to take a recent example, see bravenewclimate.com/2014/06/02/critique-100pc-renewables-edm/ There is no actual (as opposed to ‘planned’ ‘targeted’ ‘modelled’ ‘scenarioed’ ‘extrapolated’ ‘simulated’ etc) prospect of non-hydro technologies doing so, anywhere.

  • 20
    Cathy Alexander
    Posted Thursday, 5 June 2014 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

    Yes, AR - I think people act in what they perceive to be their self-interest, which sometimes ends in them acting against their actual self-interest. (Actual is a contested term to use here I know). When I first studied economics I was staggered to be informed that “people are rational utility maximisers, they act to maximise their utility and can be counted upon to do that.” I thought - what about my friends who blow their money on dinner then get into terrible trouble not being able to pay rent?

  • 21
    AR
    Posted Thursday, 5 June 2014 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Cathy - I’ve never understood why economics is called the “dismal science” when it lacks any scientific criterion - testable hypotheses, evidence, provable data (as distinct from circular confirmation).
    A more accurate appellation would be “dismal delusion” (that word again).

  • 22
    Chris Hartwell
    Posted Thursday, 5 June 2014 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    Cathy - they have to tone things down for first years. Same as why initial engineering exercises ignore friction.

  • 23
    Cathy Alexander
    Posted Friday, 6 June 2014 at 9:03 am | Permalink

    Yes AR, my exposure to studying economics persuaded me that far from being the dismal science of dusty old men of popular perception, it is in fact a wildly deluded and largely fictional attempt to foist a theory of how people act on a public intent on acting irrationally and sometimes apparently at random - taught by people who don’t really ‘know’ how economies ‘work’, because if they did, they would have retired to a beach in Tahiti off the proceeds long ago.

    Fair summary, or too harsh?

  • 24
    AR
    Posted Friday, 6 June 2014 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    Harsh? Too fair! Them wot can, do, them wot can’t, teach and them wot don’t have a clue, lecture at uni.

  • 25
    Andrew Dolt
    Posted Friday, 6 June 2014 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    Wayne Robinson, of course, access to water and ability to grow food. I suggest that decentralised self-reliant co-operative local communities like Transition Towns will be the most robust. Populations dependent upon highly centralised industrialised processes for survival will be very vulnerable to natural disasters/extreme weather events, and that is just one reason why nuclear power is not the answer.

    Mark Duffett, please tell me why the nuclear lobby is boundlessly optimistic about the ability of human technological ingenuity to make the toxic and complicated nuclear process cheap and safe, despite apparently intractable problems; and at the same time this lobby is deeply pessimistic about the ability of human technological ingenuity to make renewable energy, which is already cheap and safe, ever more efficient and battery capacity ever greater, despite excellent progress?

    And if worst comes to worst, Mark, who is going to safely shut down all those nuclear reactors? Let’s give the next wave of life a sporting chance.

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