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:

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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