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Jun 4, 2014

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?

Cathy Alexander — Freelance journalist and PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne

Cathy Alexander

Freelance journalist and PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne

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.

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25 thoughts on “Obama changes the conversation on climate change

  1. wayne robinson

    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

    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

    “…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

    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

    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. form1planet

    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:

  7. Cathy Alexander

    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

    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

    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):

  10. Andrew Dolt

    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.