Framing the Paris climate change summit

It’s encouraging to see so much coverage of climate change in the news at the moment – as George Marshall says, it’s something that can only be dealt with if we all start actually talking about it publicly instead of treating it as a taboo subject, much as with racism and sexism. The Pope’s encyclical is rightly getting a lot of attention, as is the mass lobby of Parliament in the UK. 

However, reading the book Framespotting by Laurence and Alison Matthews has reminded me how important it is to keep an eye on the way climate change is being framed in all this discussion. One example that leapt out at me recently was a rather gloomy Guardian article from last Sunday, entitled “Climate change conference in Paris later this year is of global importance”.

I certainly can’t disagree with the article’s title. However, the article goes on to pose questions and provide answers which seem to reflect a very specific, and to my mind quite limiting, point of view on climate change action. 

Below I’ve quoted two question-and-answers from the article. Beneath each one there’s a reframing of the the answer from the point of view of CapGlobalCarbon.

Question 1: “What are the problems that lie ahead for delegates in making ..[their] commitment [to emissions reduction] work?

Here’s the Guardian’s answer:

“To keep any temperature rise to a 2C limit, delegates will have to call for pledges from countries and power blocks (such as the European Union) and then settle individual targets. That will be extremely tricky. In addition, once particular cuts have been agreed in carbon outputs, a commission will have to be set up to monitor nations’ emissions in order to check that they are keeping to their pledges.”

And here’s my answer with CGC framing:

“To keep any temperature rise to a 2C limit, delegates will need to lay out a framework for capping and gradually reducing total aggregate global fossil fuel production, as stated by the IPCC’s founding chair, Sir John Houghton. Production would be much easier to tackle than emissions as the former takes place at a small number of sites while emissions arise from a myriad. Such a system – known as Cap & Share – would be relatively straightforward to implement and police; far more so than the previous strategy of trying to set targets for individual nations’ emissions and then implement them on a case-by-case basis, which has led to endless wrangling.

“When a country signs onto Cap & Share it will undertake to ensure that fossil fuel extractors acting within its borders are in compliance with the fossil fuel cap and will also distribute the revenue from emissions permit sales in equal share to its population. Over time, as the positive results of this system – in the shape of substantially reduced poverty and inequality, and an increased freeing up of finance to help with the shift to renewable energy – become clearer, popular pressure would likely have an affect on laggard countries, encouraging them to climb on board”.

The second of the Guardian’s questions I’ve chosen is

“What will be the cost?”

Here I had issues with the question itself. Effective action on climate change will certainly cost something – to some people. But it won’t necessarily hurt everyone financially, as we’ll see below.

In any case, here’s the Guardian’s answer:

“The high levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today are the handiwork of the industrialised developed nations. Developing countries will therefore demand a clear commitment from them to provide financial support to help them to adapt to a hotter planet and to mitigate against the worst effects of global warming. By 2020, the amount of money needed for this purpose is expected to be around $100bn a year. Pledges to reach such a funding level will be another key milestone that will have to be reached in Paris.”

Here’s how I would put that question and answer, again with a CGC frame:

“How will action on climate change affect people financially?”

“If the Paris summit provides an opportunity to introduce a commons-based system for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, individuals and communities throughout the world who use fossil fuels sparingly would come out considerably ahead financially. This is because everyone would receive some compensation for the dumping of greenhouse gases into the atmoephere. The funding for this compensation would come from the revenue generated by the auctioning of permits to fossil fuel companies to allow them to produce quantities of fossil fuels strictly limited by the number of permits they buy. Fossil fuel prices would rise as the companies pass on to consumers the costs of buying the permits. However in many households the compensation would be more than the increase in their fuel bills, much more in the case of those that consume the least. The revenue from permit sales would be available for whatever individuals and communities deemed appropriate, which would likely include widespread investment in healthcare and education, legal support to safeguard community-owned land from land-grabbing, and in increasingly affordable renewable energy as well as other measures to help prevent and adapt to climate change.

“Those who use fossil fuel profligately in any participating country would have to pay an appropriate price for this use and in such cases, this would be greater than the revenue they receive. They would therefore lose out in purely financial terms. However they may find this cost to be a price well worth paying as the decrease in inequality would very likely lead to a stabler economy, reduced crime rates, and a reduction in stress-related illness, quite apart from the reduced risk of calamitous climate change which is in everyone’s interests.”

Thus the CapGlobalCarbon answers to the two questions are simpler, fairer and more upbeat than the Guardian’s ones.


The costs obsession

There’s more to be said on costs. The obsession that so many commentators, including journalists, express with them seems particularly badly misplaced given the situation we’re facing. Focussing on costs makes climate change seem a less acute problem than it really is.

During the Second World War, the Allied forces didn’t spend time worrying about how much the war was costing them. The priority for them was to defeat the Nazis. Shouldn’t climate change be considered to be at least as important a priority? 

To show just how ludicrous this costs obsession can get, here’s a quote from Roz Bulleid, senior climate and environment policy adviser at the trade association UK Steel, who was talking about why he thinks the companies he represents should be given free permits to continue emitting greenhouse gases under the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme:

“For companies competing internationally with other sites around the world with no carbon costs it is vitally important they get 100 percent free allocation.”

And here’s my reframing of his statement:

“For companies competing internationally with other sites around the world where potentially catastrophic pollution takes place with no attempt made to regulate it, it is vitally important that they themselves also be allowed to pollute freely, regardless of the consequences”.

I’m glad to see that the pope in his encyclical has drawn some much-needed attention to the problems with these types of cap-and-trade emission permit schemes.

The other problem with the costs obsession, as I mentioned above, is that it implies that costs are (a) universal (b) always a bad thing. Both of these assumptions are wrong. George Marshall makes a lot of good points about why we aren’t tackling climate change effectively, but I think even he mis-frames the issue of costs when he says things like “Here you have a situation which involves certain costs in the short-term in order to avoid potentially larger but uncertain costs at some point in the future”.

Again, I have to ask – would these “certain costs” apply to everyone or just to some people, and is it possible that there could even be a financial gain to others? And what if those who lose in financial terms still end up gaining significantly in other ways?

All of these issues need to be brought up, and then brought up again, as part of our global conversation on climate change. So I hope that in Paris they’ll get plenty of attention.

Caroline Whyte will among the CapGlobalCarbon delegates at the Paris summit to promote CapGlobalCarbon.

Featured image: mirror on wall. Author: Asif Akbar. Source:

[Edit September 25 2015 to clarify the first “answer”.]

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