Published by the ABC, Australia’s National Broadcaster.

Recently, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) and Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) released Creating Jobs – Cutting Pollution, a new report that investigates how reducing our carbon dioxide output will benefit the Australian economy. Not surprisingly for me, the report finds that our transition to a clean energy economy yields excellent job-creation prospects for Australia. But amid this positive economic forecast is a framing of climate change that has several limitations and implications for policy.

Creating Jobs – Cutting Pollution (pdf) frames climate change as a pollution problem. This frame is consistent with the title of the Rudd government’s chief climate change policy, the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, and is a dominant way of communicating the problem of climate change in Australia.

The pollution frame shows how we understand, or in this case misunderstand, the phenomenon. What is meant by pollution in the context of climate change? Does the same language used for sewage overflows, chemical leaks, and oil spills adequately communicate the steps needed to address the challenge?

Before I look at the question, I want to make it clear that Creating Jobs – Cutting Pollution is a good report. It is a solid contribution to the body of evidence about the economic benefits of decarbonisation. I don’t have a problem with the analysis or the report’s focus on creating a “roadmap for a cleaner, stronger economy”. Indeed, emphasising the positive economic outcomes of decarbonisation is a good idea given that “economic management” and “Australian jobs” are commonly among the top concerns of the electorate. I merely seek to examine the value of framing of climate change as a pollution problem.

The report deploys the pollution frame from the outset. “Climate change is a major risk to our future prosperity,” opens the report. “We’ve known pollution is bad for our health and environment for a long time. Now greenhouse pollution is threatening our wellbeing: the core of our quality of life.” The report continues: “It is critical to decide how best to avert the worst health, environmental, and economic impacts caused by pollution…”

This discourse, which continues throughout the report, indicates one (or possibly both) of the following: a tacit admission that framing climate change as a pollution issue is advantageous to use to communicate climate change; that two of Australia’s largest advocacy groups, including a prominent environmental organisation, are struggling to frame climate change in a way that adequately reflects the issue.

Why does is matter how climate change is described? The work of linguist and cognitive scientist George Lakoff points to the importance and implications of framing for matters of public policy. The theory of framing Lakoff presents in his book Don’t Think of an Elephant demonstrates that the ways in which problems are framed affects the way that the public and policy makers perceive them. Put simply, frames include and exclude selected information and therefore set the parameters for the types of policies that are considered reasonable and desirable.

Framing climate change as a pollution problem is not likely to be an effective way of communicating climate change. This is simply because the phenomenon is qualitatively different to pollution problems that Australians have faced in the past. The most common greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, is invisible and odourless. “The pollutant itself occurs naturally,” explain Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger in their 2007 book Break Through. “Unlike raw sewage, toxic chemicals, or carbon monoxide, it does not revolt us, poison us or make us sick.”

Describing carbon dioxide as pollution does not consider the discrepancy between what we understand and how we experience pollution, and how we experience the impacts of a changing climate. There is a considerable difference between the direct and visible impact of pollution on people and places, compared with the systemic and not-readily-visible impacts of a changing climate. What’s more, presenting climate change as a pollution problem oversimplifies the challenge of climate change. After all, pollutants like sulphur dioxide and ozone depleting chemicals, as undesirable as they are, were not at the heart of our economy the way that fossil fuels are.

The climate change policy debate in Australia has largely focused on emissions trading and carbon taxation to reduce carbon. But whether it’s an ETS or a tax, both instruments identify greenhouse gases as pollution to be controlled. By increasing the salience of carbon pollution, policies that respond to the direct causes of emissions are privileged over policies that respond to indirect ones.

This logic helps explain why carbon-pricing measures receive much more attention than government investment in renewable energy projects and electricity grid modernisation for example, even though the latter would also mitigate climate change. In the context of the Creating Jobs – Cutting Pollution report, the pollution framing might inadvertently diminish the salience of the worthy policy measures the ACF and ACTU advocate in addition to carbon pricing.

While it is difficult to create a single frame for climate change, this could be a false pursuit. Perhaps the focus for advocates should shift from framing the phenomenon to framing the response. The objective would therefore seek to frame policy responses capable of capturing the hearts and minds of Australians. A pollution frame is handicapped in this regard. Ideally, a new frame (or frames) would be based on Australian discourses, and reflect our national identity and aspirations.

Towards the end of the Creating Jobs – Cutting Pollution, the “clean energy race” narrative is introduced. Australia is falling behind, the story goes, and is missing the economic opportunities presented by clean technology and sustainable development. This narrative is being used with increasing frequency in the United States to gain public support and encouraging political leadership on renewable energy, clean technology, and climate change.

The clean energy race narrative evokes the USA/USSR ‘space race‘ of the 1960s, the arms race, and competition between the superpowers. The race narrative guides action by drawing attention to the important role of public investment, and America’s ability to develop advanced technologies to overcome the Soviet challenge. The clean energy race appeals to those who want the United States to strive towards greatness and have a keen sense of national competitiveness.

The energy race is more than a clever narrative: it is a reality. And it’s true that Australia is lagging behind. We now import most wind turbine components, have no operating concentrated solar thermal power plants, and have seen local innovators such as David Mills seek opportunities abroad. Policies to help Australia regain ground in this area make good economic sense as well as benefit our climate.

But Australia has a distinct national identity, and the stories that work well in the United States do not necessarily resonate with an Australian audience.

It appears that the frames and narratives used to communicate climate change in Australia aren’t necessarily carefully considered. Australian climate advocates can seize the opportunity presented by the Rudd government’s shelved emissions trading agenda to reframe climate change—to fill the policy vacuum with an advantageous framing for the challenge. We have some work to do. I hope Australia’s best and brightest will rise to the challenge.