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Prime Minister Julia Gillard has reframed her government’s carbon pricing agenda in an attempt to tap into the chief concerns of the electorate. Rather than making the case for climate legislation with the Great Barrier Reef-destroying rhetoric of her predecessor Kevin Rudd, Gillard is presenting climate change as an economic opportunity. In the words of political commentator Annabel Crabb, the government is ‘…replacing morality with economics.’

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Published by ABC’s The Drum.

As climate change advocates start yet another busy year fighting for national climate legislation, new Essential Research polling reveals that the issue is still a low priority for the electorate.

The poor polling performance not only complicates things for those who support measures that address the climate crisis, but also for Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who has staked her leadership on implementing a carbon price in the next term of government.

A meagre 10 per cent identify climate change as a top tier concern in the first public polling of 2011 to canvass voter priorities. At a time when climate change should be a high priority for Australians, concern for the issue has dropped six points in 12 months and is ranked a woeful tenth out of 13 issues.* Both the Gillard government and the climate movement will want to turn the poor polling around.

The temptation of some climate activists will be to ramp-up the apocalyptic rhetoric, however this tactic risks alienating the public further. Research published by the University of California Berkeley last December argued that “Dire messages warning of the severity of global warming and its presumed dangers can backfire, paradoxically increasing skepticism about global warming by contradicting individuals’ deeply-held beliefs that the world is fundamentally just” (PDF). In other words, it’s easier for the public to switch off than to engage with climate change when it is presented as an insurmountable problem.

So what’s the alternative? How do we avoid this trap while achieving good outcomes for climate change and renewable energy?

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Following the trend of the last several years, climate change will be a key political issue in the year 2011. The Gillard government’s Multi-Party Climate Change Committee and the quest for a comprehensive climate change policy will drive the debate in Australia. On the international front, the UNFCCC process and seemingly endless negotiations will once again spark interest and argument. And that’s just what we know.

The Real Ewbank was launched in 2010 to compile my writing on these matters. To kick off 2011, I thought I’d share with you the most popular posts of the last year. I’ll be back with more analysis of domestic and international climate change politics soon, but for now, thanks for reading!

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Published by ABC’s The Drum.

Climate change is a wicked problem. It will take an unparalleled amount of human effort to address.

While it’s important for the public to be aware of the risks of runaway climate change, focusing narrowly on threats and evoking apocalyptic rhetoric, as Melbourne writer Doug Hendrie did yesterday, is not helpful. It might be good for scaring the general public senseless, but does not create the conditions needed to deliver action on climate change. For that we need a positive vision of our future.

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Published by On Line Opinion, Australia’s leading e-journal of social and political debate.

Julia Gillard’s announcement last Friday marked a new low point for Australian climate change policy. If reelected, a Labor government will fill the void created by its decision to defer the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) with a collection of low-impact policy measures: miniscule investments in renewable energy; an ill-conceived “cash for clunkers” program; and the much criticised plan for a “citizens’ assembly” to establish “community consensus” on climate change. Such measures do not reflect the urgency and scale of the climate change challenge.

In the wake of Gillard’s announcement, several climate advocates made the case that community consensus on climate change already exists. Be that as it may, community consensus doesn’t tell us whether climate change is a priority issue for Australians. Polling released last week revealed a disturbing truth for Australia’s climate change advocates. Contrary to the rhetoric of many, addressing climate change ranks well down the list of the most important issues for voters in the 2010 federal election.

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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?

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Cross posted at WattHead and The Energy Collective.

The US climate blog It’s Getting Hot in Here featured an excellent post on the framing of climate change at the weekend. Taj Schottland, a senior at the College of the Atlantic, has developed three frames for communicating climate change and associated policies to political conservatives. To appeal to conservative audiences, Schottland recommends:

  1. Replacing the term ‘climate change’ with ‘climate security’ to better explain the ways in which the changing climate adversely affects America’s economic health, national security and prosperity.
  2. Highlighting clean ‘energy advancement’ as a way to avoid the negative connotations associated with reducing emissions and by implication economic growth.
  3. Emphasising the objective of cap-and-trade policies to ‘harness the power of the market.’

Regardless of whether you agree with Schottland’s suggestions, it is encouraging to see that climate advocates are examining the ways in which climate change is framed. And perhaps more importantly, that they are developing new frames to communicate the impacts of the phenomenon to a wider audience. Given that the construction of one capture-all frame is virtually impossible, we need multiple frames to appeal to people across the political spectrum, and build the broad public support needed for government action.

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After weeks of silence, the Prime Minister responded to the Coalition’s accusations that his Government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) is a ‘great big tax’.  The PM’s counter punch mimicked the Coalition’s attack, but argued that it is the Opposition Leader whose climate policy would impose a ‘mega-tax’ on Australians. Labor has since recalibrated its message, branding the Coalition policy a ‘climate con job.’ Fortunately this change in tact spares the public from an infantile debate about who has the biggest… tax that is.

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Published by the Breakthrough Generation.

Climate change can be framed in many ways. It could be framed as a problem of democracy—how can the short-term feedback mechanisms of democracy, namely election cycles, cope with emergent long-term problems? It could be framed as a problem of international governance—how can the anarchy of nation-states deal with challenges that transcend their national borders? And it might also be framed as a problem of perception—how can ‘we’ as individuals, citizens, and consumers, deal with problems that are disembodied and imperceptible in our daily lives? Even though these framings are relevant to climate change policy debates, one particular framing features prominently: climate change as a pollution problem.

Australian politicians, climate change advocates, and policy makers currently frame climate change in this way, and is illustrated well by the title of the Australian Government’s climate policy—the ‘Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme’ (CPRS). While the pollution framing is obvious in the title, the influence of this framing is much deeper. The pollution frame appears to have influenced the Australian Government’s approach to climate policy—its aims and instruments—as proponents a carbon cap-and-trade view the implementation of such a scheme as the best way to reduce Australia’s carbon pollution.

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Leigh Ewbank


Climate and energy writer based in Melbourne, Australia.

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Creative Commons License All blogs presented on this site, therealewbank.wordpress.com, by Leigh Ewbank are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 Australia License
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