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Why is it so Hard to Frame the Climate Crisis Correctly?

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The wrong frame leads to the wrong goal. The wrong goal leads to the wrong actions

Climate change, global warming, climate crisis, climate emergency, whatever word that’s used, it’s clear the problem facing humanity revolves around the fact the climate is changing. But the climate is only one way we influence the environment. The interconnected nature of the environmental problem was powerfully revealed by the planetary boundaries framework in 2009. The study identified nine processes that are critical to maintaining the stability and resilience of the Earth system as a whole. Every one of those processes is being impacted negatively by humanity. So why is it that countless think tanks, companies, consultancies, NGOs, and charities are focused solely on the climate? It all comes down to how the problem is framed.

The cognitive linguist George Lakoff alludes to the problem and the importance of framing in Why It Matters How We Frame the Environment. Lakoff argues we think using unconscious structures called ‘frames’. Frames include “semantic roles, relations between roles, and relations to other frames.” Our knowledge “makes use of frames, and every word is defined through the frames it neurally activates.” Using Lakoff’s example of a hospital frame, the roles in the frame include doctors, nurses, patients, receptionists, operation rooms, scalpels etc. Then there are relations between roles; doctors operate on patients in operating rooms using scalpels.

The problem with the environment is that it’s all-consuming. Our frame is “based on our socialisation which is embedded in how we see the world and behave to it, and to others.” If the frame revolved around the underlying causes of the crisis, the roles might include economic growth, carrying capacity, overshoot, deregulation, inequality, profit maximisation, etc. But the frame revolves around an effect, the climate. The roles in the frame include global warming (a hot potato of a term that many like to avoid), polar bears, melting ice caps, combustion engines, forest fires, droughts, heat waves, solar panels, wind turbines, etc.

The result of embracing the wrong frame means that, for the most part, institutional changes and the strategies and actions that feed from them are focused on ensuring the global average temperature remains below 1.5°C. Actions to reach the goal revolve around achieving net zero by 2050. The issue with the target is that honing in on one issue like this ignores every other impact. It’s not clear how the other planetary-scale changes we’re inducing feed into the net zero target. The obvious danger is that the approach creates blind spots that mean the strategy deployed is unfit for purpose. 

The IPCC, which created the 1.5°C, is not to blame for this blind focus. A part of the problem is that the challenges we face are so complex and varied, that it’s difficult to communicate ‘the problem’ in an easily digestible way. The outcome of lasering in on the 1.5°C target and achieving net zero is that it provides a misconception that all we need to do is decarbonise the economy, and our problems will be solved. For the discerning public, the challenge appears technical and one that can be overcome through innovation. The assumption — granted, we’re facing a mountain of a problem, but nothing technology can’t handle.

Decarbonising the economy would be a monumental undertaking in itself. When combined with the other planetary-scale changes and the need to uplift billions of people from poverty, it becomes apparent that incremental changes or technological innovations are not appropriate for the challenge at hand. What’s required is “widespread, rapid, and fundamental transformations…these include changes in behaviour, technology and innovation, governance, and values.” But the target leads to an assumption that if we can achieve net zero by 2050, the global average temperature will remain below 1.5°C, and we’ll reach a point where society and the economy are sustainable. An assumption that holds no weight, but again, this frame serves a vital purpose because if the frame focused on the systemic causes of the ecological crisis, an argument for the transformation of beliefs, values and worldviews would become far more compelling.

That is, unfortunately, the reason why the problem is framed around the climate. Creating an achievable objective makes it appear that rather than radical transformative change, we only need to decarbonise economies; rather than questioning the sustainability of high living standards fed by consumerism, we need to reduce individual impacts by recycling more or driving electric cars. Each assumption feeds into a rather palatable conclusion, current lifestyles can be maintained, we just need to make a few tweaks to how we do things, and everything will be okay. The latest planetary boundaries study, which shows our impacts are worse than ever, is just the latest reminder that this assumption is utterly flawed. But it appears we’re going to have to feel the consequences of our behaviour in very painful ways before that rather inconvenient truth is widely acknowledged.