Who Framed Global Warming?

If environmentalists and liberals ever hope to solve global warming. they must first understand and change the way that the issue is framed. A frame, according to linguistic expert George Lakoff, is “a conceptual structure used in thinking.” Framing is using language in a way that appeals to these structures.

Conservatives are experts at this. Tax cuts, for instance, are referred to as “tax relief.” This, Lakoff explains, evokes the image of “a blameless afflicted person” suffering because of some external force. Conservatives offer relief from this affliction. Similarly, private accounts for social security become “personal accounts,” the estate tax is called the “death tax” and those who oppose abortion are “pro-life.” Each of these contains a frame.

So who framed global warming? Here, again, conservatives have successfully defined the terms of the issue. An article on the Fox News website described the Kyoto Protocol as a “global economic suicide pact.” President Bush said it “would have wrecked our economy.” The talking point is clear: voters must choose between the environment and economic prosperity. The frame is that of irrational actors, (environmentalists), pursuing their goals with no regard for the everyman. Conservatives, meanwhile, bravely protect Americans’ financial future.

Do voters have to choose between the environment and the economy? Certainly not to the extent that conservatives would like them to believe. Portland, Oregon has nearly reduced its emissions to 1990 levels, as the Kyoto Protocol requires, and it has been “booming economically” according to The New York Times. This should inspire environmentalists to challenge conservative dogma on emission reductions and the economy. What really needs to be challenged, though, is the way the issue is framed.

Luckily, there are a few pioneers willing to do just that. In 2004, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus wrote a paper entitled “The Death of Environmentalism.” What they called for was “a marriage between vision, values, and policy.” This is exactly what conservatives have done so well. By contrast, environmentalists have been caught up in the narrow-mindedness of single-issue politics and technical policy initiatives. In the meantime, they have lost touch with the American people. Shellenberger and Nordhaus believe that “ours is a can-do country.” Their goal is to create “strategic initiatives” that blend progressive values with broad, long-term vision and encourage interest-group cooperation.

The New Apollo Project is one such initiative. Co-foundedby Shellenberger in 2003, the Apollo Alliance (made up of labor unions and environmental groups) aims to establish energy independence for the US and create three million clean-energy jobs in the process. The initiative includes aggressive government promotion of new and more energy-efficient technology while continuing research and planning for the future.

The Alliance was carefully named to recall the Kennedy era when Americans rallied to the President’s challenge to put a man on the moon. The New Apollo Project differs from the traditional approach to environmental issues in three ways. First, it focuses on an ambitious, long-term goals instead of short-term policy and compromise. (Although such compromises are necessary, they are more useful in the context of a larger initiative.) Second, it brings together various liberal interest groups, particularly labor unions and environmentalists. Third, and most importantly, it focuses on American values in order to reframe debate.

Economists and policy-makers could go on forever debating the worth or practicality of such an initiative. More significant is the project’s effect on how Americans view global warming policy. By breaking the shackles of the environment-or-economy language, liberals will have the chance to reframe the debate. Only then will they have a realistic chance at creating substantive policy that addresses global warming.

The New Apollo Project integrates environmentalism with jobs, a healthy economy, and aggressive US leadership. These are values that Americans can embrace. Thus far, conservatives have used them as roadblocks preventing effective policy. With successful framing the very same values can become the driving force in solving global warming.

In a feeble attempt to thwart environmentalists, President Bush has called for a technology driven “post-Kyoto era.” In terms of framing, at least, liberals should take his advice and move on. The buzzword for global warming shouldn’t be Kyoto. It should be Apollo.