God & Bombs: reframing climate change

This week Barack Obama framed climate change as a patriotic, religious responsibility for Americans, while Greenpeace warned of ‘carbon bombs’. Are these good ways of talking about climate change?

Barack Obama’s re-inauguration provided plenty to talk about – but only one real surprise. After a long, frustrating first term in which climate change was notable only by its absence from policy and rhetoric, Obama headlined his speech with a strong, unambiguous commitment to renew America’s efforts to tackle climate change.

It is more than a little absurd that a few sentences were received with such desperate gratitude by environmental campaigners around the world. That the leader of the American government acknowledges that something ought to be done about climate change should not be news in 2013.

But it is – and thankfully, Obama’s climate silence is finally over:

“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.

The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”

The language with which the climate silence was broken was intriguing.

For a speech of this significance – setting the agenda for his second and final term in office – every word would have been crafted and sweated over. So when Obama talks about ‘our obligations as Americans’ (patriotism), refers to a duty of care from God to care for the planet (religion), and confronts directly the science-denial of the Republican Right (‘some may still deny the overwhelming judgement of science’), he is using some very interesting and strategically deliberate ways of framing climate change.

Obama’s choice of rhetorical frames tells us more than simply that climate change is back on the agenda. It tells us how climate change is going to be re-animated in the American mind – signposts to the way that Obama wants Americans to think about climate change.

Obama wants to persuade the American public that not acting on climate change is a betrayal to their children, God and their country – powerful, deeply American values. If he manages to do this, he will have achieved what every environmental campaigner for the past two decades has failed to do: break climate change out of its ‘environmentalist’ niche, and make it something that ‘ordinary’ folk care about.

As if to answer Obama’s rallying call for confronting climate change, Greenpeace released a report identifying 14 enormous fossil fuel projects that would – if they were all to go ahead – push us past the point of ‘no return’ regarding the ‘2 degrees’ limit that is widely considered to represent ‘dangerous’ climate change.

From offshore oil drilling in Brazil, to the Tar Sands in Canada, these industrial projects would all but condemn us to a hugely unpredictable, unprecedented and over-heated world. They are climate disasters waiting to happen, or, as Greenpeace describe them, ‘carbon bombs’.

As James Murray, editor of Business Green pointed out, ‘carbon bomb’ is an incredibly powerful term:

“For too long environmental campaigners and green businesses have spoken about ‘carbon
emissions’ and ‘climate change’ and ‘sustainability’. It is time to talk of ‘climate crisis’, ‘gargantuan carbon bubbles’, and ‘carbon bombs’…The ‘carbon bomb’ is in danger of going off. We have never needed the clean tech bomb disposal team more”

Murray’s views will resonate with many climate change campaigners frustrated with the lack of urgency that has infected everything from international negotiations to behaviour change campaigns. The carbon bomb is a war metaphor. A co-ordinated societal response on the scale of a war effort would undoubtedly be more proportionate than the extensive deckchair re-arrangement plan currently in place.

But is it a useful way of reaching the un-convinced, or otherwise disinterested?

There is a fair amount of academic research that has asked whether – and under what circumstances – using fear and threats is a good tactic for public engagement. The take home message is that fear can motivate engagement and behaviour change, but only when the threat (e.g. lung cancer from smoking) is personal, tangible, direct and something under and individual’s control.

As Boris Johnson’s willful and calculated misrepresentation of the difference between weather and climate proved this week, the evidence outside of people’s windows can be important. In the US, Hurricane Sandy prompted Mayor Bloomberg to break cover on climate change. In Australia, adding a new colour to the temperature scale has provided a powerful visual signal that the climate is changing.

But in the UK, in January 2013, we see snow but no carbon bombs.

12 thoughts on “God & Bombs: reframing climate change”

  1. What I call (linguistic) carbon compounds emerged in the English language around 2004. Examples are ‘carbon footprint, ‘low carbon diet, ‘carbon detox’, ‘carbon market’, ‘carbon fascist’, ‘carbon indulgence’ or‘carbon guilt’. These compounds are a unique linguistic resource that enable speakers of English to compress and integrate complex messages about climate change into two or more simple words. Some of the compounds are metaphorical in nature, such as the carbon footprint. For a while there was probably a belief that behaviour change could be managed around the carbon footprint metaphor. That hope seems to have faded, and the same goes for carbon market framing. So a more forceful compound like carbon bomb is created in a sort of linguistic arms race. There are dangers inherent in using such war metaphors, as Adam and many others have pointed out. The bomb frame may well misfire because it turns people off, and, in addition, the carbon frame too might not work either as it focuses on a rather abstract culprit and away from us humans….So, God and the nation might work better if you are looking for a persuasive framing device, but we’ll have to see. Seeing climate change ‘with ones own eyes’ might be the ultimate persuader in the end (unlike seeing climate change through the eyes of a metaphor like the carbon bomb or the climate cliff etc), however much this ‘perception’ may actually be fraught with scientific problems!

  2. Hi, my first impression is that ‘carbon bomb’ is a good framing. It is war-related, but many feel we need to think of climate change as war-like, even if we don’t have a clear enemy. However, my impression is that most cultural references to bombs tend to be more terrorist-related- they are about avoidable explosions…but maybe I am reading/watching the wrong things.
    Unlike war, what I like about the carbon bombs framing is that it has an implicit ‘So-what?’ message in it- namely- we have to find a way to defuse the bomb(s) and that task, as we know, is both urgent but also very delicate (and easy to get wrong)…When I think ‘bomb’ I think of a clock ticking and the need for skilful action, so in that sense it works.
    I agree about the risk of tapping into fear, which is why you need multiple messages and multiple forms of communication to different groups, but on balance ‘carbon bomb’ is a welcome framing….it’s certainly better than ‘climate change’.

  3. It was already done with “The Population Bomb”. This is the same thing.

    A planetary emergency requires we hand over our freedom and money or we’re all going to die. According to the predictions last time round, we’re all already dead.

    But people don’t remember, and people in every era are much the same. … Mencken and his Hobgoblins, again.

  4. The ‘carbon bomb’/’population bomb’ parallel is a common meme on the other side. Someone was bound to point it out.

    But you can look at it from the other side, too. The population bomb story did predict an unavoidable disaster, and did recommend a variety of politically unpalatable solutions, which the world mostly ignored just as we’re mostly ignoring the carbon bomb concerns. However, the maths behind the population bomb theory was just as solid, and yet we survived. How?

    The answer is that we did indeed embark on a coordinated societal response on the scale of a war effort. Norman Borlaug revolutionised biotechnology. The Haber process enabled industrial-scale fertiliser production. Mechanisation of farming enabled more to be produced by fewer people. Modern irrigation, crop cycling, and agricultural science generally improved yields, reduced costs, and reduced depletion of soils. Artificial pesticides and improved preservation, storage and transport practices increased yields and reduced wastage. And a global market enabled the balancing of supply and demand to allocate production capacity against need.

    If you add it all up, the ‘Green Revolution’ was probably a far bigger and better coordinated societal response than any war effort. The reason that people didn’t notice it, and the primary difference with the solutions the Population Bomb people proposed, is that the solutions arose spontaneously out of the distributed decisionmaking of the marketplace, not centrally imposed and controlled by governments and elites.

    It required no grand effort, no economic sacrifice, no coercion of the unwilling or unconvinced. Most of the people actually doing it were not even aware of the problem. And so nobody noticed that anything was being done. And the conclusion, 40 years later, is the the Population Bomb was a false scare: their scary predictions were ignored, and nothing bad happened as a result.

    So in the same way there is hope for the future with respect to the Carbon Bomb. It will happen quietly, without fanfare. It won’t use the methods you’re currently advocating. It will look like the problem is being ignored, and business is carrying on as usual. But if you don’t interfere with it, it will solve the problems as they arise on its own. Through non-action, nothing is left undone. The Taoists call it ‘wu wei’ – ‘to do without doing’.

    Or as my mother used to say, “If you don’t stop picking at it, it’ll never get better.” The wisdom of the sage.

  5. Thanks Adam. It certainly is powerful language but as I said on Twitter, I couldn’t work out what Greenpeace hoped to gain from it. How am I supposed to defuse one bomb – let alone multiple ones? Also, carbon bomb doesn’t seem to quite make sense as a ‘carbon compound’, as Brigitte puts it. Not as meaningful as population bomb – perhaps because ‘carbon’ is as abstract a concept as ‘climate’.

    I might argue – as Brigitte hints above – that climate change is destined to be something forever understood within society as a function of recent weather patterns. I have picked up on some new evidence around this today on Making Science Public: http://blogs.nottingham.ac.uk/makingsciencepublic/2013/01/25/weather-1-climategate-0/ The unscientific nature of this understanding seems to present rather a problem for communicators. Does one concentrate on scientific literalism and couch discussions in so many caveats as to become meaningless for public debate. Or does one embrace this understanding – as Obama seemed to do in his inauguration speech – and take the scientific flak? (Or take a third way, and go for those policies which have ‘co-benefits’ other than carbon reduction – something else Obama seems to favour).

  6. I’m not sure that these phrase ’emerged’ as such that climate changed was ‘branded’ and marketed, being put together by professional marketing companies.. Futerra being a prime mover (DECC, Greenpeace, UN clients,etc) – some took on, some fell by the way side..

    http://www.futerra.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Words-That-Sell.pdf

    Futerra infamously responsible for the branding of climate change in: The Rules of the Game for DEFRA

    “To help address the chaotic nature of the climate change discourse in the UK today, interested agencies now need to treat the argument as having been won, at least for popular communications. This means simply behaving as if climate change exists and is real, and that individual actions are effective. The ‘facts’ need to be treated as being so taken-for-granted that they need not be spoken”

    and now their are – New Rules, New Game

    Climate Change Deniers
    “Unfortunately, these guys are back (if they ever went away). The edge of this group are
    the conspiracy theorists who are sure that climate science is an excuse for either (a) the
    environmentalists to curtail consumption or undermine our way of life, or (b) for the developed
    world to hold back the developing world.”

    http://www.futerra.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Sellthesizzle.pdf
    Now I don’t know anybody like that..

    But even Futerra recognise that there are a few at the edge, whereas Prof Lewandowsky, want to portray ALL sceptics, as conspiracy theorists (ie stupid, not to be listened to.)

    http://www.futerra.co.uk/work#go=sell-the-sizzle-2111

    A look at their work is interesting

  7. Climate change is a complex problem but appears to many people as lacking immediate impact on their lives. Reconceptualising it as a health issue may allow for both better understanding of the issue and greater scope for changing behaviour.

    Climate change is often perceived as affecting people far from us in both time and space. And what doctors, psychologists and other health professionals have known for some time is that just providing people with more facts about an issue doesn’t always change their minds or cause them to act in an appropriate manner. In fact, how we say something may be as important as what we say

  8. It’s a very canny speech that Obama made. He has very easily worked in personal points of reference held by some that have previously deterred individuals from engaging in climate action and turned the implications of those points of reference on their head with a single line. He bats away the old arguments around looking after your family (economically), looking after the nation (economically) and a peculiar interpretation of religion, particularly Christianity, that has been used as justification for inaction. These are the personal values that, in the past, have trumped the impacts of climate change that are often communicated as an overwhelmingly big or distant problem. By engaging on those personal values and putting the counter argument, rather than just trotting out more stats as evidence of change, Obama has taken the first step towards changing the position of such people.

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