Constructively framing a low-carbon future: ‘Scary science and happy economics: making sense of climate change’

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Julia Thornton discusses constructively framing a low-carbon future and climate change in conversations, business, policy and the media.

Reproduced with permission from Dissent Magazine (Australia), Summer 2009/2010

1: What is going on?

Climate change is complex. Taking the idea of climate change and making it into a clear picture of how you and I will live in the near and far future is even more complex.

Here are two stories about people I have spoken to about climate change, and their reactions. These two people are, you might say, at opposite ends of the spectrum.

The first was a woman with whom I spent a long time talking at an open day for a very environmentally sustainable house belonging to a member of our Climate Action group-Lighter Footprints. The owner has opened his house on a number of occasions and each time gets about 400 people through in a day. This woman was pretty typical of visitors in that she was looking for solutions to her own low-energy retrofit dilemmas. She had with some difficulty saved up a few thousand dollars since she felt it was wrong to go into debt for sustainability, and she was trying to work out a huge number of very confusing problems.

What was best to do first? Should she insulate? Should she modify the house to improve passive heating and cooling? Should she install something like the heating systems that use the warm air from the roof cavity? Should she go solar? If she did was water heating or electricity production best? How did she know which manufacturer to use? What if there was new technology around the corner? Where did she start looking? What questions hadn’t she asked herself?

She was experiencing her green decision-making as a really complex, knotty problem and she was having trouble seeing a clear picture of her own personal low-carbon future.

The second person I met was at a dinner. It was a conference dinner for the Australian Pulp and Paper Manufacturing Industry Technical Association (APPITA) and I found myself sitting next to Jim Henneberry, the CEO of Australian Paper, the paper manufacturing division of AMCOR.

At risk of being somewhat gauche in both senses, I nevertheless asked him the question that was uppermost on my mind: what happens to Australian Paper and AMCOR in an environmentally clean future? What are they going to do? Now it’s not the job of CEOs to look uncertain about the future, so he didn’t express the confusion of the woman in the house. The answer I got was pretty much that they will develop carbon neutral paper and look to developing themselves as a biofuel producer-that is, stay in the same forest products sector but do something different with the resources. ln effect he was saying that the future he could envisage was to take as much as he could of the known present and move it with as little disruption as possible into the future.

What was clearer from the technicians present, who were less skilled at producing seamless accounts of leadership and confident direction, was that for them there was a real problem in imagining themselves into a low-carbon future in any way that was rich and detailed and measurable and knowable. It was much easier to imagine ‘business as usual’. I asked them about their parallel with Kodak when everyone stopped buying film. They really could not imagine what might be the equivalent reinvention for them.

For both these people – the woman in the sustainable house and Jim Hennebery – the problem is how to get a good picture of the future that they can imagine being part of.

2: Thinking with disruption

Soren Kierkegaard said ‘Life is lived forward but understood backward’. This insight underpins much of the modern understanding of cognition. Today, this is more likely to be expressed as the proposition, Cognitive psychology is founded on the idea that people interpret their fresh experience in the light of their long-term knowledge and that the resulting rich structures give them the wherewithal to reason to their decisions’ (Stenning & Lambalgen 2008 p.90).

The ‘long-term knowledge’ in question can also be understood as ‘framing’. Framing is the idea that in order to reduce cognitive load (too much simultaneous information) we edit what we know into simpler schemas or models. To internally connect the sketches that comprise these frames we ensure they are coherent or to some degree logical. That is, the internal content of frames should not be too self-contradictory. Then we take the flow of events around us as we experience them and fit those to these small coherent pictures. We carry with us a number of them, held simultaneously, some of which we keep apart because they are dissonant. But when we are forced to draw them together to use them to interpret a particular set of circumstances, we then notice their dissonance and experience difficulty in interpretation of events.

The more that these frames allow us to infer the same things across from one to another, the more we tend to interpret them as ‘true’ (Lakoff & Nunez, 2000 P.353). This allows us to proceed with relative confidence in our picture of the world.

Lastly, for the purposes of this argument, frames are social-we construct them together and share them in explaining things to each other and in cooperating to create action. This idea of framing has a couple of consequences when things change rapidly or we face a crisis.

First, if frames do not map well onto each other, we experience that as confusing and illogical and it can immobilise us. Second, a reaIIy abrupt crisis or interruption can result in enough ‘breaking’ of a frame to mean that considerable conscious effort has to be expended to carefully craft some new set of coherent ideas that fit the new circumstances. The alternative to this-although it is usually a constant partner rather than in opposition-is to remain constantly mindful. That is to be sufficiently alert and conscious of the need to rebuild pictures of the world, so that frames remain fluid and responsive (Weick 2006).

On the other hand, if things change really slowly, there is no impetus to change the way we think about it. This is particularly so if we cannot attribute ‘agency’- the idea that someone is behind the change. For instance, the Bushfire Royal Commission is not about what went wrong with ‘nature’ to create an unprecedented fire, it is about what people – agents -did wrong prior to or during the emergency. We used to blame nature itself, but it was in the form of its ‘agents’-witches, spirits and God. Now that ‘nature’ is impassive we find it difficult to react to.

So in sum, we make sense by using cohesive edited packets of old ideas and we correct them Iooking backwards in what Clifford Geertz calls ‘a continual effort to devise systems of discourse that can keep up, more or less, with what, perhaps, is going on'(Geertz 1995 p.19).

‘When everything changes, from the small and immediate to the vast and abstract-the object of study, the world immediately around it, the student, the world immediately around him (or her) and the wide world around them both-there seems to be no place to stand so as to locate just what has altered and how’ (Ibid p.2).

3: Two frames

At present, to deal with climate change, we think with two almost opposite frames.

The fact that they are so different leads us to question the validity of one from the standpoint of the other. These two frames lack inferential consistency from one to the other, remembering that cognitive science suggests inferential consistency across frames is experienced as truth.

On the one hand there is mark economics which is an essentially utopian enterprise. Why is it utopian? Because it supports the contention that there is such a thing as market ‘equilibrium’ and that such an equilibrium necessarily operates in our favour. From this supposition solutions to climate change are put forward to create a self-regulating system that does not need intervention precisely because of the apparent tendency of this system to orient itself around the best possible outcomes for all of us. (Never mind for the moment that ‘us’ does not include other living things such as parrots and slime mould or coherent arrangements of nature including waterways and landscapes.)

Built into this idea of centralising around goodness is also an idea of progress. While there are now some economic thinkers producing works on sustainable or no-growth economies, the mainstream of economics is predicated on growth which is itself predicated on the idea that there is something evolutionarily ‘natural’ about being better off-richer, cleverer and more ‘evolved’ than our predecessors. Mark Twain, with his gift for derisive pricking of pompous ideas, pointed out the flaw in this thinking in a comment to the effect that any fool could see that the purpose of the Eiffel Tower was to hold up the coat of paint on top.

Market economics is also utopian because it works on the difficult premise that the good human being – beneficiary of the good ‘centre-ing’ tendencies of the system, doing the right thing by striding into the future ‘creating’ wealth – is also entitled, as a reward, to ‘happiness’. Happiness here derives from the consequentialist moral theory of utilitarianism: Things are good if they tum out right. No place here for the character of the act or the agent. No place for altruism or for behaving correctly on principle. The effect of the system ‘turning out right’ happens to coincide nicely with producing happy humans, and that consequence is enough.

This collection of ideas has all the self-centred egotism of a child. Childlike, we have simply recreated the address we wrote as children – my name, my house number, my street, suburb, city, state, country, world, universe. The premise is that we are still the special creature of a providence which will not let us down, as a child thinks of a parent. Nature, however, is supremely indifferent to how we cast our relationship with it. It is under no obligation to keep us going. The purpose of the environment is not to support us. It has no purpose, it just becomes. It is indifferent to our fate.

‘Nature is not just, but she is exact’ (graffiti, St Kilda). The environment movement is well aware of this state of affairs. Their reaction, however, has been dystopian: a negative story to tell us about all the things going catastrophically wrong, which are speeding up and which are so huge that we are a twig to a tsunami in the face of them.

Cognitive science tells us that when we are confronted with things too big to comprehend, we simply don’t comprehend them, as demonstrated by those people who rant towards the tsunami as the tide went out (see for instance Lyall 2006). This dystopian climate scenario just does not fit into ‘life as we know it’ or ‘business as usual’ so we tend to behave as if it isn’t there. If we do get to the stage of registering it, it is really scary.

Scared people narrow their vision. They focus on one or two scary elements and it becomes very difficult for them to process surrounding events and information outside of that focussed attention.

The difficulty of processing large amounts of bad news is also made worse by the difficulty that we have with information generally. Behaviour change does not result from having enough information. If it did, no-one would drink, smoke, take drugs or have unsafe sex. A further illustration of the insufficiency of information alone to cause behaviour change comes from Atul Gawande’s book on improving health, Better. That hand washing substantially reduced hospital infection was first deduced by Ignac Semmelweis in 1847.

However, in2007, Gawande could still write, ‘Each year, according to the US Centres for Disease Control, two million Americans acquire an infection while they are in hospital. Ninety thousand die of that infection’. Causation? Gawande says in the same paragraph, ‘The hardest part of the infection control team’s job….is getting clinicians like me to do the one thing that consistently halts the spread of infections; wash our hands’ (2007 p 1a).

Clearly information about ‘the science’ of climate change – the temperature graphs, the ocean acidity, the loss of polar albedo, the CO2 parts per million we can argue over’, and so on, is not enough.

Things are not improved much when the scientists try to tell us what to do. Typical of the things the ‘science’ says we should do to mitigate climate change in future is the following paragraph from the IPCC report of 2007.

“There is high agreement and much evidence that aII stabilisation levels assessed can be achieved by deployment of a portfolio of technologies that are either currently available or expected to be commercialised incoming decades, assuming appropriate and effective incentives are in place for their development, acquisition, deployment and diffusion and addressing related barriers’ (IPCC 2007 p 20).”

I don’t know about you – but as a vision for the future, what does that mean? How is this a picture of the future that allows us to plan specific change in our houses and in industries, services and governments and to understand what we are charging into rather than out of?

4: …and a third frame. ‘How should I live to change climate change?’

What is needed is a way to translate the mitigation then removal of anthropogenic climate change into two things – a story and some doable action.

A story or two which can act as a frame gives people a way to get a grasp of the situation and their place in it. It reduces information load somewhat, but it also reduces the ambiguity of that information which comes from not knowing what meaning to attribute to it.

Karl Weick says, ‘Stories are cues within frames that are also capable of creating frames. Ideologies, paradigms and traditions are known by their examples, not by their abstract framing principles. When people are asked to describe their ideology, they start with examples that imply patterns of belief within which those examples make sense. Stories that exemplify frames and frames that imply stories are two basic forms in which the substance of sensemaking becomes meaningful’ (1995 p.131).

In addition to stories, action is also useful because it causes people to have to justify that action and by doing so binds them to the wider story and larger frame they just used. Thus putting solar panels on the roof, or water tanks in the front yard means it is necessary to persuade oneself (as well as, implicitly, the neighbours) that this is a good idea because it is part of a bigger picture. Beliefs justify action, but action also justifies beliefs. An industry that starts to become green can then ask itself if it is actually achieving anything useful by its efforts, and be asked the same question by others.

Whether biofuel production is actually carbon reduction or just churning the same old carbon around in the air is something that can only be asked of a company that is seriously considering making the shift. Whether it is cheaper to go into non-fossil energy production, rather than waste Star Wars amounts of money on carbon sequestration, only makes sense if those industries have committed to carbon reduction by acting in some green way in the first place.

Free permits to big polluters are perfidious not just because they provide no financial incentive to change but also because they require no action that commits the organisation to change, binding it into an alternative green frame. Economists and others who are still reverberating from the effects of command and control economies should take heart that what I am advocating here is not so much a recipe as a set of captured heuristics (e.g. Gigerenzer & Brighton 2009). Fortunately, passing on heuristics, especially in the form of examples is something we do well; as Socrates grumpily discovered in his dialogue with Euthyphro, while asking for the abstract ‘rules’ of piety and turning up, time after time, only examples of what he did.

The thing about ‘business as usual’ is that with it, the future is very vivid and knowable. You can somewhat confidently predict wage rates, profits, expenditure on equipment and so forth. This is so especially if they are the only things you are looking at, measuring, and creating stories around. We in the environment movement are asking people to give up this certainty for an unknown future in a society where not knowing is frankly seen as irresponsible.

So it is incumbent on all of us who are concerned about climate change to create good, positive stories and to demonstrate do-able actions. Telling people what they can’t or shouldn’t do does not let them know about what they can or should do. The challenge for the environmental movement, for economists, and indeed anyone with an interest in leading us to a sustainable future is to draw a picture of Australia’s future in such a way that people can imagine clearly and in measurable detail a path to sustainability where they are less reliant on old stories of endless growth and more open to new ones of managing within our planetary means, but are not overwhelmed and depressed into inaction or into excluding vital information.

The picture needs to be rich enough so that people individually and at industry and government level can make sense of sustainable living and can retain a feeling of control and draw conclusions about their own future. It should be structured enough so people have a scaffold of forward thinking but loose enough so people can take opportunities and work around setbacks.

We need to invite others who are not as yet concerned about climate change into our comprehensions. We need frameworks that simplify choices, but at the same time provide rich and meaningful descriptions of what life might be like in a low-carbon society. We need to provide clear and coherent justifications for actions that allow people to undertake enough action of their own to commit to the idea of a low-carbon future. And we need to keep making these frameworks and justifications as we stay abreast of events and circumstances as they happen.

The challenge is how do we – all of us together – draw a picture of the future which is strong enough and clear enough on which to base a whole, vividly imaginable, positively described, change to our way of living?

Julia Thornton is a Research Associate in Global Studies, Social Science and Planning at RMIT University.


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