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Bridging climate science, citizens, and policy

Immediacy & Framing: Climate Change vs. Health Care

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Two issues that are being addressed by the 111th Congress and President Obama provide an interesting example of the importance of immediacy and framing.  As this post’s title suggests, I’m talking about legislation to deal with our breaking climate and our broken health care system.  The way potential solutions are being proposed and discussed provide an interesting contrast.

On the one hand, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (H.R. 2454) was passed by the House of Representatives a couple of weeks ago.  There was plenty of talk about how the bill didn’t go far enough by climate activists.  Some activists, including myself, wondered if the bill should have been voted on in the form it took.  As I quickly detailed yesterday, other countries are taking more aggressive steps to ramp down their carbon emissions and ramp up their renewable energy capabilities.  I don’t think the ACESA bill, as currently written, will do enough to cut carbon emissions from history’s biggest polluter: the U.S, in time to prevent 2°C or more warming globally.  Yet most of what I read and heard after the House vote revolved around something like this: “This bill isn’t perfect, but it’s better than nothing”;  “It’s a step in the right direction” and so on.  What I didn’t hear, especially from progressive House members, was a refusal to vote for a bill that didn’t get done what science demands to be done.  What I didn’t hear was a refusal to vote for a bill that didn’t do what a majority of Americans wanted it to do.  Does anyone seriously think Americans wanted the House to give billions in corporate welfare to the nuclear, oil, natural gas and coal industries?  Because that’s what had to be stuck into the bill while at the same time reducing emissions and renewable energy targets.

In contrast, I’m reading a lot this week about the political maneuvering surrounding health care: public options, triggers, co-ops, etc.  I’m reading and hearing about House members sending letters to the Senate and the President laying down ultimatums: they will not vote for a health care bill that taxes employer health benefits, or that doesn’t include a government-run insurance option.  There is minimal discussion about something being better than nothing, that it’s just a step in the right direction, etc.  No, it’s that if that collection of brave, principled politicians stand by their ultimatum, it would seriously weaken the President’s health care and other agenda items.  I don’t believe it’s an empty threat, nor do I believe it should be an empty threat.  I applaud those members who are standing by their principles and demanding real change finally come about.

But the difference exists.  I would have liked to hear the same kind of ultimatum being laid down in the climate bill talk.  As I listen to radio programs and hear the process unfolding; as I read news and blog reports and read about the process unfolding, I keep coming back to wondering why there is the difference.  I think, in a generalized sense, there are at least two different mechanisms at work.  The first is framing, the second is immediacy.  I get the impression that the second is more likely to matter more, but I will start with framing.

Progressives have learned a little bit about how to frame their arguments – but generally not enough, at least up to this point in time.  With respect to health care, arguments for a single-payer universal health care system have been boosted by framing health care as a human right and not a privilege.  As we all know, to date, our health care system is based largely on privilege, so the effort to switch views on the system have been slow.  I think many of us picked up important lessons from the last Democratic attempt to introduce health care reform.  In the time since, the reform effort has benefited from the unfortunate scenario in which the cost to purchase insurance (and drugs, etc.) has far outstripped inflation and especially real wages.  As a result, fewer people could afford quality health insurance, to say nothing of quality health care.  It was easy to see what this scenario would lead to: more sick people who waited longer to see doctors that they couldn’t afford, which led to further cost increases, etc. in a vicious cycle that will not end.  Thus, an easy second frame that was picked up was the absurdity of paying more for less year after year.

The Cons, on the other hand, kept talking about the mythical “free market” and limited government.  Both, I believe, have finally backfired on them.  If the market is as free as they have convinced Americans it is, it should be able to easily handle a public option, at a minimum.  The only reason corporate insurance giants would go out of business is if they weren’t running their business as efficiently as it could be run.  The limited government meme took a major hit in 2006 and 2008.  Americans don’t want the government to get involved in every detail of their lives, but more Americans realize the government can provide things that people alone and corporations alone can’t.  There are other frames, but I will move onto my next example to keep things rolling.

With respect to climate change, arguments centered around the environment.  From a scientific standpoint, this made a lot of sense.  Destroying the global environment wouldn’t be good for any of us.  But climate change activists encountered similar roadblocks to reform that health care activists did: incredibly wealthy interest groups.  It was easy for the coal, oil and gas industries to spend a few million dollars per year on pro-industry institutes who churned out papers questioning the veracity of the science and the integrity of the scientists.  Throw in a little more money per year on politicians to make sure they allowed their industry millions in tax breaks and unregulated profiteering and nothing has been done on climate change, despite the threat of abrupt climate change growing year after year.

Climate change activists have largely moved onto a financial argument in recent years.  It seems like Americans respond to finances more readily than they do the environment, so perhaps this hasn’t been a bad choice.  Indeed, financial arguments can carry a lot of weight.  Any time I’ve visited a coastal city in the past few years, I’ve tried to visualize what additional inches to feet of sea level would do to our infrastructure.  It quickly boggles the mind when you’re standing in front of millions of dollars worth of buildings, roads, utilities, etc.  Or consider the cost of treating trees in the Rocky Mountains which haven’t yet succumbed to the mountain pine beetle epidemic.  How about the cost of dealing with the 4 million+ acres of already dead trees before a dry summer with lightning storms ignite entire forests?  I could go on and on.  We can all imagine the incalculable financial costs directly and indirectly associated with climate change effects.

How about the societal good argument?  This question has received perhaps the least amount of public discussion and I think that ought to change: what will it cost the globe’s societies to deal with thousands of climate migrants?  The U.S. has had two good examples along the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Ike in 2008.  What will it cost to deal with 100,000 climate migrants?  How about 1,000,000 or more climate migrants?  It’s easy to see that any cost to reduce our greenhouse pollution is easily dwarfed by the cost of inaction.

So why aren’t more American politicians drawing lines in the sand on climate change the way they are on health care?  I think it has to with immediacy.  As much as it pains me to watch the climate and health care discussions move forward with different speeds, climate slower than health care from my perspective, the immediacy of each crisis gives us a good way of explaining those speeds.

Which seems more important: losing your health coverage this year or reading about sea level rise of 0.1mm this year?  Which seems more important: having a claim for a procedure denied by an insurance company in the next five years or reading about 0.5°F warmer winters five years from now?  Are climatological forecast of 40-90 years in any way relevant?  By all appearances, it doesn’t seem like they are for a majority of us.  Climate action is important, but ranks behind every other policy issue I can think of in poll after poll after poll.

Here is why climate action takes a clear front seat to any other issue out there: in the long-term, everything else will matter less than climate change if we don’t act decisively today.  We’ve wasted too much time as it is – some effects are becoming permanent, as far as human life-times are concerned.  Here is what is likely to happen by 2100 (or sooner) if we continue too much longer on a business-as-usual approach:

  • Staggeringly high temperature rise, especially over land — some 15°F over much of the United States
  • Sea level rise of 5 feet, rising some 6 to 12 inches (or more) each decade thereafter
  • Permanent Dust Bowls over the U.S. SW and many other heavily populated regions around the globe
  • Massive species loss on land and sea — 50% or more of all life

While the worst of these won’t come to pass for decades (or at all if we do something!), they are far more terrible than this year’s denied insurance claim or the premiums we’ll pay in five years.  Health care in the year 2100 under the conditions described above will be even more of a privilege than it is today, to put it charitably.  Heck, if our government survived the development of these effects, I will be shocked.  The worst case scenario being forecasted by the most recent scientific research today basically spells out the end of global ecosystems.  Mass extinctions have occurred in the past under similar climatological conditions.  Ecosystems take thousands upon thousands of years to recover from such disasters.

So here is where framing and immediacy overlap: this message has not and is not being communicated to the American public.  And I mean not at all – I’m not even talking about the efficacy of any such efforts.  Scientists the world over deserve heaps of blame for failing in this basic task: communicating their results to the public.  If the issue of climate change were being framed as I (and a few others) have done to the public on a consistent basis, I believe a sense of immediacy about the problem could be generated.  Who wants to leave such a planet to their children, after all?  The best part of this story is this: it would be far cheaper and much easier to deal with our habits now rather than pay the ultimate price down the road.  We have viable solutions in front of us today.  Very little of our way of life needs to be altered in order to achieve the necessary goals.  Very few of us would be negatively impacted during a transition to a more sustainable way of life.

Look, I hope we as a country make solid progress on both of these crises.  I firmly believe we can deal with both at the same time, too.  But I believe we have more time to reform the health care system.  I’m not advocating we wait 20 more years to do something – far from it.  To put it plainly: we have run out of time to deal with the climate.  We’ve wasted the better part of 30 years, letting the issue slide because of the lack of immediacy.  Now the crisis is in front of us, screaming and waving, trying to get our attention.  If we walk by it again, there will be no more chances.  We’ll have to start dealing with the effects we’ve forced on ourselves.  And health care and lots of other issues will be luxuries none of us can afford.

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