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Does Climate Policy Just Need Better Framing?

Now that the climate bill is dead and decomposing, some advocates are writing op-eds arguing that if only its backers had framed things this way or that way, the public would've responded more positively and demanded action from lawmakers. See, for instance, Lee Wasserman's piece in The New York Times today.

Most of these arguments seem pretty dubious, though. As Dave Roberts argues, the climate bill's pulse went flat less because of framing failures and more because it's just incredibly difficult to get large policies through the Senate. If all it took to get legislation passed in this country was a majority vote in both chambers plus presidential approval, we'd probably have a climate bill by now. Instead, the filibuster allowed Senate Republicans (and a few conservative Democrats) to thwart any climate-related action, and the horrible economy ensures that they'll benefit at the midterms regardless.

Now, that said, the way an issue is framed is probably important over the long term. UCLA's Matthew Kahn has an interesting post asking why climate change became such a partisan issue. After all, it can't all be explained purely by self-interest. In general, states with higher carbon emissions tend to lean Republican. But a state like Arizona would benefit massively from a federal cap-and-trade system—the sunny Southwest is a prime location for a nascent solar industry. Yet you don't see John McCain or Jon Kyl supporting a climate bill. Why does the issue split so cleanly along partisan lines? And can anything ever change that dynamic? I'm not sure I agree with this suggestion floated by Kahn, though it's at least an interesting way of thinking about the issue:

When I was spending a lot of time at USC this spring, I talked at length with Jim Haw. He is a Professor there responsible for their undergraduate environmental major. In our talks about climate change politics, he stressed that a politically neutral way of discussing the issue was as "climate hygiene". Just as you have to brush your teeth and take a bath, you have to take certain steps to make sure the climate system is healthy. This "spin" on this hot button issue shifts the focus from whether a given person is a "good person" or a given company is a "good company" to a less judgemental worldview of simply engaging in day to day steps (like brushing your teeth) that become part of our routine.

But think about it, if 300 million Americans each brush their teeth for 10 minutes a day, then we spend 3 billion minutes a day brushing our teeth and that equals 5 million hours. If we value our time at $15 an hour, then we are spending $75 million dollars a day to brush our teeth or 27 billion dollars a year on this activity. So even, "small investments" add up to look like they have large price tags but nobody debates the merits of brushing your teeth. Could climate change mitigation have been converted into a similar activity in terms of it being second nature that we engage in it without debating its merits or politicizing the entire topic?

One difference, of course, is that there's not a well-heeled cavity industry spending millions of dollars sowing the idea that the science behind brushing your teeth is all bunk.

(Flickr photo credit: Leonski)