Climate Justice and Copenhagen

05/25/2011 02:55 pm ET

I've been meaning to write about Climategate, of course, but then again, that's a bit like whistling in the wind at the moment. If I can manage to clear my thoughts and say something that is interesting and meaningful and that hasn't already been said well (like here and here), I will.

But in the meanwhile, I think it's important to say something about another climate-related leak, this one related to the Danish government's plans to support a climate deal that will hold developing countries more accountable for their emissions than developed countries. You can imagine how that's going over with countries like, say, the Sudan. Or Bangladesh. Or, you name it. Hopenhagen? Hardly. Nopenhagen? Maybe. There is no way developing countries would ever agree to such a thing.

Nor should they. It's nonsense to argue that things should proceed business as usual for those of us who already have it pretty good, while those who might have it rough have to bear more burden for a problem they have probably done little to create.

Nonsense, in my opinion. Yet, there are a whole bunch of people who think that's exactly what should be done.

One thing scholars in science and environmental communication are interested in is "frames," ways to present particular environmental events, crises, or issues to the public that relate to their ways of seeing their world, or their values. Matthew Nisbet at American University is one of the key proponents of using particular "frames" for presenting climate change, but you could also check out the work of George Lakoff, who looks at framing and politics generally.

There are some things to like about "framing" -- clearly, climate change communication has been uber-messy, and while the culture wrangles with what to make of climate science and climate politics, the crisis continues to grow (as someone I know puts it, the ice caps don't give a sh** about emails). Framing the climate problem as a public health issue or a national security problem is an appealing approach because it gets us out of the messiness of the debates over the science, which may be screwed up beyond repair.

On the other hand, framing has some real disadvantages. Some people might see "framing" as another word for "spinning," and a lot of us might think that what climate change communication does not need more of is spin.

Perhaps more importantly, though, I worry that important discussions might be left out when all we worry about are the pragmatics of getting the public to care, or with getting an agreement in Copenhagen, no matter the cost. For example, the "climate justice" frame may not be very popular with very many people. We, in the United States and other developed nations, may not feel that we are responsible for the way our economic and energy systems developed. Or, like many of the participants in the citizen engagement event World Wide Views, we may feel that the problem is so big that all countries should be held to the same standard. Or (and I think this might be the "right" answer) we are committed to some flawed standard of "fairness" that has nothing at all to do with justice.

Because, maybe, we don't really know what justice is when we're talking about something as big and confusing as climate change. So, maybe, we should be having that conversation, frames or not. The ethicists are just now turning their attention to the issue, but perhaps all the rest of us should be taking it up, too.

Of course, the question is how best to do that. And, as long as we're focused exclusively on reducing carbon dioxide as the only way to get after climate change (as opposed to focusing at energy innovation, say) then discussions over justice and responsibility and equity don't seem too sexy.

What about this? What about a frame that reminds Americans that one value they have held dear over time is equal access to opportunity? Everybody gets a fair shake? And climate change, with its uneven affects and unwitting aggressors has made for a very unlevel playing field? And that's just un-American.

What do you think? Would that bird fly?