Climate Change: an Issue of Framing

Illustration by Jasmin Eustache

On Oct. 8, 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a comprehensive report on the necessity of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

As it stands, global warming averages have already increased 1.0-degree Celsius since pre-industrial times. At the current global temperature, extreme weather events have become more frequent alongside rising sea levels and the thinning of Arctic icecaps. At 1.5 degrees and beyond, many fear further losses of coral reefs and the rapid extinction of several additional species.

It may be hard to see what drastic effects climate change can have because these changes are not uniform; in some areas, the temperatures are increasing while others are seeing colder and harsher weather conditions. But the threat is real and many believe change needs to be made. 

Path Dependence and Climate Change

How did it get so bad? We live on a planet with finite resources but infinite wants. Based on the trajectory of global development, exponential use of fossil fuels was bound to create greenhouse gas emissions which then contributed to the rise in temperatures. But what changes need to be made to put us back on a sustainable path? 

Effective action on climate change is contingent on getting the public, the business community and the political class on the same page. If this doesn't occur, the effects on future generations could be drastic, as Jeffery Wagner, professor of environmental economics, explained.

"There's a dynamic in terms of being concerned [for] the economic, social and health status of future generations ... It's a long-term trend we're concerned about," he stated. 

The main dilemma for businesses, policy makers and ordinary citizens, is to balance small but consistent economic growth with protecting the environment and our resources.

Hang Na Ryeol, professor of environmental policy, suggested an attainable solution to this issue.

“The definition of sustainable development [is a solution] — which is the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. We are thinking about the impact on our future generation, just as the concept says ... driving forces of sustainability are awareness and ... environmental ethics,” Ryeol said.

However, it's not just future generations environmentalists are worried about.

"It’s also true that we have a variety of problems here and now. Even within the United States, we have citizens that can’t afford to heat their houses in the winter and others who cannot afford to cool their houses in the summer,” Wagner said.

In other words, many are feeling the consequences of global warming as it directly effects their everyday lives and safety in drastic temperatures. 

This increasing awareness of the harm that is being done to future and current generations has led to more and more citizens wanting to change their behavior. This is shown through electing political officials who are committed to enacting climate policies while protecting economic interests — but this may not be as simple as it may seem.

People, Corporations and Governments

It is evident that change needs to occur. But trouble also arises as governments are not uniformly engaged in stopping the acceleration of climate change.

Countries like Russia are ableto reap short-term benefits from the increase in temperatures, which motivates their inaction. Other governments, such as the United States', focus on the business interests of the fossil fuel industry.

Government inaction can incentivize further inaction by the general public. Igniting influential figures to show the real costs of climate change in hopes to counter the inaction is not always easy. Academic and journalistic reports often describe the effects of climate change in intangible terms.

A classic example is the social cost of carbon, a dollar estimate that gauges the impact of our carbon emissions on the environment, something that doesn’t truly give people the insight necessary to mobilize the general public into action. Framing this issue in scientific jargon and figures that have no impact on people’s daily lives can have a detrimental effect. Some citizens see it as a problem which either doesn’t affect them personally or is an an inevitable issue they can’t do anything about.

Wagner suggested how to stray away from this detrimental framing.

“Cast it in that [tangible] language and show people the real cost and the real damage that’s being done, then ... people are more likely to go along with it," he suggested.

The frame of thinking Wagner suggests goes like this; driving a car is expensive. It’s also costly for the environment. If we want to make people drive less, the easier and more effective way is not to frame it as an issue of air quality and carbon emissions, but rather in terms of fuel and parking prices. The latter costs are more tangible and cut into a person’s budget on a regular basis.

In this way, you are more likely to change a person’s behavior and environmental protection becomes an unintended, but welcome, consequence.

Students, RIT and Sustainability 

Successful framing can lead to widespread action. Due to public interest, many corporations, institutions and local governments are working on policies which address the issues of climate change, energy and sustainability.

RIT and its student body are also involved in this sphere. Liam Megraw, sustainability committee chair in Student Government, outlined some of the initiatives students have undertaken to address issues of waste, recycling, resource management and sustainability.

"[The Sustainability Committee] is working ... on [the] Sustainability Actions Campaign ... [which] is a collaboration with Engineers for a Sustainable World, Student Environmental Action League and RIT Sustainability because they all run events, workshops and informational sessions," he explained.

This event is scheduled to take place in the weeks leading up to and after Earth Week. One specific piece of information shared will be the metrics on the amount of waste RIT produces. Megraw described this report as a wake up call for the wider RIT student community. Once again, framing plays a role. 

RIT's administration is also involved in this issue. Since 2009, RIT has been a signatory to the American Colleges and University President's Climate Commitment, which commits the university to carbon neutrality by 2030. The Climate Action Plan was drafted from this decision and set out the steps RIT plans to take to achieve this goal. In 2017, the plan was updated to include climate resiliency. Furthermore, RIT has set a target of becoming fossil fuel-free in 2045.

With each new IPCC report looking grimmer, the only question left is if the goals set by nations around the globe can be met in time to halt, and perhaps even reverse, climate change.