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Reframing the Climate Change Debate

Whether or not the United States addresses impending climate change hinges largely on the marketing message driving the discussion. Last night, President Barack Obama made his best pitch to reframe the climate change debate, casting it through the prism of a Works Progress Administration-style plan for achieving a clean energy future.

While Obama’s idea of clean energy is a bit skewed (he gave shout outs to nuclear and the soot-dusted unicorn dubbed clean coal), his approach is interesting in that it moves away from a climate change debate mired in a hyperbolic mish-mash of scare tactics and industry glad-handing. What’s more, Obama’s clean energy message plays to Middle America, where the mention of climate change still induces eye-rolling and chortles of empathy for the misguided believers.

In October 2010, Leslie Kaufman wrote a fascinating piece for The New York Times about climate change skeptics in a small Kansas town embracing notions of energy efficiency and clean energy infrastructure. Where the blue-collar residents scoffed at climate change science and hoped against new environmental regulations from the government, they enthusiastically cut their energy use and desired for the country to become energy independent.

The key to combating climate change in America’s Heartland, as the Kansas-based nonprofit group in Kaufman’s story discovered, was to avoid an argument over the reality of climate change and instead make appeals to people’s “thrift, patriotism, spiritual conviction and economic prosperity.” In other words, when the debate was reframed from conserving energy to stop climate change to conserving energy to save money, the climate skeptics started switching off the lights.

All this raises some interesting questions. Does it matter that we discuss clean energy instead of climate change? Do the ends justify the means? Andrew Revkin, environmental blogger for The New York Times, says they do not.

It’s one thing to cave to a wave of naysaying climate rhetoric and build a new American energy conversation on points of agreement rather than clear ideological flash points like global warming. It’s another to duck and cover entirely on climate, as President Obama did in his State of the Union message.

And while Revkin’s discomfort at the negation of the climate change discussion in the State of the Union address is somewhat valid, it’s also a bit shortsighted. In 100 years, our grandchildren will care about whether or not they have clean air to breath and clean water to drink—the debates, discussions and ideas that produced the clean air and water will be mere footnotes of history, the tangible results will be all that truly matters.