Obama’s big shift on climate messaging

Chris Mooney picks up an interesting point about Obama’s climate change speech last month:

If you watched President Obama’s major speech on climate change, you may have noticed a recurrent phrase: “our children.” The president said the word “children” fifteen separate times in the speech. He also spoke repeatedly about “future generations” and how a sweltering planet imperils them. The threat of climate itself, meanwhile, garnered considerable scientific detail in the speech, replete with references to dangerous and destructive impacts that are already occurring—from rising seas to parched land and torched forests. “I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing,” the president said.

When you stop and think about it for a minute, the messaging change here is pretty extraordinary. After all, four years ago the administration’s central talking point on climate change did not mention climate change. Rather, the idea was that greening our economy would confer a major benefit in the form of a profusion of green jobs. “It’s ironic that the administration, which helped launch ‘don’t talk about climate change, talk about economics and jobs,’ has flipped to ‘let’s talk about climate change and frame it in moral terms,’” says Joe Romm, a former Clinton administration clean energy official and editor of the leading climate blog Climate Progress. Meanwhile, as a Google Trends search shows, interest in “green jobs” peaked early in Obama’s first term and has been declining ever since.

It’ll be interesting to see whether a similar shift starts to become evident in Labour’s climate change messaging here in the UK (let’s not pretend that messages from the ‘greenest government ever’ have any relevance other than a certain bleak amusement value).

I quizzed Ed Balls on this at a Labour dinner last week, and his messaging was still firmly about how climate change could support the economy, both through green jobs and contributing to growth more generally. This was also very much the key message of his Statesman article to coincide with his appearance on a Green Alliance panel on 10 July; coverage here.

But while there’s undoubtedly much that Balls will need to do to get the Treasury to a better place on low carbon investment – see John Ashton‘s excellent speech on this – Labour will be missing a trick if it frames its climate messaging primarily in green economy terms.

For one thing, the ‘green jobs’ story doesn’t altogether stack up, as I argued in this blog post ages ago: “doing anything effective on climate will create both winners and losers – and the losers will tend to be noisier and more visible”, at least in the short term.

More fundamentally, though, messages about safeguarding our kids’ future are simply more resonant. Balls wants Labour’s key message going in to the next election to be “you’ll be better off under Labour”. Fair enough. But as Obama’s new stance emphasises, he should also set out why their kids will be better off under Labour too.

“I think we’re fucked” and other reasons not to publish a book

Last night saw the launch at the Science Museum of a new book called Ten Billion, by Stephen Emmott. I’m not sure I can recall another book that’s annoyed me this much.

Emmott is head of computation science at Microsoft Research. He’s smart, and clearly makes full use of his mandate at Microsoft to think about big issues. And his book, as the blurb puts it, is “about the potential consequences of the collective activities of the human population as we continue to grow towards ten billion. Its message is simple: We are in real trouble, are heading for deeper trouble, and are failing to do much about it.”

His analysis, in a nutshell, is that: a massive resource scarcity and climate change crunch is rapidly approaching; we’re kidding ourselves if we think that technology is going to let us off the hook without having to face up to any change in our lifestyles; developed world publics are in no mood to consume less; and since we’re not willing to face up to the questions about fair shares in the context of environmental limits, it’s most unlikely that emerging economies will do so any time soon either.

While he gets some of his data wrong, I agree with the broad thrust of this argument 100%. So why the fury? Because of how he finishes the book. Here’s his conclusion (and I’m quoting verbatim):

“We urgently need to do – and I mean actually do – something radical to avert a global catastrophe. But I don’t think we will.

I think we’re fucked.”

Now, I agree that we’re in for a bumpy ride. I agree that it’s going to take something nonlinear and spectacular to make the transition successfully. And it’s fair enough if Emmott can’t imagine what that might look like; I can’t predict it either.

But the point here is that anyone spinning ‘collapse’ stories like this – and especially anyone who is, like Emmott, an opinion former of considerable influence (as I type, his book is the #1 bestseller on global warming or climate at Amazon) – is creating narrative frames that other people are going to use to make sense of what’s going on, how we get here, and what happens next.

And Emmott’s story is not helpful. It’s toxic.

Stories – myths – are deeply, deeply powerful things. They create our reality as much as they describe it. And the more opinion formers get behind collapse narratives, the more likely these narratives are to become self-fulfilling prophecies, contributing to a mood of despair rather than resolve when shocks open up moments of opportunity.

Thinking that we’re “fucked” is a legitimate intellectual position – but if that is what you genuinely believe, then the responsible course of action is to shut the fuck up about it – and leave the narrative bandwidth to others with something more hopeful to say than you.

What have you got to lose by doing so, if you already think it’s all over? And conversely, what are you adding to public debate if you don’t have the imagination even to admit the possibility of success? Either lead, or get out of the way, as a climate negotiator once put it to the US delegation.

All of which begs the question of what I think a more hopeful narrative would look like, given that I buy Emmott’s analysis of the severity of the situation and the lack of obvious answers. I don’t think there’s a single answer, but I’m personally pretty interested in stuff like this. It’s the transcript of a talk I gave earlier this week, and is a first attempt to put together some thoughts that have been bubbling away for over a year.

The talk was at the annual conference of the very cool Modern Church movement - they were founded in the 19th century to oppose religious fundamentalism from within the church, and these days work on areas like religious pluralism, defence of science, and gender equity. Anyway, work in progress – feedback very welcome.

#NSA: Issues for Congress 16th January 2001

From a Congressional Research Service Report for Congress published pre 9/11.

NSA: Issues for Congress: by Richard A. Best, Jr

On reaching that watershed moment:

The National Security Agency (NSA), one of the largest components of the U.S. Intelligence Community, has reached a major watershed in its history. Responsible for obtaining intelligence from international communications, NSA’s efforts are being challenged by the multiplicity of new types of communications links, by the widespread availability of low-cost encryption systems, and by changes in the international environment in which dangerous security threats can come from small, but well organized, terrorist groups as well as hostile nation states.

On the scale of the problem: finding a needle in a haystack:

These links are not necessarily easy targets given the great expansion in international telephone service that has grown by approximately 18% annually since 1992. Intelligence agencies are faced with profound “needle- in-a-haystack” challenges; it being estimated that in 1997 there were some 82 billion minutes of telephone service worldwide.

On new technologies:

Fiber optics can carry far more circuits with greater clarity and through longer distances and provides the greater bandwidth necessary for transmitting the enormous quantities of data commonplace in the Internet age. Inevitably, fiber optic transmission present major challenges to electronic surveillance efforts as their contents cannot be readily intercepted, at least without direct access to the cables themselves.

On having to use communications data because they can’t break codes:

In some cases, NSA must resort to analyses of traffic patterns–who is communicating with whom, when, and how often–to provide information that may not be obtainable through breaking of codes and reading of plaintext.

On oversight and accountability

NSA and counterpart agencies in a number of other countries, especially Great Britain, have come under much criticism in the European Parliament for allegedly monitoring private communications of non-U.S. businessmen in a coordinated electronic surveillance effort known as Echelon in order to support domestic corporations. Some critics go further and charge that NSA’s activities represent a constant threat to civil liberties of foreigners and U.S persons as well. Though NSA has reassured congressional oversight committees that the Agency complies strictly with U.S. law, these controversies will undoubtedly continue.

You don’t need Snowden when you have the CRS.

Are the g7+ and Donors Heading for a Clash?

g7+ donors foreign aidThe g7+ group of 18 fragile and conflict-affected states has joined together to share experiences and promote a new development framework in what are the most difficult of circumstances. Supported by the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding, the group achieved a major breakthrough at the Busan High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in November 2011—an agreement on a New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States. A major part of this is a new orientation to the relationship with donors.

The New Deal priorities what fragile states themselves think are the most important issues to building peaceful and prosperous societies by identifying five Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals (PSGs):

  1. Legitimate politics – Foster inclusive political settlements and conflict resolution
  2. Security – Establish and strengthen people’s security
  3. Justice – Address injustices and increase people’s access to justice
  4. Economic foundations – Generate employment and improve livelihoods
  5. Revenues and services – Manage revenue and build capacity for accountable and fair service delivery

These are meant to frame a country-led, inclusive way of setting national goals and establishing a national development plan. This, in turn, is meant to increase country-donor harmonization and donor co-ordination. Continue reading

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