President Bush announced his international development agenda yesterday at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, where he made headlines for declaring that the world's wealthiest countries should talk about climate change. As an atmospheric scientist who analyzes the language of political discourse, I would like to share my perspective on what was said (and not said) in his proposal.
There were two major themes in the section of his speech devoted to climate change. First, he promoted the development of clean energy technologies to replace conventional fuels and production practices. And second, he recommended the elimination of "tariffs and other barriers to clean energy technologies" to promote the spread of these wonders of modern science. All of this was embedded within a story of American compassion to bring prosperity to the world's poor.
Bush is using his story of climate change to frame the debate. At first blush, President Bush's story appears to frame climate change in progressive language. He appears to be in tune with the majority of Americans who want something substantive done about the climate crisis. After closer analysis, however, his framing of the climate change issue will likely lead to business as usual—more trade and technology instead of an adequately regulated market that greatly reduces carbon pollution. Business as usual will continue to make matters worse.
Let's have a look at these ideas more closely to see why the President is still firmly on the path to becoming the worst environmental president in U.S. history.
Conservative Wolf in Progressive Sheep's Clothing
Throughout his speech President Bush presents his arguments in the form of a story. By extracting segments in the order they were presented, we can reconstruct the central theme of his story to see how his argument works. Bush wraps the specifics of his story in a progressive vision with which most Americans agree: "We are a compassionate nation. When Americans see suffering and know that our country can help stop it, they expect our government to respond." The backdrop for the story is the basic goodness of Americans who empathize with the suffering of others and feel a responsibility to relieve their suffering. It may come as a surprise that these are the core values of progressives! But it shouldn't because progressive values are traditional American values and most Americans are too progressive to accept the conservative agenda directly.
He then connects current conservative business practices to the progressive vision in order to make business as usual more acceptable and credible to the American people: "Bringing progress and prosperity to struggling nations requires opening new opportunities for tradeÃ¢â‚¬Â¦but it's important for members of Congress and the people of this country to understand free trade is the best way to lift people out of poverty." (Italics added) The story builds with the assertion that our problems will be solved by removing trade barriers to facilitate the transfer of wealth from rich nations to the poor people of the world. This context is then applied to the problem of climate change: "Bringing progress and prosperity to struggling nations requires growing amounts of energyÃ¢â‚¬Â¦we need to harness the power of technology to help nations meet their growing energy needs while protecting the environment and addressing the challenge of global climate change." (Italics added) The problem that has been established — that good-hearted Americans must relieve the suffering of the world's poor by removing trade barriers — is resolved in this story by promoting technological development in the marketplace. The market is not referenced explicitly, arising instead as part of the context involving trade barriers as a form of market regulation. Most importantly, the link between good-hearted Americans and international trade is not accurate. Americans are compassionate, but markets are not. Nor are they meant to be. Markets operate to maximize profit whether they relieve suffering or not. In Bush's frame, he implies that they will. But this is misleading.
Change Without Changing
In Bush's frame, we can make change by continuing to do more of the same, more business as usual. Bush informs us that "the way to meet this challenge of energy and global climate change is through technology." This frames the debate by defining the problem as being a lack of adequate ingenuity in the R&D department. After being told for years that the body of knowledge accumulated by scientists is not trustworthy — if those scientists happen to study the atmosphere — we are now reassured that the authority of science will save the day. But only if the authority promotes free market capitalism!
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The story we are told by Bush is that the villainous dirty energy is polluting our air and threatening the future of our civilization. Our hero, clean energy technology, is here to save the day, and luckily "the United States is in the lead." The story looks something like this: In times past, there were many dirty technologies that plagued our air and changed our climate. The compassionate United States brings progress and prosperity to save the day through free market mechanisms that promote innovative new clean technologies. By investing in these technologies, we can avert crisis and move forth into a better world. This means we need to focus our efforts on the elimination of trade barriers and tariffs so that we can afford to share these new technologies out of the goodness of our hearts. The central premise is that a "free market" will fix everything. This is an interesting claim considering that the market we have now is already quite "free" from trade barriers, and the climate problem is only growing worse!
Hidden Assumptions Made Clear
The hidden assumption behind this story is that we can consume all of the energy that we want (with a disproportionate share going to Americans) as long as the technologies are clean and the market is unregulated. Thus, no substantive changes are needed to the current business, political, and social conditions that have created this problem.
This idea of opening trade routes and funding industrial research keeps our attention away from the real problems associated with the climate crisis— including the high and disproportionate levels of energy consumption by Americans. There is no mention of rising sea levels, contamination of municipal drinking water, massive migrations of refugees, or disturbances of food production by shifting climate. The problem of population is nowhere to be found. And, of course, there is nothing at all about energy consumption.
Sometimes the things that are not said are more important than the things that are. By presuming that new technologies will save the day, we needn't be bothered with the pesky details of real climate change.
This sure sounds like business as usual to me.
Joe Brewer is a Fellow at the Rockridge Institute. He received three B.S. degrees from Southeast Missouri State University—in Physics, Applied Mathematics, and Interdisciplinary Studies.