Fire in Frame: to solve climate change, first remove the politics

Brendan Liveris / 19 October 2019

People typically don’t voluntarily jump out of a third storey building unless, of course, it is on fire. Framing of issues heavily influences the solutions that are put forward to address it, as was famously demonstrated in detail by Daniel Kahneman. It is not until the frame includes a fire that jumping from the window makes sense.

When Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan shrugged off the climate protests of Friday 20th September stating that ‘politics should stay out of the classroom’, he framed climate change as a dot point in the Question Time agenda. Prime Minister Scott Morrison followed this by referring to the ‘needless anxiety’ of Australian teens about climate change.

Framing climate change as a political issue is akin to treating drugs as a criminal issue – a problem that is not solved because it is being approached in the wrong way. And just like with drugs, if it continues to be addressed in this way, it may never get solved.

To be clear, climate change is not a political issue, it is an issue of global preservation and survival. It does require a governmental – not political – response, just as it requires a corporate response and an individual response. In Australia, the latter two are moving at a greater pace than the former. BHP is linking executive bonuses to emissions; Atlassian’s Mike Cannon-Brookes is leading a chorus of business leaders demanding urgent climate action; more than 1% of the Australian population took to the streets for global climate action rallies. Unfortunately, the former is the one with the most potential and the least will.

So if framing is the issue, here are a few frames that Mr Tehan and Mr Morrison might relate to.

Consider a situation where companies in Australia, but headquartered elsewhere, link their executive bonuses to emissions, similar to BHP. Companies headquartered in Europe, for example, will force these environmental policies down onto Australian subsidiaries. These subsidiaries are now looking for businesses who maintain similar views on climate change. The local arms of other overseas businesses probably have the same pressures so will likely get the business, taking Australian money offshore.  

Consider women and Gen Y pushing money into Sustainable Index funds – i.e. Funds that specifically exclude fossils fuels, among others. Superannuation funds are following suit. Even laggard investors will not hang onto coal stocks for long once the share price dives because the big institutional investors have jumped ship. Oh, and Morningstar found that 41 of their 56 Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG)  funds outperformed their non-ESG equivalents.

Then, consider what this all means for the Australian economy. If Australian businesses are deemed ‘unclean’ because they are powered by coal power, that might be enough for global consumers to buy the equivalent product from elsewhere. Businesses looking to establish an Asia-Pacific hub might sooner choose New Zealand, who are implementing meaningful policies to curb their emissions. And, what weight will Australia have when negotiating free trade agreements may be undermined by its failure to support a global issue.

None of this is to talk of the immeasurable effect of climate change on communities, environments and quality of life.

So, even if this were political, even if this were about jobs, how does the Australian Government truly see that it is protecting the interests of the Commonwealth by underperforming on the issue of climate change and the consequent effect on the economy? What frame could it be possibly be seen as reasonable to sit by and allow emissions to keep rising?

The very suggestion that climate change is political is beyond irresponsible. It ignores the fire in the building. Instead of getting ready to take the drastic action of jumping, Australian politicians their affirmation or oath to ‘well and truly serve the Commonwealth of Australia’, could be framed as treason.

Brendan Liveris is a member of the RSA Board.

Armed with an MBA as well as legal qualifications, Brendan has worked for a multinational company in many different countries. He now specialises in corporate sustainability.

In addition to his corporate experience, Brendan has actively contributed to charitable causes like homelessness.

All the more reason.