Addressing climate change is about preserving freedom

August 20, 2010

I finished George Lakoff’s book Whose Freedom? this week, and I have to ask: why aren’t cimate activists talking left, right and center about freedom?

Lakoff’s argument is that there are two competing conceptions of freedom in the minds of Americans. There’s the narrow conception endorsed by the radical right, in which freedom requires only the absence of government interference, and there’s the wider conception endorsed by the left, in which freedom demands material well-being for all. Some people explicitly favor one version of freedom or the other, but many people carry both conceptions of freedom. The correct framing can activate either conception. Radical conservatives have been highly effective at framing issues in terms of narrow, negative freedom. The left has to work just as hard to reframe the issues in terms of expansive, positive freedom. Reframing requires constant repetition (so expect to hear me talking a lot about freedom in coming weeks).

I’m coming late to the framing game, but I don’t see why climate advocates shouldn’t cash in on the power of freedom. Clean energy is about preserving our freedoms. The freedom to enjoy the outdoors without dying of heat stroke. The freedom to live in a United States where the Southwest has not been turned into a permanent dust bowl, where food is affordable and where cities are not submerged under rising seas, flooded by torrential rains or threatened by wildfires. I know I sound like a frustrated speech-writer, but honestly, why not frame it this way? Freedom is such a potent concept.

Here are bits of three recent pieces on how climate activists should move forward. None of them mentions freedom.

First is David Roberts of Grist, who argues that the environmental movement is too limited to address climate change.

What needs to happen is for concern over earth’s biophysical limitations to transcend the environmental movement — and movement politics, as handed down from the ’60s, generally. It needs to take its place alongside the economy and national security as a priority concern of American elites across ideological and organizational lines. It needs to become a shared concern of every American citizen regardless of ideological orientation or level of political engagement. That is the only way we can ever hope to bring about the urgent necessary changes.

Next is Robert Walker, also writing at Grist, on what climate activists can learn from the NRA.

Redraw the battle lines. At the present time, the issue of climate change is largely seen as an intergenerational issue affecting future generations, but as the effects of climate change become more pronounced, as they have this year, the issue may — and should — become more pressing to those focused on the “the here and now.”  Supporters of climate-change legislation need to do a better job of defining what’s at stake in the near term, including extreme temperatures, drought, flooding, and rising food prices.

Work on your rallying cry. It’s a shame that most issues in politics, even complex issues like climate change, are often reduced to 25 words or less, but that’s the way it is.  Messages serve to frame the debate and can mean the difference between victory and defeat. Both sides of the gun debate have used messaging to their benefit, but over the years the gun lobby has done a better job of it than gun-control proponents. Supporters of climate-change legislation need to go back to the message drawing board.

Last is Joe Romm of Climate Progress, who gives advice to Bill McKibben’s group 350.org.

Holding rallies about solutions will never replace the need for actually doing the messy business of electing politicians who support tough climate laws and defeating those who oppose them.  It will never stop emissions from going straight up.

You want to make climate change a priority concern? You want a rallying cry? You want to mobilize people to get out the vote? This is America. We have to think like Americans do. And I say we start talking about freedom.

4 Responses to “Addressing climate change is about preserving freedom”


  1. [...] a more domestic, constructive and cogent post on a similar theme, go read JR Minkel’s “Addressing climate change is about preserving freedom.” JR is of course ignoring America’s most important freedoms: to drive massive gashogs [...]

  2. llewelly Says:

    I have to ask: why aren’t cimate activists talking left, right and center about freedom?

    We’ve been distracted by the need to convince a bunch of flat-earthers that Earth is round.

  3. JR Minkel Says:

    Lakoff would say that’s a losing proposition. For one thing, people reject facts that don’t fit their view of the world. For another, it doesn’t pay to let the flat-earthers set the terms of the debate. I would add that the most effective way to convince a flat-earther the world is round is probably to get him to fall in love with a round-earther. Short of that, all we can do is reframe our message to target the people who are willing to go flat or round depending on how the facts are packaged.


  4. [...] Depressed yet? Here’s something to keep in mind: addressing climate change is about preserving freedom! [...]


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