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Building a new 'why?' for climate action

by Monica Araya, Intercambio Climatico | Intercambio Climatico
Wednesday, 8 May 2013 10:17 GMT

A Chilean electoral official counts ballots after closing a polling station during the presidential elections at Santiago on December 13, 2009. REUTERS/Victor Ruiz Caballero

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Will talking about “carbon” or “emissions” mobilise people? Not really. But finding new people-centred ways to talk about climate change will

The world needs a new “why” for climate action.  Unless the public embraces a vision for climate action that is consistent with their notions of prosperity, politicians will not challenge the status quo inside their governments and political parties.

Latin American countries need a new “why” for climate action; and nowhere is this potential for reframing political storytelling on climate action greater than in middle-income developing countries.  The public is worried about climate change. But is it asking politicians to commit to bold climate action at home? Not yet.

In April, I had the opportunity to engage in this debate at a workshop on climate justice organized by the Government of Chile in collaboration with specialist organizations. Here I share the framing thoughts that I proposed in Santiago as part of an ongoing question on whether to tackle the climate challenge head on—or look the other way.


Today, the idea that politicians commit to climate responsibility is unthinkable.  Everyone who cares about the moral imperative of a below 2 degree Celsius rise in world temperatures is worried, skeptical or even cynical. Few believe that the economic and financial establishments in our countries will ever agree that protecting the climate will help our prosperity, not hurt it.

But I am convinced our public will embrace the unthinkable and demand climate action from our politicians, companies and ourselves. I still believe that people do stand for the country they want.

And if you are skeptical about the power of people, take a quick scan at a few examples that I have witnessed in my lifetime. Unthinkable ideas during my teenage years are the norm in 2013.

  • A black president in the U.S.
  • Rejection of apartheid and Mandela as president of South Africa
  • A unified Germany and a wall transformed into a tourist attraction
  • A Mexican running the OECD, a woman running the IMF
  • A Western government giving up nuclear energy
  • Qatar hosting the annual U.N. Climate Summit
  • The Arab Spring
  • China as the world´s second largest economy, the rise of “BRICS”
  • YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, SMS, Google, and Wikileaks
  • A Latin American Pope in the Vatican

The list goes on, including a woman as the president of my country, Costa Rica - an inconceivable idea when I was born. Many battles are still pending and yet I stand by my optimism: when a political narrative´s time comes, it spreads and conquers the hearts and minds of millions.


The struggle against the high-carbon economy cannot be won unless the battle for a low-carbon shift becomes a political battle that is fought publicly and at the ballot box. We have had years of climate debates - and ironically much of the heat consumes the climate community with internal disagreements on strategy or ideology.

We lack a better, bigger story on climate and society that works for mainstream politicos epitomized by the contest of ideas in the public realm during elections. The big reflection that often comes from holding the mirror up in front of a nation and asking who benefits most from low-carbon growth.

So here are the questions looming large: Does “carbon” work as the rudder for a national climate narrative? Will “carbon” or “emissions” mobilize the public in our regions?  Not really.

In Chile I even argued that mitigation-centric narratives will not work at all. The activist framing for action on the basis of “carbon dioxide  reductions are the right thing to do” simply does not work during an election.  This is partly because it does not inspire anyone.

This is not because the public does not care about climate change.  The public does care. Mothers care. Doctors care. Teachers care. Vulnerable communities care and are asking everyone to care.  But the framing of the political argument in the public debate must change if we do engage those who care. The framing must shift towards people.

Clearly, the technical debate still needs the new Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, the tracking of the emissions gap and the frantic parts per million concentration reminders (we do need the 350.org and Avaaz-like campaigns). My point is different. I am talking about the climate and our politicos: the grand narrative that we need in Latin America needs to be free from a legacy of “carbon-centric” or “mitigation-centric” framings that are being developed elsewhere.

In addition to “mitigation” (especially carbon pricing) not stirring our imaginations in the quest for a new development pathway, mitigation-centric narratives quickly trigger defensive reactions that follow this logic:

“Compared to others, our emissions are insignificant.”

Others created the problem.”

“The others are not doing enough.”

There will always be others not doing enough. This is where we are now and it has perpetuated the politics of blame and paralysis.


The climate narrative that dominates the international debate was framed for and by high-emitting countries - mostly Europe and the U.S.  With all eyes moving toward China, the emphasis on mitigation  is expected to continue. The technical focus on mitigation, carbon and clean energy is necessary but we do not have to “cut and paste” this logic in our countries only because it dominates the U.S.-China and U.S.-Europe conversations on climate.

We need our own starting point. In much of Latin America the starting point does not even have to be energy. For the most urbanized region in the world, why shouldn’t the starting point be “The City”?

As the current mitigation-centric narrative feels foreign and constraining, we will benefit from building new narratives that emphasize what we choose for ourselves. I propose:

We choose to protect people.

We choose resilience.

We choose water protection.

We choose quality of growth.

We will make our own choices because our countries deserve better.  

Latin America offers fertile ground for climate and society narratives for the 21st century. While Europe debates austerity, many countries in our region face the opposite dilemma: how to manage growth.

The wealth creation in our region is unprecedented. According to the World Bank, 50 million people joined the middle class in Latin America in the last 10 years. What kind of society does the bullish consuming class want?  How to reinvent the aspirations of a middle-income society is one of the most fascinating political tasks of our generation; and any transformative debate on climate choices must be part of a fundamental question of collective aspirations.

 Climate issues –we need to insist – are no longer an environmental or regulatory topic to be debated inside the walls of a technical ministry.

Our hopes and worries about the new aspirations of the Latin American middle-class triggered a fluent and vivid exchange at the workshop in Santiago. Our quest for inclusive societies is the pending task in Latin America - and, arguably, elsewhere.

Ricardo Lagos, the former president of Chile and U.N. climate envoy was the chair of our panel. His charisma transformed the mood of the room. What a privilege it was to discuss the power of narratives with a former head of state. Having a statesman of his stature and credibility energized us all.

I left Santiago more convinced than ever that the time is right in Latin America for mainstreaming climate as a key element of political debates this decade. This is the time to shift the conversation toward why we choose to protect people, why we choose resilience over vulnerability, and why inclusiveness is the basis of any effort to become prosperous middle-income societies.


Monica Araya is senior independent adviser to various organizations including Costa Rica’s Ministry of Environment, Energy and Seas. She is negotiator for her country, Costa Rica, in the UNFCCC. This blog first appeared on Intercambio Climatico.