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Reframing the Climate Change Narrative

March 4, 2010

Prof Ann Florini, Prof Arvind Subramanian and Mr Um Woochong

 Today, I attended a lecture titled “Reframing the Climate Change Narrative” at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. The lecture featured Professor Arvind Sabramanian and Mr Um Woochong.

The lecture lasted for about one and a half hours, and it saw Professor Sabramanian stating his stand on the Copenhagen Accord, and suggesting how we might reframe the climate change narrative away from what he calls “bad” narrative, as opposed to “wrong” by following 3 principles.

These principles should guide equity, which Professor Subramanian argues is an important aspect of climate change that is often neglected. He however, was quick to note that he comes from a developing world and Asian perspective. He suggests the 3 principles as an alternative to the views of the US, EU and developing countries today. He explains the bad” narratives as:

  • The U.S. has a lack of empathy to un-met energy needs of the developing world. This comes in the form of trade sanctions aimed at emissions reduction.
  • The EU takes a softer stand but believes in the “magic wand” of financial  transfers to effect change.
  • Developing countries have taken to play a role in the political blame game and to deploy notions of “historic responsibility”, which is often come under fire with retorts about “population size” in developing countries by the developed world. This is what Prof Sabramanian argues to be the rhetoric of recrimination.


So, here are the 3 principles which he argues, aims to reframe the climate change narrative towards equitable change with regard to climate change.

  1. Energy services, not emissions should be targetted to effect change. This is because people consume energy, not emissions. The “development” of right is not to emissions but to consumer access to “consumption of direct energy-based services” (CDERS).
  2. Historic basis for equity in energy services
  3. We should look to frontier (not historical) carbon efficiency and to embrace what the future holds.


He outlined the reasons for the 80:20 split recommended by the Stern Report as well as the UNDP and contended that this is a “completely unequitable”, especially in the absence of technological change today.

Professor Arvind Sabramanian

“Truely unprecedented revolution in technology is required”, he said.

So this pointed to the question: How can global cooperation facilitate technological revolution? Prof Sabramanian sought to answer this question first by explaining why priority should be placed on improving technology instead of putting pressures on developing countries to cut emissions.

He argued that, pressuring rich nations to cut emissions (by increasing efficiency and through funding of R&D, CDM etc) and more importantly, cutting emissions in timing and magnitude is the key to success. This forced technological advancement, which can thus help the developing world meet their energy needs for development and to recognize the importance of clean energy and technology.

“The poor cannot and must not be asked to take emissions reduction targets, given the state of technology today”, Prof Sabramanian argued because it would be completely inequitable.

He also recognized that the developing world will be happy with this kind of reframing of the climate change narrative because it would easily come across as that they had less to adhere to or avoid emissions reductions totally! He called them “sovereignistas” (developing countries) in that they hoped to get away with not doing much, especially in the wake of the Copenhagen Accord.

But Prof Sabramanian said that instead of this, that developing countries should aim to ask “What is it that we need to do to avoid emissions cuts (that will compromise un-met energy needs) and to push the developed world to fund technological revolutions?” rather than “How little can we get away with?”

Mr Um Woochong from the Asian Development Bank was also present and he outlined the ADB’s response to climate change and their priorities. These include

  1. Scaling up clean energy
  2. Sustainable transport and urban development
  3. Managing land use and forests for carbon sequestration
  4. Promoting climate resilient development e.g. health issues
  5. Strengthening policies, governance and capacity in Asia

He also briefly mentioned ADB’s financing modalities and 2 important funds that ADB is rolling out in the bid towards climate action. These are

  • Asia Pacific Carbon Fund
  • Future Carbon Fund

Mr Um suggested that the carbon credits sold are a significant way that ADB can raise money to build clean projects in Asia and to slowly but surely work towards sustainable development in Asia. #

Prof Ann Florini taking questions from the floor

All in all, I thought the lecture was a highly insightful one, especially from an Asian perspective. I agree that there are problems with how discourses surrounding climate change are so politicized and I liked how Prof Subramanian categorized the 3 different opinions of the UK, EU and developing world although it is rather simplified. I think that there should be more done to get the word out to the public, and to get more people to understand that without ironing out details like these and sorting out the narrative behind climate change, it will be a significant challenge to the public and for politicians to truely effect change through policy.

Any thoughts?



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