How World Leaders Framed the Climate Crisis

Traditionally, diplomats and world leaders have turned to communication channels in order to frame crises. Specifically, leaders and diplomats aim to identify the cause of a crisis, or the underlying problem that has precipitated a crisis between states. For instance, following the 9/11 terror attacks, President Bush announced that terror groups had declared war on America and that this was a battle between good and evil. Bush told Americans to prepare for a prolonged war in which the US would triumph. By framing the cause of a crisis, leaders and diplomats can also begin to market their desired solution to a crisis. This is because different problems require different solutions. A lone-wolf terror attack may demand increased security presence in public areas while a military invasion may require armed conflict.

In recent years, leaders and diplomats have used Twitter to frame crises. For instance, during the 2014 Gaza War, the Israeli MFA tweeted that Israel had launched airstrikes in the Gaza Strip following Hamas rocket fire at Israeli cities. The problem was indiscriminate fire at Israeli cities. The solution was an air campaign against Hamas targets in Gaza. Similarly, the Russian foreign ministry employed Twitter to frame the Crimean Crisis. According to Russian diplomats, Ukraine had experienced a neo-Nazi coup with a nationalist government threatening the lives of Russian minorities in Crimea. The solution was for Crimea to join the Russian Federation. Conversely, the State Department tweeted that the problem was Russia’s invasion of Crimea and an attempt to expand Russia’s sphere of influence. The solution was a full withdrawal of all Russian forces from Crimea.

One of the challenges that diplomats and leaders now face is managing shared, global crises. Such crises require collaborative action as no single nation can halt the spread of Covid19 or reverse the effects of climate change. The question that follows is whether shared, global action requires that numerous leaders frame a crisis in the same way. If many leaders identify a single problem, they can advance a single planetary solution. Yet if leaders frame crises differently, they may seek to promote different solutions hindering global action.

On April 22nd, President Biden held a global leaders summit on climate change. The goal of the summit was to stimulate shared solutions to a shared problem- environmental degradation. However, a review of leaders’ tweets suggest that different leaders framed the climate crisis in different ways. One popular frame was a financial one. According to this framing, climate change will lead to a financial crisis. For instance, environmental degradation may harm agriculture, prolong flight times and even harm tourism. The solution to a financial crisis is financial measures be it stimulating investments in green technologies or helping skilled laborers adapt to a post-industrial economy. Global reductions in coal production, for instance, will entail high levels of unemployment and coal miners will need to find new job opportunities.

Three leaders framed the climate crisis as a financial one. The first was Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who tweeted that tackling climate change meant creating new work and new avenues for economic growth. The Danish Prime Minister offered a similar framing arguing that Denmark’s climate policy was oriented towards job creation and fostering private and public cooperation. Such collaborations could create innovative solutions to climate challenges such as developing alternative fuels.

The third and final leader to offer a financial frame was President Joe Biden who argued that immediate steps were necessary to halt climate change and to create a more prosperous economy.

Conversely, Russian President Vladimir Putin framed the climate crisis as a global one that demanded collaborative action. The solution lay in the creation of a global, legal framework through which climate change could be addressed. According to the Russian President, UN agreements offered such a framework be it the Paris Climate Accord or the Kyoto Protocol. By enforcing these legal frameworks, the international community would best advance a collaborative approach to climate change. Not only did the Russian President identify a different problem, when compared to his Danish, Americana and Canadian peers, but he also identified a different solution- enforcing nation’s agreements to reduce carbon emissions or transition towards Green sources of energy.

India’s President Modi offered yet a different frame- a time sensitive one. According to Modi, climate change demands immediate, bold actions as the world cannot wait until 2050 for countries to reduce their carbon emissions. The solution offered by Modi was a ‘Climate Sprint’, drastic and immediate measures to halt environmental degradation. Notably, of all the leaders that participated in Biden’s summit, Modi most clearly echoed the warnings of academics and experts- that the world is approaching a point of no return.

NATO’s Secretary General offered a radically different frame according to which climate change was a crisis multiplier. Increased competition for scarce resources, for instance, fuels tension and conflict around the world. By framing climate change as a security risk, the Secretary General was also able to argue that NATO must take an active part in combating climate change as it fit into its raison d’être, preventing crises and ensuring the tranquillity of international affairs.  

Kenya’s President offered a similar frame whereby climate change was a security and development risk as developing countries were struggling to raise adequate funds to adapt technologies towards Green solutions. This framing thus suggested that climate change was a planetary crisis yet an unequal one as some nations seem better positioned to face the crisis than others. A similar frame was offered by the UN Secretary General who argued some nations, or major polluters, bore greater responsibility for mitigating the effects of climate change.

Two leaders suggested that climate change required regional solutions. For instance, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that combating climate change required regional collaborations in the fields of water and renewable energy. As Netanyahu framed climate change as a regional crisis, he also offered regional solutions- new ties between Israel and Arab countries who could collaborate on regional solutions. Such was the case with Israel and the UAE. Similarly, King Salman of Saudi Arabia, unveiled Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Green initiative that includes planting 50 billion tress in the region, with 10 billion trees being planted in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  

In summary, different leaders offered different frames through which the climate crisis could be understood. Notably, these different frames called for different solutions from enforcing UN accords to stimulating job creation to signing peace accords. The question is whether these different, and competing frames can hinder global action? The answer is both yes and no. Indeed, all leaders included in their framing similar actions- transitioning to Green energy sources, cutting carbon emissions and stimulating publi-private partnerships. The one point leaders did not agree on is urgency with some nations looking to 2030, others to 2050 and still others refusing to name a date by which they will cut their emissions. This may hinder collaborative action in the immediate wake of the summit.

Indeed, the more acute a crisis, the quicker nations are to react to it. It is a shame that Biden’s summit did not conclude with a firm and binding time table for global action, a solution that would meet both America’s, Russia’s and India’s framing of the crisis. This would be an important step as global powers can shape the global diplomatic agenda, leading other nations to follow in their paths.  

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