Framing the Transition to a Green Economy: What the Liberals Could Learn from the Democrats

Does Joe Biden have anything to teach Justin Trudeau about the transition to a green economy? The president's speech at last week's Global Summit suggests he does. Climate change may be a global crisis but, as Biden's speech makes clear, it is also an opportunity. Framing the issue this way changes the debate and paves the way for real progress.As a communications piece, Biden's speech was clever: “I see line workers laying thousands of miles of transmission lines for a clean, modern, resilient grid,” he says.He then expands this 'I see…' theme to create a medley of images on how his plan to Build Back Better will create jobs and prosperity: “I see autoworkers building fleets of electric cars…” he adds.Then, “I see engineers…” and “I see construction workers…” and so on.In effect, Biden is showing ordinary Americans how they fit into his plan. The message is both positive and personal. And when he is done, the audience is left thinking about the opportunity, rather than the threat.In fact, the speech is much more than a communications exercise. Biden is not just delivering a message; he is reframing the climate change debate as an extraordinary opportunity for Americans and inviting them to make a choice about their future.Liberals should take note. While they often talk of climate change as an opportunity, they seem to be struggling or perhaps wavering on how committed they are to that story.The budget is a timely example. Given all the earlier talk about building back better and investing in green projects, many people were expecting more. They were looking for a plan to create growth and prosperity through a transition to a carbon-free economy. Most felt they didn't get it.Perhaps the government thinks they did. To be fair, discussions of economic growth are peppered through the document – especially on climate change – but the proof is in the pudding. If the government was trying to present a transition plan, most people missed it. Consider:
  • We heard almost no discussion of how the initiatives work together to promote growth. The most common view was that the budget is a collection of measures aimed at different voters that the government needs to win the next election.
  • Or take the distinction between stimulus and investments. A plan to transition to a carbon-free economy will require investment, but most media commentators saw the recovery plan as stimulus spending. With growth surging, they wondered, why is stimulus even necessary?
  • Critics who were actively looking for a growth strategy didn't take aim at the government's plan so much as complain that, for all the spending, they couldn't find one (see for example here and here).
This is not just a communications issue. The recovery plan is supposed to set the stage for the coming election and, ultimately, the government's agenda, should it be returned to power. Specifically, it is supposed to present the government's vision for the future – a vision of Canada's transition to a prosperous, carbon-free economy.Such a plan will certainly include a list of initiatives that contribute to growth, but that is not enough. It must also tell a story of how these initiatives work together to drive the transition – and of how and where Canadians fit into the process.While this needn't be the detailed account some would like, it must be clear enough to convince Canadians that climate change really is a unique opportunity; and it must be robust enough to make them want to join in. Basically, it must be ambitious enough to reframe the climate-change narrative.This debate over the right narrative will loom large in the coming election. For example, meeting the new emissions reduction targets of 40 – 45 per cent by 2030 will be challenging. According to Andrew Leach, “Whatever Canada's government commits to in terms of emissions reductions must translate directly to changes in the oilsands sector or our commitments aren't credible.”Liberals will have to defend these targets; and measures to achieve them that impact on oil and gas will likely be opposed by the Conservatives, as well as the governments of Alberta and Saskatchewan. The challenge for Liberals will be to rally a critical mass of Canadians behind their emissions plan – including, hopefully, residents from these provinces.That will be much easier if Canadians see the targets as part of a coherent plan for growth and prosperity – one in which they believe they have a place – rather than as Ottawa's preference for how it will meet its emissions targets.Successfully reframing the climate-change debate takes more than one good speech or even a well-crafted budget narrative. It means reaching out to Canadians in all kinds of ways to help them see climate change through this new lens – and that brings us back to Biden.The place to start is with a story that makes the transition plan readily accessible to Canadians and shows them where the jobs will come from and how their communities will prosper.Such a plan certainly could and, in our view, should include other goals, such as gender equity or income equality, and initiatives to advance them – but there is room for debate over which goals and measures.The message in Biden's speech is more basic. It is that climate change is an opportunity, not just a challenge and that, as the old saw has it, in the contest between hope and fear, hope wins.Given the chance, we think Canadians will choose hope.Dr. Don Lenihan is Senior Associate at the Institute on Governance and an internationally recognized expert on public engagement, governance, and policy development. For more, visit his website at: www.middlegroundengagement.comAndrew Balfour is Managing Partner at Rubicon Strategy in Ottawa.