Climate change: Winning issue or losing battle?


Recent, fascinating, and underutilized national polls (also here and here) suggest climate change can be a winning issue in the 2012 elections.  A panel of experts, hosted by Climate Desk, discussed these key questions in Washington, DC, on October 10:  With this recent polling data, why are the President and other political leaders still not talking about climate change?  How can effective communication between political leaders and the public be stimulated?

Betsy Taylor, President of Breakthrough Strategies & Solutions and well-known driving force in numerous public interest organizations, confirmed that climate change has been stifled from public discourse.   In the spring of 2009, after the financial crisis had hit, “there was a decision made,” Taylor says, “to not talk about climate change that was adopted by the majority of the environmental groups and the White House.  I was at that meeting.”  Reluctantly, the environmental organizations agreed, while Bill McKibben argued this decision would come back to “haunt” them.  They were right about climate change haunting us, though the public discourse remains dysfunctional.

Chris Mooney, host of the event for Climate Desk and moderator of the discussion, writes:

[Joe] Romm went further. Asked if there was some individual giving politicians bad strategic advice, he commented, “I will absolutely blame someone. Because I have relatively high confidence, based on conversations I’ve had, that David Axelrod is the guy who shut down a lot of this talk. And even went up to the Hill and told the Dems not to message the climate science.”

Soon after the White House gag order was put in place and caved into by green groups, the fossil fuel companies and climate deniers, facing no aggressive opposition, moved in to frame the narrative in their favor and influence public opinion.  As a result, Taylor said, “We saw public opinion shifting in a negative direction.”  Climate change has now become a polarized and partisan struggle for power for our nation’s energy future.  Any pragmatic and sensible attempts to combat the problem are met with harsh conflict and attacks by elected officials funded by energy companies.  The opposition attacks climate science and scientists and keeps repeating the charge that action will ultimately harm a fragile economy.

Additionally, climate change has become a key issue in the ideological war between the two major parties as they argue what the role of government should be.  This change in a negative direction is due in no small part to the relative silence of the Obama Administration and, for too long, major environmental groups, who sought to promote climate change legislation without taking a strong case on climate change to the public (as distinct from a narrower framing in terms of clean energy).

Taylor added that a key take-away from her group’s polling is that the weather this year has really shifted what people are experiencing.  One of the problems with climate change has always been that it was distant and remote, “but this year weather made it immediate.”  As extreme weather ravaged the majority of the United States this summer, people who once doubted global warming are now seeing first hand the wrath climate change can impose on their daily lives and their wallets.

Taylor’s organization, using recent polling data, commissioned a “playbook” dubbed “Climate Solutions for a Stronger America” to help leaders successfully “outmaneuver opposing message attacks.”  The guide for engagement on climate change and clean energy focuses on intrinsic values that all Americans can relate to: responsibility, accountability, and patriotic pride.  Using framings like “America does not run away from its problems,” and appealing to patriotism, Taylor may have found a way to galvanize the public’s view on climate change.  By framing around this ‘messaging triangle’ leaders can approach the issue in an active and diplomatic manner.

Paul Bledsoe, senior advisor to the Bipartisan Policy Center, said “environmental activists of all types have done a poor job [of framing climate change].”  According to Bledsoe, most people view issues through a few basic prisms.  A public policy issue must be framed around their local community, their philosophical view of the world, and their economic circumstances to garner support or lead to action.

With global warming, the “framing is exactly opposite of what’s going to move people on any issue.  As soon as you say global, people are like, ‘I can’t do anything about it,’ because it’s an impossible and overwhelming notion, let alone a call to action.  The rise in extreme weather incidences … is the single most important issue on climate change in the United States because that is what gets people’s attention.”

Bledsoe said that since the end of the Cold War the United States has lacked a sense of national purpose.  Through our history we have accomplished amazing things on the basis of a resounding shared purpose, from protecting the free world to bringing about social reform.  Now, this issue of climate change provides an opportunity to inspire the American people.  “If the United States can really adopt very serious cutting edge climate change policies, which I believe it can in the next four to five years, this can tap into the notion of American exceptionalism.  There is still an opportunity for the US to take a leadership position on this issue and the world is looking for the US to do this.”  Maybe, but with the denial machine and special interests pitted against action on climate change, this is likely to be a heavy lift.

Joe Romm, author, blogger, communication and climate expert, said “Even though you are on the right side of the issue, you can still screw it up with bad messaging, as the President has shown.” Quoting political strategist Frank Luntz, Romm states “You repeat [the message] again, and again, and again, and again, and about the time you’re sick of saying it, that’s about the time your target audience has heard it for the first time.“  According to Romm, this is why, in many ways, the disinformation campaign funded by large energy companies is so effective in communicating compared to scientists. Repetition is key to effective communication.  Repetition is key to effective communication.

Along with repetition, the use of metaphors can help communicate a position on climate change.  Using this idea, Romm quotes Jeff Masters, a meteorologist and co-founder of Weather Underground.

“I call it being on steroids for the atmosphere.  Well, normally you have the everyday ups and downs of the weather, but if you pack a little bit of extra punch in there it’s like a baseball hitter who’s on steroids. You expect to see a big home run total maybe from this hitter, but you add a little bit of extra oomph to his swing by putting him on steroids now we can have an unprecedented season, a 70 home run season.  We had an unprecedented weather year that I don’t think we would have had if an extra bit of energy wasn’t in the air due to global warming.”

This kind of use of metaphors will go a long way in effectively making your point, Romm says.

Previously focused on clean energy, Romm made the transition to climate communication.  His brother, who had lost his home in Hurricane Katrina in 2005, asked him whether he should rebuild in the same area.  Now personally interested in climate change, Romm spoke with 50 to 100 different climate experts, and two things became very clear to him, he said.  Our climate situation is much more bleak than he originally believed, and climate scientists weren’t communicating this message in an effective manner.

Reiterating what Taylor touched upon: although climate change is a global issue the emphasis needs to be on impacts happening now and in our own backyard.  “Focusing on polar bears and impacts on developing countries was doubly mistaken,” Romm argued.  If people believe these are the groups that will most adversely impacted, why would they care?  How many polar bears have you seen outside the zoo?  How many people from Bangladesh are you friends with on Facebook?  In other words, without linking climate change to your personal life, why would anyone care what happens on the other side of the world?

“Whenever the visible reality of climate change becomes so painfully obvious that you cannot deny it anymore it will flip over to a winning issue.”  Romm argues that, due to the substantial string of extreme weather events in 2012, we have reached the tipping point in public opinion.  People cannot look outside their window and deny what’s happening all around them.  “When it happens to someone else it’s a tragedy.  When it happens to you, you want something done about it.”  The key is linking these local extremes to what might be seen as the ambiguous threat of global climate change.

Romm argues that there are two patriotic pride messages at play with the subject.  “Climate change is going to fundamentally destroy” what it means to be American, or Welsh, or Oklahoman for that matter.  “We are in the process of destroying what America was and turning it into something that is very different and very inhospitable.”  The second aspect of pride comes from the fact that most of the renewable energy technologies were invented in the United States.  American scientists and inventors developed solar photovoltaic cells and wind turbines, yet we continue to fall behind in implementing these technologies for a sustainable future.

Can we expect the President to embrace effective communication this late in his term?  As the eerie silence on climate change continues, what would it take for Obama to adopt the new framing and communication strategies outlined by the panel?  If re-elected, will climate change become a forefront issue with a focus on effective communication to stakeholders?  Or will it be a ‘winning’ issue in a losing battle?

[Post was updated October 16 to include the reference to Bill McKibben and the passage by Chris Mooney quoting Joe Romm.]

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