Messaging that can save the clean energy bill
I finally got around to reading through the latest polling and focus group results from messaging whiz Frank Luntz. Luntz, for those of you who don’t already know, is infamous in green circles as the author of a 1995 memo coaching Republicans on how to win the environmental messaging war. (See Amanda Little’s 2007 interview with Luntz about the memo and more.)
Now he’s been conscripted by the forces of good and light, and his latest results are geared toward helping to find a bipartisan path forward on climate and energy. The full report is here (PDF); a couple of themes pop out.
The first thing to note is that, contrary to conventional wisdom, Democrats are incredibly well-positioned to make climate/energy an electoral advantage.
Why? Luntz found — as virtually all polls on the subject have found over the last decade — that substantial majorities believe climate change is happening, human beings are responsible, and something needs to be done about it. That is true across party lines.
It’s worth repeating: the public accepts climate change and wants to address it. That battle is won. All the bloggers and cable TV talkers arguing over the latest scientific pseudo-scandal? They’re only talking to each other. Despite Herculean efforts by greens to educate the public and popularize the issue, most people just aren’t particularly interested in the details of climate change as such. It’s not a top priority.
What the public wants, and what polls well, are forward-looking, no-regrets solutions. The key focus for messaging ought to be on the benefits of action. If the public empowers Democrats to reform energy use via legislation, performance standards, and public investments, what will the public receive in exchange?
The benefits the public most prioritizes are energy independence, good health, American jobs, and accountability for businesses and corporations. Any supporter of climate action with access to a microphone, Democrat or sane Republican, should be hitting those four themes over and over and over and over and over and over again until they have bored the pants off the reporters covering them. And themselves. No one should have any pants.
With those four themes occupying 99% of the messaging, 1% can be divided among: polar bears, ice caps, carbon neutrality, clean energy tax credits, renewable energy portfolios, and … God help us all … “cap-and-trade.”
Health care should have been a warning. Arguably, what’s turned the American public against health care reform is not the substance of the legislation but the endless, contentious, torturous process of creating it. The public hates sausage-making and back-room dealing; they hate vituperative disputes over mechanisms and statistics. They hate politics, really. They just want their leaders to do right by them.
“Cap-and-trade” puts process jargon squarely in the spotlight. Predictably enough, it’s been a disaster. It means nothing to the public, a blank slate to be filled by competing PR campaigns. Greenish politicos are stuck explaining policy details many if not most of them don’t understand, while conservatives quickly inscribed the term with well-established narratives — intrusive government, taxes, socialism, etc. — that resonate with their overall strategy and identity. It was always an unfair fight and it’s only destined to get worse. Allowing cap-and-trade to become the center of the discussion is the greatest green messaging failure of the last decade.
The key for clean energy supporters is to wrest the discussion away from policy mechanisms and IPCC statistics and toward the benefits of climate/energy solutions: energy independence, good health, American jobs, and accountability for businesses and corporations.
Some have been good about this. Ironically, some of the best messaging came from Waxman and Markey, in the House, way back 400 years ago when this process got underway. But they were never able to enforce any message discipline on their colleagues and the media proved, as usual, utterly resistant to new thoughts. The White House has been good on the jobs and economy messaging but the Senate has been predictably awful, with conservadems from coal and ag states amplifying conservative attacks.
The only thing that can rescue the bill needed to give markets predictable rules of the road, international partners reassurance that the U.S. is serious, and Dems a victory after the tragicomic implosion of health care reform is a concerted effort to change the narrative. That could begin on Wednesday night, with Obama’s State of the Union speech, but it would only survive if the rest of the Dem caucus and the progressive messaging infrastructure rowed in the same direction.
You know. How that happens.