As this lamentable New York Times piece demonstrates, advocates for action on climate change have lost the framing battle. If they don’t want to lose the war for America’s future, they need to step back, coalesce around a simple message, and get it out to voters in a disciplined way.
The corporatist wing of the Republican party has a simple, compelling populist message: capping emissions will hurt American families. It will raise the price of energy — gasoline, heating oil, electricity — at a time when voters can least afford it. It will send jobs overseas and cripple the economy.
Pushing back against this familiar and easily understood message is a grab bag of soft-edged, poll-tested slogans — invocations of what "scientists tell us," vague talk of "green jobs," halfhearted nativist gestures at "foreign oil" — that don’t add up to more than the sum of their parts. The evidence is everywhere that concern over climate is broad but incredibly shallow. The positive case for climate action has no powerful elevator pitch.
The fact is, cost is the Achilles heel of climate action. Always has been. It’s time to stop dancing and equivocating around it. Advocates need to go on offense on the cost issue.
The counter-message should be equally simple: cutting emissions will rescue American families. Right now our economy is lashed to a sinking ship, the USS Fossil. The price of fossil fuels is rising (yes, that includes coal). For reasons that are structural and unlikely to change, gasoline, heating oil, and coal electricity are going to get more and more expensive for the foreseeable future. Worse, prices are going to be volatile and unpredictable.
Unless we want to go down with the ship, we need to start building an ark. By freeing us from fossil fuels, climate legislation is designed to avoid a future of high and volatile prices. It’s designed to make sure we have a shot at building the best lifeboat (several other countries have a head start).
That’s the simple message: fossil fuels and their patrons are a threat to American families. They want to keep us on the ship. It may be going down, but they’re making money hand over fist. They want to paralyze Americans with fear of the new and doubt about their ability to innovate and adapt.
It’s the fossil lobby vs. American families. A future of rising prices and sordid geopolitical entanglements vs. a future of stable energy sources, vibrant domestic industries, and healthy American people. Timid, decadent Late Empire vs. a nation renewed.
Fear vs. courage.