Downplaying or remaining silent about climate change was and is a blunder for progressives
Photo: Jennifer MooSome of the best pollsters have known for years that progressives can and should talk about climate change. Mark Mellman calls the polling that suggests one shouldn’t talk about global warming, a “politically naïve, methodologically flawed, and factually inaccurate.”
Sure, if you talk about any subject in a clumsy fashion you will turn people off — just look at how Obama and major progressive politicians managed to turn a winning political issue, health care reform, into an unpopular one!
Much of the climate language that gets tested is truly lame. But the fact that poor messaging fails is not an argument for not doing messaging on the subject at all!
Science-based (dire) warnings are an essential part of good climate messaging — along with a clear explanation of the myriad clean energy solutions available today and the multiple benefits those solutions that deliver, including millions of jobs, energy security, competitiveness, and especially clean air and improved public health. Recent research supports that view (even though many in the media misreported the story).
Ironically, many people think the failure of the climate bill proves that talking about climate change doesn’t work — because they don’t realize that the messaging campaign built around the climate bill was based on not talking about climate change!
Nearly $200 million was spent by enviornmental, progressive, and business groups in 2009 and 2010 to sell a climate bill. The vast majority (but not all) of that messaging was built around ignoring the climate message and instead talking about clean energy jobs, energy security, and the threat from China. Worse, the progressive political leadership (again with exceptions, such as Sen. John Kerry) also generally either refused to talk about climate change or they seriously downplayed the subject. That includes, most importantly, President Obama and the entire White House communications team.
Even worse, as I’ve reported before, multiple sources confirm that the communications team shut down an effort by the office of the president’s science adviser, John Holdren, to mount a strong defense of climate science after the Climategate emails were hacked in late 2009. So not only was the White House — the preeminent bully pulpit in American politics — failing to deliver a clear, positive message on climate science, they weren’t even responding to a strong, negative message by the disinformers. That’s a lose-lose strategy. As they say, you can’t beat a horse with no horse. Is it any wonder that they had trouble mustering moderate Senate Democrats to support a climate bill last or to defend the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases this year?
As Ezra Klein wrote last June after Obama’s failed post-BP-disaster speech:
To expand a bit on a point I made on Rachel Maddow’s show, I’m just not sure how you do a response to climate change if you can’t really say the words “climate change.” And that’s where we are right now: The actual problem we’re trying to solve is politically, if not scientifically, controversial. And so politicians, rather than continuing to try to convince the American people that we need to do something about it, have started talking about more popular policies that are related to solving climate change. You see this in Lindsey Graham’s effort to argue for carbon-pricing from a place of purported climate-change skepticism. You see it in pollster Joel Benenson’s memo that tries to persuade legislators to vote for a climate bill without ever using those words. And you saw it in Barack Obama’s speech last night, which was all about clean energy and grand challenges.
I have spent as much time as anybody reading all of the polling and messaging memos, and talking to leading experts in communications. This is certainly a complicated subject and nobody has figured out the best winning message — probably because there is no one-size-fits-all message, particularly in the face of the most well-funded and sophisticated disinformation campaign in human history. That disinformation campaign complicates all messaging — and all message testing — since it is so pervasive and well-designed.
Because of the importance of this topic and its complexity, and because I continue to hear otherwise highly informed people get this so wrong — including the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger — I will be doing more posts on it.
I was motivated to write this post because of a terrific Huffington Post piece by Brendan Smith, co-founder, Labor Network for Sustainability, which deserves to be read in full:
[Drafted with Jeremy Brecher.]
To talk of climate change or not to talk of climate change — that is the question.
For the last several years, many of the biggest players in the climate movement have argued that to save the planet we need to purge the words “global warming” and “climate change” from our talking points and educational materials. Poll-oriented groups like the Breakthrough Institute and the Environmental Defense Fund argue that public opinion surveys prove Americans care most about jobs and lack the capacity to act on some distant threat.
They maintain that instead of being prophets of doom, climate protection advocates should gather around a “good news” agenda that limits our messaging to green jobs, national pride, and reducing our dependence on foreign oil. “Forget about climate change” Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota, explained to a gathering of environmentalists last year. Just ask people “Do you love America?”
Eerily, the “good news” strategy is heavily influenced by the Republican pollster and messaging maven Frank Luntz — infamous for coining phrases like “death tax.” In 2009 the Environmental Defense Fund teamed up with Luntz ’s firm The Word Doctors to figure out how to help marshal public support for a climate bill. Luntz’s advice? “The least important component of climate change is climate change … You’re fighting the wrong battle. What they want is an end to dependence on foreign oil.”
This is the same Frank Luntz who has long been advising the Republican party on how to grind climate policy to a halt. In 2002, he authored an influential memo [PDF] advising Republicans to greenwash their public image while sowing public confusion about climate change. Republicans should “continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate” because otherwise, he warned, “[s]hould the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly.”
Both political parties took Luntz’s advice. Democrats and their allies began calling their climate bill the “Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act.” They stopped highlighting the economic and environmental implications of failure to cut greenhouse gas emissions. To hear them speak there was no climate crisis, only promises of green jobs and energy independence. Meanwhile, Republicans and their forces of climate denial talked about climate change all the time. Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck obsessively ridiculed Al Gore during snow storms and profiled “experts” who denied the existence of climate change.
So what was the effect of climate activists’ decision to stop talking about climate change? The enemies of the planet won. Climate legislation is dead. The U.S. has not cut emissions, created millions of new climate-protecting green jobs, or reduced dependence on foreign oil. Not talking about climate change has failed to reap even modest wins for the climate movement — let alone save the planet.
And possibly the most damning of all: Public concern about climate has plummeted in direct correlation with the “stop talking about climate change” strategy. In 1998, before Al Gore tirelessly began traveling the country with his doom and gloom slideshow, only 50 percent of the country considered climate change a major worry. By 2008, a year after Gore and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change won the Nobel Peace Prize, two-thirds of Americans said they “worry a great deal or fair amount about climate change.” In 2009 Frank Luntz instructed environmentalists to stop talking about climate change, and by March 2011, the number of people concerned about the climate had dropped back down to 51 percent.
I think Luntz’s role is a tad overstated here. Many other progressive messaging groups were selling this before Luntz. Indeed, the origins of the myth that you can’t talk about climate change go back to the late 1990s, but that will have to be the subject of another post.
Most progressives never trusted Luntz (and his polling actually supported the view that the public already accepted global warming, which was not the view of some others). Rest assured Axelrod and his ilk didn’t screw up their messaging because of Luntz.
It is time to stop trying to save the planet by silence about what threatens it. The climate movement needs to start telling the inconvenient truth again. Richard Wiles, cofounder of the Environmental Working Group, writing recently about his own struggle with climate denial, observed that “what’s worse” than climate denial: “the other lie I’ve discovered in the process. It’s the lie that I’m telling. It’s the lie that we all tell to our children and each other when we don’t talk about climate disruption. It’s the lie of us all pretending that everything will be OK.”
Beyond an ethical aversion to lying, there are hard-nosed political reasons why the forces of climate protection need to keep ringing the climate alarm bell.
- Whether or not they currently believe in climate change, people are going to experience the climate catastrophe. Disasters are coming — indeed they are already here — and that is going to drive the agenda. It is up to us to explain why the floods, hurricanes, droughts, and other catastrophes are happening, and to lay out what to do.
- Even though people may initially curse the messenger and trigger despair, history shows that bad news can spur action and social change. It was the danger of nuclear fallout in America’s children’s milk that spurred the movement that led to a ban on nuclear testing and ultimately to the reduction of strategic arsenals by 80 percent. It was Rachel Carson’s revelation in Silent Spring that DDT was poisoning the songbirds that led the public to understand the ecological interaction of nature and therefore support environmental protection legislation.
- Success goes to those who change the polls, not those who follow them. Al Gore, climate scientists, and millions of climate activists reshaped public opinion on climate. A majority of Americans are still seriously concerned about climate. They and others need to know why they’re right. Dreadful events — interpreted truthfully — are unlikely to be ignored forever. But people will have little opportunity to connect the dots between devastating floods, catastrophic storms, and lethal heat waves on the one hand and the greenhouse gasses that cause them on the other unless they are persistently and consistently presented with the facts.
- The right wing, backed by the fossil fuel industry, has spent millions of dollars promoting this story: The climate crisis is an imaginary threat invented by liberals to justify government power over individuals and companies, destroying both liberty and jobs in the process. To remain silent about the reality of the climate change threat is to maximize the credibility and effectiveness of this argument. Conversely, spelling out the facts of climate change is the way to expose the climate denialist argument for the hoax it is.
- As the climate crisis deepens, many people are likely to pass directly from denial to despair. Fear can make people hopeless and immobilized. If they don’t hear realistic explanations of what the climate crisis is all about, combined with rational proposals for what to do about it, they are made vulnerable to fantasy-based explanations and irrational solutions. Climate change is indeed scary, but it is a threat that affects all of us, so it provides an opportunity to cooperate in new ways at every level from the local to the global.
- The right wing is talking about climate change all the time. They have the initiative in framing the debate. And people will make ignorant decisions in the face of a one-sided debate. Without forceful articulation of the truth, the proportion of the public who grasp the seriousness of climate change could fall even further.
The real “good news” is that there are climate activist groups like 350.org and the 1Sky Campaign that never bought into the Frank Luntz’s school of climate politics. They kept sounding the alarm about the climate crisis. These are the folks who organized a global day of action with 5,200 rallies from Mt. Everest to the Great Barrier Reef in what CNN called “the most widespread day of political action on the planet.”
Of course we should keep talking about green jobs and reduced dependence on foreign oil — in fact, we need to be presenting a robust vision for how to build a more just and sustainable future. And of course we need to avoid scaring people into despair. But that doesn’t require us to be silent in the face of an existential threat. It is as true as ever that silence equals consent.
I strongly agree with virtually every one of those bullet points. The last bullet is crucial. If those who understand the science don’t talk about it clearly and repeatedly, then the public understanding of the issue will be dominated by the anti-science side, which shouts their message loudly and repeatedly.
I’ll end with an update of something I wrote two years ago about the counterproductive and ultimately self-destructive notion progressives and environmentalists shouldn’t talk about global warming:
We are engaged in a multi-year messaging struggle here. The planet is going to get hotter and hotter, the weather is going to get more extreme. One of the reasons to be clear and blunt in your messaging about this is that even if you don’t persuade people today, the overall message will grow in credibility as reality unfolds as we have warned.
To shy away from telling people the truth because they don’t want to hear it or they think it’s liberal claptrap is just incredibly un-strategic. Some groups don’t want people to talk about “global warming.” And even worse, they don’t want people to talk about extreme weather, which is in fact the same thing that the climate disinformers want.
You must tell people what is coming, not just because it is strategic messaging, but also, I believe, because we have a moral responsibility.