Massaging the Climate Message: New Political Conditions Bring Shifting Strategies

Future historians may regard recent weeks as a momentary breathing spell in the political trajectory of the climate issue.

In the courts, preliminary rulings are awaited on a spate of legal challenges to the Environmental Protection Agency’s finding that greenhouse gases are dangerous and deserve regulation under the Clean Air Act.

In Congress, meanwhile, senators crafting a climate-energy bill different from the cap-and-trade measure passed by the House delayed its unveiling until May 12 so they could regroup after Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina withdrew his support.

Also see

Journalist/Professor Tom Yulsman’s
‘Alternative Narratives’

This relative lull in the governmental arena followed several tumultuous months of cascading developments – clamor over “Climategate” e-mails, reports of errors by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, polls showing less public worry about climate change, heavy snows in parts of the U.S., and the Copenhagen summit’s lackluster outcome.

Combined, those events produced a sense that the tide might actually be shifting away from something that had seemed all but certain – the launching of forceful and far-reaching federal legislation to combat manmade climate change.

There were various signs that proponents of such action were seeking – perhaps “scrambling” might be more apt – to find new communication strategies, or at least tweak or reshuffle old ones. Their obvious goal: Reclaim the ability to define the terms of the climate debate, improving the chance to steer its course, especially in Congress.

This rethinking of climate-action forces’ messaging, framing, branding, PR, spin – however the strategic, focused choice of language as a tool of political persuasion is described – has been evident in a couple of key ways.

One is a spreading reluctance to emphasize scientific projections of future climate changes linked to atmospheric warming – even a seeming aversion at times to the word “climate” itself. This runs parallel to reassessments, reported by The Yale Forum, of how scientists can improve the public explanation of research findings.

Meanwhile, another communication strategy gained greater traction. This approach highlights other reasons for action to mitigate climate change, stressing that a shift to lower-carbon forms of energy offers linked benefits for the U.S. economy and national security.

‘The First Rule’: De-emphasize Climate Change

In January, for example, pollster Frank Luntz, who previously advised Republicans to stress uncertainties in climate science, presented a communication strategy aimed at passing a climate-energy bill – recommendations that 21 pro-legislation companies in the U.S. Climate Action Partnership paid him to devise.

Luntz’s strategy included de-emphasizing threats to glaciers and polar bears and playing up economic threats from China and India, Reuters reported. The news service added that Luntz said supporters of the House-passed cap-and-trade bill “have emphasized climate science too much, and the potential positive results from a clean-energy bill – domestic jobs, a healthier environment, and potentially less money sent to the Middle East for oil – too little.”

“It doesn’t matter if there is or isn’t climate change,” Mother Jones reported that Luntz asserted at his strategy’s unveiling. “It’s still in America’s best interest to develop new sources of energy that are clean, reliable, efficient and safe.” The headline on the story: “The first rule of fighting climate change: Don’t talk about climate change.”

Whether Luntz’s advice was being consciously adopted or not, clear echoes later turned up in pronouncements by various supporters of government action on climate change.

Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat at the heart of efforts to draft a Senate climate-energy measure, told the Associated Press in March, for instance, that the proposal he and colleagues were developing would be “a very different mix of a bill,” compared to the House measure.

The AP added:

“It’s primarily a jobs bill, and an energy independence bill and a pollution reduction-health-clean air bill,” Kerry said. “Climate sort of follows. It’s on for the ride.”

Kerry and other Senate sponsors have avoided the phrase “cap and trade” whenever possible, but Kerry bristled at the notion that the new focus is an effort to re-brand an unpopular idea.

“This has nothing to do with branding. We are not trying to switch hit here,” he said.

Although Kerry said he had no use for “branding,” NPR underscored the importance of that concept in climate message-molding when it reported a month later that “cap and trade” – the very essence of the House bill – had become a “toxic brand” in Congress, so successfully “rebranded” as “cap and tax” by conservative commentators that Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said it had no place in the climate-policy “lexicon.”

New Slogans for New Times … Weird

“Climate crisis,” with its connotation of extreme urgency, is still part of Al Gore’s lexicon. The former vice president and campaigner against climate change again used that signature phrase in an op-ed column in The New York Times in February, discussing the controversies surrounding the publication of some scientists’ formerly private e-mails and the subsequent identification of a few errors in the 2007 reports of the IPCC.

Demonstrating the message brainstorming following those revelations, however, others suggested new, slogan-like phrases of their own, either to replace or augment Gore’s. Two such proposals appeared in The New York Times.

Times columnist Thomas Friedman reacted in February to the snowstorm-citing revival of the “hoax” charge against climate science by proposing that the very term “global warming” be avoided. Friedman’s proposed replacement – “global weirding.” The modified version better conveys scientists’ projections, he argued, “because that is what actually happens as global temperatures rise and the climate changes. The weather gets weird.”

The Times opinion blogger (and former reporter) Andrew Revkin, in April proposed an alternate to Gore’s slogan. He said he prefers “energy quest” on his car’s bumper – not because he doubts that a “climate crisis” looms, but because he doesn’t see that as “a productive way to frame this challenge, particularly as defined over the last few years in the heated policy debate.”

Such suggestions were reactions to clearly resurgent efforts on the other side of the issue to portray the scientific findings that formed the original rationale for lowering greenhouse emissions as uncertain and inconclusive.

With those efforts, critics of government action on climate change sought to re-focus public discussion – once again – as essentially a yes-or-no debate over whether manmade impacts are happening, rather than a debate about what to do about them.

Declaring, for instance, that “the burgeoning Climategate e-mail scandal” had undermined climate science, the Competitive Enterprise Institute last November and December posted tongue-in-cheek YouTube videos, challenging Al Gore to debate Christopher Monckton, an outspoken British critic of climate science.

The message that the science of climate change is fundamentally unsettled was reinforced by state government and corporate entities, some of whom cited news reports about scientists’ stolen e-mails and IPCC errors in their formal challenges of EPA regulation of greenhouse gases. The office of Texas Republican Governor Rick Perry, for example, claimed in announcing that state’s petition that the IPCC has been “discredited.”

The “science debate” theme, which had generally dwindled in news coverage, began to gain traction again in some media reports. CNN, for example, presented a program called “Global Warming: Trick or Truth,” on the eve of the Copenhagen summit in December.

Enhancing the suggestion of inconclusive science, opponents of climate action used humor, sometimes bordering on ridicule, to advance the idea that man-made climate change, if it is happening at all, is nothing to worry much about. One example was the widely-covered Capitol Hill igloo named for Gore, which the family of Senator James Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican, built in February. Inhofe himself asserted soon afterward in a Senate hearing that the e-mail controversy showed climate-change science was “far from settled.”

Washington did not provide the only platforms for that message. At a February fundraiser in Houston for the local Republican Party, a former official auctioning a full-length fur coat asked the audience, “You believe in global warming?” and the collective response was a boisterous “Noooo!”

Also in February, the Web publication Domain Name Wire published an article that intriguingly hinted at possible efforts to weave the “don’t worry” motif into future political communication. It reported that “the favored web hosting company” of the National Republican Congressional Committee had registered “WhoCaresAboutGlobalWarming.com,” as well as “.net,” and “.org” variants.

Science Communication: Refine It or Replace It?

Increasing attacks on the credibility and integrity of climate science undoubtedly rattled many scientists and those who had used scientific findings to frame arguments for reducing greenhouse emissions. At first, there were signs of uncertainty about how to respond.

In December – after the disclosure of the scientists’ e-mails and during the Copenhagen summit – a scientist’s blog post reported on a workshop titled “Restarting the Climate Conversation” at the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting. The blogger, computer science professor Steve Easterbrook of the University of Toronto, thought speakers’ remarks on topics like message-framing were useful, but found the ensuing discussion “rather disappointing.” He wrote:

Seems like everyone recognizes a problem in the huge gulf between what climate scientists themselves say and do, versus how climate science is portrayed in the public discourse. But nobody (at least among the scientific community) has any constructive ideas for how to fix this problem.

As reports of IPCC errors and heavy snowfalls along the East Coast multiplied in following weeks – a “dismal winter for climate scientists,” the AP’s Seth Borenstein called it – the “problem” cited by Easterbrook seemed to grow larger as the discussion about how to fix it unfolded in sometimes unexpectedly public view.

The longstanding idea that plainer descriptions of research findings are needed was reiterated, as when Jane Lubchenco, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told reporters in March that “scientists have seriously underestimated the importance of explaining what we know about climate in a way people can understand.”

It became apparent at the same time, however, that some scientists believed a harder-edged communication strategy was needed. On March 2, John M. Broder wrote in The New York Times that “many scientists now realize they are facing a crisis of public confidence and have to fight back.”

Just three days later, Greenwire reported, in an article posted on the Times website, that it had obtained e-mails showing some scientists planned to counter critics’ attacks with an explicit acknowledgment of the rough, political character of the situation they were in – by calling out the “McCarthyite campaign” of some adversaries.

Such a politically-framed message was indeed issued on May 6 with an unquestionably distinguished provenance – a letter in the journal Science, signed by 255 members of the National Academy of Sciences. The signers denounced “McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues on the basis of innuendo and guilt by association.” They further asserted that waiting for “absolute” scientific certainty on climate change “is the same as saying society should never take action.”

Contrary to Instincts … Less, Not More, Scientific Input

At the same time, doubts were being expressed about the wisdom of focusing arguments for such action too much on the science that was the very wellspring of climate-focused policy proposals in the first place.

In a column posted March 10 on Slate.com, Daniel Sarewitz co-director of Arizona State University’s Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes, contended that “contrary to all our modern instincts … political progress on climate change requires not more scientific input into politics, but less.” He added that political gridlock will persist until disputes over values, “hidden” by disputes over climate science, are “flushed out and brought into the sunlight of democratic deliberation.”

Similarly, the writer and climate activist Bill McKibben, wrote on Feb. 25 in The Nation that the ever-larger “mountain” of scientific evidence for manmade climate change was actually easier for opponents of climate-change mitigation to attack, because the growing mass of research invariably includes a few errors. He added:

But it’s a mistake to concentrate solely on the science for another reason. Science may be what we know about the world, but politics is how we feel about the world. And feelings count at least as much as knowledge. Especially when those feelings are valid. People are getting ripped off. They are powerless against large forces that are, at the moment, beyond their control. Anger is justified.

Populism and ‘Power’

A couple of weeks after McKibben’s call for climate messages with populist fervor, the Sierra Club – never a slacker at citing the science of climate change – unveiled just such an attack on Arkansas’ Democratic Senator Blanche Lincoln for her drive to stop EPA regulation of greenhouse gases.

The group labeled Lincoln’s efforts a “Big Oil bailout,” adding that it would “protect the profits of the richest industry in human history – all the while refusing to vote for a comprehensive climate bill that will create thousands of jobs back home.”

As environmentalists and their allies stressed the employment-related benefits of a transition to cleaner energy, activities were being stepped up to press the closely related argument that the shift would enhance national security.

One example was the “Veterans for American Power” tour of Operation Free, a coalition of veterans and national security groups. On the tour, participants said energy-climate legislation would address interwoven concerns including climate change, national security, more energy self-reliance, and cleaner energy.

The coalition, formed last year, illustrates recent efforts to amplify that message and present it to people who may not already agree that such a law is needed, spokesman David Solimini told The Yale Forum. The tour, which is continuing, began more than five months ago and has staged more than 170 events in 29 states, he added.

Operation Free’s blog proudly noted that some of its members took part in the May 12 announcement of the energy-climate bill by Kerry and Senator Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent:

“A big part of what they had to say today was about the security impacts of climate change and oil dependence. In fact, both senators made the point to highlight how oil money enriches unpredictable and unfriendly nations like Iran.”

The group’s blog post did not mention the striking fact that its tour and the Kerry-Lieberman bill both have names proclaiming “American Power.”

Bills’ names (and the names of advocacy tours) sharply focus their planners’ message to shape perception, frame debate … and win support.

“American Power Act” obviously conveys the double meaning of domestic energy and national security. It also conspicuously omits the word “climate,” just as the formal name of the House-passed cap-and-trade bill did – the American Clean Energy and Security Act.



Journalist/Professor Tom Yulsman’s
‘Alternative Narratives’


Climate-policy advocates, whether they support or oppose action to stem global warming, increasingly send their messages directly to the public via blogs, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other social media, while still using old-school tools like ads.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that the practitioners of strategic political communication don’t also still try – and try mightily – to influence people’s attitudes indirectly, by framing the issue by winning attention in journalists’ reports. “Earned media,” this is called in the publicity trade, though political advocates don’t always to have to try very hard to earn it.

Journalists often have failed to think beyond the bounds that combatants in the climate debate try to set with their message-propagating strategies, says journalist and professor Tom Yulsman. An associate professor at the University of Colorado’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication and co-director of the Center for Environmental Journalism, Yulsman maintains a lively blog on such issues.

Reporters should break free of those constraints, independently search out what is really happening, examine why floundering policy approaches are failing, and devise their own “alternative narratives,” Yulsman maintains.

The Yale Forum asked Yulsman to describe what some of those different journalistic narratives might be. His response:

“We should avoid focusing excessively on the ‘yes or no’ framing of climate science (Is it happening? Are we to blame?) and pay closer attention to emerging vulnerabilities and impacts in our own communities.

“For example, here in the West we have been in the midst of a decade-long drought that has drained lakes Powell and Mead, the two main storage reservoirs along the Colorado, to about half of their capacities.

“Going forward, how should communities grapple with the likelihood of increasing drought at the same time that demands on water resources will increase as populations rise? (This issue isn’t unique to the West.) These issues aren’t far off in the future. They’re here, right now.

“We should also take a hint from 20 years of climate-policy failure. There has been no lack of science suggesting the need for action during this time, yet the targets-and-timetables approach embodied by cap-and-trade, the Kyoto Protocol, and the failed effort at Copenhagen have not led to nearly enough action to rein in climate change.

“That alone should prompt us to explore other possible approaches, including policies emphasizing energy technology.”

Bill Dawson

Bill Dawson is an independent journalist who edits Texas Climate News, an online magazine published by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Houston Advanced Research Center. He was previously environment writer for the Houston Chronicle. (E-mail: bill@yaleclimatemediaforum.org)
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