Mark Mellman must read on climate messaging: “A strong public consensus has emerged on the reality and severity of global warming, as well as on the need for federal action” — ecoAmerica “could hardly be more wrong”

Mark Mellman, a leading pollster for progressives since 1982, has written a must-read op-ed slamming the latest dubious messaging advice:

Some progressives seem unwilling to take yes for an answer.

Just as the long battle for public opinion on global warming is being won, along comes a well-meaning Bob Perkowitz and his ecoAmerica with a politically na¯ve, methodologically flawed and factually inaccurate study, which he apparently interprets as telling us that voters do not care about global warming.

He could hardly be more wrong.

In fact, most Americans believe global warming is real, is happening now and constitutes a serious threat, particularly to future generations.

Last week, I was very critical of ecoAmerica’s advice on climate messaging after sitting through the full two-hour presentation (see “Messaging 101b: EcoAmerica’s phrase ‘our deteriorating atmosphere’ isn’t going to replace ‘global warming’ “” and that’s a good thing“).

Perkowitz, in the comments, questioned “What background do you have in the cognitive sciences or marketing?”  Although it is my full-time job — and has been my part-time job for nearly two decades — and although I have followed all the polling and messaging reports closely, I’m just a lowly messaging amateur.

On the other hand, Robert J. Brulle, Professor of Sociology and Environmental Science, Department of Culture and Communications, Drexel University — and a widely published expert on environmental messaging — emailed me about my analysis:

I liked your blog post today.   I think we agree at about the 95% level across the board.

And now we have Mark Mellman, president of The Mellman Group, whose “current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.”  Mellman is one of the most respected pollsters and messaging gurus in the progressive world.  Here’s his take on the public view of global warming based on all the recent polling, including his own:

A survey we completed in March reveals that nearly eight in 10 voters believe global warming is either happening now or will happen in the future, with 53 percent seeing evidence that it is happening right now. Gallup uncovered similar attitudes, as 53 percent told them global warming has already begun, while just 16 percent are deniers, expecting it will never happe.

Over two-thirds of the electorate believes global warming constitutes a serious threat. In response to a different question, posed by researchers from Yale and George Mason universities, a similar number said they “worry” about global warming. A third believes it will harm them, while 61 percent foresee harm to future generations.

Perhaps more importantly, voters are demanding action to reduce the carbon pollution that causes global warming. In the Yale/George Mason poll, two-thirds urge Congress to do more on the issue, and in our survey, 77 percent favor action to reduce carbon emissions. In an April ABC/Washington Post poll, 75 percent supported federal regulations on the release of greenhouse gases.

In short, a strong public consensus has emerged on the reality and severity of global warming, as well as on the need for federal action.

Put another way, most of the public gets this — and in particular they understand things are going to get much worse on our current emissions path.  That’s why it is so crucial we keep messaging on climate science and impacts, and keep warning people about what is to come — although we can definitely do it better and smarter, as I’ll discuss in future posts.

Mr. Perkowitz devalues that consensus, suggesting Republicans stand outside it because they express less concern about the problem than Democrats and independents. That is true and lamentable, but Republicans are also less concerned about jobs and we have not shied away from trying to create them, nor started calling them “income generating opportunities” in a desperate attempt to solicit GOP support. Republicans also care less about healthcare than other Americans, but no one is using that as an excuse to avoid action.

Indeed, part of the Republicans’ problem with the majority of America is their failure to take seriously voters’ real concerns on issues ranging from jobs to healthcare to energy and global warming.

While some Republican leaders, like John McCain and John Warner, have been forthright in recognizing the need to reduce global warming, others, who deny the problem and discourage solutions, are out of touch with their own base.

Yes, Democrats are more concerned about the problem than are Republicans, but that does not mean Republicans are unconcerned. Far from it “” as Mr. Perkowitz’s own data conclusively demonstrate. While 90 percent of Democrats believe global warming is happening, so does a 54 percent majority of Republicans. While 84 percent of Democrats believe global warming is harmful to people, so do 56 percent of Republicans. While 87 percent of Democrats call it their “duty” to stop global warming, 60 percent of Republicans also feels duty-bound to join the battle.

When 84 percent of Democrats, 70 percent of independents and 56 percent of Republicans think global warming is harmful to people; when 86 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of independents and 62 percent of Republicans favor action to reduce the carbon pollution that causes global warming “” it is time to take yes for an answer; it is time for elected officials to recognize the consensus and act, instead of heeding those who, inexplicably, regard a nearly unprecedented level of public unanimity as a prerequisite for legislative accomplishment.

Hear!  Hear!

If you wonder why I keep blogging on this, consider that the Wall Street Journal (subs. req’d), reported on Tuesday:

Seeking to bolster public support for climate legislation, the Obama administration is consulting pollsters who advocate avoiding phrases such as “cap-and-trade” and “global warming.” On Monday, the White House Council on Environmental Quality was scheduled to meet with Robert Perkowitz, president of ecoAmerica, a Washington-based nonprofit that uses “psychographic research” to “shift personal and civic choices of environmentally agnostic Americans,” according to its Web site.

“We’re trying to give them phrases that work,” Mr. Perkowitz said in an interview. He said that in a survey of some 2,000 Americans conducted by his group in March and April, less than half of the respondents said they would support a “cap-and-trade” policy, and that only 24% said they knew what the phrase means. “If you call it ‘clean energy dividend’…almost anything other than ‘cap and trade,’ you’ll get people responding a lot more favorably,” he said.

Now E&E News PM (subs. req’d) did report later that day:

Veteran Democratic pollster Mark Mellman will meet tonight with the entire House Democratic caucus to outline strategies for how the party should engage with the public on energy and climate change issues….

Mellman’s presentation comes a day after a White House Council on Environmental Quality official met for the second time with Washington-based nonprofit ecoAmerica to discuss communication strategies on climate change. CEQ spokeswoman Christine Glunz said the meeting was one of many with outside groups, adding, “The administration is not making any changes in the way it communicates about climate change.”

Mellman also met this morning with Senate Democratic leaders to present polling work on climate and energy.

I will add that I have credible sources who tell me that some White House political types have been urging progressives politicians not to talk about climate science.  So far, Obama has ignored them, and hopefully Mellman will prove persuasive with Congressional leaders.

Now is not the time to be back on our heels.

Now is not the time to be self-censoring — the status quo media does enough of that for us!


29 Responses to Mark Mellman must read on climate messaging: “A strong public consensus has emerged on the reality and severity of global warming, as well as on the need for federal action” — ecoAmerica “could hardly be more wrong”

  1. paulm says:

    Things are changing, slowly. In the BC elections here, the losing party lost partly because of their opposition to the first carbon tax in North America.
    When the party released its platform on April 9, the vow to get rid of the carbon tax topped the list of highlights.

    But the NDP downgraded the “axe the tax” drive after it provoked a backlash from some environmental leaders.

  2. ecostew says:

    Indeed Joe, and ever forward, and a bit of my perspective:

    Relative to anthropogenic global warming (AGW), my perspective is the US should pursue sustainable energy supplies (likely requiring an energy returned on energy invested [EROEI] of five or greater), which adequately mitigate AGW based on their life-cycle green house gas (GHG) footprint, while securing food, water, health, etc., and protecting the environment.

    One should focus on the nexus of energy and water using life-cycle-analysis to:

    conserve and produce/deliver/use energy and water as efficiently as possible, which includes enhancing energy and water efficiency/conservation in transportation, buildings, industry/business, residential, agriculture, etc.;

    pursue sustainable agriculture, forestry, and aquaculture production/consumption, which mitigates AGW; and

    restore terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems (enhancing carbon storage and water yield) e.g., forests, grasslands, and wetlands (including their soils).

    It is important to quickly transition away from existing fossil fuels with the worst GHG footprints e.g., coal and oil/tar sands.

    It is important to transition away from the internal combustion engine to electric vehicles as quickly as possible and enhance mass transit, especially rail. The ICE is far less energy and water efficient than the EV.

    It is important to move quickly to sustainable renewable electricity generation (EROEI of five or greater with acceptable GHG footprint) using state-of-the-art cooling as needed, which minimizes water consumption for thermoelectric power generation e.g., concentrated solar.

    It is important not to pursue unsustainable biofuels, which cannot pass rigorous LCA (including EROEI, GHG footprint, ensuring food and water, and protecting the environment).

    It is important that fossil fuels, which would have unacceptable GHG footprints and/or EROEIs not be developed e.g., oil shale for oil.

    It is important to protect sensitive environmental areas from resource extraction.

  3. Jim Beacon says:

    Hmmm… I’m guessing these “White House political types” who are urging progressives not to talk about climate science are the same folks who told Obama and the rest of the nation that he couldn’t possibly win the Presidency and so should be content to be Hillary Clinton’s Vice President. What they and so many other ‘savvy’ political types completely miss is the point that he won *because* he promised to do all this ‘radical’ stuff and people believed he would and so they voted for him — and gave him the first nearly-unbeatable Democratic-controlled Congress since 1992 to enable him. So, now that he’s actually going ahead and doing it, their latest pearls of political wisdom is to advise him and everyone else “go slow… keep a low profile… stop using certain terms like global warming and cap & trade… don’t upset centrist America…” What hogwash.

  4. ecostew says:

    I disagree as it is part of “making sausage’ and one must be present during the making or?

  5. paulm says:

    At last, at last!

    Finally more and more essential professional groups at stepping up tot the plate and recognizing and declaring the emergency of Climate Change.

    This should have happened at least 5yr ago…2009 is the threshold year!
    Deniers will be insignificant now.

    Climate change biggest threat to health, doctors say
    We have not just underestimated but completely neglected and ignored this issue,” said Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet,

  6. paulm says:

    “This is an immediate danger. It is going to affect you and it will certainly affect your children. While there is the injustice that the poorest will be worst affected, you will be affected too,” said Montgomery.

    The report says evidence on greenhouse gas emissions, temperature and sea-level rises, the melting of ice-sheets, ocean acidification and extreme climatic events suggests the forecasts by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007 might be too conservative. The UK target, to limit global warming to two degrees more, is unlikely to be achieved.

  7. Chris Winter says:

    A new report from Australian scientists says the coral triangle is under threat from rising ocean temperatures and acidification, potentially putting the livelihoods of 100 million people at risk.

    This coincides with the World Ocean Conference being held this week in Indonesia. I’m looking for it to be a significant benchmark.
    PNG, the World Ocean Conference & the Coral Triangle Initiative

  8. Robert Brulle says:


    Before I buy this shift, I’d like to see this in some more of a context. Does Mr. Mellman have some trend data to show if his survey results are a significant shift in public opinion on global warming? One time snapshots with survey questions that are not repeated over time makes conclusions about a shift very difficult to support. The Gallup poll doesn’t show a significant change in the importance of global warming or concern over the environment in contrast to other issues. We have run all of our analyses of Congressional actions based on two Gallup polling questions – 1) the % of the population that rates environment “as the most important problem, and 2) the net support for government spending on the environment. Shifts in these levels show a strong effect on Congressional votes. So perhaps you could ask Mr. Mellman for some further amplification of his data analysis and how his results compare with the long term Gallup poll trends.

    Bob Brulle

    [JR: Hmm. Not sure I can get an answer from the likes of Bob Mellman. I reprinted almost all of what he wrote because I didn’t want to take his comments out of context. He isn’t saying “we’ve won.” He’s saying, “we’re winning” and we need to keep pressing.

    I think he frames the case the way he does mainly to push back on ecoAmerica (and the likes of Shellenberger and Nordhaus), who imply that we’re failing miserably and need to back off.

    As you know, I don’t actually think the messaging from the environmental community and scientists and progressives is anywhere near as good as it could be. But considering how relentless the opposition has been with their disinformation, and considering the inadequacy of the status quo media, I think the polling results are pretty damn good news.]

  9. paulm says:

    All should read Assault on Reason….

    UK advertising rules save us from the climate lobbying mess in the US
    George Monbiot
    Freedom to buy public opinion curtails US democracy. The UK’s political advertising restrictions are one thing we’ve got right

    They might seem stuffy and old-fashioned. But the UK’s tough restrictions on political advertising are among the few things British politics has got right. If you don’t like them, consider the alternative.

    In the United States at the moment, competing lobby groups are trying to buy changes to legislation. The fossil fuel companies – hiding as ever behind trade associations, PR companies and fake thinktanks – are trying to derail the new clean energy and security bill. The new bill seeks, at long last, to cap carbon emissions in the world’s most powerful country.

  10. paulm says:

    Here’s more on the sudden awakening of the medical profession…

    Professor Anthony Costello: climate change biggest threat to humans

    failure to act will result in future generations feeling the same moral outrage as is felt today towards those “who brought in and did nothing to stop slavery”.

    “The big message of this report is that climate change is a health issue affecting billions of people, not just an environmental issue about polar bears and deforestation,” Professor Costello, the commission leader, said….

    crop yields could drop by 17 per cent with a 1C change in temperature.

    Professor Costello said that the health lobby “had come to the issue late and should be saying more”.

    We need a new 21st-century public health movement to deal with climate change.”

  11. Jeekers, it seems like politicians are the very last to get it.

    Scientists got it, then carbon industry PR agencies got it and started their nefarious work – which just proves that they knew about it. Pollsters get it, and are proving the public gets it…now we learn that so many of our politicians are still ignorant and unwilling to lead.

    This kind of leadership seems upside down.

  12. C. Vink says:

    Joe, in the light of the above and – still – the fact that Obama needs evident, ‘mass’ public support for his climate policy to really succeed, I – just a concerned citizen of the Netherlands, the low(est)lands of Europe – would very much like to ‘comment’ with an open letter (see below) to Al Gore – and of course the people in his organizations and networks visiting Climate Progress, your great and indeed indispensable blog.
    I’d greatly appreciate it if you permit this ‘comment’.
    (And please excuse me for my far from perfect English).

    Amsterdam, May 14, 2009

    The Office of the Honorable Al Gore and Mrs. Tipper Gore
    2100 West End Avenue
    Suite 620
    Nashville, TN 37203

    Dear Al Gore,

    To come straight to the point: as one of the many global citizens very much concerned about global warming, I urge you to start an international, historical Solar Petition aiming at Copenhagen 12/12.

    Why such a petition? And why you?

    1. Global warming is an international threat par excellence, uniting the fields of many NGOs and concerning nearly every person on earth. People and NGOs from all countries must be enabled to bundle their voices in an easy fashion and use their numerous networks to contribute. The (big) NGOs fail to take the initiative for a joint petition – but you can still make it happen.

    2. Through An Inconvenient Truth, you have become the face of the battle against global warming. You enjoy great prestige among NGOs, politicians, business people, media and the general public.
    – Organizations around the globe will be prepared to embrace your petition;
    – your fame will contribute much to its success;
    – presenting your new book Our Choice in the eve of the Copenhagen summit, you’ll be able to promote the petition effectively in a wonderful way.

    3. A petition will have a substantial impact only:
    – if it is going to be ‘the largest petition ever’ (present World Guinness Book record: 95 million subscribers – see note below), which will require lots of big and small groups world wide to support it;
    – if it is carried by a personality with the authority and connections to present it compellingly to the world leaders gathered in Copenhagen 12/12.

    4. At the moment I write you this letter, there exist some marginal petitions aiming at Copenhagen. And a fairly modest one of Greenpeace International asking world leaders to attend personally. If you act swiftly, you are able to initiate the Copenhagen Solar Petition expressing concrete demands.

    Proposed Elements of the Solar Petition:
    1. Rapid, massive implementation of solar and wind energy, including novel infrastructure.
    2. Saving air, soil and water by protecting and planting forests worldwide.
    3. Full-scale implementation of energy saving measures.
    4. Swift transition to nearly all-electric transportation.
    5. No more new coal plants and phasing out existing coal plants before 20XX. Ending oil production from tar sands. Acknowledgement that nuclear energy is not the solution for climate change.
    6. Effective policies making low carbon consumption and production financially attractive.
    7. Fair distribution of obligations and costs over developed and developing countries.
    8. Education programs teaching young people about the necessity of a ‘solar economy’.


    Coen J. Vink
    Amsterdam, The Netherlands

    UNICEF Petition ‘Say Yes For Children’,
    It is possible to collect tens of millions of subscribers in a period of months: see the Pakistani record anti-terror petition (2008) –

  13. DavidCOG says:


    > …it seems like politicians are the very last to get it.

    I’ve often thought that those who seek political power are some of the last people who should ever have it. I’m sure we can all immediately think of many examples of greed, dishonesty and eye-watering stupidity from our elected representatives.

  14. Jim says:

    Like Bob Brulle, I am not ready to buy this either.

    Mellman says, “Some progressives seem unwilling to take yes for an answer. Just as the long battle for public opinion on global warming is being won….”

    I would like to think we are winning, but I find it hard to reconcile that declaration of impending victory with two recent polls, including the Gallup poll to which Mellman refers:

    In March, Gallup reported, “Although a majority of Americans believe the seriousness of global warming is either correctly portrayed in the news or underestimated, a record-high 41% now say it is exaggerated. This represents the highest level of public skepticism about mainstream reporting on global warming seen in more than a decade of Gallup polling on the subject.” And, “Also, compared with last year, fewer Americans believe the effects of global warming have begun to occur. The figure is now 53%, down from 61% in March 2008.”

    Mellman touts the low 16% whom Gallup found are deniers, but that percentage is an all time high. Gallup says, “Prior to now, Gallup polling found no more than 11% of Americans saying the effects of global warming would never happen.”

    In January, Pew found that global warming was last among 20 voter concerns. In 2008, 35 percent had agreed that global warming was “a top priority”; in 2009, only 30 percent agreed.

    I don’t see how to define these results as winning. As soon as we become complacent we have lost, just as we did decades ago when we scoffed at the creationists and let them capture public opinion.

    Jim Powell

  15. Bennett says:

    Generally one would do well to follow the lead of the Obama communications team, which in my view is among the best, if not *the* best, of any Presidential administration.

    Percowitz’ arrogance is emblematic of the private sector’s superiority over government. Yes, the public sector very often has a lot to learn from private enterprise.

    But there are ALWAYS shades of gray. Someone of Percowitz’ mindset cannot believe that his own research can be contradicted. That is black and white thinking of the worst kind – the kind you often see among succesful private sector leaders….an orientation which can work in THEIR niche – but not society/the country at-large.

  16. paulm says:

    >>I’ve often thought that those who seek political power are some of the last people who should ever have it.

    Yeah, you should see the state of the UK system now. They were all (both sides) evading tax and its come home to roost.

  17. Dave Romm says:

    Conservatives are people who haven’t realized that they’ve lost.
    Liberals are people who haven’t realized that they’ve won.

    Both dynamics are in play here. Clearly, what had once been the liberal position on the environment circa Earth Day 1970 is now mainstream. And equally clearly, the empty barrel makes the most noise.

    At some point, we should simply ignore the ravings from the right and proceed as the facts dictate. This shouldn’t be a debate about the core problem, this should be a debate about the will necessary to fix the world.

  18. Dave says:

    As I said before, the best bet is to continue presenting a strong message about the reality of climate change. We shouldn’t have to appease people who aren’t willing to be receptive to the facts, just because it’s politically correct. As the title of Al Gore’s film says, climate change is an inconvenient truth. But it’s still a truth. This is easily verified by going through past climate and phenological records – both of which I’ve done just out of curiosity. In my area, records show temperatures have risen nearly 2F and “leaf-out” moved forward about 2 weeks or so since the late 19th century.

    The only reason some are still able to deny global warming is happening (or that it’s a big deal) is because the pace of change heretofore has been rather moderate. In addition, the changes themselves have yet to really exceed random variability by a large amount. However, if the warming this century is anywhere near as dramatic as forecast by the IPCC, denial will no longer be possible.

  19. Dave says:

    Sorry, I accidentally submitted my comment before I posted my main point.

    The bottom line is it would be silly to temper the truth just because some are unwilling to be moved by the facts of the matter. Denial will soon be rendered futile as the glaciers continue to recede, sea ice continues to melt, temperatures continue to climb, and extreme weather events continue to become more commonplace. If anything, we need to continue to present a strong message about the realities of climate change so that people realize it is a big issue and not something that can be solved merely by a handful of people “going green” or the “greenwashing” campaigns of a few corporate polluters.

  20. Will Koroluk says:

    Might want to have a look at Gavin Schmidt’s latest:

  21. paulm says:

    from Gavin >>Simplistic stories and cliché pictures of polar bears have failed to engage people in the true debate, says Nasa scientist

    The problem is the climate scientist themselves did not realize how immediate and far reaching the situation was in particular to the human species, due to our inability to fully appreciate tipping actions (see Dr. Albert Bartlett: Arithmetic, Population and Energy)).

    That explains to a large extent the focus on Polar bears and the “green environmental” aspect.

    Of course we all pretty well much know that its now too late to avoid catastrophic climate change (2C+) and are scrambling to avert worst case scenarios (5C+).

  22. Sam says:

    Amen! That Perkowitz stuff was/is idiotic.

  23. paulm says:

    I think one thing that could help is to start talking about GW in the context of a 4C rise rather than 2C.

    People just don’t get excited when they think about that delta.

    A 4C rise on the other hand is scary, and it is the more likely within the century!

  24. Dorothy says:

    Paul, 4C would bring doom to much of humanity. Our planet is already too hot now at less than 2C. “Scary” is a big understatement.

  25. Dorothy says:

    More from the John R. Platt article, “What We Must Do,” in Science, November 28, 1969. He is writing about a “self-structuring hierarchical jump,” which he compares to crystal rearranging suddenly.

    “The reason for the speed of the change is that it is prepared for everywhere at once. Even though individual elements of reform seem weak, when they reach a certain critical density and begin to join forces, the old order finds itself overwhelmed from without and betrayed from within, from directions it never guessed. The new self-maintaining patterns, like new vortex patterns, are self-reinforcing to each other as soon as they touch, because they can form the beginnings of a better-integrated system with a speed of understanding and communications and economics that the old malfunctioning system cannot match.”

    Powerful stuff. Like reading beautiful poetry.

  26. They are misinterpreting general apathy for a lack of caring. Of course the majority of Americans still care about Climate Change. With gas prices back to affordable levels though not nearly as many are apt to get personally involved in activism for clean energy.

  27. Philip H says:

    @ Jim Powell –
    I think you have hit an important truth, but I think you missed the real message – you have to look at the motivations of the reporting bodies to help you decide whether they are telling you the truth or not. The MSM, floundering around as it does in the age of New Media, won’t report that the vast majority of Americans believe climate change is a threat, because once they do, there is no longer a “Convroversial” story to tell – and their business model thrives on such “controversies.” Likewise, Pew isn’t going to structure its polling to show that the vast majority of Americans agree on anything, because if it does, then Pew has no more reason for existance, and would have to go out and actually find something else to do.

    Of course, one has ot remember that polls can easily be manipulated, all by how you structure the sentence when askign the question.

  28. Mellman and Joe Romm are right on. Keep slamming away at the science and reality and the public will get it.

    Sugarcoating what’s happening with some of the lamest euphemisms I’ve ever heard is a giant FAIL. But I bet all that dial research and testimony pays off big time for EcoAmerica – which at least makes it a green job plus – but I don’t think it deals with the sense of urgency people like me – and the vast majority of the American and World public are looking for.

    I believe there is no reason to back off the harsh reality of the consequences we’re facing. The ultra conservative insurance industry is a great reference point to use with business people. Insurance rates aren’t based on politics or hoaxes. It’s strictly a risk-based numbers game with them. All you have to do is look at what’s happening to rates and where they’re headed in pieces like this piece from the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy: