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Must-Read: A Guide For Engaging and Winning on Climate And Clean Energy

By Joe Romm

"Must-Read: A Guide For Engaging and Winning on Climate And Clean Energy"

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Betsy Taylor of Breakthrough Strategies & Solutions has put together an excellent messaging guide on climate and clean energy, “Climate Solutions for a Stronger America.”

She first “commissioned a national survey of likely voters to determine how leaders can engage and win on climate and energy in key races around the country.” She then consulted with leading communications experts to weave together a coherent narrative from the threads of those findings.

Readers know I’m a big believer in coherent narratives. Taylor’s guide is a must-read.

Here is more on the three major messages:

Key Finding 1: Extreme Weather

Voters have taken note of the nation’s unusual and severe weather—the tornadoes, heat waves, wildfires, and drought. The public clearly gets that something is going on with the climate because they see it in their own lives and on the news. Some are still uncertain about the causes of climate disruption, but three out of four now recognize it is real

Underlying Value: Responsibility

Message: We can’t ignore the increasingly severe weather: It’s already causing billions in damage and looks like it’s only getting worse. We owe it to our kids to protect them and their futures, and that means addressing climate change before it becomes irreversible. Running away from tough problems only makes them worse.  That’s not how America works. We need to implement common sense strategies now. We know what’s right, we know how to implement clean energy solutions, and we know that reducing fossil fuel dependence will make America stronger. It’s time to step up and get it done

Talk about current and recent weather. Spend less time talking about what may happen in the future and more on severe weather and impacts happening now. Use local examples, but also refer to the wildfires, drought, and major storms that have been in the national news.

Introduce “climate disruption.” Begin to use “climate disruption” instead of climate change when speaking about extreme weather and local impacts. “Disruption” makes it slightly harder for people to dismiss unusual events as being caused by natural weather cycles.

Focus on destructive weather, not just heat. Destructive, costly, and unpredictable weather events are more unsettling to voters than just record high temperatures. Voters do connect higher temperatures to destructive wildfires and drought.

Talk about kids and grandkids. In America, we put families first and that means making sure we leave a healthy, secure world for our kids and grandkids.In early August, the nation’s top climate scientist at NASA reported that things are going to get worse and that climate change must be addressed now if we want to make sure our kids have a safe future.

Message Pivot: Use the message triangle to link to messages grounded in the other two core messages of patriotic pride (#2) and accountability (#3). “We have a responsibility to act, and American ingenuity can drive the solutions.  It’s time to break the stranglehold that Big Oil and Coal has on Washington – a stranglehold that is preventing us from taking action on climate change.

Certainly it’s key to focus on increasingly extreme weather since we know linking that trend to climate change is scientifically accurate — see “Trenberth on How To Relate Climate Extremes to Climate Change” – and since it resonates with people:

Here’s the second finding, on solutions:

Key Finding 2: American Ingenuity and Solutions

Voters are hungry for optimistic solutions and confident leadership regarding climate change and clean energy. Voters believe in the potential of clean energy and in our nation’s ability to overcome challenges: Two-thirds disagreed that “given the tough economy, we can’t afford the high cost of transitioning to clean energy” and that “there is nothing we can do about climate change.”

Underlying Value: Patriotic Pride

Message: No one should doubt America’s ingenuity and resolve.  Those who say nothing can be done about climate change forget who we are and what we can do. We already have the energy technologies to run our economy cleanly and affordably.  American businesses and scientists have developed amazing renewable energy technologies, including solar mirrors that magnify the power of the sun, efficient wind turbines and jet fuel from algae.  America can build a healthier, more secure future by leading the world in clean energy solutions.   Developing clean energy creates jobs, strengthens local economies, and helps us gain control of our energy future.

Voters are seeking confident leaders who are willing to take on the complex problems of our times.  Without strong leadership, climate change can be intimidating.  Remind voters about practical, available clean energy technologies and solutions available today instead of focusing primarily on solutions projected for the future.

To counter messages that portray clean energy as unrealistic, take the patriotic high ground.  Make the case that the United States has already developed the technologies and has the solutions we need to make the transition to renewable energy. Give simple and visual examples of solutions.  Here’s one:  many technologies have been developed to take advantage of geothermal energy—the heat from the earth.  Instead of drilling for more fossil fuels, we can drill down to the steam and hot water in the Earth and use that heat for our homes and office buildings.

Talk about clean energy solutions as a source of job creation, a strategy for America to take control of our energy and economic future, and a way to avoid carbon pollution. Use local examples of solar, wind, environmental buildings, or carbon-reducing transit systems that have generated jobs in your community or state. Renewable technologies are positive, clean, and forward-looking — suggesting a better tomorrow.  Naysayers are selling America short and underestimating our capabilities.

Message Pivot: Use the message triangle to link to the other core two messages grounded in responsibility (#1) and accountability (#3):  Americans don’t run away from big challenges.  We turn them into big opportunities. We have a responsibility to our kids.  But Big Oil and the Koch Brothers are  standing in the way:  corrupting our political process and blocking American clean energy innovation.  It’s time to take our future back, and clean energy’s a great way to do it.

The solutions and clean energy jobs message has always been among the most important, as pretty much every poll makes clear. See CP’s 2011 post, “Independents Support Federal Investment in ‘Green Jobs’ 2-to-1 Despite Solyndra Media Storm,” which quoted this finding:

In dozens of focus groups we have conducted this month across the country on a wide variety of subjects, when voters are asked where they would like new jobs in their state to come from, the first words out of their mouths are almost always the same – clean energy and related technology.  Voters believe that the clean energy economy is here and is growing, and they want their state to have a part of it.

Returning to Taylor’s guide, here is the final message:

Key Finding 3: Big Oil and Coal are Blocking Clean Energy

Voters recognize that big fossil fuel companies have an unfair amount of influence over energy policy decisions in Washington. They see Big Oil as a greedy corporate actor that coordinates with SuperPacs, the billionaire Koch Brothers, and corrupt politicians to manipulate our government, pad their profits, and suppress clean energy innovation.  Voters understand, correctly, that the undue influence of fossil fuel interests is an obstacle to progress.  This finding allows us to construct a powerful narrative that puts climate and clean energy champions on the offensive (with messages 1 and 2), and associates opponents with fossil fuel interests that voters deeply distrust.  Nearly six out of ten voters are troubled a lot or a fair amount by “oil companies pouring tens of millions of dollars into so-called superPACS advertising campaigns in order to influence key elections.”

Underlying Value: Accountability

Message: It’s time to break the stranglehold that the oil and coal companies have on Washington.  They are rigging the system to pad their profits, block clean energy innovation, and prevent responsible action to protect our kids from climate disruption.  They pay for deceptive campaigns to spread doubts about climate science and the role of fossil fuels in causing climate change.

Call for political leaders to hold oil and coal companies accountable and fight back against corporations that are “rigging the system” against clean energy and “not playing by the rules.” Remind the public that, “What’s best for the oil companies is not what’s best for the American economy and the American people.  And especially not what’s best for our children’s future.”

Challenge the credibility of opposition claims by letting voters know that the fossil fuel companies are conducting a deceptive media campaign to spread doubt – distorting science, manipulating our political system, and blocking America’s progress toward a reducing dependence on oil and coal.  It’s the same strategy the tobacco companies used to hide the deadly impacts of smoking, and some of the same people are behind it.

If it’s felt like we haven’t made fast enough progress in this country in tackling climate change because there’s been a lot of uncertainty in the science — Guess what?  There’s been a coordinated, well-funded effort by the petroleum industry to MAKE the American public feel confused and to delay progress in this critical area.    I’m reading from a memo from the American Petroleum Institute, stating “Victory will be achieved when average citizens ‘understand’ uncertainties in climate science. National Academy of Sciences calls the science behind climate disruption “settled fact.”

Message Pivot: Use the message triangle to link to messages grounded in the other two core messages of responsibility (#1) and patriotic pride (#2). Oil and coal companies can never convince us that fossil fuel dependence is a good thing. So they deny climate science and undermine clean energy. The truth is that clean energy is abundant and affordable and essential to a healthy future..   No one should doubt America’s ingenuity and ability to meet this challenge. Those who say that nothing can be done about climate change forget what America is capable of. We can’t ignore the growing reality of severe weather – and we owe it to our kids to protect them, and that means addressing climate change before it becomes irreversible.

This final message is an important one and should be included in some form in major presentations on climate.

There is more in this guide, including “Key Supporting Facts,” examples of how to respond to specific attacks, a sample op-ed and a variety of soundbites. Kudos to Betsy Taylor and Breakthrough Strategies & Solutions for putting together this must-read report.

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18 Responses to Must-Read: A Guide For Engaging and Winning on Climate And Clean Energy

  1. Leif says:

    One of the biggest rewards for embracing the Green Awakening Economy is not the money generated, though that can be massive, with proper oversight, but the peace of mind that comes with doing positive endeavors for the children and Earth’s life support systems. Becoming a valuable member of the tribe of Humanity. Not just pushing paper to make your daily bread. Looking forward to earning a giving living, not polluting the commons, but creatively struggling to make the world a better place for your and yours, me and mine, those and them.

    Pride in Being… If America cannot do it, who can?

  2. Paul Klinkman says:

    American ingenuity can’t drive our country anywhere if you rig the entire economy from stem to stern, from the patent office to the big alkafuel and nuclear kickbacks in Washington to wars subsidizing oil to your least favorite issue here. Lone inventors go up against multinationals and fail.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Very true. The ranting homage of the Rightwing hysterics to their beloved, omnipotent and omniscient ‘Free Market’ really gets me guffawing, as virtually every market is thoroughly rigged to dispossess and disinherit the many to feed the insatiable greed of the very few.

      • GreenHearted says:

        Free market? Ha ha. “U.S. Slaps High Tariffs on Chinese Solar Panels” (New York Times, May 17, 2012). And so much for turning the market around by investing in the change we want to see in the world. My family just lost a ton of pension money because of your country’s free-market tariff on Chinese technology.

  3. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    Climate change is a threat to natioal security. Sky rocketing oil prices are a threat to national security. The national debt caused by wars for oil and paying for the oil, is a threat to national security.

    The low international opinion of the United States, because of its failure to adress these issues, is a threat to national security. The contamination of so much potable water is a threat to national security.

    Alienating half the population is probably the biggest threat to national security there is. Hungry, homeless, armed people is not a recipe for stability. The people voting for those who would destroy them is strange, but eventually they will wake up.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Yes, but ‘the nation’ doesn’t exist. What you and we and all those who dwell in capitalist societies have is a ruling oligarchy, part of a transnational elite, who put on a little show of ‘democracy’ while ensuring that there is no real choice but to vote for one of their employees and suffer the consequences. The ‘nation’ is a chimera to excite jingoistic and chauvinistic passions when the resources of other countries need to be stolen, or internal dissidents denounced as ‘únpatriotic’. In fact nationalism in this time of unprecedented global peril for our species will prove a real hindrance to effective action.

  4. Tim Laporte says:

    If you ask me, the most important messaging issue in the climate war concerns the necessity of a carbon tax. A flat carbon tax really ought to win acceptance based on its merits, if the revenue is used to lower existing taxes on work and income. If it is true that this country has a jobs crisis, why do we continue to tax jobs (payroll) at 12.4% (lowered nominally to 10.4% the last few years)?

    I’m surprised there wasn’t more discussion on this blog of Robert Frank’s important argument for a carbon tax in last month’s NYT (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/26/business/carbon-tax-would-have-many-benefits-economic-view.html).

    The key passage is as follows:

    “The good news is that we could insulate ourselves from catastrophic risk at relatively modest cost by enacting a steep carbon tax. Early studies by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that a carbon tax of up to $80 per metric ton of emissions — a tax that might raise gasoline prices by 70 cents a gallon — would eventually result in climate stability. But because recent estimates about global warming have become more pessimistic, stabilization may require a much higher tax. How hard would it be to live with a tax of, say, $300 a ton?

    If such a tax were phased in, the prices of goods would rise gradually in proportion to the amount of carbon dioxide their production or use entailed. The price of gasoline, for example, would slowly rise by somewhat less than $3 a gallon. Motorists in many countries already pay that much more than Americans do, and they seem to have adapted by driving substantially more efficient vehicles.”

    The proposal of a $300/ton CO2 tax by a prominent economist in the NYT opened my eyes. For some reason, there is a general consensus among policy wonks that CO2 should start around $15-$25 and increase (too) gradually from there. Is there any reason for this caution? None that I can see. Carbon taxes are good policy, period. A small carbon tax yields a small amount of good policy, while a big carbon tax yields a bonanza of good policy.

    Let’s say we took Frank’s suggestion and instituted a carbon tax of $300. Let’s also be somewhat moderate and assume that we would ramp up to this price gradually, reaching the full $300 fee by 2020. Right now, America emits somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 billion tons CO2 per year. That would begin to decline rapidly upon the enactment of this strong tax. Let’s assume that, under this scheme, we reduce annual CO2 emissions during the ramp-up period to 4 gT CO2 by 2020. Such a tax would by 2020 yield roughly $1.2 Trillion annually.

    That’s a lot of money. What could we do with it? Well, for one, we could use it to COMPLETELY ELIMINATE the payroll tax. The payroll tax raises about $1 Trillion per year. Let’s be optimists and assume that rises to $1.2 T by 2020. This is a good deal for just about everyone who works, including those with modest wages, and it’s a good deal for businesses because it significantly lowers the cost of labor.

    The bottom line is that a carbon tax is an idea that should win in the public sphere based on its merits, and a strong carbon tax is better than a weak one. In the end, it boils down to a strikingly simple question: would you rather be taxed for something good and productive like work, or for something bad and destructive, like pollution. Our crisis right now is that we have too few jobs and too much pollution. A carbon tax fixes both ends of the equation, and it can do so more effectively when it is strong. This is the argument that needs to be presented to the American public right now, when we are debating our budget priorities for the next 10 years. In the end, this is the only debate that matters, and it is where the climate crisis will be won or loss. A strong carbon tax will solve the climate crisis, at least in this country. If more countries realize that a carbon tax, because of it’s ability to lower other taxes, is a net positive for society, it could be implemented on a wide scale, and we could actually SOLVE the climate crisis.

    See also this NYT op-ed from earlier in the summer: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/05/opinion/a-carbon-tax-sensible-for-all.html

  5. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Great post. I liked it.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India
    E-mail: anumakonda.jagadeesh@gmail.com

  6. Jameson Quinn says:

    Point 3 isn’t just important for messaging. It’s important in reality. Climate change is urgent, sure, but it’s also an issue that’s here to stay. We need to be looking for ways to increase the power of citizens and decrease the power of dirty-energy super-PACs for the medium and long term.

    That means a two-pronged strategy for politics: get the money out, and put the people back in. Getting the money out means things like requiring explicit shareholder approval for all contributions by publicly-held corporations; requiring meaningful funding disclosure in political ads; a constitutional amendment to roll back Citizens United; and Supreme Court term-limits, backed by temporary court-packing if the fossils won’t leave voluntarily. Most of that is more or less on the progressive agenda already, but it’s important to see it as part of the clmate change agenda too.

    Getting the people back in — improving democracy — is where I think people aren’t thinking big enough. Yes, protecting the right to vote and measures to expand turnout is part of it, and progressives are on the job with that one. Similarly with reforming the filibuster, an anti-democratic tool no matter who has the majority. However, the biggest issue for improving democracy is voting systems. Approval voting and proportional representation would open up voters’ options beyond the two party monopoly. This would be an important source of citizen leverage; even when the same old parties won, they’d have to do so by coopting new ideas, and climate would be an important part of that.

  7. Using “climate disruption” instead of “climate change” is brilliant. I’ve been looking for other opportunities to rephrase concepts so they are clearer to or have more impact on the average person.

    One example is in the “parts per million” description of CO2′s threat. A person can reasonably ask, “how can a few parts per million affect anything?” So instead of saying “CO2 is the principal greenhouse gas and it’s risen from 280 ppm to 390 ppm,” I say, “CO2 is the principal greenhouse gas and it’s risen more than 30 percent in recent decades.” Heads nod.

    • bedfordfalls says:

      I think there’s a danger in switching away from “climate change;” many people are already critical that some have abandoned “global warming.”

      Get ready to hear “You’re getting PC on us,” “You’ll never make up your minds,” “You are admitting that ‘climate change’ is inaccurate,” etc.

  8. Omega Centauri says:

    I’m just a messaging neophyte, but this sounds pretty good to me. My only issue is with:
    “addressing climate change before it becomes irreversible.”
    Baring some pretty hard core CO2 removal, the amount of disruption we are already seeing is virtually irreversible. I would feel more comfortable with “addressing climate disruption before it becomes even worse”

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Disruption or destabilisation seem superior to me because the denialist genocidaires simply squawk that the climate has always changed. Destabilisation or disruption infer a departure from the relative stability of the last few millennia that has allowed our species to proliferate and our civilization to grow. It’ll be lost on the ignorati and numbskullocrats, but the message might reach a few others.

  9. Jamie Ross says:

    Great post – thanks! so often when I point out Obama’s failures in climate leadership the comeback is, “People don’t want to hear doom and gloom.”

    Successful political climate messaging doesn’t have to be doom and gloom.

  10. Paul Magnus says:

    What is also missing from the dialogue, which I think should have be there way earlier, is that this whole thing is an emergency.

    We talk about war footing etc thats need to tackle GW, but the rhetoric does/did not support this. At any level of discorse.

    That is certainly one reason the public hasn’t reacted to the issue. And they have to get this message from peers that they trust. Like weatherpersons and lawmakers and scientist and religious leaders and education institutions…..

    There have been a few like Hansen, Lovelock and Gore, but they did not get any support from their colleagues on this. Some argue about scaring people. OK so we dont get scared and now the plant fries. Nice.

    If the emergency message was consistent and measured, from the respected sources, people would/will have risen to the challenge.

  11. GreenHearted says:

    “In America, we put families first….” Oh my gosh, that line cracked me up!! Do you guys really believe that about yourselves?

    No wait, it’s just a line you’re going to use, right? If America had ever put families first, the world wouldn’t be in the mess it’s in. (I’m not saying my country is any better, BTW. But that line is pure fiction. I don’t even see evidence that Americans love their children these days, let alone put their families first.)