Politico Runs Story On Global Warming ‘Rebranding’ 3 Years Late — Then Gets Story Backwards

Shhhh! Don’t tell the Politico that the ‘rebranding’ of global warming happened 3 years ago and now is being reversed by climate champions such as Bill McKibben.

The Politico is known for cutting-edge inside-the-beltway political reporting — if center-right spin is your idea of cutting edge.

Today, however, they ran a story that would have been cutting edge 3 years ago, but is now in fact mostly wrong. Indeed, as we’ll see, the Politico story is actually contradicted by the polling that they cite.

Here is their big ‘scoop’:

‘Global warming’ gets a rebranding

Shhhh! Don’t talk about global warming!

There’s been a change in climate for Washington’s greenhouse gang, and they’ve come to this conclusion: To win, they have to talk about other topics, like gas prices and kids choking on pollutants.

More than two years since Democrats’ cap-and-trade plan died in Congress, the strategic shift represents a reluctant acknowledgment from environmentalists that they’ve lost ground by tackling global warming head-on. Their best bet now lies in a bit of a bait and switch: Help elect global warming fighters by basing campaigns on kitchen-table issues.

What’s funny is that this story would have been news in early 2009 — when I first reported on it (see here). Heck, it still would have been news in mid-2010 when the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein wrote about it in his article, “Can you solve global warming without talking about global warming?

What the Politico missed entirely is there has been a backlash against that rebranding because many in the progressive and environmental communities realized that the rebranding effort failed, realized that focusing just on topics like gas prices doesn’t work.

How ironic that Politico ran the story next to an ExxonMobil ad for the oil tar sands — since the biggest recent political success of the environmental movement, halting the approval of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, was done by talking explicitly about global warming, a strategy explicitly championed by one of the leaders of the effort, Bill McKibben.

I asked McKibben to comment on his winning strategy, and he wrote me:

Talking about climate was precisely what rallied most of the people who came out to oppose the Keystone Pipeline. The largest civil disobedience action in 30 years on any issue saw people from all 50 states taking part, not jsut or even mainly the 6 along the pipeline route. When we circled the White House five deep with people, the most common banner was simply a quote from Obama: In my administration the rise of the oceans will begin to slow.

People sense in their bones–especially on a week like this–that the climate is starting to shift–this issue is moving quickly from the theoretical to the deeply real.

Yes, leave it to the Politico to say no one is talking about global warming during one of the most extreme heat waves in the history of the country, one that is so extreme, even major networks are talking about global warming.

I’m not saying that everyone who supports climate action is now talking about global warming — obviously the president and his team still aren’t. I’m merely saying that the story is mostly wrong, that the part that is “news” for the Politico —  the supposedly rebranding — happened 3 years ago and the part that should be news for their readers is that there has now been a backlash to that rebranding.

That backlash comes in 2 forms. First, there has been a vast amount of polling and social science research done showing that global warming is a winning political issue (see links below). Indeed we now know climate is a wedge issue that splits the Tea Party extremists from independents and moderate Republicans (see for instance the 2011 work of Stanford public opinion expert Jon Krosnick: Democrats Taking “Green” Positions on Climate Change “Won Much More Often” Than Those Remaining Silent).

Second, more groups like Tarsands Action are starting to talk about climate change again.

Of course, some groups never stopped talking about global warming. You may have heard of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. It’s where I work. Climate Progress is a project of CAPAF.  I think it’s safe to say CAPAF never stopped talking about global warming.

So guess how Politico begins its article about this supposedly new rebranding? By quoting CAPAF’s director of climate strategy! Seriously, here’s the quote in the very next paragraph after the excerpts above:

“You don’t have to be James Carville to figure out that talking about people’s health and the health of their children … is going to make a difference to the average voter, ” Daniel Weiss, director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress Action Fund,  said.

Well, duh. We’ve always talked about all of the benefits of climate action, including public health. Indeed, one of the central points of my blog is that it’s important to explain to people that climate change is going to affect their health and their children’s health.

I asked Weiss to comment on the story::

Advocates continue to talk about global warming and its threat to Americans and other people.  This includes direct health impacts such as more smog and tropical diseases.  And it also includes educating the public and media about the great human and economic costs posed by more ferocious storms, persistent droughts, sea level rise, ocean acidification and other horrible consequences of unchecked carbon dioxide pollution. Every poll shows the public wants action on global warming and clean air.  They want to cut carbon dioxide pollution and increase investments in clean energy technologies since they create jobs, increase security, and cut pollution.

And we’re not even an environmental organization. We just know that it’s important to keep talking about the gravest threat to the health and well-being of Americans and indeed all of humanity.

The Politico relies on one pollster who isn’t actually known for polling in this area to bolster its narrative:

It’s no surprise that climate change has become less important to voters, said Thom Riehle, a longtime Democratic pollster who is now a senior vice president for

Whereas support for climate change mitigation was at 50 percent to 60 percent in 2007, Riehle said, “it’s dramatically lower now.”

Except that isn’t actually true.

Over a dozen polls in the past 3 years show that public support for climate action never wavered, starting back in 2009 — see Mark Mellman must read on climate messaging (5/09): “A strong public consensus has emerged on the reality and severity of global warming, as well as on the need for federal action.”

It really doesn’t even matter how you phrased the question — even if you called it “cap-and-trade” —  the public wanted climate action in 2009:

Riehle is confusing the public’s answer to some specific polling questions on climate — many of which were poorly worded — with polling questions on support for climate action.

Support for climate action and aggressive clean energy policies actually rose slightly in 2010 climate action even during the depths of the recession, even in the face of an unprecedented fossil-fuel-funded disinformation campaign during the climate bill debate — even without the White House using its bully pulpit to tip the scales further (see “Memo to policymakers: Public STILL favors the transition to clean energy” and links below):

From what you've read and heard, in general, do you favor or  oppose setting limits on carbon dioxide emissions and making companies  pay for their emissions, even if it may mean higher energy prices?

What’s so head-exploding about the Politico’s article is that in their very article, they themselves published a poll that contradicts Riehle:

So the public overwhelmingly supports stricter limits on carbon dioxide —  and they think it would have a positive impact on public health and air quality and even the economy and jobs.

So how precisely does the Politico quote some other pollster claiming support for “climate change mitigation” is “dramatically lower now.” Is the Politico really unaware of the fact that stricter limits on carbon dioxide is the same thing as climate change mitigation?

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13 Responses to Politico Runs Story On Global Warming ‘Rebranding’ 3 Years Late — Then Gets Story Backwards

  1. Mike Roddy says:

    “Political journalist” is not exactly a flattering job description. They pride themselves on being hardheaded, but this has its own meaning for both them and their friends in the oil companies: How do we make more money next year?

    As you pointed out, they don’t even get public opinion correctly. This could be either ignorance or corruption, but it doesn’t matter. Time to ignore Politico and other journalists such as George Will and Bill O’Reilly.

  2. Tom King says:

    Having completely ditched the mainstream press, I couldn’t resist the urge to follow the link to the article mentioned. What I found there left me astonished and depressed. I was even foolish enough to read some of the comments on that site. My mood will be sunk for a couple hours, but I’ll recover and continue on my path towards a green future.

  3. novenator says:

    What do you expect from a conservative publication like Politico? To be fair, they are center-right, and can actually be fair unlike most conservative publications, but their anti-reality bias tends to peek through from time to time, like on this story.

  4. Lara says:

    There actually has been a re-branding of sorts on the global level. They’re talking about “Sustainable Development” on the build up to Rio +20 because the people in charge believe there is an aversion to anything ‘Climate’ right now.
    Politico may have been late to the party but they are not that far off.

  5. Pythagoras says:

    I’m convinced that the winning argument is to forego “cap-and-trade” or a “carbon tax” and to just say we’re going to ban coal.

    With “cap-and-trade” and “carbon tax”, we’re on the losing end because there is no compromise position and motives will always be suspect (“It is just a scheme to make government bigger.”) An outright ban is easier to defend.

    A 30-40 year phase out of coal is simple. It reflects the fact that coal fired plants by their nature depreciate. And how can you cheat? Ain’t know way that you’re hiding a 120-car train of coal.

  6. TKPGH says:

    Dan Akerson’s comments on the reality of global warming during a Commonwealth Club interview are welcome and evidience that the politics around AGW are changing (I have a petition of support for Mr. Akerson up on and would appreciate it if folks would lend their signitures to it:\

    Another is a Sunday editorial by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that cut the deniers off at the knees:

    If we can keep the pressure up, the showdown will come this year. The carbon tax proposal could be the catalyst whereby we finally confront global warming and ocean acidification. I hope so.

  7. John Mason says:

    If anyone’s attempting to rebrand at the moment, it’s the opposition – and they’re not doing an especially good job of it! I took a recent look at one such case and was not impressed by what I found:

  8. Connor Gibson says:

    We need to stop talking about Keystone XL as if we won the fight. We haven’t. We forced a hesitation from Obama, something to be proud of but a far cry from actually stopping KXL. A stall will make no positive impact on the climate and air/water of Alberta if the pipeline is built a year or two late.

    It was a monumental mistake for MicKibben and 350 to claim victory over a project that is still being pushed through, and now with less public resistance because of our highly-celebrated “winning strategy.” I hope the mistake doesn’t prove fatal to the fight. Obama seems happy to let the southern part of the pipeline go through and give TransCanada time for it’s bait-and-switch to a less controversial northern route. They have $7 billion on the line.

    Less critically, I laughed out loud when I saw you wrote an article calling out Politico’s bizarre and untimely article, although I don’t know if I consider their energy reporting “center-right” although some seem rather close to Bracewell & Giuliani’s energy shop…

  9. Tim Palmer says:

    Not cap-and-trade! Cap-and-trade means enormous sums of money being traded by Wall Street firms and other Fat Cats purely for profit. This has nothing to do with controlling carbon emissions. Coal and other fossil fuel industry powers actually favor it–it is what they are willing to accept, which should say something all by itself!
    Not Carbon Tax! Taxes go to the government where the money becomes an extension of a political process that is already swimming in too much money.
    FEE and DIVIDEND! A flat fee per unit mass of carbon. $100/ton, say, to start. But return the money to the citizens pro-rated on the basis of their individual carbon footprint. People who live with a minimum of carbon fuel will receive a larger share of what is collected. Give all of the money back, say once per month. Put it directly in their bank account or on a debit card account. Raise the fee over time to make it an ever more meaningfull and powerfull incentive to burn less carbon fuel and to come up with creative alternative!

  10. Joe Romm says:

    For better or worse, it’s not gonna happen. A tax has a (small) shot, but everything else has no shot.

  11. Steve Smith says:

    Never going to happen. Coal is money in the ground and someone is going to burn it. If it’s China, as they’ve been increasing their imports while we’ve been decreasing our usage, does the atmosphere care what country the carbon comes from.

  12. Speaking of rebranding, didn’t NPR recently decide it was going to stop reporting he said/she said news? The decision was worded something like, “if there is a clear majority position on an issue, we’re going to report it that way.” They are clearly talking about global warming — no more phony “debate” between the denier crowd and 98 percent of climate scientists.

    This is a positive step, and I think the beginning of a sea change in the media and public’s perception of the defining issue of the 21st century — at least I hope so.