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In lead story on climate debate, WashPost pushes a dubious narrative at odds with their own polling

I was quoted on the front page of the Washington Post today in a very questionable story, “Environmentalists Slow to Adjust in Climate Debate: Opponents Seize Initiative as Senate Bill Nears,” by staff writer, “David A. Fahrenthold”:

“Progressives and clean-energy types . . . made a mistake and slacked off” after the House of Representatives passed its version of a climate-change bill in June, said Joseph Romm, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who blogs on climate issues. “And the other side really kept making its case.”

Now, my poor choice of words “slacked off” aside — many of my friends have never worked harder in their lives — this story and Fahrenthold’s use of my quote is seriously flawed:

  1. On the specific issue of the effort of “progressives and clean-energy types,” I was quite clear to Fahrenthold that I was talking about the period immediately after the House vote. I explained that by the end of July, progressives and clean-energy types, had gotten their organizational act together (and that the other side is pushing disinformation). Now this in retrospect turned out not to be the narrative Fahrenthold wanted to push. But I think it is wrong for a reporter to interview a subject and then use one quote from the person that fits the reporter’s narrative when the reporter knows that the interviewee disagrees with that narrative.
  2. The fact that Fahrenthold’s narrative and conclusion is, ultimately, wrong comes from his paper’s own polling — see Yet another major poll [by WashPost] finds “broad support” for clean energy and climate bill: “Support for the plan among independents has increased slightly.” It’s downright absurd for the Washington Post to argue in a piece today, Monday, that industry groups are winning the messaging war when on Friday they published the results of a survey that demonstrates the opposite. Heck, that piece’s headline was “On Energy, Obama Finds Broad Support.”
  3. When the political reporters treat this as just another political horse-race story, treating the industry falsehoods as equivalent to the accurate statements of climate action advocates, they play into the hands of the right-wing disinformers (see How the press bungles its coverage of climate economics “” “The media’s decision to play the stenographer role helped opponents of climate action stifle progress”). You’d never know from this story that the Post has actually done some very good reporting on the dire nature of the climate problem (see, for instance, this 2006 Juliet Eilperin story, “Debate on Climate Shifts to Issue of Irreparable Change: Some Experts on Global Warming Foresee ‘Tipping Point’ When It Is Too Late to Act” or this 2008 story on the dangers to this country of our current do-nothing path).

Let me elaborate on the second point before coming back to the larger question of how the climate action advocates are doing. Fahrenthold himself is forced to concede:

It’s hard to know now if anybody is winning. In a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, 52 percent of Americans supported the cap-and-trade approach used in the House climate bill.

Well, that’s lame. After all, the thrust of his article is that industry groups are winning. The Friday article includes this line “Support for the plan among independents has increased slightly, with a narrow majority now in favor.” How about that.

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A much more accurate piece with a more defensible narrative can be found in the Sunday L.A. Times, “Both sides in energy debate watching healthcare battle: Obama’s broad plan for new technology, efficiency and a ‘cap and trade’ system to curb emissions may spark another nasty fight — so participants are learning from the tactics being used on healthcare”:

When Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) spoke this month at the groundbreaking for a new biomass power plant in remote Camden, Ark., the crowd of 400 included 250 clean-energy advocates brought together by the Sierra Club.”Our side is starting to really turn people out,” said Josh Dorner, a spokesman for the environmentalist group. “The public is on the side of this. They want clean energy.”

A few days later, in Houston, oil company workers packed a rally sponsored by conservative groups and major oil and business lobbyists to celebrate the fossil-fuel industry and denounce the climate bill.

A batch of recent polls shows that voters support efforts to boost solar, wind and other energy alternatives to fossil fuels; that more voters believe those efforts will create jobs rather than eliminate them; and that a majority appears willing to pay some amount more for energy as a result.

That’s why some GOP strategists are warning that, unlike with the health debate, Republicans can’t just criticize Obama’s energy plans — they have to offer their own, including a boost for renewable energy.

“On this issue, Republicans have to say, ‘Here’s our alternative,’ “ said Glen Bolger, a GOP pollster with Public Opinion Strategies in Virginia who has done polling on the energy question this summer.

Exactly.

Unlike the health care debate, we actually have a simple, positive, accurate message that has taken hold. That should change the dynamics of the debate — if we’re smart (and by we, I mainly mean team Obama).

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Some enviros were unhappy with my choice of words. Certainly many of my friends have never worked harder in their lives, so I’m sorry for having used the phrase “slacked off.” I probably should have said we failed to press our advantage. It always pays to remember from a rhetorical perpsective that the negating words shouldn’t be the verbs or adjectives or nouns — they become too memorable and too easily quoted out of context.

That said, the basic thrust of my comments are what I’ve been saying for a while (see Memo to enviros, progressives: The deniers and dirty energy bunch are “full of passionate intensity” “” and eating our lunch on the climate bill). But, like I said, I do think that enviros and progressives have gone back into high gear, especially in advertising, which seems clear from the polling. I do still worry that we are being outhustled. I wrote back in mid-July: “I have heard from multiple sources that many U.S. Senators are now getting 100 to 200 calls a day opposing a climate and clean energy bill “” and bupkes in favor.” Now Fahrenthold claims:

In the Midwestern heart of the current ad blitz, the office of Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) has been getting calls from people inspired by environmental groups’ TV ads. But in the office of Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), a staff member said letters were running 100 for and 7,000 against climate legislation.

If this is true, it’s not good news. Lugar is a potentially gettable GOP vote. If staffers and others have different information, I’d love to hear it. But for now, it appears we simply aren’t doing enough, which I suppose it isn’t a total surprise given the other side has access to billions of dollars and a total lack of scruples (see “The latest polluter front group trying to kill the clean energy bill is overseen by a proud former shill for a man convicted on fraud and conspiracy charges”).

Only one person can really counter the level of effort the fossil-fuel-funded deniers can. And that’s why my far bigger concern is that the progressives who matter the most — team Obama — definitely slacked off after the House vote. And while the Administration appears to be holding some meetings to push the bill, fundamentally:

  1. They are giving the climate bill short shrift.
  2. They have let some Senators say the silliest things about the bill.
  3. They have completely downplayed the climate science message and, in general, are focusing on their lame health care messaging to the exclusion of most everything else.

The rest of the progressive community, clean energy advocates, and environmentalists can create the conditions to get us close to 60 votes in the Senate. But fundamentally only Obama can get those last few votes. He needs to finish his now 2-month vacation from the issue ASAP.

And one more thing — where is the scientific community? It’s time for them to speak out on this issue.