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Analysis

The 20-year-old playbook that explains Republicans’ attacks on the Green New Deal

Republicans’ meaningless words on climate action come from 2002 Bush and Luntz playbook

Fox news has devoted more time to covering the Green New Deal than other TV media outlets.
Fox news has devoted more time to covering the Green New Deal than other TV media outlets.

Republicans are gearing up to attack the Green New Deal — the latest effort by Democrats to address the growing climate crisis with a big push to deploy clean energy.

But because the public has long been supportive of both climate action and clean energy — and the momentum behind calls for action only continues to grow — the GOP has to pretend that they have a plan of their own.

So that means you can expect many conservatives critical of the plan to start using talking points from a playbook developed two decades ago by Republican word-meister and messaging expert Frank Luntz — a plan built around repeating the poll-tested words “technology” and “innovation” over and over and over.

In fact, some leading House Republicans have already started doing this. Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), and Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) published an a op-ed this week on the conservative website Real Clear Policy that argues “Republicans Have Better Solutions to Climate Change.”

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You’d be forgiven for thinking this was a parody, as it starts out quite unexpectedly. The opening line reads: “Climate change is real, and as Republican Leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, we are focused on solutions.”

In the real world, Walden, Upton, and Shimkus have all repeatedly voted against amendments recognizing that climate change is real and have taken money from the leading funders of climate denial, the petrochemical and fossil fuel billionaire Koch brothers.

In 2011, for instance, Upton said of global warming, “I do not say that it is man-made.” Shimkus has said cutting CO2 emissions is “Taking away plant food from the atmosphere” and said global warming won’t destroy the earth because “The earth will end only when God declares its time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth.” And in 2017, Walden actually warned against supporting renewables.

So how do hardcore opponents of climate science and climate action pretend they have solutions? It’s all about “innovation,” as the op-ed makes clear:

We must address climate change in ways that focus on American prosperity and technological capabilities while maintaining America’s leadership in clean and renewable energy innovation. By doubling down on innovation, we can supply the world with new tools to combat emissions.

We should continue to encourage innovation and renewable energy development.

Walden and the others don’t support the actual solution to global warming — which is deploying clean energy. But, beyond that, they don’t even support developing renewable energy. Instead, they want to “encourage it.”

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If you are wondering why they repeat the word “innovation” three times in three sentences — and six times in the entire short op-ed — it’s because they are likely following the script laid out by Luntz in an infamous 2002 memo to conservatives and the George W. Bush White House.

In the memo, Luntz explained that the best way to pretend you care about the climate and the environment — while opposing regulations that might actually do something to reduce pollution — was to talk about “technology and innovation.” Indeed these words are a cornerstone of Luntz’s poll-tested euphemisms for “we want to sound like we care about the climate, we just don’t want to do anything about it.”

In the memo’s key paragraph, Luntz also repeats the word “innovation” three times (emphasis in original).

Technology and innovation are the key in arguments on both sides. Global warming alarmists use American superiority in technology and innovation quite effectively in responding to accusations that international agreements such as the Kyoto accord could cost the United States billions. Rather than condemning corporate America the way most environmentalists have done in the past, they attack us for lacking faith in our collective ability to meet any economic challenges presented by environmental changes we make. This should be our argument. We need to emphasize how voluntary innovation and experimentation are preferable to bureaucratic or international intervention and regulation.

Yes, progressives do like to argue that; because of successful American innovation and technology development efforts — much of it backed by the federal government — it is now super-cheap to slash carbon pollution.

Of course, progressives like to argue this point because that’s what all of the major independent scientific and economic analyses show, and so that’s what every single major government in the world agrees is actually true.

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Indeed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reviewed the entire literature on the subject and concluded back in 2014 that the annual loss to global economic growth from preserving a livable climate would be a mere 0.06 percent — and that’s against a benefit of saving billions of people from needless suffering for decades if not centuries.

And that was five years ago — renewable energy and other core clean technologies like batteries — have dropped sharply in price since then.

That’s why the key point for Luntz is that it is “voluntary innovation and experimentation.” Republican leaders don’t actually want to require people to replace dirty energy with clean energy. They just want to keep experimenting.

Tragically, however, because we’ve ignored the science for a quarter century, “technology and innovation” are not magic wands that can preserve a livable climate without strong government programs to spur deployment  —  such as a price on carbon or carbon pollution standards, which these three politicians have long opposed.

And so in the end, the three Republican politicians falsely claim “the Green New Deal is a policy of regulation, taxation, and ultimately, economic stagnation.”

But in fact, it is the opposite. It is a policy to finally take advantage of the remarkable innovation and technological development led by America to solve the gravest problem facing the country.

But true action like this is something these three Republicans could never endorse, and so they conclude with more Luntz-inspired pablum free from specifics and substance.

Americans deserve better. That’s why we back sensible, realistic, and effective policies to tackle climate change. Let’s encourage American industry to do its part through innovation. Let’s focus on community preparedness. Let’s harness our great American ingenuity to develop new tools that we can market to the world, as we’ve done before.

Republicans don’t have a solution but they are really good at staying on message. As ThinkProgress reported back in 2007, the “technology trap” is where the hypothetical promise of future innovation in carbon-free technology is used as an excuse to reject immediate action on climate change with the carbon-free technology we already have.

Luntz himself reiterated this advice in an early 2005 strategy document entitled “An Energy Policy for the 21st Century.” In it he wrote “Innovation and 21st-century technology should be at the core of your energy policy.” Luntz repeated the word “technology” thirty times in that document.

Then, in an April 2005 speech describing his proposed energy policy, Bush repeated the word ‘technology’ more than forty times. Business Week at the time pointed out that Bush was following Luntz’s script and noted “what’s most striking about Bush’s Apr. 27 speech is how closely it follows the script written by Luntz earlier this year.” The article, titled “Bush Is Blowing Smoke on Energy,” also pointed out “the president’s failure to propose any meaningful solutions.”

The Luntz script seems to have worked to stall real action for a long time. It remains to be seen if it will keep working now.