Flip the Switch on the Climate Change Debate
Posted on August 1, 2011
Recently, supporters of climate change legislation finally chalked up a victory in this Congress—albeit a small one. In a parliamentary move that required a two-thirds majority for passage, House Democrats defeated an attempt by the Republican majority to repeal a provision in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 that phased out existing light bulbs for more energy efficient ones.
But the debate is indicative of the political momentum shifts related to climate change legislation since last November’s election. Just as they have done with the current debt-ceiling debate, conservatives in the Republican Party are exerting influence that, in my opinion, is disproportionate to mainstream sentiment.
Caught in the middle are more traditional Republicans, who feel compelled to align with conservatives in their own party, in part because their base is important for primary elections; and in part due to the failure of Democrats and climate change supporters to put forward a compelling message that appeals to average Americans.
With regard to the light bulb legislation, this dynamic in the Republican Party is best represented by Rep. Fred Upton (R-MI), the current chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. As noted in a previous story in GreenBiz, Rep. Upton removed his original support from his website and replaced it with the following statement: “The public response on this issue is a clear signal that markets — not governments — should be driving technological advancements.”
More broadly, flipping support for climate change legislation can be found in the current crop of GOP presidential hopefuls. Two examples bear highlighting:
- In 2008, Newt Gingrich and then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi co-created a YouTube video ad to advocate for bipartisan action against climate change. But Gingrich has since flipped his stance, recently stating that climate change is “the newest excuse to take control of lives” by “left-wing intellectuals.”
- Tim Pawlenty made numerous efforts to address climate change while Governor of Minnesota. In March 2011, Pawlenty repealed his support and went so far as to issue a public apology for his prior position, calling it “a mistake…stupid… [and] wrong.”
Mitt Romney is the only major GOP contender who has refused to flip on this issue. Still, even he has avoided calling for legislation to rein in greenhouse gas emissions in order to ward off criticism from the conservative base of the party.
Reframing the Debate
The inability of climate change supporters to formulate and effectively convey compelling messages can be corrected and communicated in such a way that can connect with mainstream sentiment. Back in January, I wrote an article that was published in Greenbiz that suggested ways in which climate change advocates could find middle ground with the new Congress.
The messages that will connect with these average American voters and help move public opinion are pocketbook issues. To do this, I offer four key communication strategies that can successfully reposition this debate with a broad section of voters:
- Use words and phrases that people will understand and do not polarize the debate: As an example, only a fraction of people in this country understand that “reducing carbon emissions” actually means reducing energy costs. For businesses trying to regain their economic footing, this means tangible bottom line cost savings.
- Link environmental benefits to reducing our dependence on foreign oil: The cost of gas has spiked and will continue to rise in the coming months and years. The simple truth is that the U.S. and other developed countries are in a competition for natural resources—including oil—with developing countries. In less than a generation, China and India are expected to use 23 million barrels of oil a day. To put this increase in perspective—it would take India and China about a month to eat through our entire U.S. strategic oil reserve.
- Build the future here: Highlighting tangible economic opportunities that can be created in the U.S. by reducing greenhouse gas emissions effectively neuters the argument from opponents who believe that we can’t have economic prosperity that is also good for the environment.
- Emphasize the positives: People are tired of scare campaigns. Dire predictions about the perils that climate change will fall on deaf ears now. Framing this debate by providing a long term vision of the opportunities the country has to gain by reducing greenhouse gas emissions is essential. We’ve heard a steady drumbeat of bad economic news for the past three years. People in this country are hungry for good news, and climate change supporters would do well to tap into this desire.
The Only Constant is Change
The old adage, “The only constant is change,” rings true in this debate. Climate change advocates have an opportunity to build broad public support for their agenda. They are being handed an opportunity by opponents who are sticking with their “one size fits all” government intrusion message as a means to stop any meaningful legislation moving through Congress.
Reframing this debate in terms of economic opportunity and energy security provides climate change supporters with an opportunity to build broad public support by interjecting this message into the presidential campaign season. This “outside in” strategy can then be leveraged to advance their agenda in the next Congress.