Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Reframing the Climate Crisis: Ideas Towards a New Persuasion Strategy

Part 1: How the Climate Debate Was Lost (Temporarily), or How We Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Framing

Public debate on the climate crisis has been systematically distorted by powerful actors with vested interests in the status quo. There is a compelling overlap of scientific opinion that human-caused climate change is occurring, and swift action is needed to forestall a greater crisis. However, the inability of concerned citizens to effectively counter the well-organized efforts of climate change skeptics has prevented the critical mass needed to activate change. The need to “frame” ideas and policy options has never been clearer. Choices in language and arguments can often determine the success of persuasion strategies. Framing can be used to clarify the debate--but all too often it is deployed to obfuscate the stakes of a controversy. Two accomplished political strategists, Frank Luntz and Karl Rove, have framed the climate debate to disempower broader public deliberation.

Luntz to the Rescue of Climate Skeptics

In 2001, Frank Luntz sent a memo to Republicans in Congress detailing ways to neutralize the perception by the American public that Democrats’ policies were better for the environment. Luntz recommended several key rhetorical strategies:

  • Say “climate change” instead of “global warming.” The term “global warming” has “catastrophic connotations attached to it,” whereas “climate change” suggests a “more controllable and less emotional challenge.” By portraying climate change as innocuous—like moving from “Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale”—those that follow Luntz’s advice convey a lack of urgency.

  • Say “conservationist” instead of “environmentalist.” The “mainstream, centrist American” perceives “environmentalists” as too extreme, and prefer the “common sense” approach embodied in “conservationism.” Focusing on how to paint the opposition in negative light, Luntz tries to turn the complex debate about climate change into an exchange of labels and namecalling.

  • Tell "factually incorrect" stories rather than the truth. Luntz claims that “a compelling story, even if factually incorrect, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth.” While this might be true, such a suggestion is a poor guide for public policy and a prescription for lying to protect the interests that politicians serve.

There is a striking acknowledgement in the middle of the Luntz memo: “the scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science.” He notes that “should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly.” This amounts to an admission that skeptics of the climate crisis are dead wrong. His recommendation of doublespeak and word play short-circuits a more sophisticated public grasp of the arguments in the climate debate. Luntz’s frames hide, rather than reveal, the real stakes of the climate crisis.

Enter: Karl Rove

Karl Rove has had a part to play in this distortion as well. As the political mastermind behind the Bush Administration, he has likely been instrumental in the suppression of important information about the climate crisis. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), charged with assessing and enforcing the nation’s environmental laws, has three times been the target of political manipulation.

  • In the summer of 2003, the EPA issued a tentative report on the state of the environment. The sections on climate were edited by the White House to delete factual information and insert references to a discredited study funded in part by the American Petroleum Institute. Ultimately, the EPA decided to remove any reference to climate in this report rather than compromise its’ scientific integrity.

  • Finally, in the same summer of 2003, the EPA was asked by John McCain and Joe Lieberman to assess the effects on carbon dioxide emission from their proposed legislation. The EPA declined, saying its scientists had been prohibited from releasing or analyzing data about carbon dioxide. This led Lieberman to say “this is an administration that lets its politics and ideology overwhelm and stifle scientific fact."

The political manuevering of the White House complements the persuasion strategy of Luntz: prevent the public from receiving information about anything climate-related, but when forced to discuss the issue, downplay, distract, and deny.

So What Now?

The strategy of Luntz and Rove to manipulate the public debate on climate change has worked. No significant climate-oriented legislation has passed, and the American public does not consider the climate crisis to be a priority, particularly when compared to citizens of other nations. The cynical response to these distortions is to proclaim “that's just the way politics is.” We believe that there is another way: improved public debate based on honest and clear expression of ideas. This memo aims to identify the language that most effectively conveys the science and the stakes of climate alteration.

We have singled out Frank Luntz and Karl Rove not to become involved in petty partisan politics, but because their actions are symptomatic of a problem in contemporary democracies: the manipulation of public debate. As former collegiate debaters and current debate coaches ourselves, we are highly sensitized to systematic distortions of public debate. Luntz and Rove's machinations gained our attention because they too were competitive academic debaters. Frank Luntz once debated for 24 straight hours . Karl Rove debated in high school, where his favorite tactic was to wheel in boxes of blank paper (which he claimed contained all the research he had done on the debate topic) to intimidate his opponents. These two individuals are using their debate skills to negatively shape the public debate--adopting "debater's tricks" to add heft to their ideological perspectives. With almost 25 years of combined debate experience, we believe that we have an obligation to identify places where the public debate has been distorted and suggest ways that citizens concerned about climate change might make their arguments more persuasively in town hall meetings, letters to editors, and personal conversations. Perhaps these ideas will even trickle up to impact the debates in the media and in Congress.

Our suggestions are not “focus grouped” or “opinion polled,” and we think that's a good thing. We need fresh ideas, not ideas recycled from old campaigns. In strategizing for a competitive debate, a good debater finds the best research, works to crystallize issues, and prepares ways to turn opposing arguments around to work for their own side. Similarly, our method for developing arguments and strategy tips for this memo is the result of the research from our year long engagement with this year's energy policy topic as debate coaches. We have made a focused effort to think about the ways that Luntz's arguments can actually be used to help our cause, and have used this strategy to invent innovative approaches for a public persuasion strategy. They are starting points for a larger dialogue about how to communicate the importance of acting on climate change. We welcome your suggestions and comments on how to extend these initial points.

This is our "countermemo." Yes, it is kind of long; but we hope you'll stick around till the end. Here's a table of contents:

Part 1: How the Climate Debate Was Lost (Temporarily), or How We Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Framing (That's this part, which you've probably already read)

Part 2: General Strategic Tips, or The Ideas that Made it to the Top 5

Part 3: Learning from Luntz, or How to be Frank Luntz's Worst Nightmare

Part 4: Argument Inventory, or What You Need to Say to Win

Part 5: Using Language , or Metaphors be With You

Part 2: General Strategic Tips, or The Ideas that Made it to the Top 5

We believe that there are some argumentative basics that need to be foregrounded in debates about the climate crisis. This quick overview sets the stage for the more specific suggestions later in the countermemo.

1) Don't strand the climate issue on an island; instead, build bridges to other issues. Too often, concerned citizens or scientists expect action based solely on the environmental consequences that will result from the climate crisis. But the climate crisis is also an energy, jobs, and democracy issue. An good example of this strategy in action is the work of the Apollo Alliance, a coalition that includes labor, environmental, urban, and business communities working towards energy independence, and has been endorsed by the AFL-CIO and various international labor unions.

2) Give the naysayer's ideas what they're worth: second billing to your own. Put forth your positive message clearly, linking it to core values like public health, responsibility to future generations, or protection of our environmental heritage. Then respond to the skeptics’ claims. Starting with why the skeptics are wrong gives them too much credence and foregrounds their concerns rather than your own.

3) Words, not charts and graphs, will persuade. Part of the problem of recent global warming advocacy has been the reliance on complex scientific argument to the detriment of other types of argument. Stressing the scientific consensus on the side of global warming advocacy is crucial, but emphasizing the weight of the overlapping scientific consensus will ultimately be more persuasive than hyper-specific scientific proof.

4) Take a page from the populist playbook and call out the puppetmasters. Advocates must identify the structural problems in the public debate on climate. Demonstrating how the oil and gas industry and the government have manipulated the debate is a crucial way to cast doubt on the truth of skeptics' claims.

5) The unknown unknowns should motivate us, not the known knowns or known unknowns (thank you, Donald Rumsfeld). Explaining the consequences of severe climate change presents a quandary. On the one hand, scaring people witless might actually induce them to buy sport utility vehicles better prepared to deal with the extreme weather events (this has been the result of The Day After Tomorrow!) On the other hand, underplaying the consequences seems risky as well by failing to convey a sense of urgency. The honest truth is: no one knows exactly what the consequences of pumping out tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is...and that should motivate us to act. The likelihood of extreme weather events, shifts in agricultural belts, and collapses of ecosystems should frighten us precisely because we do not understand the way that these impacts will be felt. We must determine a way to communicate this uncertainty in a way that encourages action.

Part 3: Learning from Luntz, or How to be Frank Luntz's Worst Nightmare

While Luntz has developed a vocabulary and strategy for climate skeptics, he has also identified their weak spots—unwittingly revealing effective messages that citizens and politicians concerned about the climate crisis can utilize in communicating their ideas. From his 2001 memo, Straight Talk, the following strategies can be detected:

1) Make key words work. Luntz says: “The three words Americans are looking for in an environmental policy, they are ‘safer,’ ‘cleaner,’ and ‘healthier.’* Two words that summarize what Americans are expecting from regulators and agencies are ‘accountability’ and ‘responsibility.’"

Conservatives following Luntz’s suggestions shouldn’t have a monopoly on these words. One strategy for concerned citizens is to apply ‘accountability’ and ‘responsibility’ to corporations thatare polluting as well!

*We are not responsible for Frank Luntz's grammar.

2) History is on the side of righteousness. Luntz acknowledges that the image that many people have of Republicans is that they are “in the pockets of fat cats” and “drooling at the prospect of strip mining.”

Of course, many Republicans have strong environmental records, and so deploying this caricature is not an effective rhetorical strategy. However, pointing out that skeptics of science have been consistently proven wrong (with the link between smoking and cancer, the 2001 controversy about arsenic in American water, denying the link between HIV and AIDs) gives some historical context for how the skeptics are probably wrong this time too.

3) Begin with the basics. Luntz recommends that explaining “where you are coming from and what your ultimate ends and intentions are” is a crucial element in a persuasion strategy.

Exposing the values that support your beliefs is an important way to frame the broader issues. What are the values at stake here? Taking an inventory of the core values you are concerned with is crucial to communicating your concern.

4) There's no quality like water quality. Luntz notes “the number one hot button to most voters is water quality.”

Global warming could induce droughts, affecting not only water quality, but the access to water in general. This is an issue that could be emphasized to western states.

5) We “can-do” it! Luntz writes that “global warming alarmists use American superiority in technology and innovation quite effectively.”

The skeptics' key argument is that acting on the climate crisis will hurt the United States' economy--but a well-designed policy would actually spur the development of innovative industries aimed at clean energy production. Advocates must emphasize that emerging technologies will actually spur job growth and alleviate energy costs for consumers. The naysayers fall prey to zero-sum thinking about the environment and economy that ignores the synergies that can emerge with "green technology."

A key twist in this argument will emphasize that technological innovation is best done through voluntary measures in the free market (the Luntz 2005 memo suggests this argument for skeptics). Advocates must emphasize that we essentially have a free market now, and that a significant shift to alternative energies is unlikely without a push from the government. Here's a suggestive statement to express this sentiment: the United States should be an environmental leader, not a follower, in the race for a 21st century economy.

In early 2005, Luntz Research Companies published a new, 160 page memo called The New American Lexicon. The following identifies Frank Luntz’s diagnosis of what works for advocates concerned about the climate crisis:

1) Call it like it is: exploring for energy is drilling for oil (or coal or natural gas). Luntz says that new energy policies should be characterized as ‘exploring for energy,’ instead of ‘drilling for oil’ so that people don’t conjure up images of oil gushing out of the ground.

As a euphemism, this is incredibly misleading if the policies that are being pushed in the name of exploration are actually exclusively designed to drill for oil—like in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.

2) No one wants to be co-dependent. Luntz acknowledges that the entanglement in foreign affairs that results from our foreign oil dependence is his single most “important communication recommendation.” “Energy independence” and “energy self-sufficiency” are key words here.

While Luntz might have the diagnosis right, his prescription is wrong: drilling for domestic sources of energy will a) threaten public health, forests, and rivers, b) not provide enough energy to wean the U.S. from foreign sources and, c) take too long. Only a broad-based approach to enhance efficiency and develop alternative sources of fuel will succeed. Luntz identifies a successful Kerry line used in the 2004 election: “we should rely on American ingenuity and not the Saudi Royal Family.” Advocates can successfully deploy these arguments to advance the case for a more sensible energy policy.

3) Show them the numbers. Luntz says that energy prices are finally on the map, with gas and heating oil reaching record highs.

Gas prices are surging now. Home heating oil costs in the winter of 2004-5 soared. The momentum for change is building; and this provides a clear example where advocates can link the harms of the climate crisis to other issues, like affordable energy.

Part 4: Argument Inventory, or What You Need to Say to Win

There are numerous arguments that a concerned citizen could make to advance their claims about the climate crisis. However, two key arguments must be made--and won--to convince others that the climate crisis mandates immediate action: the compelling overlap of scientific opinion and the common sense argument for change. This section serves as a small primer; highlighting the substance of the skeptics' claims as well as developing some argumentative responses.

Argument #1: Convince Your Audience there is a Compelling Overlap of Scientific Opinion that Mandates Action

Dilemma: The Luntz memo admitted that “the science” was closing against the skeptics, and that they needed to continue to call it into question in order to keep the debate alive.

Strategy: A persuasive climate strategy must effectively communicate the overwhelming scientific opinion that global warming is happening and will lead to disaster if left unchecked. There was a brief window in the early 1990s when the certainty that global warming would create serious challenges was the majority opinion in the United States. Following the release of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report in 1990, there seemed to be a consensus amongst the scientific community that greenhouse gas-induced warming was indeed caused by human activity. This report was initially considered the pre-eminent authority on climate, particularly because the findings emerged from the collaboration of over 2500 international scientists. Since then, numerous Nobel laureates, the National Academy of Sciences, and even the Pentagon have identified the climate crisis as a serious 21st century challenge. Unfortunately, various efforts by oil, gas, and business lobbies have called global warming science into question since the release of subsequent IPCC reports in 1996 and 2001. The Bush administration has also worked to downplay the risk of global warming, casting doubt on the conclusions of the 2001 National Academy of Sciences report and ordering a follow-up report for the IPCC conclusions.

  • "Compelling scientific overlap" is a winning argument. Currently, advocates try to communicate the weight of scientific opinion by talking about the "consensus" that anthropogenic warming is occuring. When "consensus" becomes the dominant term, opponents only have to focus on presenting a small number of dissenting cases to undermine the whole position. Another way to articulate the widespread agreement on the basics of climate change is to describe the "consensus" as a "compelling overlap of scientific opinion." Such a shift has two effects. First, "compelling" moves the debate towards an action frame: what are we compelled to do as a result of these scientific findings? This enables advocates to change the focus of debates from the question of “is human-caused warming happening?” to "what should we do about human-caused climate change?" Second, "overlap of scientific opinion" signals that there is widespread agreement from scientists of many fields. Global warming advocates should be clear that the best scientific studies conclude that warming is happening, and should instead focus on the urgency of engaging the issue. As concerned citizens, we need to make sure that we "call ‘em like we see ‘em" if we run across arguments downplaying the risk of global warming. One way to illustrate this point is by example—we might say something like, “to question such scientific conclusions is analogous to questioning the American Medical Association’s assertion that cigarette smoking is linked to cancer.”

  • We get to blame the media too! The Bush administration is not the sole cause of misperception. Media coverage of climate issues has shifted the debate from the purely expert realm into everyday discourse. While increased media attention may have provided the public with a general sense of global warming, media coverage has failed to convey climate science effectively. When journalists lack specific knowledge about climate science, they tend to underplay the majority scientific opinion and overplay the uncertainty, which in turn provides their readers with an inaccurate and ambiguous view of the global warming debate. Climate advocate and former journalist Ross Gelbspan gives an illustrative example: a truly accurate report would discuss the consensus perspective in 95 percent of the article, leaving a brief paragraph at the end for the skeptics' views. We certainly are not against media coverage of the climate debate, and are committed to the free flow of information so that all citizens can make informed decisions on this issue. Instead, we propose that a more representative and comprehensive way to report about global warming would be to discuss the skeptic’s arguments as small exceptions to the generally accepted opinion, through special interest articles or features.

Argument #2: Convince Your Audience that Acting on the Climate Crisis is Common Sense

Dilemma: Frank Luntz says that the “best solutions to environmental challenges are common sense solutions."

Strategy: Here we can agree with Mr. Luntz: to expect a lay public to filter through conflicting and complex scientific evidence in order to form an opinion on global warming is a high expectation. The climate skeptics have adopted a strategy that relies on "common sense." Common sense mandates sticking to the status quo, which avoids the potential economic harms global warming policies pose. After all, who wants to risk jobs and economic harm if we are still uncertain about the realities of global warming? Concerned citizens should also have an argument strategy that plays upon the rhetorical power of common sense. We should build upon the admirable strides made by environmentalists and climate scientists on this front, including the Common Sense Climate Index. Just as the Republicans made a conscious image change from “environmentalists” to “conservationists,” it is time for advocates to identify acting on the climate crisis as common sense. Here are some specific suggestions:

  • Use your common sense (but add in good sense as well). Climate skeptics do not have a monopoly on common sense. We need to counter these arguments with language that resonates with citizens' common sense about precaution. Stressing that the lack of scientific certainty is not an excuse for inaction, as environmentalists often do by invoking the "precautionary principle," is a good way to acknowledge the small amount of uncertainty in the science debate but still argue that policy changes should reflect scientific consensus. Using common sense maxims such as “look before you leap” and “better safe than sorry” encompass our message in a way that might appeal to a wider audience.

  • Check alarmism at the door. Anyone who saw last summer’s film, The Day After Tomorrow, can attest to the potentially disastrous consequences of global warming. Droughts, ice ages, storms, crop devastation, and diseases are only a few of the catastrophic scenarios that might be waiting around the corner if we fail to slow rapid warming. Educating the public about long term disasters is undoubtedly important. However, as the critical reaction to The Day After Tomorrow indicates, alarmist rhetoric about the potential impacts of the climate crisis can also work against advocates. If we preach apocalypse and all that happens next year is a warmer winter, we will fail to communicate the urgency of action. A more effective approach would be to articulate the consequences of global warming in terms of a 30 year timeframe instead of a 500 year timeframe. Even though the potential consequences might be less dramatic, talking about the climate crisis in terms of what will occur within this lifetime will put things into perspective. This may be easier than we think: the European heat wave of 2003 linked unusually high mortality rates to climate change, we continue to feel the impact of storms (including hurricanes and tornadoes), and many sources predict that ongoing droughts due to climate oscillations will lead to a major water shortage by 2025.

  • Love thy Neighbor. That countries generally act in their own interests has become common sense, and in fact, that has been the core of the Bush administration’s argument for not ratifying the Kyoto treaty. However, it is also common sense to help out other countries when they are in dire need. Most recently, this common sense was manifested in the outpouring of support and empathy for the victims of the tsunami. As we begin to see the impacts of global warming, we should note that Americans will not be the first ones affected—people in other parts of the world will be hardest hit. We should not be mistaken: global warming is a truly global problem, and eventually will impact everyone. However, in the meantime, our ability to empathize with countries already bearing the brunt of climate shifts can drive our commitment to act now.

  • Help others enter an "empowerment zone." As gas prices go up, the oil peak gets nearer, and our resources become more and more overstretched, a larger portion of the population will become concerned with these issues by necessity. If we start with everyday conversations with neighbors and family members about how to move away from overindulgent energy consumption, we might find a more persuasive way to approach the debate that, in turn, rewards consumers. Citizens need to feel like they can be empowered to change their situation; otherwise the magnitude of the problem will overwhelm their activist energies. While no one person or group of people can stop the climate crisis on their own. However, changing individual consumption patterns through education is the first step in the right direction and might rebound to impact the broader public debate positively.

Part 5: Using Language , or Metaphors be With You

Dilemma: Those committed to distorting the debate attempt to paint climate advocates as alarmists, and use language that minimizes catastrophic imagery (such as Luntz’s suggestion to use “climate change” instead of “global warming”). This is a deliberate move—skeptics critique alarmist rhetoric all of the time, including in book titles (Robert Balling and Patrick Michael's The Satanic Gases, Michael Crichton's State of Fear, and Michael's Meltdown, for examples). Our current metaphors are insufficient, as even the idea of planetary warming is a confusing concept that doesn’t sound all that dangerous. One exemplary case is the metaphor of "flipping the switch," a concept explored in the recent article, "Making Climate Hot." The idea here is that when flipped hard enough, the switch destabilizes the entirety of climate system equilibrium. The switch metaphor has the potential to be helpful for discussing abrupt climate change and the condensed timeline we will face if rapid warming is not addressed soon. However, while effective, the idea of the switch could backfire by making people believe that we could simply turn the switch off to reverse the climate crisis. Whether we like it or not, metaphors are often used in framing issues to relate environmental and scientific controversies to the public.

Strategy: Knowing that catchy phrases and concepts will inevitably taken up by the media to explain complex issues in the debate, we now have the chance to harness the productive nature of metaphors to clarify the debate. A variety of new metaphors have been deployed to stress the scientific processes behind global warming:


  • Carbon Dioxide Blanket. The Frameworks Institute and other advocates have suggested the use of the “blanket” metaphor for climate crisis. In their assessment, this metaphor is effective because it illustrates that by releasing large amounts of C02, we are blocking heat from leaving our own atmosphere. Referencing a physical object like a blanket might also help to stress that humans have agency in the process and can slow human-induced greenhouse gases.

  • Heat Trapping. This metaphor can be used to clarify and reinforce the idea of the carbon dioxide blanket. It effectively communicates the process of global warming without risking the positive connotations often associated with warmer weather. Furthermore, the idea of “heat trapping” or a “C02 heat lock” expresses the impacts of the process in a simple and easily understood manner.

  • Suffocating the World. We will also add that the images of a blanket or other object “suffocating” or “strangling” the globe are similar metaphors that may resonate with the public. Think of it this way: if a house was on fire, you would desperately want to open a window to let the smoke out. Emitting C02 into the atmosphere is like having a lock on the window—the smoke/heat just can’t get out. Eventually, smoke inhalation affects us all.

Explaining the scientific processes behind global warming is clearly important, but we also feel that a metaphor is needed to communicate the extreme importance of addressing the issue. Communicating the urgency of the climate crisis has been difficult against a backdrop of uncertainty and politicization of the issue. Use this metaphor in conversations and debates when you would like to stress the need for policy action on the climate crisis. More than anything, we need a fresh way to communicate about the issue, and we suspect that repetition of this metaphor in different forums (interviews, educational seminars, daily conversations) would prompt publicity and media attention. Our suggestion is to use a health metaphor to appeal to common sensibilities:

  • Cure a disease. Relate the impending climate crisis to an impending disease outbreak. If the medical establishment said there was a high probability that there would be an outbreak of an infectious disease, policymakers would certainly do everything they could to make sure we developed a cure or vaccine. Phrasing the metaphor in this way makes effective use of the precautionary principle, because it uses the logic that even if we weren't 100% certain that the disease outbreak would happen, we would still be motivated to take action to prevent the worst case scenario. Similarly, there is an urgent need to take preventive action on the climate crisis before it’s too late. The idea that policymakers would want to put resources and effort into developing a cure or vaccine in the disease scenario also parallels the necessity for developing alternative energy policies to counter the effects of global warming. And, to counter naysayers you may encounter who split hairs between the immediacy of a disease outbreak versus the long term consequences of global warming, remind them that some diseases are slow killers (forms of cancer and dormant AIDs for example) but that isn't a sufficient reason for inaction if we can predict their onset.

In addition to metaphors, we have three additional suggestions about language choices:

  • Regularly substitute “climate crisis,” for “global warming” or “climate change.” “Climate change” is the term that Frank Luntz wants people to use—it is a neutral term that disguises the stakes of the debate. “Global warming” is not very precise—global warming could actually cause global cooling by altering ocean current flows. “Climate crisis” is a term that indicates concern, and also enables an advocate to link together different elements of the crisis—energy, foreign policy, jobs, as well as the impacts on air, water, and land.
  • Be specific instead of saying “the environment.” “The environment” is a bit of a misnomer. We are all part of the environment—the environment is not something that just exists “out there” to be protected. Specifically cite concern for particulate matter in the air, or pollution in the rivers, or deforestation of protected wilderness areas rather than referring generally to “the environment.”

  • Call skeptics what they are: naysayers, industry-funded contrarians, and ideologues. The term "skeptics", while accurate, fuels misrepresentations in the media and does not effectively communicate that they are a minority viewpoint. This isn't an invitation to engage in full out mudslinging, but it is important to stress that their perspective runs counter to the bulk of scientific expertise.

These suggestions are necessarily preliminary. We welcome the opportunity for individuals to leave a comment for how we could improve this countermemo!