Reframing the Climate Crisis: Ideas Towards a New Persuasion Strategy
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 September 2002, the White House simply removed an entire section on climate change from the EPA’s annual air pollution report.
- 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: