Tuesday, April 12, 2005

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.

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