I recently had a conversation with a friend and fellow energy policy geek about the current state of U.S. environmental politics and the apparent inability of climatehawks to coalesce around a message and a movement for long enough to get any substantive national energy and/or climate legislation passed. In the context of the small movement of anti-environmentalist radical Evangelicals, which has gotten some recent media attention, I was lamenting the lack of coordinated strategic activity in U.S. climate and energy politics. My friend said that he thought progressives and Democrats, in general, have some shortcomings when it comes to playing offense. While I think he's probably right, I don't think it necessarily has to be that way. Nor do I think progressives are incapable of playing offense when it comes to climate and energy.
So what's the problem? According to David Wescott, who penned an excellent piece last week about climate change and strategic communications, the problem is simple: "those who support the status quo have a coherent, coordinated, and well-funded communications strategy. Those who support real change (and sound science) do not." Wescott, who knows his way around strategic communications, outlined a proposed climate strategy and it goes something like this:
Topline Strategy: Position your side as the solution, the way forward. Associate supporters of the status quo with the salient problems of the status quo more generally, and position them as opponents of progress. You saw something resembling this in the most recent State of the Union Address. The President didn't mention the words "climate change" but he did talk a lot about "winning the future" and the economic benefits of clean energy technology. Then develop a range of strategic and realistic policy goals and attack."
In other words, people like to solve problems and to side with other people and movements that have solutions to problems. People don't want to be stuck on the corner of Doom and Gloom trying to hail a taxi at 3am. Climatehawks need to focus on talking about ways out of our predicament and the benefits that way out will provide, not on how bad things will get if we do nothing.
Identify your audience. "Everybody" is not an audience. "Members of Congress" are an audience, but the way to reach them isn't a letter. You need to have face-to-face meetings with them and their staffs. More importantly, you need to have face to face meetings with the people who influence those Members of Congress most. I think that means the real audience is the media, business leaders, trade associations, and political donors. As for consumers - and they're also important, because they vote - Mom is unquestionably the household decision maker for basically everything, so you need to develop a coherent message for moms.
The "everybody" strategy in climate politics has been employed before — there was even an Academy Award-winning film behind it — and it almost worked. Ultimately, however, where Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth fell short was in providing solutions. Sure there was a cobbled together collection of solutions for individuals at the very end of the film, there was little advancing common solutions to our collective problem.
Messaging. Have a backgrounder available for the paleo-clima-anthropomorphi-techno stuff, but scientists and environmentalists aren't losing this fight on the science. They're losing on the economics. Right now, the message from the other side is simple: capping carbon = less energy use = less economic activity = less profit = fewer jobs for John Q. Nascar. But to buy into their mindset you have to believe that we won't or can't change the way we use energy, that efficiency doesn't really move the needle, and that wind power is crazy-looking. I think it's time people realized that we don't have cap-and-trade, and the economy sucks anyway.
Wescott elucidates his messaging strategy even further with some specific points that should be asserted by anyone speaking on the pro-science side of the topic. But rather than steal all the thunder, I recommend you read the rest of his post so we're all on the same page about playing offense and on point about what our message should be.
Photo: Unhindered by Talent at flickr