Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) recently wrote an editorial in the New York Times. In it, she argued that the Democratic party she represents can do much, much more to make transparent the successes they’ve achieved under the Biden administration. Warren’s position about explicit messaging can apply to climate activists, too, whose fiery rhetoric all-too-often subsumes messages of progress and innovation within the renewable energy and conservation worlds.
Warren states that the Democratic party has “advanced ideas and plans” that make the US and world better for all humans. So, too, does the climate movement, as evidenced by successes in divestment, protests outside COP26, calls for heat pumps in Europe to shut off Russian oil, unpacking energy security doubletalk, and other actions that illuminate the frivolity of fossil fuel reliance.
Yes, Big Oil has spent oodles of money and has made it their life work to “block much of that promised progress,” as Warren says, in the same way conservatives fight the Biden agenda at every turn. Democrats have made good on pledges to provide pandemic relief, infrastructure investments, and the historic Supreme Court confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson, yet those accomplishments are not enough. Climate activists, too, “promised more.” With the devastating 2022 IPCC 6 Third Assessment about lost opportunities for mitigation, everyday people wonder if those climate action promises were little more than proverbial pipe dreams.
Why aren’t climate activists’ accomplishments more conspicuous?
The Importance of Framing Climate Issues
How issues are framed is essential to their believability. Cognitive linguist George Lakoff is renowned for his work on framing political metaphors, and Lakoff makes a point of the need to define every word within persuasive narratives as relative to a conceptual framework. As early as 2010, Lakoff fleshed out the roots of conservative discourse about the climate crisis, and that same discourse has been heard again and again over the last decade.
Here’s the conservative climate mantra: “Moving to eliminate fossil fuels will hurt the vulnerable and create job losses.”
How was this ill-conceived discourse made so powerful? It’s a function of the brain. Synapses in neural circuits are made stronger the more they are activated, Lakoff says, so the repetition of ideological language strengthens the circuits for that ideology in a hearer’s brain.
So, how does Warren’s editorial theme sync with Lakoff’s research? Warren says that “standing up for the inherent dignity of everyone is a core American value.” If we move forward with that statement as truth (it can be argued otherwise — look at the US poverty rate, the number of people who go to bed hungry, the unearned privileges bestowed on certain groups), then climate activists should drill down and rely on repetition to emphasize how meaningful improvements for working people will increase exponentially with the transition to renewable energy.
Explicit Messaging to Unpack Climate Profiteers
Warren calls on giant corporations to “pay their share to fund vital investments in combating climate change.” Why is there such pushback to this most fundamental of propositions?
Lakoff provides the answer in an iconic article. “To reframe environment issues and win the culture wars,” Lakoff previews, “much needs to be done at once on the climate message front.” He describes how the conservative moral system includes a number of ideas that work against environmentalism and against dealing with global warming.
- The idea that humans are above nature in a moral hierarchy allows nature to be used for human use and exploitation.
- With emphasis on a “Let-the-Market-Decide” ideology, the market is seen as natural, moral, and the highest authority — it supersedes environmental regulation or government interference in areas like subsidies for sustainable energy, green technology, and green jobs.
- Conservatives tend to think in terms of direct rather than systemic causation. Global warming works by systemic, not direct causation.
- Market fundamentalism principles like cost–benefit analysis work as if all values involving the future of the earth were monetary, or, conversely, there are no long-term benefits to saving the earth.
- An Equivalent Value Metaphor relies on computing human services provided by the environment in relation to what it would cost private enterprise to provide the equivalent services. Development is rationalized as offering greater human value, so the natural environment, which lasts indefinitely, is destroyed and sacrificed to short-term profit.
- Liberalism in all its negative monikers (the tax-and-spend, sushi-eating, latte-drinking, Birkenstock-wearing, do-gooder, know-it-alls) makes conservative populists doubt and reject the science behind reports that establish the existence of and impact of global warming.
Together, Lakoff says, these 6 points “lead to much of the moral outrage expressed by conservatives in the face of progressive environmental and global warming legislation.” These points are as important today as they were a decade ago.
Final Thoughts on Reframing Climate Crisis Issues
With this background knowledge, what do Warren and Lakoff offer for suggestions for reframing climate crisis issues?
Warren: We must root out corruption, beginning with a prohibition of any Congress person or spouse from owning or trading individual stocks.
Lakoff: Activate the progressive frames on the environment and inhibit the conservative frames through framing the truth effectively providing experiences of the natural world.
Warren: Quickly rein in costs for middle-class families by stopping companies from jacking up prices to boost their profits.
Lakoff: Recognize that, to an enormous degree, governmental action outweighs and shapes individual actions.
Warren: Promote competition and appoint effective regulators to enforce our antitrust laws.
Lakoff: We have to think in global, systems terms, even if we don’t do so naturally.
Warren: Stand up to the armies of lobbyists and tackle tax loopholes for the rich and powerful by putting into place a global minimum corporate tax.
Lakoff: Promote the concept of the Regulated Commons—the idea of common, non-transferable ownership of aspects of the natural world, such as the atmosphere, the airwaves, the waterways, the oceans, and so on.
Warren: Don’t bow to the wisdom of out-of-touch consultants who recommend we simply tout our accomplishments. Instead, deliver more of the promised agenda.
Lakoff: Idealism mobilizes. And it throws a light on, and presents a counterweight to, moral compromise. To keep that moral light on climate action:
- Create a much better communications system. In addition to serious framing research institutes, such a system needs training facilities, a system of spokespeople in every electoral district, and bookers to get them booked in the media.
- Plan the frames that are needed in the long run, as well as those needed to battle the right on issues of the day. The effectiveness of short-term frames depends on the prior effectiveness of long-term frames.
- Framing is about much more than language. It is imperative to understand what climate crisis framing gaps exist and how to fill them. How can the right frames get institutionalized? How can an understanding of framing guide policy?
- Talk at the level of values. Tell stories that exemplify your values and rouse emotions. Address everyday concerns.
“The oil industry pollutes significantly,” then-Vice President Biden said at the final presidential debate leading up to the 2020 election, adding, “it has to be replaced by renewable energy over time.” The time is now to make that promise a reality through explicit messaging that foregrounds the progress of renewables and makes clear that clean energy is the only course for the earth’s future.
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