The ‘hot’ terms of a then-hot public policy issue have cooled substantially in the past three years as advocates for action on climate change are shifting to more energy- and public health-related rhetoric to try to score their points.

Are “climate change” and “global warming” now dirty words?

It’s a question that would have been implausible just a few years ago when climate-action advocates were at their most bullish point. Now it looms over the public conversation about climate change and energy policy in the post-“climategate,” post-Copenhagen, post-2010-congressional election era.

If the terms indeed are soiled, how best can significant action on climate change occur without invoking the planet-altering phenomena they were coined to describe?

In May 2010, The Yale Forum examined shifting communications strategies of climate-action proponents, many of whom had begun to talk less about climate and greenhouse emissions and more about things like the public health benefits of cuts in other air pollutants that would accompany reduced reliance on fossil fuels.

That article quoted NPR’s observation that opponents of climate-energy legislation had not just blocked it but had turned the very phrase “cap and trade” into a “toxic” term in Congress. Now, assorted signs suggest that “climate” has been toxified too, though not to the same extent.

A few indications:

  • President Obama was scolded by climate-action advocates in January because, as prolific climate blogger Joe Romm complained, he “could not bring himself to utter the words ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’” in discussing energy policy in his State of the Union address.
  • Several Republican presidential hopefuls who once supported action on climate change and accepted the scientific community’s essential findings about human influence on climate have reversed those positions in recent months after being rebuked by conservative commentators and bloggers seeking to enforce a uniform opposition to climate science and climate action across the GOP field of candidates.
  • John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist, who actively explains and defends mainstream climate science, posed this question on his blog in May: “Has ‘climate’ become ‘That-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named’ in Washington?’” The occasion for wondering, he reported, was that the Weather Consortium — university, corporate and association representatives promoting better weather observation and prediction capabilities — had received this warning from congressional staffers: “Don’t talk to us about climate. Now, what can we do for you?”
  • Some groups that once trumpeted climate warnings now are stressing what they see as a more productive approach — appeals to immediate health concerns — as they work for cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels, especially coal. Time‘s Bryan Walsh commented approvingly in a July blog posting that “as climate politics become increasingly polarized and the chance of any national action on greenhouse gases evaporates, environmentalists are going back to their old playbook, focusing on health issues instead — a case that’s far easier to make and far harder for non-greens to dismiss.”

The Yale Forum in July asked seven individuals active in the climate science and policy arena to reflect on these developments. Among other things, their responses (some in phone interviews, some by e-mail) illuminate long-standing differences of opinion over whether and how much supporters of action to manage climate change risks should base their appeals on the findings of climate science itself.

Andrew Dessler, climate scientist at Texas A&M University, was named this year as one of the first 21 Google Science Communication Fellows. This first group of Google fellows is focusing on improving the communication of climate science to the public. He worked as a senior policy analyst at the White House in 2000. [By e-mail]

“I agree that ‘climate’ has become a four-letter word in Washington. Because of this, the threat of climate change is not going to motivate any big policy actions by the U.S. government anytime in the near future.

“On the other hand, because climate and energy policy are so inextricably linked, sensible climate policy can be achieved under the umbrella of energy policy, and I suspect this is the most likely pathway for progress in this area.

“For example, there are lots of things that the entire political spectrum can agree on: We all want unpolluted air, energy security, energy price stability, etc. All of these things can be achieved by an orderly switch to carbon-free renewable energy, which would also help stabilize the climate.

“Of course, the political landscape can change quickly. Remember that it was only four years ago that Congress voted to phase out incandescent light bulbs, something that would be inconceivable today. If we have a few more years of the unpleasant weather like 2011, minds might start changing pretty quickly.”

Peter Dykstra was appointed in May as publisher of two affiliated websites, “Environmental Health News” and “The Daily Climate.” Dykstra previously has worked as national media director for Greenpeace; CNN’s executive producer for science, environment, weather and technology; and deputy director at The Pew Charitable Trusts, heading communications for the Pew Environment Group. [By phone]

As opponents of climate action have successfully continued to associate “climate” with controversy and debate, the word has “been demonized, and people tend to run away from it,” Dykstra said. “It’s not any different from the very clear demonization over the last 20 years of the word liberal.”

Several factors were especially significant in this regard, he said, “the biggest of which is the downturn in the economy.” Others included “the fact that in some quarters, all that was needed to discredit all the climate science is that it’s associated with liberal politics — fairly or unfairly,” and, in some cases, personal dislike for climate-action advocates such as environmental groups or former Vice President Al Gore.

“If there is blame to be distributed, I would split it four or five different ways. Politicians have backed away from it. The public is inattentive and easily swayed. Journalists have backed away from it. And environmentalists have generally not done a good job of messaging. If you want five, let’s throw in the scientists. It shouldn’t be English as a second language.”

Attorney Jim Marston is director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s energy program and of its Austin-based Texas office. Previously, he was also EDF’s director of state climate initiatives at the time the organization was prominently working to help secure passage of California’s landmark cap-and-trade law to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. [By phone]

“We’re not going to pursue cap-and-trade for any foreseeable time,” Marston said. “That brand has sailed away or something. Will we use ‘climate’? Yes. Has it been damaged some? Yes. Is it forever lost? The answer is No.

“In the short-term, I think we’re focusing more on health and more on clean energy solutions — things that get us off fossil fuels, things that get us more efficiency, things that take advantage of the fact that Americans are in love with gadgets coming out of the high-tech sector.”

One example of this approach, he said, will be increasing appeals that “we ought to do smart-grid [electricity systems] in ways that reduce the amount of asthma-causing pollutants and reduce consumer bills — and by the way, you get climate benefits at the same time, at a net saving.”

Environmentalists will still talk about climate science, he added. “We’re not going to duck it entirely. The fact that it was 105 degrees in Austin [yesterday] makes it impossible to totally ignore the fact that something’s happening with the climate. But we won’t be leading with that, but propose solutions that people can be for, even if they’re skeptical about climate science.”

Frank O’Donnell, director of the Washington-based advocacy group Clean Air Watch, which focuses on a broad array of climate-related and other issues involving the federal Clean Air Act, is a veteran observer of national environmental politics. [By e-mail]

He sees the current shying-away from explicit talk about climate change in the climate issue’s longer historical context.

“For the last several years, there has been division among those seeking action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions about how best to present the case to the American public.”

To illustrate the fluctuations that have occurred during that time, he noted that Republican consultant Frank Luntz advised the George W. Bush administration, which opposed regulatory action on climate, to use the term “climate change” instead of “global warming” and to emphasize scientific uncertainty and disagreement on climate projections. Then, in early 2010, Luntz advised environmentalists seeking enactment of regulations in a comprehensive climate-energy bill to avoid talking about “climate change.”

“I believe other focus groups and polling corroborated [Luntz’s] basic theme — and so both the Obama administration and many of its friends began talking about reducing use of foreign oil and ‘clean energy jobs,’ instead of addressing the problem head on.”

With victories in the 2010 election by many Republican candidates opposed to cap-and-trade proposals, “the latest twist [for climate-action proponents] is the use of the health argument as a call to action. There is actual foundation for this in the Environmental Protection Agency’s ‘endangerment’ finding [regarding greenhouse gases], which warned of hotter temperatures, heat-related deaths, ozone increases, and dangerous smoke downwind of drought-induced wild fires. In light of this summer, that finding appears truly prophetic.”

Roger Pielke, Jr., is a professor in the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Colorado and senior fellow of the Breakthrough Institute, which calls for addressing climate change with public investments to “make clean energy cheap.” In his 2010 book, The Climate Fix, Pielke similarly argued for investing in “a more carbon-efficient economy and cost-efficient carbon-capture technologies.” [By phone]

The trend away from climate-specific advocacy “is very real and very significant from a policy perspective and it’s probably going to work to the advantage of getting action to occur on energy policy, adaptation, and climate,” Pielke said.

When elected officials and advocacy groups “see a dead-end up ahead in a particular framing of the issue, then pragmatic politics means trying something else. And if climate is a four-letter word, that means reframe that issue. Now, I’m one of a number of scholars who have been arguing for a long time — a decade, if not longer — that this reframing was always the way to go,” he said.

Public discourse on climate has become more difficult since the issue became enmeshed in “the American cultural wars,” with a candidate’s take on climate science an element of ideological identity for some on the right and left, Pielke said. Still, though “plenty” of Americans accept climate science — enough to drive government action on other issues — climate change ranks at or near the bottom of public concerns in polls, suggesting “the problem has been in the policy design,” he said.

“If you really want to get people’s attention, then the focus has to be on getting secure, cheap, plentiful, and sustainable energy. And when you start talking about people’s pocketbooks and job opportunities and so on, maybe the route toward decarbonizing the economy lies more in the realm of economic concerns rather than environmental concerns.”

Rick Piltz founded the nonprofit Climate Science Watch, committed to “holding public officials accountable for using climate research effectively and with integrity in dealing with the challenge of global climate disruption.” Piltz had held positions for 10 years with the U.S. Global Change Research Program, resigning in 2005 to protest the Bush administration’s editing and withholding of government reports. [By e-mail]

“It seems clear that there is a conscious decision by government leaders and advocacy groups to play down explicit discussion of climate change when dealing with issues of clean energy,” Piltz wrote.

“I believe this is a strategic error, although it is understandable as a short-term tactical approach, given the political difficulties that currently affect climate policy.”

Climate-action supporters now typically focus on “opposing ‘dirty’ energy and supporting ‘clean’ energy alternatives, with narratives about green jobs, air and water pollution, public health, energy independence and national security — with greater or less emphasis on climate change per se depending on the tactical circumstances, or on the commitments of particular advocates.”

This effort includes “a lot of good and necessary and important work,” he added, but “the clean energy frame has, thus far, not been sufficiently strong to overcome established patterns and organized resistance. If climate change is dropped from the discourse because it seems politically inconvenient, how much time will be lost, how will public support be maintained through the costs and inconveniences of a sustainable energy transition?”

President Obama, by failing “to address climate change forthrightly in his public communications,” has created “a void where presidential leadership could play a valuable role — an indispensable role, it can be argued.”

David Roberts is senior staff writer for Grist, an online environmental magazine. He argued in a blog post last year that “the original wrong turn” leading to Congress’ failure to pass a major climate-energy bill “was the introduction of climate change to American politics as an ‘environmental issue.’ It is the mother of all framing errors — the one from which all others flow.” Roberts, after soliciting readers’ suggestions last year, used another blog post to introduce the term “climate hawk” as a name for people concerned about climate change and clean energy, regardless of whether they’re environmentalists. [By phone]

The most crucial problem for advocates of climate-energy action is that climate change has become a “divisive and partisan” issue, which “creates intensity among opponents” of action, but “doesn’t activate supporters at all,” Roberts said.

Foes of climate action have been more successful with their communications strategies because they rigorously repeat their messages, such as the claim that climate science continues to be racked with major disagreement and debate about scientists’ essential conclusions. “We — the climate side or the left or whatever you want to call it — have 10 different messages all the time, and no one thing ever gets the emphasis or repetition enough to penetrate.”

This problem, he added, is why he “criticized Obama for dropping climate change” from his remarks on energy issues. “I don’t know what people think is going to happen, but we’re not going to get to a point where the right sort of gives in and accepts it.”

The issue will remain intensely divisive, and climate-action advocates can only prevail through “repetition of our own,” he said. “That means Obama doesn’t have to make it his central message. He can focus on green jobs or whatever, but he needs to say, every time he shows up in front of the American people, climate change is [screwing] up our weather and it’s going to get worse and worse and we’ve got to do something about it. He just has to say that over and over again. It’s that repetition from every responsible public official that is the only hope for fighting back.”

Bill Dawson

Bill Dawson is an independent journalist who edits Texas Climate News, an online magazine published by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Houston Advanced Research Center. He was previously environment writer...