Is there a chance that America’s increasingly polarised political parties could unite to tackle big policy questions? Judging by this week’s conversations at the Aspen Ideas forum in Colorado, the answer is “no”.
Events such as the Supreme Court’s decision to rescind the right to abortion have accelerated bitter culture wars, while the prospect of Donald Trump running for president in 2024, which the Aspen pundits consider likely, is creating just more poison in the well.
Climate change is also proving divisive. A survey by Pew Research in 2020 showed that while 72 per cent of Democrats think that humans cause climate change, and 89 per cent want the government to do more, for Republicans the ratios are 22 per cent and 35 per cent, respectively. Subsequent polls have shown a similar gulf, as Democrats press for rapid climate action and Republicans, such as former vice-president Mike Pence, pledge support for fossil fuels.
However, if Republican pollster Frank Luntz is correct, there might be a way to overcome this gulf on green issues. Luntz showed the Aspen group some of his recent surveys asking voters in both the US and the UK what kind of phrasing and imagery might prod them to back green policies. His conclusion is that most of the messaging by green activists misfires with most voters.
Why? One problem is tone: messages to Republicans tend to do better when they are initially presented in terms of opportunity, not fear. For Democrats the reverse is true. Green activists often talk about a “global problem”, while to cut through to Trump voters, says Luntz, green messages must emphasise “why it’s good for you, your family, your neighbourhood, your community, your country — in that order”.
By contrast, he says, environmentalists’ language, such as “net zero”, “carbon emissions” and “greenhouse gases”, sounds so abstract it turns voters off. “Every time John Kerry [President Biden’s climate envoy] says ‘global commitments’, I want to stamp on his foot,” says Luntz.
His polling data point to two themes that resonate with rightwing voters (and many on the left too). One is the goal of creating a “cleaner, safer, healthier” environment and likening this to our everyday aim of preserving our own personal health. Luntz says this phrase beats “sustainability” by “a factor of two to one” in terms of positive voter responses among Republicans. Indeed, when asked whether they considered it more important to protect “the economy” or “the environment”, 75 per cent of US voters chose the former. But when the question was rephrased to offer the choice between “the economy” and “a healthy, safe, clean environment”, 55 per cent chose the latter.
The second shift Luntz advocates is focusing more on the need to protect the planet for people’s kids and grandkids, rather than talking about nature or science in the abstract. Here, there are some interesting regional twists, but both US and British voters are more alarmed by pictures of burning houses than scenes of floods and more abstract landscape images.
Now I daresay some green activists will reject this, and argue that the priority is to change policy, rather than fret about messaging. After all, before he was convinced that it was an urgent issue, Luntz worked on behalf of some of the US politicians who have done the most to slow progress on climate. He advised President George W Bush to focus on the “lack of scientific certainty” at a time during which scientific consensus was, in fact, broad. And he promoted use of the phrase “climate change” over “global warming” because it sounds less dire.
But as John Doerr, the venture capitalist (and Democrat), told Aspen, climate change is a deadly serious threat that needs an urgent response. He duly handed out a 10-point “action plan for solving our climate crisis now” that aims to “get to net zero emissions” by focusing on “OKRs”, or “objectives and key results”. And while this sounded sensible and admirable, it also rather illustrated Luntz’s points.
I’d suggest it’s time to take all suggestions seriously. History shows that it is wrong to assume there could never be bipartisan climate action. Historian Douglas Brinkley notes that in the 1960s, some leading Republican politicians were deeply engaged in environmental campaigns because it was framed at the time as a project to protect the country’s natural heritage, such as parks, and so chimed with conservative values. Somehow, that co-operative spirit needs to be reawakened. But that can only happen if we break down the social and intellectual silos that exist on both sides. And what better time to do it than when extreme heat ravages America and Europe?
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