The Candidate's Guide to Climate Change
A Non-Partisan Messaging Guide
Table of Contents
Climate change is no longer a niche political issue. Recent events such as the drought in California and Superstorm Sandy have brought extreme weather to the forefront, and people are searching for information on climate and weather connections. Voters, reporters and debate moderators are increasingly asking questions about climate change.
Meanwhile, scientific reports such as the National Climate Assessment and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently gained widespread coverage of current and future climate impacts. Americans are increasingly aware of the science behind global warming and are looking to their elected officials for their leadership on validating the science and proposing solutions. According to an ABC/Washington Post poll, seven in 10 Americans see global warming as a serious problem facing the country.
A candidate’s position on climate change matters to voters at the ballot box. A recent survey conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication found that “Americans are more than two times more likely to vote for a congressional or presidential candidate who strongly supports action to reduce global warming.”
Similarly, a Public Policy Polling survey found that “only 38% of voters say they’d be willing to support a candidate who doesn’t believe global warming is caused by human activity, and, by an 11 point margin, they say they would be less likely to vote for such a candidate.”
Support for climate action is widespread across political parties. For Democrats, the electoral advantage is clear. According to the Yale/George Mason survey, half of Democrats say a U.S. House candidate’s views on global warming and developing clean energy sources will be “very important” to their vote.
Although Republican candidates have been hesitant to make climate change an election issue, the latest research suggests that they may be missing an opportunity. Recent polling from Republican pollster TargetPoint Consulting found that 79% of Republican voters and 86% of independents believe “creating a healthier future with cleaner air” is an important reason to take on climate change. Furthermore, Yale and George Mason have found that majorities of liberal and moderate Republicans (63%) and Independents (59%) support Congress and the president “passing laws to increase energy efficiency and the use of renewable energy as a way to reduce America’s dependence on fossil fuels.”
As Stanford political scientist Jon Krosnick told the San Francisco Chronicle, "it's a no-brainer to advise that if a candidate is comfortable being on the green side of this issue, this is something to trumpet, because it will win more votes than it will lose."
Climate change is also an important issue to key constituents both parties are trying to reach.
Climate change is a high priority for millennials. When voters under 35 were asked which of the following words they’d use to describe a climate change denier, 37% said ‘ignorant,’ 29% said ‘out-of-touch’ and 7% said ‘crazy.’ Furthermore, Republican millennials are more likely to say that “stricter environmental regulations are worth the cost” than previous generations.
Within another coveted demographic, Latinos, nine in 10 want the government to take action against the dangers of global warming and climate change. And women are more likely to understand the science and be concerned about climate change.
Climate change solutions are popular as well. Recent Gallup polling found that “two-thirds of Americans favor increased government spending to develop solar and wind power, and spending more to develop alternative fuels for cars has the same level of support…Americans continue to see alternative energy and energy conservation as better approaches to addressing the nation's energy problems than producing greater supplies of traditional energy like oil, coal, and gas.”
When every vote matters, candidates that are proactive on climate change and clean energy may find an advantage.
Candidates are increasingly facing questions from the public and media about climate change. Whether the result of increased coverage of climate change or increased outside group spending on environmental issues, candidates now must be prepared to have their stance on climate change questioned.
Media outlets have placed increased scrutiny on politician’s views on climate change. Fact-checking websites such as Politifact and the Washington Post Fact Checker regularly issue “Pinocchios” and “pants on fire” labels to politicians making false claims about climate change.
Avoiding the question no longer seems like an adequate response, either. Recent attempts by politicians to avoid talking about climate change have backfired, such as politicians’ attempts to claim “I’m not a scientist” in response to questions about climate change.
For candidates running for elected office, acknowledging the strong science behind climate change and proposing solutions may be an electoral winner.
By a large margin, scientists agree that climate change is occurring and is man-made. A 2013 Environmental Research Letters study found that 97 percent of peer-reviewed scientific abstracts on climate change endorsed the consensus position that humans are causing global warming.
Two major scientific assessments were released in 2014 that detail climate change’s current and future effects: The Third National Climate Assessment and the Fifth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
The National Climate Assessment is the most comprehensive look at climate change in the United States today, detailing threats to each region and major sectors of the economy. The assessment, conducted as a requirement of the Global Change Research Act of 1990, was coordinated by a 60-member federal advisory committee made up of notable scientists, business leaders, and other experts. More than 250 authors wrote the third assessment, and it was subject to interagency and public review.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its Fifth Assessment report in 2013 and 2014, synthesizing global knowledge on climate change and its impacts. The IPCC is a global organization established to collect and assess the scientific literature related to climate change and its environmental and socioeconomic impacts. The United Nations Environmental Programme and the World Meteorological Organization established the IPCC in 1988. More than 200 authors wrote each section of the Fifth Assessment, and tens of thousands of comments were taken into account in the editing process.
Some of the core findings from the IPCC and the National Climate Assessment reports include:
- Climate change is occurring now, and it is occurring everywhere.
- Climate change is primarily caused by human activities, especially carbon pollution from the burning of fossil fuels, and in the U.S. particularly, from coal-fired power-plants.
- Climate change is already affecting many types of extreme weather and will continue to do so.
- The economic costs of climate change are high, and they will increase substantially if emissions are not controlled.
- Climate change threatens human health, food security, infrastructure, and many other aspects of our well-being.
- Addressing climate change by shifting over to a clean energy is a path for strong economic growth and development.
Other major scientific institutions, from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, to the American Meteorological Society, share the view that the globe is warming as a result of human activities.
Fortune 500 companies accept the scientific consensus and are actively planning for a climate-changed future. Even fossil fuel companies, like Exxon, Shell, BP, Chevron, have issued statements about climate change.
Despite the widespread evidence of human-caused warming, misunderstandings about the science have led some to claim that there is a “pause” in global warming. In fact, warming is on the rise as the overall climate system has continued to heat up at an extremely steep rate. Due to natural variation in the exchange of heat within the climate system, the rise in surface air temperatures have recently slowed, with heat going into the oceans instead. Yet, despite the flow of heat to the oceans, we are currently experiencing the warmest decade on record.
The science on climate change is extraordinarily robust, and candidates that understand the science will be prepared to discuss climate solutions with potential constituents.
Connecting to your audience
When communicating about climate change and clean energy, it is important to talk about these issues in the context of your audience’s value system. To some, that might be using a fiscal conservatism frame. To others, it might be in the context of extreme weather impacts. And to yet others, a moral obligation to protect future generations will resonate the strongest.
While understanding the basics around climate science is important in order to talk about the issue, leading with science is not always the best way to speak clearly to voters.
As an article describing the Cultural Cognition Project (a research project studying how cultural values shape public risk perceptions and related policy beliefs) notes: “In the end, people are more willing to be open-minded if the potential benefits are consistent with their already established point of view.”
Recently, the Green Tea Coalition – a coalition made up from Tea Party Republicans and the Sierra Club – joined forces to support solar power in Georgia. As a Tea Party member and Green Tea Coalition leader describes their effort:
The language she uses to describe the initiative is much different than her Sierra Club colleagues’, yet their goal is the same.
On extreme weather, Gallup has found that Democrats are more likely to attribute extreme weather to climate changethan conservatives.
Meanwhile, TargetPoint Consulting found Republican and Independent voters respond strongly to economic and health related appeals to address climate change.
The Yale Project on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication has segmented Americans’ beliefs on global warming into six segments, or “Six Americas.”
The Six Americas is a non-partisan approach to understanding where different constituencies are coming from, and are instructive for meeting your audience where they are on climate change and clean energy.
In using frames, social scientist George Lakoff suggests that messengers should “provide a structured understanding of what you are saying. Don’t give laundry lists. Tell stories that exemplify your values and rouse emotions. Don’t just give numbers and material facts without framing them so their overall significance can be understood. Instead find general themes or narratives that incorporate the points you need to make.”
All Politics is Local
Framing climate change and clean energy in terms of the local issues is another effective way to communicate about the issues. Each region of the United States is facing and will continue to face specific impacts. The National Climate Assessment summarizes these impacts to each region, from extreme weather occurrences to health effects.
Helping your audience understand how these impacts are related to climate change (see “Talking about Impacts”) will foster understanding of the problem. Furthermore, this approach helps to ground a broad issue like climate change, with a scale than can overwhelm people, as an issue that has tangible relevance for people’s lives. It helps to make this issue both digestible and salient to local communities.
Pairing these impacts to locally relevant solutions – such as job growth at a local company that makes energy-efficient products, or the construction of a nearby wind turbine – will orient potential constituents to how solutions could benefit them.
Talking about impacts
Opponents of action on climate change often criticize advocates for trying to connect every extreme weather event to global warming.
The reality is that all weather events are now occurring in the context of a changed weather system as a result of climate change, but some extreme weather events have stronger climate connections than others. A brief description of the scientific connections between types of extreme weather that can be useful for messaging purposes:
- Heat waves: Global warming makes heat waves longer, more intense, and more frequent.
- Drought: Global warming is also fueling drought in many areas as record-breaking heat is drying up soils and melting snow pack. In addition, climate change is driving drought in some region by changing regional precipitation patterns. So it is important to know the climate trends for the region under discussion. In particular, droughts in the U.S. Southwest (including California) are worse as a result of climate change.
- Extreme precipitation (rain and snow): As with drought, precipitation changes vary by region. However, in general, global warming loads the atmosphere with more moisture, making rainstorms and snowstorms heavier. This is particularly true in the Eastern and Midwest United States.
- Cold spells: Some scientists suggest the jet stream is changing as a result of climate change, drawing down Arctic air and leading to events like the 2013-2014 polar vortex.
- Hurricanes: Sea level rise driven by climate change is extending the reach of hurricane storm surge. For other factors, such as the strength of hurricane wind speeds, the science is uncertain.
- Tornadoes: We don’t yet know whether there is a climate connection to tornadoes, partly because good data doesn’t go back far enough. But at the same time we can’t say there’s no connection. In essence we are gambling when it comes to tornadoes.
Climate change and human health are connected. Global warming is amplifying some of the factors that drive asthma and lung disease. According to The National Climate Assessment, “public health in the U.S. can be affected by (climate) disruptions of physical, biological, and ecological systems, including disturbances originating in the U.S. and elsewhere. Health effects of these disruptions include increased respiratory and cardiovascular disease, injuries and premature deaths related to extreme weather events, changes in the prevalence and geographical distribution of food- and waterborne illnesses and other infectious diseases, and threats to mental health.”
As with other climate impacts, the best way to talk about the health impacts of climate change is to put them into the broader context of climate change, starting with what we know about the health and climate connection.
The CNA military advisory board, consisting of retired U.S. military generals and admirals, describes climate change as a “threat multiplier” and a “catalyst for conflict.” In other words, climate change makes existing national security challenges greater, adding to instability in foreign nations and straining our forces at home. CNA’s language is useful for describing how climate change is a threat that isn’t siloed from other threats.
The non-partisan Risky Business project recently tallied the current and future economic risks of climate change, finding “the American economy could face significant and widespread disruptions from climate change unless U.S. businesses and policymakers take immediate action to reduce climate risk.” The report tallies billions of dollars of risk facing different sectors of the economy.
As the economy is one of voters’ top concerns, highlighting the costs of climate change and the opportunities of a clean energy economy makes sense. Putting these damage numbers into perspective can be particularly effective, such as noting that the federal government spent more on climate change cleanup than on education or transportation in 2012. It can be particularly powerful to explain to voters that action on climate change will help sustain the U.S. economic system, a source of pride for Americans.
Talking About Specific Impacts
When a specific extreme weather event decimates a town or a disease breaks out, talking about it in the context of climate change can be challenging. Scientists usually cannot know immediately how strong the climate change link is to such an event.
However, such moments can serve as teachable moments on climate change.
In these situations, the best thing to do is start with what you know, not what you don’t know. After a devastating flood caused by extreme rains in your region, for instance, rather than saying “it’s impossible to know at this point whether this is linked to climate change,” one could say start with, “this deluge is consistent with the recent trend toward more heavy rainfall in this region, a trend driven by global warming.”
Constructing your message
Climate change is scary. In communicating about climate change, one shouldn’t shy away from pointing to the most terrifying impacts scientists predict. However, while it is tempting to focus on only the threats, the message is less likely to be rejected by an audience if it is paired with realistic actions that can be taken. The Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN) summarizes social science research on “fear appeals”:
For a candidate running for public office, pairing messages about climate impacts with solutions – particularly aspirational, achievable large-scale solutions – can help your audience understand that this challenge can be solved.
Talking about solutions
Energy issues have always been an electoral issue, and increasingly climate change is becoming one as well. But it’s not enough to just acknowledge the problem of climate change – the public wants to know what the solutions are.
Climate solutions usually fall into one of two categories – those that reduce emissions, and those that will help us adapt to a changing world. There are many policy solutions that can address the climate challenge that range from international to local in scale.
In the United States, emissions reduction policies have traditionally included policies such as cap-and-trade, renewable energy and efficiency standards, carbon taxes, clean energy tax credits, and subsidies for clean energy. Many policies that reduce emissions are also energy policies.
Adaptation policies include actions such as investments in desalination plants or drought-resistant crops, or flood or wildfire insurance programs.
In addition, policies can support climate-related research, such as investments in weather monitoring, or efforts that have co-benefits for climate change, such as emergency response efforts.
Most scientists agree that both emissions reductions policies and adaptation policies will be needed to address global warming.
Different political parties have different ideas on which policies are most desirable, but fortunately there are many policy options to choose from.
In describing proposed policies, candidates should start by describing the climate threat in a framing that works for your audience, then explain how the policy would both meet the challenge and provide ancillary benefits, such as reduced health costs or energy savings.
Rather than describing the specific policy mechanism, it may be best to focus on what the policy does. Most Americans don’t know how cap-and-trade or a revenue-neutral carbon tax would work, but explaining the policy in a general sense (such as putting a price on pollution) – and what the benefits are – will help your potential constituents understand the basics.
Language that works
To talk about the climate threat, it is best to use simple language. As Jeremy Porter, a communications strategist notes:
Language matters – it’s what lets each of us connect to the people we are trying to talk to. The language you select should be tailored to the audience you are trying to reach. Some suggested talking points vary based on political party are provided below (candidates will have different ideas about policy prescriptions; these suggested messages do not include information about specific policies).
Sample Republican Talking Points
For Republicans, highlighting messages of patriotism, morality, and stewardship can help you connect with traditional conservative values.
Sample language that could be used when talking to Republicans:
- We all value responsibility, whether that means making sound fiscal decisions or protecting the natural heritage of our nation.
- Part of that responsibility is being good stewards – we have a moral responsibility to leave to our grandchildren the same clean, life-giving world our grandparents gave to us. We need to preserve our way of life.
- A century of conservative leadership has cleaned up our air, our rivers and our countryside. The Clean Air Act, action on acid rain, and the creation of the National Parks Service were all the work of Republican presidents.
- We can see the climate changing around us. We’ve had record-breaking heat, droughts and wildfires. NASA, the National Academy of Sciences and the American Meteorological Society have all confirmed the climate is changing.
- Each day we manage risks to our families and communities; we wear seatbelts and buy insurance. We must do the same with climate change – to minimize risks to crops from droughts, to the very young and the very old from heat waves, to our towns and cities from intense storms.
- We know what to do – scale up renewable energy like wind and solar, and make the energy we do use more efficient.
- Let’s set American innovation and ingenuity loose on the climate change problem. That same can-do strength has built this country, won wars and created the world’s strongest economy. That hasn’t changed.
- In doing so, we can put American companies back to work producing clean energy and more efficient cars, putting our factories back in business. We’ll also stop shipping billions of dollars each year overseas for our dependence on foreign oil.
Sample Democratic Talking Points
For Democrats, much of the language can be similar, but messages about scientific urgency and extreme weather are more likely to be received well.
- Climate change is the most important issue of our time, and we owe it to our children and grandchildren to address this grave threat.
- Each year, we spend billions of dollars on extreme weather.
- Scientists tell us that unless we address industrial carbon pollution, this weather, fueled by climate change, will get worse in the future.
- The last decade was the hottest on record.
- The people that suffer the most from climate change will be those with the fewest resources to respond to the problem though they have contributed the least to the problem.
- Climate change is already an economic issue, and the costs of inaction will grow exponentially, affecting our health, our national security, our homes and our businesses.
- We know how to build a clean, modern energy system, and around the country, we’ve already started.
- We are beginning reduce carbon pollution, foster clean energy and make the energy we do use more efficient, lowering our energy bills in the process.
- But there’s more to do. By relying on American innovation, we can come together to come up with new solutions to our climate and energy challenges.
- We also need to start to build stronger cities and towns that will be resilient in the face of the hurricanes, wildfires and heat waves of the future.
- In taking the lead in addressing climate change, we set an example for the world.
The language used for Republicans and Democrats may be different, but the messages about climate change pass the fact-checker test, yet are also inspirational.