Policy Makers Need a Political Thesaurus (Part 1)

Editor’s Note: This is the first of two articles we will be publishing in the coming weeks examining the importance of phrasing in climate policy making and how changing that phrasing can help bridge today’s political divides. Part 2 can be found here.


The goals of environmental remediation and climate change mitigation policies are inherently nonpartisan as their aim is to build healthier social, economic and environmental conditions for all communities. Recent political upheavals and saturation have polarized the American public and members of the United States legislature on the subject of a renewables-based energy transition that is designed to benefit every domestic constituency. In order to effectively promote policies, including those of climate change mitigation in such polarizing political conditions, policymakers must phrase legislation in the language of each segment of their constituency so that it appeals to their core values, ideas and beliefs. Rephrasing “climate change” or “weather extremes” terminology to match the policy concerns of either political party can help remind us that we’re all working to achieve the same goal of building and sustaining a better world–maybe all policy makers need is a political thesaurus.

Global climate change is a hotly debated topic in American politics that could benefit from a change in phrasing to achieve bipartisanship. The USDA (the United States Department of Agriculture) has suggested new terminology on climate change as seen in a recently released string of emails between employees of the USDA and the NCRS (Natural Resources Conservation Service). Bianca Moebius-Clune, director of soil health at USDA urged employees of the NCRS to avoid the term “Climate Change” and alternatively use “Weather Extremes.” Similarly, instead of “Climate Change Adaptation” the USDA suggests using “Resilience to Weather Extremes”, and instead of “reducing greenhouse gases” using “Build Soil Organic Matter, increase nutrient use efficiency.” An NRCS official explained the reasoning behind the change: “It has become clear one of the previous administration’s priority [sic] is not consistent with that of the incoming administration. Namely, that priority is climate change.” Members of the USDA and NRCS must find ways continue working towards mitigating “clim”–no–“weather extremes” to aid their key constituents–farmers under the auspices of the current administration. While many dismissed the suggested phrasing changes due to suspicions that the “climate-change-denying” Trump Administration had direct influence on the changes, both the USDA and NCRS explain that the “changes were discussed as a messaging shift, not a change in mission.”

The USDA ran current climate change-related terminology through what seems to be a “political thesaurus.” While many of us An Inconvenient Sequel fans would disagree that the phrase “climate change” is partisan, the last seven years of large corporations funneling money into American politics has made it so. With the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010, the part of McCain-Feingold that set campaign spending limits on corporations was overturned, thus allowing corporations to spend as much as they desired on individuals’ campaigns for President or Congress. “Koch Industries and Americans for Prosperity started an all-fronts campaign with television advertising, social media, and cross-country events aimed at electing lawmakers who would ensure that the fossil fuel industry would not have to worry about new pollution regulation.” Koch Industries is a multinational oil corporation and Americans for Prosperity is a conservative political advocacy group funded by David H. Koch and Charles Koch, the Koch brothers’ primary advocacy group. In order to block any cap-and-trade or carbon taxes on large corporations, Koch Industries began funneling money into the Republican party–threatening jobs and rewriting the party platform in favor of big oil and coal. Influenced by oil-industry funded campaigns, many Republican senators began publicly denying climate change to protect the interests of the Koch Brothers. The Koch Brothers’ message permeated Republicans’ base constituencies and thus influenced them to challenge climate change as well.

Prior to Citizens United, climate change was a noted issue on both sides of the political spectrum and one of the very few issues that gained bipartisan policy support. In 1998, Republican presidential nominee George H.W. Bush brought the issue of climate change to the forefront of his campaign, stating: “Our land, water and soil support a remarkable range of human activities, but they can only take so much and we must remember to treat them not as a given but as a gift . . . These issues know no ideology, no political boundaries. It’s not a liberal or conservative thing we’re talking about.” In 2008, Senator John McCain secured the Republican nomination for president and made greenhouse gas emissions reduction a key part of his campaign. McCain, like Bush, hoped to use his influence as a Republican nominee to push the American public to view climate change as a major issue and prioritize policy-driven solutions. Former Speakers of the House Nancy Pelosi (D) and Newt Gingrich (R) promoted action on climate change together in an advertisement as a part of the “We Can Solve It” campaign sponsored by former Vice President Al Gore’s Alliance for Climate Protection. Come 2010 and the implementation of Citizens United, big oil slithered into politics, leading many conservatives to write off their climate-related concerns as conspiracy rather than affirm them with policy action in order to appease their base. As a result, the Obama administration watched Waxman-Markey (the federal cap-and-trade program) fall apart in the Republican-led senate.

With no prospect of overturning Citizens United anytime soon, we’re forced to ask ourselves what a second-best approach is to expedite the implementation of stringent climate policies in the United States? One such option may be to influence public opinion through issue and solutions re-reframing that appeal to various party platforms and constituencies whose votes are key to climate action. In an age of deep-seated political polarization, policymakers must phrase such legislation in the respective vernacular of each member group of the American constituency so as to appeal to their core values, ideas and beliefs to achieve progress on climate policy.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on November 7, 2017.

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