Policy Makers Need a Political Thesaurus (Part 2)

Editor’s Note: This is the second of two articles examining the importance of phrasing in climate policy making and how changing that phrasing can help bridge today’s political divides. Part 1 can be found here.


Climate change was once a bipartisan policy goal, now marred by Big Oil in politics. A recent example of this includes the U.S. pulling out of the Paris Agreement, reinforced at COP23 in Bonn in November 2017. In the U.S., government mandated climate action requires that individuals use the institutional framework of electing members of Congress to represent true public opinion, especially in order to override Big Oil ‘donations’ to congressional campaigns. Successful climate policy requires that individuals not only believe that climate change should be addressed by the government, but prioritize it in their policy preferences and use the best tool we have to bring it to the forefront of congressional affairs: the voting process. While it may seem that politicians influence the public, American governmental institutions are designed so that public opinion drives policy decisions in Congress. Congressmen and women, like any other working citizens, wish to appease their ‘clients’ or ‘constituencies’ in order to maintain their jobs. While the Koch brothers may be a part of Congress’ constituency, they are not the only key players; congressmen and women also depend on the validation of the greater American public in order to keep their positions. We should thus appeal to the fundamental design of American institutions to our Earth’s advantage and influence the public into prioritizing climate policy, so they push for congressional action. Perhaps the best way for the Republican constituency to prioritize climate policy, specifically, is to appeal to their fundamental ideas, beliefs, and values via rephrasing climate change in the ‘conservative vernacular.’

Before rephrasing climate change terminology, it is important for policy makers and the media to understand their platform and legislative priorities. The conservative ideology is primarily based on limited government influence and greater individual freedoms. In terms of economics, conservatives or conservative-leaning individuals believe that wages should be set by the free market and push back against progressive tax increases. Their view of government regulation is influenced by their view on economics: they believe that government regulations deter job growth and free market capitalism. Many socially and fiscally conservative Republicans work in the oil or coal industries, or are small business owners and heads of large industries. To appeal to these conservatives, climate change terminology must be relevant to economic growth and the free market, whilst shying away from phrasing that explicitly addresses additional taxes or strong federal regulation.

On February 24th, 2017, in a bipartisan panel arranged by Berkeley Energy & Resources Collaborative at the University of California, Berkeley, Debbie Dooly, the founder of the Green Tea Coalition and Conservatives for Energy Freedom, advised that environmentalists, business owners, and government officials should focus on promoting green jobs for economic growth and renewable energy as a means of saving on utilities. She explained how simple language tools can help policy makers achieve some level of bipartisanship based on word choice. Dooly provided insight on certain trigger words such as “tax” in “carbon tax” that conservatives respond to negatively. She went on to explain that while policy diction may not be intentionally biased, individuals’ responses to certain words can distract from the original aim of the policy itself. If liberals are drafting policy that they would like conservatives to be responsive to, using phrases like “remediation fund” would be received far better than those like “carbon tax”.

Like Dooly, Mayor Dale Ross of Georgetown, Texas is a pro-renewables Republican. He explains how a majority “red city like Georgetown, such a conservative place, was one of the first cities in the country to be powered 100 percent by renewable energy.” As city leaders stated in an interview with NPR, in Georgetown the debate over renewables never mentioned climate change. Ross says that Georgetown’s decision was fueled by “love of green-green rectangles (dollar bills) . . .” (NPR). Georgetown city managers realized that wind and solar power are more predictable and that their prices do not fluctuate like oil and gas. Thanks to its transition to solar and wind, Georgetown was able to negotiate contracts with renewable energy companies for the next 25 years, and know exactly what the bill is going to be. NPR’s Ari Shapiro explains how “that’s especially appealing in a place like Georgetown where a lot of retirees live on fixed incomes.” By changing the conversation from “climate change” to “smart investing”, environmentalists and small business owners alike are benefiting from a renewables-based energy transition in Georgetown, Texas.

Many climate change related articles also have a tendency to throw the oil and coal industries, along with their workers, under the bus. Many oil and coal workers are conservative and may feel threatened by aggressive rhetoric against their livelihoods. Not only can it put their jobs in jeopardy, but also antagonize them by labeling them enablers of pollution. Posing coal as a thriving industry already puts coal workers at a disadvantage, especially when retraining programs like those developed by the 2016 Clinton campaign can help coal workers make their way into a thriving market for renewable energy, or even more profitable industries. If policy makers and the mainstream media focus more on the transition to renewables as a means of competition in the global market for energy, with emphasis on conservative ideals like the invisible hand and laissez-faire, along with the waning profitability of the coal industry, we may have a greater chance of appealing to the conservative base to influence congress to prioritize climate policy and make mitigation efforts successful.

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. We must ensure that our rephrasing does, however, address the same concepts – albeit via different means of persuasion. Maybe all policy makers need is a political thesaurus . . .


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on January 30, 2018.

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