Democratic senators turn to GOP for help in reaching conservatives on climate messaging

Democratic senators turn to GOP for help in reaching conservatives on climate messaging
© Greg Nash

Senate Democrats are looking to Republicans for messaging help in hopes of generating more climate action support from their GOP constituents.

Lawmakers on the Senate Democrats Special Committee on the Climate Crisis interviewed a panel of Republican communications and polling experts at a hearing Thursday on language and messages they could use to appeal to conservatives on climate change.

ADVERTISEMENT
“Climate action is feasible, practical, it’s financially smart,” said Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel Schatz'Medicare for All' complicates Democrats' pitch to retake Senate Criminal justice reform should extend to student financial aid Booker, Durbin and Leahy introduce bill to ban death penalty MORE (D-Hawaii), chairman of the committee. “Today we continue to build the case that climate action is doable and not the exclusive domain of progressives. But right now Democrats don’t have a dance partners on climate action in the United States Senate. Our Republican colleagues have chosen not to be here.”

Frank Luntz, a tenured Republican pollster, told the senators their ability to connect with conservatives came down to a change in messaging — likening selling climate action support to selling a product.

“How do you personalize, humanize and individualize it so people see their own role in it?" Luntz asked rhetorically.

He suggested the answer was posing climate action as a win-win, regardless of whether scientific theories on the negative impacts of climate change came true.

“If we do this right, we get cleaner air, we get less dependence on foreign fuels, enhanced national security, we get more innovation in our economy, and more jobs and great new careers. And that’s if the scientists are wrong,” Luntz suggested as a talking point.

“If the scientists are right, we get all of those things and begin to solve what could be the most catastrophic environmental problem that any of us have faced.”

Luntz and other conservatives on the panel differed over what tone to take with voters in order to get them to care about the issue of climate change.

“I’m giving them a piece of the negative. I’m wrapping it in the positive, and it’s a call to action,” Luntz said of his strategy.

Kiera O’Brien, vice president of Students for Carbon Dividends, said she preferred to present the message in business terms measuring risk involved.

“Speaking about the issue in terms of risk is what i think is the correct way to go forward on this, because everybody's been talking about the most likely outcomes of climate instability and what is probable to happen,” she said.

The best way to get all age groups and sectors of Republicans on board with the methods needed to stop greenhouse gas emissions would be to embrace a carbon tax, she said.

“Taking a free market approach again is a less alarmist way to speak about the issue — because we aren’t saying you have to sacrifice the entire economy or everything that you know. We are saying, ‘OK, you put a price on carbon upstream at the source and get the support of industry and then return the money to the American public in the form of a dividend check,’ and that starts to feel a little less aggressive to people,” she said.

Nick Huey, the last panelist and founder of the Climate Campaign, suggested instead the messaging be focused on future potential.

“The wonder of the future is a pretty cool thing,” he said. 

“If there’s a way we can turn our future from a scary horrible place to a sexy super exciting place people are really going to jump for that,” he said, likening how the crisis could drive innovation in the way Tesla’s Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskMaking space exploration cool again Elon Musk: 'I support Yang' Hillicon Valley: GOP hits back over election security bills | Ratcliffe out for intel chief | Social media companies consider policies targeting 'deepfakes' | Capital One, GitHub sued over breach MORE reinvented the electric car industry.

Senators on the committee asked what it was specifically about the way climate change was currently spoken about that alienated conservatives. Panelists said it ran the gamut from being focused on dire scenarios that caused people to “wall off” or elitist language that made voters feel unintelligent.

“I don’t want to engage in happy talk, and just say solar is tripling and we have all these kinds of opportunities because we do have to talk about climate change we do have to talk about the moral challenge in front of us, and I don’t want to shy away from that and therefore do half measures,” said Schatz, of the conundrum he and other Democrats face selling climate. “On the other hand, I think if you freak people out, they will freeze in time and just focus on their own personal financial situation and their own personal safety and shut this kind of a thing down.”

The committee hearing comes as climate change has emerged a top issue for Democrats but remains a secondary issue for Republicans. A series of new polls however, including one circulated by a firm Luntz was previously associated with, Luntz Global, found that climate was a growing issue among young Republican voters.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are increasingly discussing and exploring options to tackle climate change, including instituting a carbon tax or investing in carbon capture technology.