May 2, 2009

Seeking to Save the Planet, With a Thesaurus


WASHINGTON - The problem with global warming, some environmentalists 
believe, is "global warming."

The term turns people off, fostering images of shaggy-haired 
liberals, economic sacrifice and complex scientific disputes, 
according to extensive polling and focus group sessions conducted by 
ecoAmerica, a nonprofit environmental marketing and messaging firm in 

Instead of grim warnings about global warming, the firm advises, talk 
about "our deteriorating atmosphere." Drop discussions of carbon 
dioxide and bring up "moving away from the dirty fuels of the past." 
Don't confuse people with cap and trade; use terms like "cap and cash 
back" or "pollution reduction refund."

EcoAmerica has been conducting research for the last several years to 
find new ways to frame environmental issues and so build public 
support for climate change legislation and other initiatives. A 
summary of the group's latest findings and recommendations was 
accidentally sent by e-mail to a number of news organizations by 
someone who sat in this week on a briefing intended for government 
officials and environmental leaders.

Asked about the summary, ecoAmerica's president and founder, Robert 
M. Perkowitz, requested that it not be reported until the formal 
release of the firm's full paper later this month, but acknowledged 
that its wide distribution now made compliance with his request 

The research directly parallels marketing studies conducted by oil 
companies, utilities and coal mining concerns that are trying to 
"green" their images with consumers and sway public policy.

Environmental issues consistently rate near the bottom of public 
worry, according to many public opinion polls. A Pew Research Center 
poll released in January found global warming last among 20 voter 
concerns; it trailed issues like addressing moral decline and 
decreasing the influence of lobbyists. "We know why it's lowest," 
said Mr. Perkowitz, a marketer of outdoor clothing and home 
furnishings before he started ecoAmerica, whose activities are 
financed by corporations, foundations and individuals. "When someone 
thinks of global warming, they think of a politicized, polarized 
argument. When you say 'global warming,' a certain group of Americans 
think that's a code word for progressive liberals, gay marriage and 
other such issues."

The answer, Mr. Perkowitz said in his presentation at the briefing, 
is to reframe the issue using different language. "Energy efficiency" 
makes people think of shivering in the dark. Instead, it is more 
effective to speak of "saving money for a more prosperous future." In 
fact, the group's surveys and focus groups found, it is time to drop 
the term "the environment" and talk about "the air we breathe, the 
water our children drink."

"Another key finding: remember to speak in TALKING POINTS 
aspirational language about shared American ideals, like freedom, 
prosperity, independence and self-sufficiency while avoiding jargon 
and details about policy, science, economics or technology," said the 
e-mail account of the group's study.

Mr. Perkowitz and allies in the environmental movement have been 
briefing officials in Congress and the administration in the hope of 
using the findings to change the terms of the debate now under way in 

Opponents of legislation to combat global warming are engaged in a 
similar effort. Trying to head off a cap-and-trade system, in which 
government would cap the amount of heat-trapping emissions allowed 
and let industry trade permits to emit those gases, they are coaching 
Republicans to refer to any such system as a giant tax that would 
kill jobs. Coal companies are taking out full-page advertisements 
promising "clean, green coal." The natural gas industry refers to its 
product as "clean fuel green fuel." Oil companies advertise their 
investments in alternative energy.

Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University, an expert on environmental 
communications, said ecoAmerica's campaign was a mirror image of what 
industry and political conservatives were doing. "The form is the 
same; the message is just flipped," he said. "You want to sell 
toothpaste, we'll sell it. You want to sell global warming, we'll 
sell that. It's the use of advertising techniques to manipulate 
public opinion."

He said the approach was cynical and, worse, ineffective. "The right 
uses it, the left uses it, but it doesn't engage people in a 
face-to-face manner," he said, "and that's the only way to achieve 
real, lasting social change."

Frank Luntz, a Republican communications consultant, prepared a 
strikingly similar memorandum in 2002, telling his clients that they 
were losing the environmental debate and advising them to adjust 
their language. He suggested referring to themselves as 
"conservationists" rather than "environmentalists," and emphasizing 
"common sense" over scientific argument.

And, Mr. Luntz and Mr. Perkowitz agree, "climate change" is an easier 
sell than "global warming."