May 2, 2009
Seeking to Save the Planet, With a Thesaurus
By JOHN M. BRODER
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
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."