Speaking with Americans about Energy and Climate: From the Think Tank to the Kitchen Table

Drew and celinda pic Our partners on the Climate + Energy Truths: Making the Necessary Connections report, Drew Westen and Celinda Lake, wrote an OpEd for the Huffington Post that provides more context for the research and describes how this report can help bridge the gap in public support for climate legislation.

Posted May 20, 2009

By Drew Westen and Celinda Lake, The Huffington Post

Over 30 years have passed since the OPEC oil embargo of the 1970s
led to a severe recession and warned Americans just how vulnerable our
economic and national security are because of our dangerous dependence
on foreign oil. Yet over three decades later, we still have no coherent
energy policy — and in fact, the United States has tripled its
dependence on Middle Eastern oil in the interim.

Over two decades have passed since Americans began to hear that burning
fossil fuels and pouring their byproducts into the air was producing
changes in the earth's atmosphere and the face of the globe that, if
allowed to continue, could have calamitous effects not just on some
exotic species in Fiji but on the exotic species we call Homo sapiens.
Yet in the meantime, Homo has not been so sapiens, at least in the
United States. Scientists have just reported that the problem has
accelerated past their worst-case predictions, particularly since China
has become America's rival in carbon emissions from coal-powered
plants. Yet in the intervening decades we have done nothing — other
than to spear the Kyoto Treaty we took the lead it writing — while
other countries have tried to move forward as best they could without
American leadership (or at least participation).

So what explains a discrepancy of this magnitude over decades
between the considered judgments of the reality-based community and
public policy? Clearly many factors are involved, and we will not
endeavor to list them all. One, of course, has been the campaign of
disinformation by the energy industry, such as BP's superbly crafted
"BP — Beyond Petroleum" ads, replete with windmills and inspirational
music, which don't quite advertise the fact that the company's actual
diversification doesn't extend much beyond regular gas to premium
unleaded. Then, of course, is the coal industry's multi-million dollar
campaign to sell "Clean Coal — America's Power." (If you believe that
one, we have some clean pigs looking for a home — preferably in your
backyard, not ours.)

But there's another reason for the discrepancy between scientific
knowledge and the level of public urgency it takes to make reform not
only the right thing to do but the politically smart thing to do,
especially for legislators from conservative or swing states and
districts where skepticism runs as high as unemployment: We haven't
been talking with the American people in their own language.

Instead, too often, as with so many issues about which progressives
are passionate, we tend to speak to voters in our language — the
language of parts per million, carbon emissions, carbon sequestration,
and the like — and expect them to make the translation. We would do
well to make that translation ourselves. If we can't convince the
public to share our concern about what is, and our enthusiasm for what
could be, perhaps it's our fault, not theirs.

The point is not to "dumb down" our messages. It's to increase their emotional intelligence.

As on so many progressive issues, we rely on science to develop the
best public policy, but we too often then rely on intuition — usually
borne of what we find persuasive in talking with each other (i.e. with
people who already agree with us) — in trying to garner public support
for that policy. We should be using science not only to develop our
policies but to increase the likelihood that they will be enacted.

The best scientific evidence suggests that the best way to win
public support for comprehensive energy and climate reform is not by
presenting the public with the best scientific evidence. It is to talk
with Americans in plain, emotionally compelling language that speaks to
their values and concerns.

Over the last several months, we conducted an extensive research
project with over 2000 voters designed to bring the language of energy
and climate reform from the think tank to the kitchen table. Over the
course of three phases of the research, we developed, tested, and
refined messages so that they spoke to the American people about these
issues in ways that address their values, concerns, and aspirations.

What we found is that when we talk in plain, values-oriented
language, we solidly move people, motivate them to action, and beat the
industry's well-crafted messages by 20-40 points. What resonates with
people are not specific fuel standards or the mechanics of how a cap
and trade system would work or the precise tonnage of carbon emissions
per year. What moves them is a set of themes that bring the issue home
to them: economic prosperity and jobs; energy independence and
self-sufficiency; clean, safe, natural sources of energy that will
never run out; getting pollution under control and making polluters pay
for their own messes so we protect our health and the health of our
children, preserve the majesty of our land, and reverse the
deterioration of our atmosphere; harnessing American ingenuity and
restoring American leadership; and protecting our legacy to our
children the way our parents and grandparents protected their legacy to

And we learned that one striking fact that gets people to sit up and
take notice — for example, that the 10 hottest years on record have
all occurred since 1990 — is worth a thousand policy descriptions. In
fact, more often than not, the second fact we offered in a message
actually reduced the impact of the first.

The research is rooted in contemporary neuroscience and in both a
scientific and clinical understanding of what psychologists and
neuroscientists call networks of associations. Networks of association
are interconnected sets of thoughts, feelings, images, metaphors, and
emotions that are unconsciously active in people's minds and brains at
any given moment (e.g., as they read, watch, or listen to messages on
both sides about energy or climate change). Consider one very important
example: Every time we used the term "global warming" in a message, we
"lost" men and moderate Republican voters who were otherwise willing to
hear us out. Why?

First, global warming is such an abstract concept that it's hard for
most people to get worked up about it unless they're activists (like
"universal health care," "reproductive health," and so many words in
the progressive lexicon).

Second, "warming" accurately reflects a long-term trend observed by
scientists, but it is the wrong word to include for nonscientists in a
phrase intended to denote something destructive, because its
connotations (the thoughts, images, metaphors, and emotions associated
with it and hence unconsciously activated by it) are largely positive.
"Warmth" is associatively linked to getting in from the cold, to hearth
and home, to comfortable feelings, mom and apple pie — and, for that
matter, to stepping into the ocean on Memorial Day weekend and being
pleasantly surprised rather than unpleasantly chilled.

Third, the term itself connotes linear increases in temperature that
people expect should be observable to them. As a result, to many
Americans, "global warming" is disconfirmed every time there's a cold
spell. For example, a few weeks ago, during an unseasonably cool spell
on the Gulf Coast of Florida, one of us overheard one man say to
another, mockingly, "So I wonder what Al Gore would say about this,

We can, of course decry his ignorance. Alternatively, we can prevent
this kind of misconception — and its attendant emotion, which becomes
hardened against any facts we try to throw at it — by choosing our
words wisely, taking into account the way our minds and brains
naturally work. It's hard enough to beat an energy industry with
billions to spend on advertising. There is no reason to add the brain
to our list of political adversaries.

But it's not just individual words or phrases that matter. It's the
narratives in which those phrases are embedded. We aren't talking about
hypothetical ways of framing the discussion that should, theoretically,
move voters. We're talking about narratives that empirically do move
voters, particularly the "swing" voters who didn't start out quite sure
whether they favored the industry's disingenuous message of "all of the
above" or a new way forward to clean, safe forms of energy — or who
weren't quite sure they believed in climate change. In fact, those
narratives made such a strong difference that by the end of a 20-minute
online survey in which voters heard both our narratives and strong
counter-narratives from the other side, voters shifted by 24 points on
whether dealing with our changing climate and weather patterns should
be a high or very high priority, from an initially small majority of
55% to a strong majority of 79%. That's change we can believe in. And
it included Democrats, Republicans, and Independents.

As in other recent polls, we found that when we use resonant
language and imagery, voters are confident that comprehensive energy
reform can help create a new manufacturing base so we start building
things in America again. The public sees innovation and the potential
for renewed prosperity in the development of new clean energy
technologies. They recognize that renovating and refitting our homes
and businesses to conserve energy creates jobs that can't be
outsourced. They think it's time we start exporting energy, not jobs,
and sending American dollars to Middle America, not the Middle East.
They resonate with the idea that people who show personal
responsibility and take the initiative to conserve should be rewarded
with tax credits, and they believe it's time we start imposing and
enforcing strict pollution limits again on corporations that pour
chemicals into the air and make polluters pay if they exceed those
limits. They intuitively grasp the difference between sources of energy
you have to burn to turn them into power and those that can be
harnessed from sources like the sun or wind without damage to our air,
land, and lungs.

We began by trying to understand the complex and often contradictory
networks of association that constitute public opinion across dozens of
existing polls (e.g., why most voters are concerned about climate
change but then rank it a low priority when given a list of potential
governmental priorities). We then listened to everyday voters' concerns
in focus groups, watched how a representative national sample of 1000
voters responded to specific words, phrases, and narratives, and then
polled another 1000 voters with a refined set of messages. And in so
doing, we learned something at once complex and remarkably simple.

When Americans make a simple distinction, captured in the network of
associations illustrated below, they prefer comprehensive energy reform
that addresses climate change over well crafted conservative or
industry messages by roughly a 2:1 margin. (In the illustration, solid
black lines suggest that one concept implies another, dotted lines
suggest that one contradicts the other, blue connotes positive
associations, and red connotes negative associations.) 

Climate + energy network

This network suggests a clear narrative: We have a choice. We can
move toward the safe, clean fuels of the 21st century — energy from
the sun, the wind, and the ground (whether the geothermal energy at the
core of the earth or the biofuels that actually gain us ground on
energy) — fuels that will never run out, don't have to be burned to
produce energy, and will create new jobs and help us restore
prosperity. Or we can continue to rely on the fossil fuels of the 19th
century, which will run out, cost more and more over time to produce
less and less, take jobs with them, threaten our economic and national
security, and destroy the land and air as we extract and burn them —
pouring billions of tons of pollutants into the air, including those
that are destroying our atmosphere and altering the delicate balance of
nature. We can restore American leadership, or we can abdicate it. We
can lead the first technological revolution of the 21st century the way
we led the major technological revolutions of the 20th, or we can leave
the task to Europe, Brazil, or China. We can confront the forms of
pollution we face today, including those that are destroying our
atmosphere, changing our weather patterns, and damaging our lungs —
just as our parents took on the pollution that confronted them in the
1960s and 1970s — or we can ignore our sacred responsibilities to our
children. That is our choice. It isn't a hard one.

Drew Westen, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at
Emory University, founder of Westen Strategies, and author of "The
Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the

Celinda Lake is President and Founder of Lake Research Partners, and one of the most well-respected pollsters in the country.

This research was undertaken in collaboration and under the
sponsorship and guidance of ecoAmerica and the Natural Resources
Defense Council (NRDC). For a description of the complete study and
results (entitled, Climate Truths: Making the Necessary Connections),
contact [email protected], or [email protected]

No Responses to “Speaking with Americans about Energy and Climate: From the Think Tank to the Kitchen Table”

  1. I appreciate your explanation of the need and context for the report, which seems to be widely misunderstood and “pre-panned” by the New York Times and others. All the ignorance and skepticism out there makes me queasy.
    I wanted to share with you my personal response to what’s been written about the report in the media so far, entitled “The greatest messaging story ever sold” at http://shinygreenbutton.com/?p=539.
    I’m a writer and blogger for a communications firm, AHA!, which specializes in writing and messaging.
    Has the report been released yet? I would love to get a copy as soon as possible.
    Thanks for the good and important work you’re doing,
    Dan Larson

Leave a Reply