It’s no surprise that Americans tend to prefer less government intervention to more. Whether based on fears of government partisanship and corruption or a simple preference for free markets, a great many Americans, ceteris paribus, would opt for a nation with a smaller government rather than a larger one.
At the same time, the rapid need for climate action and the barriers preventing a purely private response mean that government intervention is almost surely necessary for a successful response.
A major challenge of both policy and politics, then, is reconciling America’s distrust of large government action with the strong need for it. There is flexibility in both the action that can be taken and in the communication and marketing of that action, but the greatest political success will likely occur when both the policy and rhetoric best accommodate the concerns of the American people.
Before considering what the best options are to accomplish this reconciliation, I want to mention a focus group study performed by the social research firm, American Environics. This study delved into the opinions and concerns of average Americans as they relate to global warming and renewable energy. The findings of the study indicate that public concern about global warming ranks far below that for the economy and national security, and that Americans are far more interested in renewable energy as a means of accessing American innovation and entrepreneurship than as a means of curtailing greenhouse gas emissions.
With this in mind, we can approach the first strategy towards developing a public response to climate change that addresses Americans’ distrust of government action. The key is framing and it can be done at both the communication level and at the policy level. Frank Luntz, the genius wordsmith behind many of the major Republican campaigns of the last decade, explains in his 2007 Words That Work that, “messages need to say what people want to hear.” If people are concerned about the economy and security, then a successful message and policy should address those issues.
So, in order to address the real concerns of Americans in a climate change effort, the message must speak to them about job creation and energy independence. However, in order to really succeed, the message ought to go beyond the usual fare of economic forecasts and trade deficits and soar into the realm of American possibility, ingenuity, and determination. In the same American Environics study, discussion of the innovation and entrepreneurship associated with clean energy elicited the most powerful and positive responses.
In following Luntz’s teachings, we’ve got to be wary when re-framing ideas for public consumption to not move beyond the realm of truth. The goal is to highlight the things that Americans really care about, but not to carry things out of proportion or mislead people. In many ways, economic progress, international competition, and energy independence are more important to America than global warming, though, so emphasizing them in policy and rhetoric should not be seen as dishonest.
Focusing on the more inspirational portions of climate policy like innovation and American prosperity, though, leads to the second major strategy that can be used to reconcile distrust of government with the need for action. This strategy is a national cognitive therapy approach.
In the book Break Through, Nordhaus and Shellenberger explain how the psychiatrist Aaron Beck discovered that, by reframing the narrative of their lives and emphasizing different experiences, depressed patients were able to find renewed vitality and meaning, breaking the cycles of depressions. This same strategy is often cited as a major component of the Obama campaign’s success – emphasizing Hope for the future over past failures to re-energize a dispirited nation.
In the case of public climate intervention, the cycle that needs breaking or at least adjusting is the massive distrust of government involvement. As the Breakthrough Generation’s Case Studies in American Innovation reveal, public involvement played a huge role in critical innovations and most major technological revolutions in America’s history from aeronautics to microchips to the Internet. For some reason, though, the public emphasis has shifted towards those policies that have been less successful. Through a cognitive therapy of re-organizing those narratives to highlight the government involvement in fostering innovation in America, we can ease distrust and heighten the excitement the public feels towards climate action.
With these two strategies in mind, the big question, of course, is to determine what policies do the best job of reaching out to a distrustful public and how to communicate those policies. As the American Environics study shows, the key is to avoid, in both rhetoric and policy, an emphasis on pollution, reduction, and doom, and to highlight innovation, productivity, progress, and success.