The devil might not have the best tunes

Jul 24, 2022
Frank Luntz
Image: Flickr / Gage Skidmore

The ongoing success of Republicans and US right wingers might be characterised as being due to the devil having the best tunes.

Yet recently, after a road to Damascus experience, the man actually responsible for many of those tunes turned his mind to how progressives can make their messaging about climate more effective.

Frank Luntz was the researcher who once upon a time recommended – with devastating impact – that inheritance taxes be dubbed ‘death taxes’ and was involved in the thinking that created the term ‘climate change’- a term which sounds unthreatening compared to ‘global warming’.

Speaking at a recent Aspen Ideas Festival Luntz spoke about ‘words to use and words to lose’ he argued that most people now agree that climate change is real and that humans are causing it.

That seems counterintuitive in terms of US discourse but is consistent with findings of the George Mason University Climate Change Communications Centre (of which more in the next blog).

Pew Research has, on the other hand, consistently shown a large divisive gap between Democrat and Republican attitudes to climate change.

That gap might be able to be bridged though if Democrats and climate campaigners adopt the sort of language and framing Luntz is now suggesting.

Luntz argued at the recent Aspen Institute Festival that there is a better way to reach more people, more effectively in order to mobilise real action on climate change and shared his ideas on “the best verbal and visual messaging that he believes will break through the logjam of toxic political discourse, and generate the most meaningful, measurable movement among American voters.”

He based his comments on research into US and UK responses to phrasing and imagery which encourages them to support climate policies. He said that rather than talking about a ‘global problem’ they should focus on “why it’s good for you, your family, your neighbourhood, your community, your country – in that order.”

In contrast, too many environmentalists focus in ‘abstract’ technical terms such as net zero, carbon emissions and greenhouse gases which repel rather than persuade.

On a special insight into a nation which considers itself extra special he says: “Every time John Kerry (Biden’s special envoy on climate) says ‘global commitments’ I want to stand on his foot.” What this would mean for Australia is another question all together.

Luntz also highlighted the problem of how to address economic and environmental trade-offs. His research suggests that Americans when presented with a choice between the economy and the environment they overwhelmingly choose the economy. When asked to choose between the economy and “a healthy, safe, clean environment” a majority choose the latter.

He also advocates focussing on the need to protect people’s children and grandchildren rather than abstract references to nature and science.

It should be said this is not a recent turn on the road to Damascus for Luntz. He shifted his position in 2017 and even gave evidence in 2019 before a US Senate Committee.

Grist, a US non-profit newsletter reported in 2019 that: “Frank Luntz’s up-close encounter with our increasingly wild weather came at 3:15 a.m. one morning, when the GOP master messenger woke up to his phone blaring an emergency evacuation warning. Luntz saw flames outside his bedroom window. The famous pollster’s home in Los Angeles was in the path of the Skirball Fire one of the many wildfires that destroyed parts of Southern California in December 2017.

“The courageous firefighters of L.A., they saved my home, but others aren’t so lucky,” he said as he recounted the tale during a Senate inquiry. “Rising sea levels, melting ice caps, tornadoes, and hurricanes more ferocious than ever. It is happening.”

Luntz was one of three Republicans invited by Senator Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, to speak to the Special Committee on the Climate Crisis about breaking down partisan barriers and taking action on climate change.

He also provided the hearing with a chart of “words to use and words to lose” based on what he’s learned from focus groups:

USE: Cleaner, safer, healthier. LOSE: Sustainable/sustainability.

USE: Solving climate change. LOSE: Ending global warming.

USE: Principles and priorities. LOSE: Values.

USE: Reliable technology/energy. LOSE: Ground-breaking/State of the art.

USE: New careers. LOSE: New jobs.

USE: Peace of mind. LOSE: Security.

USE: Consequences. LOSE: Threats/Problems.

USE: Working together: One world

Grist reported that Luntz also advocated framing climate action as a “no-regrets strategy.”

“Legislation would lead to cleaner air, cleaner water, less dependence on foreign fuels, enhanced national security, and more innovation in our economy.

“And that’s if the scientists are wrong,” he said. “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 ever faced … That’s why it’s the right thing to do.”

He also turned to the gallery at the hearing and said: “How many of you know of someone who either lost a house because of a hurricane, a tornado, a forest fire?” Many raised their hands as would many Australians if asked about floods and bushfires.

“If I can give you a solution that will prevent most of that from happening, would you invest in it? … What would you be willing to pay to get that home back, to get that opportunity back, to get that life back? The answer for most people is everything.”

Writing in the Weekend Financial Times Gillian Tett, who attended the Festival and whose reporting drew the blog’s attention to the Festival (the Aspen Ideas site sadly doesn’t provide links to the speeches) contrasted the Luntz view with the presentation by a Democrat voting venture capitalist John Doerr “who told Aspen that climate change is a deadly serious threat that needs an urgent response.”

“He duly handed out a 10 point ‘action plan for solving our climate crisis now’ that aims to ‘get to net zero emissions’ by focussing on “OKRs, or ‘objectives and key results’ and while this sounded sensible and admirable, it rather illustrated Luntz’s points,” Tett said.

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