10 words that thwart opposition messages to carbon limits

June 17, 2014

Carbon dioxide is back on a national political stage. On June 2, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy put it there with her announcement of standards for states to meet in reducing carbon pollution from power plants.

In the weeks and months prior to the announcement, there was no small amount of worry over the potential torrent of opposition and messaging difficulties the Obama Administration’s move could unleash. In May’s Rolling Stone, Big Coal author Jeff Goodell called the power plant carbon standards “the most important action” President Obama will take on climate this term but one “fraught with political peril.”

The concern? This would be painted as an escalation in a supposed ‘war on coal.’ An extreme federal government overreach. A hammer on jobs and the economy. A huge hit to families’ pocketbooks. All of the above. Indeed, opponents of the proposed regulations played just those messaging cards in the wake of June 2, from Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming (“drastic effects”) to Mitch McConnell in Kentucky (“a national energy tax”) to U.S. Senate candidate Ed Gillespie in Virginia playing up a Chamber of Commerce report predicting huge jobs losses and massive electricity bills.

But with just 10 words in her June 2 speech on June 2, Administrator McCarthy emphasized a messaging frame for the standards that both connects widely with U.S. voters and neatly deflects opposition themes. She said the new standards are “part of the ongoing story of energy progress in America.”

What’s the “progress” McCarthy is referring to? Voters know exactly what she’s talking about, and they support it. Today just one in five Americans says that making electricity from coal is a good idea – compared to 84 percent who say wind and 91 percent who say solar are good ways to produce our electricity. In his recent remarks at the annual meeting of the Edison Electric Institute, Warren Buffett said that “it’s enormously important for the industry to address public opinion,” which he noted is strongly in favor of distributed generation.

To what extent is this progress “ongoing?” A quick scroll down the past couple months of headers in our Energy Trend Tracker tells that story: “Buffett set to double his investments in renewables to $30 billion;” “Coal demand in structural decline,” “Combo of solar and storage is utility game-changer;” “First-ever deal for wind power in Georgia will save customers money;” “The cheapest energy is the energy that doesn’t have to be generated,” and on and on and on.

Branding the carbon pollution standards for power plants as part of ongoing and popular progress in producing our energy more cleanly turns pointed opposition messages rather dull:

  • If we’re already making progress on doing energy more cleanly and it isn’t expensive — or it’s actually lowering costs — claims of skyrocketing electricity prices ring hollow.
  • If carbon standards are part of furthering, in McCarthy’s words, “proven technologies, proven approaches” that “are creating jobs that can’t be shipped overseas,” then claims of economic devastation sound exaggerated and special interest.
  • And if controlling carbon emissions is part of a path we’re we’re already on, then claims of overreach and extremism sound off-base.

As with all good campaign communications, it’s important to drive good core messaging from the get-go, as frames tend to get set early and can be difficult to greatly alter later on. EPA helped with this, and so did tons of great advance work by climate and coal-to-clean energy advocates through events, pitches, meetings with editorial boards, governors, utilities, and more. In many a news article and editorial after June 2, the health benefits of reducing power plant pollution and the economic feasibility given progress already being made came through loud and clear.

Of course, it isn’t nearly over yet. Up for grabs is whether the proposed standards might be made stronger, or weaker; how they will play in fall elections; and whether or not they can be a solid stepping stone for greater progress. The work ahead is how to keep up the helpful campaign communications when there aren’t obvious hard news hooks like the June 2 announcement.

Here’s where it’s helpful to remember that the story isn’t “the carbon standards” — it’s the “ongoing story of energy progress in America” that they are part of. And there are all kinds of opportunities to keep telling that…

  • Celebrating the local businesses, institutions, residents, and others that are leading the way on energy efficiency and clean energy.
  • Highlighting the examples of local job creation, revenue generation, and positive economic ripple effect from investment in producing our energy more cleanly and reducing our energy use.
  • Exposing the health impacts and dangers of all manner of power plant pollutants that can be diminished with greater progress on producing our energy more cleanly. As EPA’s McCarthy reminded, “carbon pollution from power plants comes packaged with other dangerous pollutants like particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide.”
  • Revealing the local harm and economic costs of climate change impacts that can be lessened with greater progress on producing our energy more cleanly, from heat to allergies to heart disease to devastation from more frequent and intense flooding, storms, wildfire, and drought.

The message is 10 words. The list of ways to support it is much, much longer.

Jeff Cappella