We Need to Rebrand the Climate Change Conversation

The one we're having is not working.

As the Earth appears to snap, crackle and pop into a molten lava pulp of pain, the reaction of its largest super power inhabitant is ineptitude and partisan bickering. We’ve always known Washington is its own greatest enemy; in the case of imminent global apocalypse, we see that Washington is now the planet’s greatest enemy. As the world spins about rudderless and leaderless, policymakers delve deeper into tit-for-tat talking point plays from extreme sides of the debate.

House Republicans want us to walk away with the impression that they’ve attached some semblance of urgency to the issue by planning an unprecedented multi-agency hearing on climate change scheduled for Sept. 18. But this is really just optics and political maneuvering in the wake of slow leakage of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report due sometime next month. What we do know from what’s been released is that climate change is real and much of it is due to unmitigated human pollution. There may be minor disagreements over how soon it gets worse.

Yet, the report’s mistake could be in its premeditated early release and branding. The IPCC thinks it’s doing us all a favor through the gradual release of data into the public discourse. But maybe the U.N. should have just made a very cryptic-but-booming doomsday voice announcement that a major scientific report of epic proportions regarding the fate of the planet was expected in the near future.

Leaking it piece by piece defeats the purpose. Proudly illiterate Republicans and anti-science conservatives now have a chance to actively preempt the report’s final release — which is, more than likely, the purpose of this staged grand event on Capitol Hill. House Energy and Commerce Chair Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-KY) is making himself look concerned about climate change as a way to muzzle pundits and “liberal media bias” … in his mind. But don’t expect sympathy for the planet’s misfortune from a climate science skeptic extraordinaire who hails from a major southern coal state consistently voting red in every election. When you ask Whitfield if there’s a way to curb U.S. oil consumption, he dismisses the idea in the context of what he sees as wasteful federal spending on needed research and development or as an unattainable goal given the American penchant for “driv[ing] … long trips.”

Which leads us to the problem of branding. While climate change experts, government officials, global researchers and U.N. panels all agree on the urgency of the phenomenon, they have made little progress in convincing the larger public of the same. Even as rural areas in the South and Midwest get pummeled by freak bursts of climatic weather and excessive drought, red state conservatives who dominate the policy conversation aren’t budging; in fact, they’ve gone so far as to get stingy on the subject of expanded federal disaster response funding. Recent polls reveal a dubious public on the topic of climate change. Rasmussen Reports finds 63 percent of Americans agree “global warming” is a somewhat serious problem — yet, only 35 percent think it is a very serious problem. And while 93 percent of respondents in a Carbon Brief poll believe “climate change” is happening now, 53 percent think it’s because of human activity and 37 percent think it’s due to “natural processes.”

Perception could have something to do with the lack of consensus surrounding what we call the problem: Is it climate change or is it global warming? Environmentalists would rather that we didn’t have this conversation, with many finding it trivial. But, persuasion comes in many sizes, shape, colors and packages. Climate change proponents seem more immersed in esoteric scientific exchange than finding a way to translate complex data for a public that’s, for the most part, content with being obtuse about the world around it. It’s one reason why the zeitgeist remains completely unaware of the recent success of scientists in a federal lab who not only devised a way to suck carbon emissions out of the air, but to use what’s produced from the process to create “supergreen” hydrogen fuel. You’d think Congress would want a hearing on that so we can figure out the fastest way to turn it on.

The situation is dire enough that we desperately need to find the middle ground before it’s too late. Where could that be? Maybe it’s trapped somewhere in between the dreams of a fossil fuel-less world on the left and nocturnal conservative fantasies of untouched acres pro-gun cats can hunt on. Maybe we need to rename it already. Curbing climate change can’t just be about feel-good green programs or cleaning product commercials touting an environmentally safe seal of approval. Someone somehow has to make a breakthrough in the conversation since the one we’re having at the moment isn’t working.

CHARLES D. ELLISON is a veteran political strategist and washington correspondent for The Philadelphia Tribune. A former Congressional speechwriter, he is also Chief Political Correspondent for UPTOWN Magazine and a weekly contributor to The Philly Post. You can hear him every Sunday at 9:50am ET offering political analysis on WDAS 105.3 FM (Philadelphia) or reach him via Twitter @charlesdellison.