Nov. 19, 2012

Environmentalists' evasion of climate talk questioned

By Mark Golden

SACRAMENTO, Calif.--When promoting energy efficiency to consumers with conservative or moderate political views, electric utilities know not to bring up climate change and instead focus on benefits like cost savings and U.S. energy independence. But, according to several speakers at an industry conference Monday, refusing to talk about climate may be damaging in the long term.

“If you want to change an attitude on some position to be more progressive, the worst thing you could do is move toward the middle,” said George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California-Berkeley. “When you adopt their language, it invokes their moral frames and strengthens those circuits in the brain.”

becc image The keynote speaker at the annual “Behavior, Energy & Climate Change” conference, Lakoff explained that people’s political views are shaped not by logic but by one of two views of the family. Progressives share a “nurturing parent” frame, while conservatives see a “strict father” as the key feature of a family, he said. Moderates do not have some middle view, but instead switch more frequently between the two frames than do those on the far right or far left of the political spectrum. When environmentalists appeal to moderates using conservative-friendly arguments, like U.S. energy independence, they invoke the “strict father” frame and, in the long term, weaken the chances of convincing moderates on climate change, said Lakoff. Use of more “nurturing parent” views of politics, like improving local air quality, activate independents’ more progressive frame of thinking, which could eventually help change minds on climate change, the linguist said.

Nevertheless, people in the business of marketing energy efficiency programs insisted that motivating both liberals and conservatives are essential to reducing energy use and limiting emissions of greenhouse gases. The two groups require different messages, several other conference speakers agreed, although they also admitted this approach could damage the chances of significant action on the environment down the road.

E Source, a company that manages energy efficiency programs for utilities and large businesses, was able to reduce electricity consumption in the conservative town of New Berlin, Penn., the company’s senior research associate, Katie Ruiz, told the “Behavior, Energy & Climate Change” conference. Almost 90 percent of residential customers and virtually all businesses in New Berlin participated, Ruiz said.

“We never once uttered the words ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ or ‘CO2’,” Ruiz said. Instead, the messages were: save money, reduce waste and retain wealth within the region.

“Nobody will argue with saving money,” she added. Similarly, the Environmental Defense Fund has been trying to help Texas deal with shortages of both electricity and water. Due to a deeply conservative state legislature, EDF has been working locally with cities that feel the water and power shortages acutely. It has had some success.

“We are using normal solutions like incentives and rebates,” said EDF project manager Kate Zerrenner, “but we are also looking at competitive motivations like our ‘Energy Challenge’ and creative finance for upgrades, like paying for them on consumer utility bills with third party finance. Market-based solutions sell in Texas. That’s how we’re going to do this.”

“If we use the term ‘climate change,’ the conversation is over,” Zerrenner said. “Same thing for ‘They did it in California.” Or New York. Or Taxachusetts.”

However, one conference participant asked, “When you don’t take the environmental argument directly to consumers, do these other appeals hurt the ability to make the direct environmental argument in the long term?”

“That may be a problem,” said one panel member, and the other panelists agreed.

As the questioner said, and panelists did not disagree, if one thinks that significant climate action is required, then getting 10 percent reductions from consumers is not enough, and the environmental argument will need to be made straight forwardly.

The annual Behavior, Energy & Climate Change conference is sponsored by Stanford University’s Precourt Energy Efficiency Center, the California Institute for Energy & the Environment, and the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

(Mark Golden works in communications at the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center at Stanford University.)


Media Contact: Mark Golden, (650) 724-1629,