Sometimes watching the battle for the hearts and minds of the American people over climate is like watching a tennis match, with each side blasting a powerful ground stroke across the net only to see their opponent do the exact same thing. The problem for those of us in the reality world (ie. the world where we listen to the overwhelming consensus of scientists), is that our opponent isn’t the only one smashing the ball our way. He has about a dozen tennis machines shooting balls at our side of the court as well. The climate deniers have an arsenal of money, media, think tanks, and lobbyists on their side so that they can take any argument, no matter how false, and turn it into a “valid” counterpoint.
The latest example of this is a radio and print ad sponsored by the National Mining Association (NMA), attacking forthcoming EPA carbon regulations on new coal fired power plants. The NMA ad takes a quote from a government official completely out of context in an attempt to scare people into thinking that reducing carbon from new coal plants will cause electricity prices to spike as much as 80%. The Washington Post Fact Checker says the ad doesn’t “pass the laugh test” and it’s clearly false. Not surprisingly, the 80% claim found its way into conservative media outlets such as the Washington Examiner and others in the right wing blogosphere. How long until conservative officials running for election start using it in their political ads this year? This completely bogus claim will become reality for a good part of the nation simply because it was repeated often enough by sources that are trusted by people of a certain worldview.
The fact that polluting energy industry groups will say anything to protect their interests isn’t new. I remember vividly sitting in the audience for a committee hearing on the Maryland Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) bill that I championed, when the lobbyist for the state’s largest polluters said that if the bill passed, half the companies in the state would go out of business and the other half would leave the state. He was actually serious. He claimed that the bill would send electricity prices in Maryland up by 2 cents/kwh, which was about 20% of the total back in those days. Unfortunately, some legislators believed him, but luckily enough didn’t and we passed the bill. Needless to say, the RPS didn’t push rates up by anywhere close to his doom and gloom figure, and in fact may not have had any effect on rates.
For years, we in the environmental world thought the best way to counter such preposterous claims was to educate the public with the real facts, and then surely they would ignore the lies (ie. hit the ball back over the net). the Chamber of Commerce, seemingly in sync with the NMA, just put out a report saying these carbon regulations will kill jobs and the economy. I’m sure some on our side will put out a report to counter that bogus claim. It’s important to put out the true facts. But with the tons and tons of cash behind these disinformation campaigns, combined with the echo chamber in the media, it’s really impossible to get our message across. So, what’s the answer?
Some, like Tom Steyer, think the answer is to spend oodles of money on our own ad campaigns to counter the other side’s. Getting our own tennis machines may work. But the campaigns the green side run have to be more than a recitation of the facts behind climate change and other environmental issues. The other side screams bumper sticker ads and we recite fact sheets. We have to adopt the challenger brand mentality, so aptly described in “Eating the Big Fish,” where brands with less resources and reach are able to compete with and beat larger, more established and wealthier brands. There are eight credos to the challenger narrative, some of which may apply more than others to our case here. I will be taking a look at the applicable credos and how they can help those of us in the real world think better about winning the battle for the hearts and minds of the American people when it comes to action to fight climate change. The first thing we need to do is stop playing Tennis.