If you’ve heard of Frank Luntz, you may know him as the evil-genius messaging expert who advised Republicans how to twist words to support their policy priorities.
Luntz helped conservatives rebrand the “estate tax” as the “death tax” and he may have convinced the Trump administration to talk about “border security” to build support for a wall along the Mexican border.
To minimize the climate crisis, in an infamous memo back in 2002 Luntz advised President George W. Bush to emphasize uncertainty in climate science. He also told Bush to swap out the term “global warming” and replace it with “climate change,” which Luntz thought sounded less threatening.
Funnily enough, Luntz’s phrasing became the favored term even among climate scientists and activists, though some people are moving towards more dramatic wording including “climate chaos,” “climate emergency” or “global heating” (after all, “warming” does sound more cozy than threatening).
Over the last few years, Luntz has undergone a conversion on climate change. In 2010, he consulted with the Environmental Defense Fund on language to help promote clean energy based on focus group research. Luntz concluded that “Positive language wins…EVERY TIME” since the majority of participants in his study (60%) choose positive phrasing below over negative alternatives:
Imagine a future where energy in the U.S. is abundant, affordable, and clean. Imagine feeling secure knowing that our nation can produce its own energy instead of relying on Middle Eastern oil. Imagine an economic boom that creates high-paying, permanent American jobs. We don’t have to imagine it – clean, safe energy already exists. All we have to do is use it. So let’s start. Now.
But Luntz seems to have really gotten religion on climate after he nearly lost his Los Angeles home in the Skirball fire in December 2017. Since then, the GOP messaging master has stopped minimizing the problem of global heating and has instead decided to do the opposite — to try to help activists raise the alarm.
In a Senate hearing this year featuring conservatives who support climate action, Luntz promised to help the Democrats on the climate committee, provided that they put “policies ahead of politics” and commit to nonpartisan solutions, according to Grist.
As a messaging expert, Luntz is now offering his advice on how activists should talk about the problem of climate change and solutions including clean energy, featuring his version of the ever-popular list of “words to use and lose”:
- 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. LOSE: One world.
It’s also important to frame climate action as a “no-regrets strategy,” Luntz said, according to Grist.
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.”
Finally, Luntz says that climate advocates should talk less about science and focus more on stories of people who’ve been affected by climate change already — and those who are at risk in the future.
How much would you pay to protect your home from destruction by a hurricane, tornado or forest fire? Luntz asks.
“The answer for most people is everything.”
— Erik Curren, author of The Solar Patriot