Why We Are Losing the Global Warming Battle

This article was originally published last year on Open Left (a progressive blog dedicated to discussions of political strategy).  I’d like to share the full text here.  This article provides concrete examples of value-oriented frames that shape political debate around environmental issues.  Failure to recognize the importance of these frames will lead to continued inability to engage the populace in the large-scale social change efforts needed to build a sustainable society.

The climate crisis is huge. We know this. And we are at a critical juncture. Will we continue to corrode our environment until it cannot sustain us? Or will we look to the future and build communities that thrive on nature’s abundance?

Right now, things don’t look very promising. It isn’t just that we’ve reached the tipping point, as James Hansen suggests. (warning – large PDF file) It isn’t just that the first-ever climate bill is about to arrive DOA on the Senate floor–maybe not such a bad thing since Lieberman-Warner is built on the wrong ideas. The real problem is in the way we think about the problem and, therefore, the solutions.

Maybe it’s a no-brainer to say that we got into this mess because of our ways of thinking – resources are infinite, the world’s too big for little ol’ us to make a dent, quality of life is improving so we must be doing things right, etc. So it should be clear enough that we need new ways of thinking to clean things up.

This is a serious situation. Going on four decades now, conservative think tanks have built a massive communications infrastructure to shift the common sense of America. They have been so successful that even many progressives reason with their ideas – to the detriment of our efforts. This is tragically the case with global warming. Consider this sampling of Big Ideas conservatives have pushed into public discourse:

Nature is a resource to be exploited.

Wealth is measured simply by money.

The economy and environment are distinct and inevitably in conflict with one another.

Polluting is a right, so companies should be compensated for the cost of clean-up.

Markets are natural and naturally good.

Government is distinct from markets and intrudes upon them.

These ideas are at the heart of the climate debate. We desperately need to challenge them with our own ideas. But first, we need to recognize the strategic differences between ideas and policies. We are caught up in a battle between carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, and energy investments. All the while, conservative ideas continue to spread unchecked.

This has got to change.

Here are a few ideas that we at the Rockridge Institute (which closed last year due to insufficient funds) offer to get the conversation rolling:

Nature is the basis of our survival. We depend upon breathable air, drinkable water, and other “environmental services” in order to live. If we destroy the life-support systems that nature provides, we’ll need to sink some serious money into building them on our own (sounds like an April Fool’s Joke to me).

Wealth is well-being. This includes the empowerment that comes with monetary wealth, but it is significantly broader: emotional and physical health, having good friends, living in a flourishing community, etc. All of these are forms of wealth because they increase our well-being.

A healthy economy depends upon a healthy environment. Our wealth and prosperity are intimately bound to (1) our survival capacity and (2) all that makes flourishing possible. Markets cannot exist where there are no people. People can only exist where there is a capacity for life.

We all own the air. It is our right to have it clean. Companies have been damaging our air without paying the full cost of doing business. This has to change if we are to survive, let alone thrive. The environment is inherently valuable because it is a source of wealth (as the basis of our well-being). Companies should pay for damage to this collective wealth. This is the fair thing to do.

Markets are tools for achieving societal goals. Markets must serve our purposes. We construct them to do so. Solving the climate crisis is not a matter of “waiting for the market.” It is a matter of shaping markets so that they generate wealth in the broad sense.

Government makes markets possible. Markets cannot function without rules of operation, courts to enforce those rules, banks to secure financial transactions, stock markets to manage the exchanges, and more. All of these features come from government. It is ironic that conservatives talk about shrinking government, but they never mention these functions. This is because conservatives fundamentally do not understand how markets work! Their worldview makes them blind to it.

We know the facts. Hell, we knew them all along. But our facts only make sense when people understand what is really going on. We need a new common sense.

Joe BrewerWhy We Are Losing the Global Warming Battle


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  • Nick Gallie - August 29, 2009 reply

    This is core; if progressive campaigners can’t win the battle of frames, (the metaphor is deliberate) if we can’t change the linguistic structures that are most commonly used in public debate to think about climate solutions, nothing of substance will emerge from all the policy prescriptions under the sun and we risk sacrificing the planet to market forces. Ludicrous, horrific but alas true. Campaigning organisations must establish a common and agreed set of core ideas and forms of language to recast the climate debate within an overall linguistic ethos that challenges (and hopefully replaces) the liberal conservative constructs which hold sway today. The acid test of success for such an effort will be to see to what extent media commentators use progressive framing in the developing public narrative on climate.

  • Joe Brewer - September 1, 2009 reply


    I totally agree with you. This is exactly what I was doing during my tenure at the Rockridge Institute. Analyzing the semantic structures of political discourse and looking for systematic patterns that advance a worldview conducive to livability (in the broadest sense).

    Frame shifting is becoming a specialty of mine now that I’m working with clients in consulting/coaching relationships. Not only must we figure out the contrasting frames (as this article does), but we need to develop PR campaigns that engage the populace in a different set of experiences – and therefore different frames – that make sense of the issues for them in a new light.

    My ongoing work with education unions in the U.S. is revealing key strategies for guiding practitioners through the process of doing this very thing. It is difficult work, but vital for our success in the long run.



  • Tom - September 3, 2009 reply

    Nick’s right – this is crucial.

    It seems that the work of the Rockridge Institute is often taken (at least in UK environment NGO circles) to highlight the need to get the language right.

    But as I understand it, the implications run far deeper – policy itself creates experience, and that in turn helps to embed deep frames. The experience I have of living in a country that has a national health service, for example, helps to embed certain deep frames (here, about the moral compunction to look after the weaker in society).

    Is that right, Joe? The concepts that you list as coming out of your work at Rockridge must inform the substance of policy, as well as the way that it’s presented?


  • Joe Brewer - September 3, 2009 reply


    You got it exactly right. One of the misunderstandings about language is that words are often presumed to “map onto” the world in a clear way, which would imply that if you want to reach your audience all you need to do is “get the words right.”

    What we’re learning in the cognitive sciences is that the workings of our concepts are more important than word choice. How we think about issues is more important than which words we use to articulate our understandings.

    With policy-development, this is especially true. I often have people write to me asking for help with naming a piece of legislation after they’ve designed it. I’m not a painter. I don’t add the final coat to give something luster. What I do is look at the deep underlying structures and ask, “Will this thing work?”

    As you rightfully point out, Tom, the question of efficacy becomes focused on the interplay of meaning and experience – where “the action” is in politics.



  • Tom - September 8, 2009 reply

    This is just the most crucial thing. It makes the challenges that environmentalism faces huge – challenges of engaging with deep frames, or our dominant identities. But it also points to the possibility of powerful new coalitions that recognise this. Perhaps social security policy or health policy is as important – or more important – for tackling a problem like climate change than a raft of other policies focussed narrowly on end-of-pipe interventions.

  • Justin - September 8, 2009 reply

    I’m going to first paste an excerpt from an article in today’s Guardian:

    “His [Cass Sunstein’s] argument is that whether we give credence to any story depends on our original beliefs. What about evidence – or the quality of the source? Both matter less than we might hope. In a 2004 study, American liberals and conservatives were shown two articles: one in which George Bush claimed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, the other a CIA report that denied Iraq had any WMD. The study’s amazing and depressing finding was that conservatives presented with the CIA denial were even more likely to believe that Iraq did have WMD. Yes, confronted with official fact they preferred to fall back on prejudice.”

    The Guardian article is linked to here:

    And a link to the study referred to in the excerpt here:

    As Joe writes in the post above, we do know the facts about climate change and the scale of the crisis – but if this study is to believed, the facts presented to a large segment of the population strengthens their pre-existing beliefs, whether those beliefs are that there were WMDs in Iraq or denial of climate change.

    To me, engaging with frames is the way to go if facts, even when coming from credible sources, have no effect, or worse, a converse effect, on a large number of people.

  • C'llr. Rupert Read - October 13, 2009 reply

    Excellent stuff. But one really basic point seems to have escaped people’s attention.
    ‘Why We Are Losing the Global Warming Battle’ as a chosen and unproblematised title itself explains why we are losing this battle. Because framing the issue as ‘Global Warming’ is completely hopeless. As conservatives such as Luntz have long known, ‘global warming’ sounds nice, and ‘climate change’ sounds harmless, even positive.
    The first reframe is this: it’s ‘global over-heat’, or ‘global cooking’, or ‘global over-heating’… it has to sound like what it IS.

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