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Media Reviews: The New York Times, Dot Earth Blog

By Andrew C. Revkin


Eric Pooley, the deputy editor of Bloomberg Businessweek, spent long stretches of the last three years immersed with a variety of combatants in the intensifying battle over legislation aimed at putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions.

The resulting book, “ The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers and the Fight to Save the Planet,” is a fascinating, if depressing, look at how Washington works — or doesn’t work, if your goal is meaningful laws limiting the human impact on climate. The cast of characters ranges from former Vice President Al Gore and James Hansen, the NASA climatologist who has become an impassioned climate campaigner, to  Frank Luntz, the longtime political and semantic strategist for Republicans — and, in this case, environmentalists.

The book vividly reveals the layers of financial and political interests that can eviscerate environmental legislation and describes the tussle within the Obama White House over how hard to push on climate. Pooley still comes away a strong proponent of action, however compromised, to get the country started on what will inevitably be a slow shift out of its fossil-fueled comfort zone.

I asked him if he was dispirited given how the Washington fight, even over hugely consequential issues, is often as much about messaging and political advantage as substance. His answer is below.

In the meantime, the battle continues. Yesterday, Senator Richard Lugar, a moderate Republican from Indiana, proposed breaking the impasse with the  Lugar Practical Energy and Climate Plan, which lacks the most contentious element, an emissions cap and trading system for pollution credits. But there were few signs his bill would garner support from many Democrats.

Pooley also gave me permission to post a short excerpt from the book describing how the pollster and “word doctor” Luntz migrated from writing the war plan against climate action for Republicans in 2003 to working with the Environmental Defense Fund in recent months.

Eric Pooley:

When I got started on this book, I wanted to find out whether our dysfunctional political system could rise to this challenge. Test case: passing a mandatory declining cap on carbon, which is not “the solution,” by any means, but would be a crucially important step. I came away convinced that our policies could be equal to the challenge even though our politics, so far, are obviously not. I was impressed by the men and women, on and off Capitol Hill, who spend their time fine-tuning climate policy. They have done honorable work — largely figuring out how to cushion coal-state consumers and carbon-intensive industries from rising fossil fuel costs in a carbon constrained world — but the fruits of their labor have been demonized by the opposition as “cap and tax,” Rube Goldberg, etc. I was also impressed by how the climate campaigners at E.D.F., for example, respond to setbacks like the Lieberman-Warner debacle in the summer of 2008.

After getting routed, they retreated (literally — they went on retreat) and did an intensive on the lessons learned on the policy and politics. And then they went back out and applied those lessons, and helped win a big victory in the House in June 2009. And then it all fell apart again, with the rise of the Tea Party and resurgent skepticism and Obama’s decision to do health care and not climate — but they just … kept … going, and they continue to do their work now, no matter what the pundits happen to be saying about what’s politically possible or impossible. It’s like George Mitchell said about the Northern Ireland peace talks: He lost every day until the day he won.

Which leads us to messaging. You ask whether both sides “are fighting more with messaging than hard reality.” I think it’s inevitable that they fight through messaging, because this insane, media-driven political arena is the only one we have. You can’t opt out of it and hope to win. That said, I don’t think there is some magical message waiting to be discovered that will suddenly sweep away the obstacles to climate action. I’m in favor of honest talk — what we really do know about climate change and where the remaining uncertainties are, why it makes abundant sense (and will save money) to get started now. I’m not a big fan of what I call the Trojan Horse approach that tucks climate into the belly of the beast and lets clean energy and green jobs pull the contraption along.

The opponents have it easy: It is far easier to block action, argue for the status quo, and frighten people than it is to usher in change. The carbon cap might have passed in the fall of 2009, if Obama had made it and not health care his top priority, and if the Senate majority had been willing to use the maneuver known as reconciliation, so that 51 rather than 60 votes were needed. Now Obama is promising to ‘keep fighting.’ If he means he’s going to *start* fighting, that could change things. Sustained presidential leadership has been the missing ingredient. In the next two or three weeks we’ll find out if Obama is serious or just trying to change the subject from the oil catastrophe.

Here’s a section of “The Climate War” revealing how professional operatives in Washington, in this case Luntz, migrate freely from side to side (I’ve inserted a couple of links to relevant background):

Obama’s formulation in the State of the Union speech — the notion that even skeptics should support a climate bill because it was what the economy needed— had been developed by an unlikely source: Frank Luntz, one of the dark princes of Republican messaging, who a decade before had written a founding document of GOP global warming denial. (“You need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate. . . .”) The unlikely chain from Luntz to Obama included two important links, E.D.F. President Fred Krupp and Senator Lindsey Graham.

Luntz was  hired by News Corp., Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, to explore how to talk about climate change and clean energy to skeptical Americans. The company was pursuing a progressive carbon- reduction agenda even as its two most influential American news outlets, Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, fanned the denier flames. Krupp had been courting News Corp. executive James Murdoch, Rupert’s son and the heir apparent to succeed him as CEO, and invited James’s wife, Kathryn Murdoch, to join the EDF board of trustees.

Luntz wanted to get on the right side of history and had a client willing to pay him for it, so he began figuring out how to sell the idea he had already done so much to undermine. The first time he met with Krupp, he seemed a little surprised that Krupp was willing to sit down with him.

“Do you know who I am?” Luntz asked.

“Yes,” said Krupp.

“Do you know what I’ve done?”

“Yes,” said Krupp. He also knew that the left wing of the environmental movement might go after him once word got out that E.D.F. had teamed up with Luntz. But he didn’t care. If it got the Senate closer to the goal, if Luntz developed a message that helped turn a single vote, it was the right
thing to do. So the same day Kerry, Lieberman, and Graham had their meeting with Emanuel, Krupp and Luntz appeared together at a Washington press conference to announce some good news.

Americans overwhelmingly supported climate action, Luntz’s polling found, especially if it wasn’t called climate action or cap and trade. Climate science, he said, “is the least important component” of the climate message. “I don’t believe that quote cap- and- trade legislation unquote can pass because it is called cap and trade. Americans overwhelmingly support the policy, but the title has been so demonized that they’re going to have to come up with a new name.”

Talking about climate impacts was just a useless “scare tactic.” Dependence on oil from the war- torn Middle East, losing out on clean energy jobs to China and India — those were productive fears that could be effectively exploited. Even people who weren’t sure global warming was real could be persuaded, he added, by the argument that clean energy would create jobs. And if the worst predictions of the climate scientists came true, it would also help avert catastrophe.

Luntz had been briefing senators, including Lindsey Graham, about this messaging strategy. And after Graham mentioned it to Rahm Emanuel at the White House, it turned up in Obama’s State of the Union speech. “Luntz is not the only one thinking along these lines,” one Obama aide said. David Axelrod had been developing similar themes. “But we’ll take good ideas wherever they come from, and these days, especially if they come from Republicans. We need to reach across the aisle if we are ever going to get this done.”