David Leonhardt of the New York Times asked his readers what I believe is the most important question about America’s resistance to the threat of climate change: What would a more persuasive message about climate change sound like?
I would go further and ask: How have the GOP won the hearts and minds of much of America on this and many other issues? And how do progressives win them back?
Cognitive scientist George Lakoff has answers to these burning questions. Lakoff, a retired professor of linguistics, has been politely knocking on the doors of Democrats and liberal policy makers for years, encouraging them to use moral framing in their messaging, like the Republicans do.
Frames are subconscious mental structures that guide how we view the world. Tapping into language to activate those frames is the underlying strategy of persuasive politics. It was conservative Frank Lunz who reframed ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change’ in a deliberate attempt to make it sound less frightening.
Deliberate attempt? Isn’t that kind of paranoid?
Not at all. The conservatives have been working on how to communicate their values and their policies using moral framing for decades. That’s what all those heavily funded think tanks are about. They define their goals–how do we keep our coal and oil industry businesses afloat? How do we get the government regulatory agencies off our backs? Then they use language that evokes emotions and they talk in terms of values.
Conservative messaging speaks in metaphors of nature and the Earth as a resource, as property, as an enemy to be conquered. The GOP also won over the heartland on ‘climate change’ by appealing to cultural issues. Coal country is not just about jobs but about identity, tradition, a way of life. Government protections for the environment are cast as the Washington elite choking off businesses with over-regulation. Nowhere in the GOP messaging is environmental impact mentioned. They never talk about issues using liberal framing.
So how to communicate about climate crisis in a more persuasive way? How to take back our planet from the oil and gas barons who have usurped the public discourse by using the language of capitalism and marketing?
Start by describing the issue as what it is. Don’t accept a conservative euphemism. It’s climate crisis. #ClimateCrisis. Spread this subtle but profound shift in wording far and wide.
Instead of trying to argue facts, use the language of emotion and metaphor. In an Alternet article from 2015,, Lakoff suggests we conceptualize nature as ‘the giver of all life, as sustainer and provider, as having inherent value, imposing responsibility, and deserving gratitude, love, adoration and commitment.’ He suggested using metaphors of nature as mother, as a divine being, as a living organism, as a home. These words feel completely different than the conservative concept of Earth as a resource to be exploited for money and power.
Lakoff also applauds Pope Francis and how he framed the perils of Climate Crisis starting with the title of his encyclical on ecology, “On Care for our Common Home.” This is the most important concept for progressives to communicate. The Earth is our home where we live together as a family unit. What you do to harm our common home harms all of us.
“The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all,” writes Pope Francis. This is a progressive moral belief that we feel profoundly but rarely say out loud. But we should begin talking the language of values, of our deeply held beliefs, of nurturance and care, of the common good and the common responsibility to each other and our shared home.
Climate Crisis is a human rights concern. Our shared environment is under threat from pollution and neglect. Our children’s future depends on us to act now. Without a stable climate, our children can’t be healthy and free.
Avoid divisive language. The environment belongs to everyone and so does the responsibility to keep it healthy. Stripped down to its core, liberal progressivism is about empathy for self and others, for the planet we call our home, for animals and all living things. Lead from this empathy and not from the wounds inflicted on us all by disaster capitalism and Trump’s ‘American carnage’ propaganda.
Using fear can be an effective method; conservatives have been using fear effectively on every issue. However, I feel it’s better for progressives to use the language of hope, of innovation and of the American can-do spirit. Imagine you’re talking to your grandson or your niece. Millenials will inherit this crisis so how can you empower them to tackle it without scaring them to death?
Talk about renewable energy and the promise of careers in this field. Mention innovation and alternatives to the status quo. The future belongs to those who can harness the wind and the sun. All humans will share our home in peace and prosperity with healthier bodies and no fear of climate disasters.
Don’t despair over Trump pulling out of the Paris accords. What’s happening is what always happens when the GOP is put in charge of seeing to our common good. They see to their own self interests instead. Look on the bright side of this development–progressives and moderate conservatives all over the world are waking up to the dangers of treating our earthly home as a resource to be exploited. We’re so offended because we know, deep in our hearts, that something precious that belongs to all of us is being degraded and despoiled.
We just have to take this deep knowing and turn it into language that most people will respond to. The GOP did it, and they did it even though what they were selling was the poisoning of our planet. Offer a real alternative message to the agitprop of the right. Envision the world you want to live in and speak from the heart.