How to win the climate change wars

America has failed to act decisively on climate change not because the science isn’t there but because the message isn’t. Reason and science are losing the marketing war to polluters and the politicians they’ve purchased.

If we’re going to get serious about climate change, we need to declare war.

There’s nothing like a good war metaphor to stoke the imagination and rally the people. Conservatives have Ronald Reagan’s “War on Drugs” and George W. Bush’s “War on Terror,” along with Fox News’ imagined “War on Christmas” and “War on Christianity.”

Recreational boats by the Bidwell Marina at Lake Oroville in California during low water (drought) conditions on March 2. (California Department of Water Resources)

Recreational boats by the Bidwell Marina at Lake Oroville in California during drought conditions on March 2. (California Department of Water Resources)

Progressives talk of a “war on women” and Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty.”

War is extreme. There’s no room for squishiness when we’re at war. We’re in it to win.

Yet squishiness is exactly what we get from the leaders ostensibly on the side of action. The Obama administration this week hailed a climate proposal it had submitted to the world, but it falls far short of the carbon reduction goals needed to avoid a two degree Celsius rise in global temperature — a rise that scientists say would have destabilizing effects on human society. Instead, the plan only reiterates what Obama had already committed to last year in talks with China. That’s not war; that’s surrender.

Meanwhile, in drought-stricken California, Gov. Jerry Brown announced unprecedented water conservation mandates. He, too, capitulated to special interests. In a state where 80 percent of water consumption is agricultural, not residential, urban users must reduce consumption by 25 percent while agribusiness must reduce consumption by…nothing. Brown’s order asks farmers and ranchers only to stop ignoring a state requirement that they report data about their water use. They don’t have to do anything. More squishiness.

Conservatives have the “war on coal,” a phrase they can throw around to trash the Environmental Protection Agency and anyone else who suggests that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Coal serves as a placeholder for fossil fuels in general. First they came for the coal, and I did not speak…

If we are to match war with war, what should the other side invoke?

Are climate change deniers waging a war on the world? A war on humanity? A war on the future? Yes to all of those, but as metaphors, they lack marketable zing.

A war on the West? For many Americans, that might be a good thing. California, Oregon and Washington are bastions of liberalism, after all.

Drought in the WestWhat about a war on farmers? Even if Brown is shielding California farmers now, they’re going to feel the global warming hurt eventually. It’s only a matter of time until agriculture in the rest of the country starts to suffer. That might work, but it could be a hard sell in rural communities that lean conservative and anti-science.

What do you think is the right message? Share it in the comments.

In the meantime, there’s another way to think about it.

A war metaphor has two parts. Someone wages war on something, but it isn’t always someone good waging war on something bad (e.g., the War on Terror). Sometimes someone bad wages war on something good (e.g., the war on women).

For example, with the war on coal, conservatives have successfully framed coal as the victim. Someone bad (President Obama and environmentalists) are waging war on something good (fossil fuels, miners, rural communities and the economy).

It’s not the victim. Burning coal produces an obscene amount of greenhouse gases and other toxic pollutants. That’s something worth waging war on, and we do a disservice pretending otherwise.

Rather than look for a new metaphor, let’s co-opt the other side’s war. Don’t pretend that there’s no war on coal; admit it. Put the “war on coal” on websites, on billboards, and in campaign ads. Use the same sort of blunt messaging that has worked so well for the other side.

That doesn’t mean coal-mining communities are enemies. On the contrary, they are victims of coal, too. America cannot turn its backs on them. Job training and rural economic investment must remain cornerstones of tackling climate change.

Tell conservatives they were right. There is a war on coal. It’s a just war, and we’re waging it vigorously.


Christian Trejbal is a freelance editorial writer, editor and political consultant based in Portland, Ore. He wrote exclusively for The (Bend) Bulletin and The Roanoke Times before founding Opinion in a Pinch. He serves on the board of directors of the Association of Opinion Journalists Foundation and is open government chairman. Follow him on Twitter @ctrejbal and facebook.

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  • alpha2actual

    Merchants of Doubt box office to date, $247,000 after 6 weeks, Last weekend shown in 30 theaters, average per theatre $511. This is a terrific metric on how the American public writ large feels about Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming/Climate Change.

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  • waxliberty

    Climate has accumulated lots of heat in the past 18 years, and all data sets show warming in 18 years, even RSS which is the troposphere measurement usually randomly cherry-picked for this painfully shallow internet talking point.

    The fact that 2014 broke the record and 2015 will again has nothing to do with them being unbelievable heat waves. It simply is another indication of the obvious fact that global warming continues. As is made completely obvious by the continuing evidence of large amounts of heat accumulation in the ocean. It validates our understanding of physics, and it is our understanding of physics that says we have a global warming problem. Your overall credulity as well as your apparent hostility to science and physics generally makes you susceptible to these silly internet claims, DB.

  • waxliberty

    Pretty hilarious comment from a long-time veteran of the “open sewer untreated information” anti-science movement online…

  • waxliberty

    Why don’t you use “100%” then pogden, as in 100% of the world’s national academy of sciences endorse the mainstream view in physics on how the world works, with 0% supporting the internet conspiracy theory-driven “alternative theories”. Simpler?

  • waxliberty

    Obviously scientifically illiterate internet conspiracy theory claptrap.

  • waxliberty

    The reality is that arctic sea ice has declined faster than models predicted over time. So your use of “failed models” is not supporting your general message (which of course is at odds with the mainstream view in science on this topic in general.)

  • Ray Del Colle

    Divest from Fossil Fuel; decarbonize your portfolio by Dropping Kentucky Coal First. Read Merchants of Doubt or see the film coming soon to a local cinema. In the USA repeal Citizens United; visit Move to Amend.org and sign the National and your state’s resolutions to amend the US Constitution. Switching to renewable, sustainable CLEAN energy will stimulate our economy, create jobs, save us some money, improve our health, clean up our environment and reduce our carbon footprint. “America has the natural resources to meet its energy demand with clean, renewable energy. It’s time to harness that full potential. http://clmtr.lt/c/WhV0fz0cMJ

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  • The_Fixer

    Oh, good gravy!

    I suppose you think spraying vinegar at the sky neutralizes the chemtrails?

    Sorry, but your YouTube videos are not worth the viewing time. This is crazy talk.

  • DB Wood

    Speaking of junk, that is a contrived headline that
    1) completely ignores the MWP that tens of thousands of geologists, scientists, physicists all believe in
    2.) completely ignores the FACT that even the people who did the study said they had 38 pct certainty
    3) Completely obfuscates the issue by not recognizing the insidiously low rise in temperature the climate has basically been in a pause of variability for the past 18 years..You can look straight at the data for that..or all the warmistas trumpeting ocean heat that later is discredited by ARGO.

    When you have no slope or a tiny slope at what you recognize as the top, basically you say ok it has been on a plateau for 18 years..so we think this year might be the warmest we are a third certain…Which then translates to WARMEST YEAR OF ALL TIME UNBELIEVABLE HEAT WAVE

    just happens not to agree with any satellite observations.

  • DB Wood

    There is nothing whatsoever verifiable in this. In fact it uses failed models to base statistical analysis off of, with SST temperatures that are flawed, and even then posits it as a possibility, though delving into the statistics of the matter and with data we now have from ARGO, not just SST and surface proxies used to extrapolate to SST when they don’t match conveniently just simply doesn’t hold water. Ted Maksym (an oceanographer) did a robotic study and actually determined the polar caps are far more stable than ever thought, of course that comports with the data, but not with the study you posted. Cryostat-2 sat measurements showed ice in 2014 on a stable trend above the lows in 2011 and 12 significantly. Regardless best not to just say things based on emotion.

  • GeorgeMokray

    For 20 years or more, I’ve been saying climate change is moot. It doesn’t matter whether you believe climate change is real or not, is anthropogenic or not. What matters is that there is going to be another weather emergency soon, this year or the next or certainly the one after that. It may be drought or flood or heat wave or blizzard, hurricane, ice storm, or tornado. We KNOW something is going to happen and have to prepare for it. It just happens that the preparations for local weather emergencies usually turn out to be climate change adaptations and the best of them are climate change mitigation. The scale at which such preparations are made tend to be the city or county level and this is where climate change adaptation and mitigation is actually happening now all around the world while nations and international groups dither. Look at what has happened in NYC and Boston and all along the Northeast USA coast in the wake of Sandy.

    Climate change is moot. This is why I say Solar IS Civil Defense – the flashlight, cell phone, radio, and extra set of batteries you are supposed to have on hand in case of emergency all can be powered by a few square inches of solar electric panel. Add a hand cranked or pedal powered generator and you have a reliable source of survival electric panel day or night, by sunlight or muscle power. This is also entry level power for the 1.4 billion or so people around the world who do not yet have access to electricity. Solar IS Civil Defense here and a significant rise in the standard of living there. We can link them and raise the level of security for everyone if we want to.

    And Thrive Solar of India is making solar LED rechargeable lights NOW for $2 each in production costs.

  • CB

    No… No, Mother Jones is not a climate scientist:

    “Our results indicate that future reductions in Arctic sea ice cover could significantly reduce available water in the American west”

    onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2003GL019133/abstract

  • CB

    You’re the one who makes it that way, Paul! If you’d turn the spambot off and have an actual discussion once in a while, maybe the net wouldn’t be filled with quite so much junk…

    “The year 2014 now ranks as the warmest on record since 1880, according to an analysis by NASA scientists.”

    http://www.nasa.gov/press/2015/january/nasa-determines-2014-warmest-year-in-modern-record

  • 2karmanot

    “We’re in it to win.” Competency would certainly help. The last time America won any kind of war was WWII.

  • pogden297

    DB Wood is exactly correct. By the way, even climate scientists don’t believe the California drought is caused by man-made “climate change.” http://www.motherjones.com/environment/2014/12/new-study-californias-epic-drought-probably-wasnt-caused-climate-change

  • pogden297

    How many times does that bogus 97% figure have to be refuted before people stop using it.

  • DB Wood

    California drought, they have had bigger ones in the past, although this one makes the top three of “known” droughts, but why noone talks about the real problem? Moving farming to desert areas and pumping in in-ordinate amounts of water that greatly affect multiple other states and a third of the country’s natural ecosystem. A growth boom in a dry desert state, a state full of regulations that shackle businesses.

    Noone is worried about Anthropogenically Caused Global Warming anymore, noone but the scientists and organizations funded by it. Noone but those whose fortunes grow vastly by promoting it while living their hypogorical lifestyles.

    Noone is worrying because observations don’t match predictions, and people are tired of just ignoring the facts of virtually all modeling predictions being dead wrong…the answer they get..oh it’s science, we will revise it, everything we predicted was true it just happened in a different place. Yeah like unemployment being 5.6 percent.

  • mememine

    34 YEARS of science’s 97% certainty that the planet is doomed from Human CO2 makes another 34 years of failed climate action a 100% certainty.

    Now what? What can stop unstoppable denial?

  • mememine

    Proving once again that the net is an open sewer of untreated information used to gain truth or feed a lie.

  • mememine

    You remaining “believers” deny; 34 years of climate action failure.

    Nobody is listening to your fear mongering.

    *Occupywallstreet now does not even mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded and corporate run carbon trading stock markets ruled by trust worthy politicians.

  • therling

    Chemtrails. Geez.

  • Many Californians I know believe the drought is geoengineered. Every morning, we wake up to blue, clear skies in Palm Springs, Chris. By 9 am, high flying airplanes are spraying chemtrails in a checkerboard pattern, east to west, north to south. These sprays form mare’s tails, coalesce & eventually cover the skies. It is believed that these sprays begin with coal ash & contain radioactive radium, thorium, uranium as well as oxides of barium, aluminium, arsenic & mercury, detected in our rain samples & snow samples. I have included several links below which will inform you as to what chemtrails are. These sites & videos are worth seeing. Thanks for your article, Chris.
    YouTube: “What in the World Are They Spraying?”
    YouTube “Why in the World Are They Spraying?”
    William Baldwin narrates “Look Up!”
    YouTube: “Chemtrails are Coal Ash”
    geoengineeringwatch.com
    toxicsky.org
    gsw.bz/soils
    Global Skywatch

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