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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