An interesting piece in the Christian Science Monitor yesterday by Robert Dujarric (who heads the Institute of Contemporary Japanese Studies at Temple University) makes the case that Americans can be motivated to act on climate measures by rousing their sense of patriotism.
I’ve written before about the powerful terminology of war in this context. But this is a new take. Dujarric recommends taking aim at particular targets. Namely, the sinister foreign oil barons who are getting rich and powerful thanks to our oil addiction.
Is it an effective call to arms to remind Americans that the money we spend at gas pump and on our heating bills funds “Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s nuclear and missile programs, enrich[es] Muammar Qaddafi (while he rants at the UN against the United States, and give[s] assistance to Vladimir Putin as he threatens American interests in the Caucasus and Central Europe?”
Should we start talking about climate policy as a move to “wage war to bankrupt oil tyrants?”
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Refocusing the climate debate would significantly increase the chances of success. If Americans start thinking about their dependence on oil as equivalent to providing assistance to Iran, Venezuela, and Libya, more citizens will be open to looking for and practicing alternatives.
The public needs to understand that global warming policy—and its attendant sacrifices—are less about protecting the polar bear, and more about protecting the American people from losing economic boosts to foes that thrive on our oil exports.
Obviously, this does not mean abandoning the environmental arguments. There are now millions of American voters who care passionately about them. But adding this patriotic angle will help convince others, who for one reason or another are currently unconcerned by global warming, that the government must do something to cut down oil consumption.
He has a point. Perhaps this is more powerful—and immediate—than climate advocates’ attempts to connect clean energy investment to the Apollo Project, and thus garner the kind of fervent patriotic support that Kennedy did during the Space Race. That kind of framing hasn’t hurt but it also hasn’t taken off. (And I couldn’t agree more about polar bears.)
As Climate Solution’s KC Golden, once said: “[Climate change] is our Pearl Harbor. It may lack the pop of a sneak attack but here it is, and we need to respond with every ounce of vision and determination we can muster.”
Maybe in the absence of that jarring sneak attack, as Dujarric suggests, we do need real-life “enemies” to rally against.
Climate leaders like John Kerry have certainly pumped up the national security frame as they’ve promoted climate and energy legislation in Congress recently: “climate change and our dependence on foreign oil are a threat to our national security. There’s nothing conservative about remaining indebted to hostile regimes for our energy.” But Kerry didn’t single out any particular “oil tyrants” for vilification.
I’m not convinced Dujarric’s brand of patriotic message is the silver bullet—and he’s more focused on individual action than collective support for smart energy policy.
But his strategy might work well teamed up with a couple other patriotic messages that I think are powerful: one that America’s economic leadership is on the line—if we don’t lead in clean energy and efficiency technology, we’ll be left in the dust (or conversely, a more positive message that we stand before an enormous opportunity to lead the world in clean energy and green jobs); the other that those green jobs themselves are patriotic–paychecks with a purpose. These are jobs where construction workers and assembly-line manufacturers can count themselves among the country’s heroes, protecting the economy and the climate while cutting families’ energy costs.
George Lakeoff captured the power of effective framing in rallying the masses in his book “Don’t Think of an Elephant”. If environmentalists can follow this strategy employed for years by the right-wing, to craft short, simple and well understood 30 second messages or “taglines” to educate those in the public “willing to pay attention” as to the importance of their own sustainablity efforts, and work together to keep repeating these taglines, in time these will become part of our normal language (and hopefully our behavior).