Matthew Yglesias makes a strong case that the “energy independence” frame has backfired when it comes to moving the public on climate-friendly energy policy. I agree.

(Jon Stewart illustrates better than anyone how poorly this line has fared—as far back as the Nixon years!)

American oil MorguefileAnd Yglesias isn’t alone. My colleagues in the climate policy communications arena have long known that it’s hard to argue with the drill, baby drill (or dig, baby dig) mentality when you’re pushing independence. Tapping nationalism and an already ramped-up fear of “evil-doers” has had its allure. But it blunts the issue, weakening calls for a shift away from dirty energy altogether.

But, I’m not sure that I agree with Yglesias when it comes to lumping “security” and “independence”—I think these are two distinct frames that work quite differently, especially in light of the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. And security works well with another powerful frame that’s been floated a lot lately: oil addiction.

Addiction works within a larger security frame because addiction is reckless, unhealthy, mindless, irresponsible, out of control…a clear threat to our security. Addiction means vulnerability, it’s a roller-coaster ride, an accident waiting to happen. Addiction is short-sighted, greedy, lazy, morally-corrupt. And a major, catastrophic, and unstoppable oil spill is a wake up call.

The bottom line is that Americans agree when national leaders convey that fossil fuels are dirty and dangerous on many levels—the BP fiasco, along with recent coal mine and oil refinery tragedies, is a sobering illustration of that. Polling confirms that the public is receptive. Now where are the leaders?

  • Our work is made possible by the generosity of people like you!

    Thanks to Robert K. Gramenz for supporting a sustainable Cascadia.

  • Sadly, as Ezra Klein points out, in Obama’s big Oval Office speech the other night on BP and energy, he failed to actually mention climate, making only vague allusions to the “great challenge.” (Klein: I’m just not sure how you do a response to climate change if you can’t really say the words “climate change.”) But, Obama did—at least in part—switch up his message from independence (though he did say ‘energy independence’ once) to addiction.

    Still, Obama could have made a much stronger case for comprehensive energy policy. The public is all ears. As Matthew Nisbett points out over at Framing Science, the BP disaster has lead to a marked shift in public opinion about domestic oil vs. environmental protection. :

    Over the last three months, Gallup polling finds that the Gulf oil spill has led to an expected shift in Americans’ views on the balance between pursuing energy supplies and environmental protection. As Gallup reports, in March, by 50% to 43%, Americans said it was more important to develop U.S. energy supplies than to protect the environment, continuing a trend in the direction of energy production seen since 2007. By mid-May, following heavy news and public attention to the oil spill, the majority had shifted to favor environmental protection, by 55% to 39%—the second-largest percentage (behind the 58% in 2007) favoring the environment in the 10-year history of the question.

    Perhaps more tellingly, an early June poll by Benenson Strategy Group, on behalf of the League of Conservation Voters, found that 66 percent of Americans polled agree with the statement that, “British Petroleum must pay for the damage they’ve done. But our addiction to oil threatens our security and we need more than a band-aid for that. Senators need to pass real reforms to hold polluters accountable and invest in clean American energy.” (emphasis added)

    I should mention that an “energy independence” frame didn’t do badly in the Benenson poll either. The good news is that the poll still showed strong support for the energy bill—by 64 to 25 percent—even after respondents heard an opposition text packed with all the standard anti-climate legislation buzz phrases: “cap and tax,” “job-killer,” “pay more at the pump,” “cost for struggling middle class families,” “taxpayers’ hard-earned money for a wasteful Washington program,” yada, yada, yada.

    Clearly the spill is intensifying the public’s desire for action. Maybe at a certain point any message works as long as it’s clear, honest, and strong. The problem is finding national-level leaders willing to stand up.

    Photo courtesy MorgueFile.