How to Sell Green Energy

Linking oil dependency with U.S. national security is an effective tactic to win public support for clean energy reform

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By Sahil Kapur, Guardian

Fox News has revealingly declined to air an ad that emphasizes the national security perils of remaining dependent on oil in a call for clean energy reform. The decision by the network – primarily a communications arm for the Republican party’s right flank – underlies an important lesson for proponents of energy legislation as they unveil their legislation this Wednesday: it’s wiser to sell reform on the basis of national security and jobs, rather than the environment or climate change.

"Every day Congress doesn’t pass a clean energy climate plan our enemies get stronger," says the ad, which uses menacing imagery of Iran and urges lawmakers to enact legislation to "cut our dependence on foreign oil" and "cut oil profits for hostile nations." The spot, created by the veterans group VoteVets, is airing on CNN and MSNBC, but was deemed "too confusing" by America’s top-rated cable news network, reported Ben Smith of Politico. Fox didn’t elaborate.

The link between oil dependence and national security isn’t a new concept, but it’s one that makes Republicans – and by extension Fox News – uncomfortable. They delight in their image as safety hawks but hope to scuttle President Obama’s energy bill, so they don’t want this to become a battle over security. Thus Democrats would be wise to get behind this narrative if they want America to face up to the energy realities of the 21st century.

For the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, far from invigorating the fight for energy and climate change reform, has weakened its prospects in Congress – a clear sign that environmental concerns alone, no matter how grave, won’t spur Washington into action. Times have really changed, because this wasn’t always the case.

The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill brought us Earth Day and the National Environmental Policy Act. The 1989 Exxon Valdez tragedy paved the way for a stronger Clean Air Act. Today, the BP spill, shaping up to be the worst ecological disaster in US history, hasn’t induced opponents of stronger environmental regulations to concede an inch. President Obama remains committed to lifting a longstanding moratorium on offshore oil drilling in vast swaths of coastal areas. What gives?

For starters, the belief that humans are contributing to global warming has consistently been declining nationally. Chalk that up to a relentless and extravagant campaign by the fossil fuel industry and conservatives, whose agendas are threatened by the realities of the climate change, to manufacture doubts about universally accepted science. Second, the recession has dampened the appeal of environmental action, which most perceive as less immediate and a threat to their bank accounts.

The policy priorities of Americans shine a light on this. A Pew Research Centre survey in January found that the top three issues on voters’ minds are the "economy," "jobs," and "terrorism." "Energy" came in 11th, the "environment" 16th and "global warming" 21st. This is in spite of the fact that, as the Associated Press reported last November, "climate change has worsened and accelerated beyond some of the grimmest of warnings" in 1997, the year of the Kyoto Treaty.

Thus Republicans and right-wing Democrats aren’t fazed by the spill. In fact, House Republican leader John Boehner and Democratic senator Mary Landrieu said it emphasizes the need for more oil drilling. The clean energy industry can’t meaningfully compete with fossil fuels absent a price on carbon (something economists might call "internalising an externality"), which special interest-backed lawmakers won’t easily support.

The best chance, then, for progressives to break the gridlock and launch a serious debate in Washington about alternative energy – in which the rest of the Western world and even China is racing ahead – is to streamline their messaging and make sure Americans know it would produce enormous long-term benefits in the way of green jobs and domestic security – by ending reliance on hostile foreign regimes.

Democratic Senator John Kerry and independent Joe Lieberman will unveil a comprehensive energy bill on Wednesday, likely without the support of Republican Lindsey Graham, who backed out on Friday. As proponents of reform work to drive their message home, they would be smart to heed the political lesson of the Gulf spill, and focus on the energy-related concerns that capture the attention and support of Americans.

(Published with permission of the Guardian)

See also:

Eminent U.S. Climate Researchers Stand United on Science, Policy Action

Skeptics Exaggerating Science Scandal to Derail Copenhagen Climate Talks

Governors See Jobs on the Path to Clean Energ, Efficiency

(Oil tanker under military escort photo via U.S. Navy)