Democrats Should Speak Up About Climate Change: It Gets Votes

A journalistic collaboration on climate change.
Oct. 13 2012 7:00 AM

Why Aren’t Politicians Listening to This Guy on Climate?

Joe Romm says global warming is proven to be a winning campaign issue.

Darren Becker sifts through arid topsoil under a ruined crop on the family farm.
Darren Becker sifts through arid topsoil under a ruined crop on the family farm on Aug. 24, 2012, in Logan, Kan.

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images.

He’s been called “America’s fiercest climate blogger.” And as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a former Clinton administration official on clean energy, and an MIT-trained physicist, the subjects he covers are vast—ranging from energy policy to the role of rhetoric in communications, as discussed in his new book Language Intelligence. But there’s been a recurrent theme over the years at Joe Romm’s popular blog Climate Progress—the argument that political leaders, and perhaps most prominently President Obama, need to step up and explain to the public why global warming is such a dramatic threat to our livelihoods and future.

Indeed, Romm has called Obama’s failure to speak out about global warming, loudly and often, his “biggest communications mistake.”

Now, a raft of new polls are showing that this issue has the potential to move independent and swing voters—and it was the subject of our first Climate Desk Live Capitol Hill briefing on Oct. 10. So we stopped to chat with Romm about his unique take on this subject.

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Chris Mooney: You’ve been writing for a long time about how climate is a winning political issue. So what first got you onto this?

Joe Romm: Well, I didn’t pursue this topic because I thought it was a political winner. I started when my brother lost his home in Katrina. He wanted to know if he should rebuild, so I talked to a lot of climate scientists. And then I realized, “this is more dire than I thought, and climate scientists are not doing a good job of communicating it.” So it was the underlying reality that gave me an urgency to stop doing what I was doing—clean energy consulting—and start doing communications full-time.

I have talked to the leading social scientist over the years. If you talk to Jon Krosnick or Ed Maibach or Robert Brulle, they will tell you that this is an issue that the public broadly gets—and that there is an underlying respect for science and scientists. And so there is a way to talk about this issue that does work politically.

That said, there are ways to talk about it that aren’t useful, and I think people have mistaken the blowback from bad communications for thinking there’s no way to communicate on this issue. And I think that’s just not right.

CM: Do you think this has always been true—that climate change has always been a potential political winner—or has it become more true over time?

JR: I think many climate scientists have gotten better at communications because of Climategate. I think many of them thought they were like medical scientists—you make your pronouncement, and then the patient does what he’s told to do. And they realized that that’s not how the political system works. You have to understand how to be an effective communicator.

Since I had talked to all of these climate scientists and read the literature, I knew that climate change was coming faster than a lot of people thought. I knew it was going to be coming at this accelerated rate. So things are changing in real time, and now we’ve reached the point where the signal is distinguished from the noise.

It was always the case that extreme weather was going to be the way that most people were going to experience climate change directly—that seemed clear to me from all my research. Extreme weather is very random, but it is on top of a climate signal that continues to grow. So over time, you get more and more extreme events that are way above the natural variation.

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