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Climate vs. jobs: How Democrats talk about policy proposals may make the difference

Democrats appear set to jettison the cornerstone of President Joe Biden’s climate agenda, but conservatives may have some answers about how to revive it.
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WASHINGTON — Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., appears set to jettison the cornerstone of President Joe Biden's climate agenda, potentially leaving Biden with little to offer the world when he heads to global climate talks in Scotland next month.

It isn't surprise coming from Manchin, who famously ran for re-election in 2010 with a TV ad in which he literally shot his party's last major legislative attempt to control greenhouse gas emissions.

But that doesn't mean Manchin and his coal-rich mountain state don't love a lot of provisions climate activists are pushing for, like jobs, wind and solar programs — if only they would stop calling them "climate change" measures.

"I just wish the Senate would focus more on the actual impacts of these policies. When you lump it all together, you lose the majority of people who you need to get things done," said Benji Backer, who founded the American Conservation Coalition in 2017 for young conservatives and libertarians who care about climate change but feel alienated by the mainstream environmental movement. "I'm a climate change activist, and I talk about climate change all the time, but you have to meet people where they are."

Getting Democrats to abandon "climate" as a talking point may be difficult, even if it would get their more moderate members on board.

The left wing of the Democratic Party has spent years telling its voters that the conditions are dire and that something monumental needs to be done immediately. Returning to voters seemingly empty-handed after having promised to deliver substantial "climate" legislation could create its own political problems.

Research has found that talking about "climate change" is an effective way to mobilize liberal voters compared to "extreme weather," even if it has some negative effects for others.

The climate movement is beginning to have a bit of a reckoning over its rhetorical approach, which for years has assumed that any real action needs to start with first convincing people of the science of catastrophic climate change and the urgent need to address it before getting into specific solutions.

But many wonder whether that approach is backward. Some activists have begun to argue that a wider proportion of Americans are amenable to policies that combat climate change if you talk less about "climate change" — because the issue has become so polarized — and more about the specific impact on jobs, the economy and the environment.

A kayaker paddles down a portion of Interstate 676 after flooding from heavy rains from hurricane Ida in Philadelphia on Sept. 2, 2021.
A kayaker paddles down Interstate 676 in Philadelphia after flooding from Hurricane Ida on Sept. 2.Branden Eastwood / AFP via Getty Images

Backer pointed to Republicans like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a villain second only to former President Donald Trump in the minds of many liberals, who advanced landmark legislation this year to help the flood-prone state prepare for rising sea levels.

DeSantis almost never mentions climate change, but he talks often about "sea level rise" and "intensified storms" and says "resiliency" is "a top priority for my administration."

"It's all pushing towards a pro-climate future, but he's not using the right words, and so people go after him," Backer said. "And people who do use the right words don't do anything, and they get applauded."

Rep. John Curtis, a Republican who represents a deeply conservative part of rural Utah, is the leader of the new Conservative Climate Caucus, which has 72 members. Instead of climate change, he talks about air quality, forest fires and the impact of decreasing snowpack from warmer winters on ski resorts in his district.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, talks about the jobs and resilience of clean energy in Texas, which produces more wind power than any other state and is on track to catch up to California in utility-scale solar power in the next few years.

Nationalism can also be a uniting factor. In a hopelessly divided Congress, both parties came together this year to overwhelmingly pass a bill to counter China that included investments in clean energy and electric vehicles but was not billed as a climate measure.

"When we talk about clean energy, emphasizing clean jobs here in America, the effects of reduced pollution and the lower electricity bills are effective ways to win over independent and even Republican voters," said Sean McElwee, the founder of the liberal think tank Data for Progress, which conducts extensive polling.

The group's polling has found that support for Biden's clean energy and climate legislation increases when voters are given more information about specifics like infrastructure investment, job creation and pollution reduction.

It's a message Biden has emphasized at times, too, such as his saying in his joint address to Congress this year, "When I think climate change, I think jobs."

Sabine Marx, the director of research for the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University's Earth Institute, has described the approach as "leading to" climate change, rather than "leading with" climate change.

"If I know there are steps that I can take towards actionable solutions, then I am much more likely to accept that there's a problem," she told State of the Planet, a Columbia Climate School publication.

According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 60 percent of registered voters say global warming should be a high or a very high priority for Washington, a robust majority that so far has not been big enough to force action.

But when Yale researchers asked about specific policies irrespective of their climate impacts, support was much higher. For example, 86 percent supported providing tax incentives to make buildings more efficient, 81 percent supported more funding for research into renewable energy, and 70 percent support moving the U.S. economy from fossil fuels to 100 percent clean energy by 2050.

In Manchin's West Virginia, surveys have found that fewer than half of voters think climate change is caused primarily by humans and that only about a third say reducing carbon emissions is an important part of Biden's infrastructure bill.

But that doesn't necessarily mean West Virginians are hostile to clean energy. The state has several major wind farms, and it is building more, placing it in the middle of the pack nationally and above blue states like Massachusetts, which has faced intense local opposition to harnessing its vast offshore wind energy potential.

The top four wind-producing states, according to federal data, all voted overwhelmingly for Trump: Texas, Iowa, Oklahoma and Kansas.

"We don't want to forget about the coal and natural gas industries, but we want to welcome the alternatives," West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, a Democrat-turned-Republican who has mocked the idea that climate change will have apocalyptic impacts, said at the groundbreaking for a wind farm in January.

It might be too late to persuade Manchin to change his mind and rescue Biden's agenda.

But Backer said a messaging reset could help turn the tide for voters in places like West Virginia who are alienated by cultural stereotypes about what kind of Americans support climate action.

Climate activists "are measuring success not by policy outcomes but by things that are perceived as wins so we can take it back and campaign on it," he said. "It shouldn't be about what sounds good. It should be about what does good."