At Politico, Rating Enviros' Strategy on Oil Spill

Credit: NY Daily News

Over the weekend, Politico ran a lengthy feature by Josh Gerstein in which he asks various experts to assess how environmental groups have reacted to the Obama administration's handling of the BP oil disaster.

In my own comments quoted in the article, I note that environmental groups appear to have adopted a smart strategy, letting the heavy news attention and general emphasis on public accountability do the communication work for them. If environmental groups were to become more open in their criticism of the Administration or too visible in news coverage, they risk alienating the White House and may be criticized by the media and the public for being politically opportunistic. Below are additional thoughts on the article and recent trends:

* As I emphasized to Gerstein, the sound bite of the crisis so far has been James Carville's "who's your daddy" comment, a frame device delivered with deep emotion that instantly conveys the emphasis on public accountability that has come to dominate news narratives. With this interpretation so salient, having enviro groups add their voice to the outrage would add little while generating the political risks mentioned above. As I told Politico: "In some ways, the media coverage is doing a lot of the work for the environmental groups. They have a perfect narrative going right now. ...The lower profile is working for them."

* The BP oil disaster has led to important shifts in public opinion. Here's how I described the shifts in these opinion trends in a presentation to NOAA staff last week:

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.

Shifts in the perceptions and preferences among the segment of the public who is relatively non-attentive to environmental issues explains the non-linear nature of trends in aggregate American public opinion and argue against the extreme urgency voiced by some environmental advocates when they pointed to downward turns in these trends earlier this year. In fact, across the past decade, while up and down fluctuations might occur among the non-attentive public, among a sizable proportion of Americans there has been an enduring strong base of environmental activism and concern in the U.S. (For an apt metaphor describing the up and down cycles in American environmental concern, see Andrew Revkin's "waves in a shallow pan" analogy.)

Working with the Gallup organization, sociologist Riley Dunlap has tracked the strength of this base since 2000, estimating over time that between 60% to 70% of Americans self-identify as either active (approx. 15-20%) in the environmental movement or sympathetic (approx. 50%). Similarly, there continues to be a stable, yet dramatically smaller segment of hostility to the environmental movement and to action on climate change. Gallup tracks this segment around 10% while Yale/GMU surveys indicate that outright "climate dismissives" are in the 10-15% range.

Trends related to the economy, weather, national elections, wars, energy crises, scandals, and natural disasters will contribute to up and down cycles in environmental concern. However, the focus of environmental organizations, government agencies, and scientists should remain on using their communication capital effectively and wisely and not over-reacting to these trends in a way that might damage this enduring base line of public trust and concern over the environment.

What do readers think? Have environmental groups been visible enough in the wake of the BP oil disaster? Should they be critical of the Administration? Are enviros taking the right steps to turn the oil disaster into a wake up call for policy action?

Update: At the Huffington Post, Jane Hamsher, founder of, interprets my comments to the Politico as criticism of environmental groups, when to the contrary, as I explain above, their approach to date has been an effective and wise strategy. Hamsher quotes me out of context and does not provide a link to the Politico article as the source for the quote.

More like this

Back in February, I traveled to Rome, Italy to present at a conference sponsored by Columbia University's Earth Institute and the Adriano Olivetti Foundation. The focus was on climate change and cities. For the proceedings on that conference, I was asked to contribute a short overview on the…
As I have argued in talks and articles over the past year, the communication challenge on global warming is to create the public opinion environment where meaningful policy action can take place. This means shaping public perceptions so that global warming is considered a top tier political…
At a briefing on Capitol Hill yesterday, Stanford University communication professor Jon Krosnick presented the best analysis to date estimating the impact of "ClimateGate" on public perceptions of climate change and of climate scientists. Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment, where…
Below are text of the remarks that I opened with at the Harvard panel last week on "The Public Divide over Climate Change: Science, Skeptics and the Media." To listen to audio of the panel, find links to news coverage, and read a detailed discussion of the panel, go to this post. A little more…

Enviros have to step it up. There need to be more forums, more meetings, more articles, more outreach.

You say now they are letting the news of the spill do a lot of work for them. That's fine, and they are enjoying (OK, maybe not the best word) a time when headline news backs up their message.

But the headlines will change again soon (they always do) and enviros will lose the initiative and drop the ball if they don't start doing more outreach now.

Now is a critical time for enviros to bring new people in. It is good to simultaneously concentrate on their "base" as well. But especially right now is the time to get a secure foothold in with the group of people who wasn't paying attention before the BP spill.

The strategy has to be to bring in new people, and hook them up with the most respected sources of environmental news (Climate Progress, Science Blogs, etc).

The message has to be emotional, but not 'doom prophesying'. If there is one hard lesson the enviros must learn it is that there is a part of the spectrum where people can be reached emotionally without yelling in their face that we're all gonna die.

On the other hand, wonking people over the head with endlessly detailed data analyses fails to reach the public at a time when the denialists are going for their gut.

So a good plan is one that combines solid fact-based analyses, and uses the emotional appeal that can be generated after a big disaster such as the BP spill. You have to grab their attention emotionally first, then prove to them you are on the correct side of the issue.

Usually the enviros fail to connect emotionally with the general public, but right now they have a very clear opportunity to make that connection with new people.

Once people have become aware that environmental issues are real and urgent, then the movement is good at providing them fact-based arguments.

But the movement has not been as good at emotional appeal as the denialists. Now they have a window of opportunity where people are emotionally primed to hear the message.

It must not be a missed opportunity.

So I think sitting back and saying "it's working to lay low" is the wrong strategy for now. They should position themselves riding the crest of the wave of shock and disappointment that people feel towards Big Oil right now.

The Enviro movement needs to take advantage of the current situation to press for legislative action on energy policy and global warming. The mainstream press and politicos will drive short term regulatory responses. We need to push for longer term policy responses.

By ScottFree (not verified) on 14 Jun 2010 #permalink

Usually I'm all about speaking up and being heard, but I agree that now is the time to be strategic. Anything said now would sound like "See, I told you so!" and I'm not sure that saying "I told you so" has ever won anyone's good opinion.

What the enviro groups should be doing right now (in my opinion) is shutting down the fringe 10-15% that will be trying as hard as possible to transmit misinformation about the incident. They should also be available for fact-checking, for solutions, for highlighting related issues and costs.

If the media is doing the work of the enviros, they should be trying to compete, they should be supplementing and enhancing the media's message, while also working behind-the scenes to strengthen access to decision-makers. This is an ideal time to make inroads for the long-term, and a shrill, over-enthusiastic response could hurt that goal.

By Quietmarc (not verified) on 16 Jun 2010 #permalink