SUNDAY, MAY 5, 2013

Smart Bombs: Dim message on bulbs

How many people does it take to persuade some Americans to change from incandescent bulbs to compact fluorescent lamps? One.

To understand the punch line, you first need to know about a recent study on environmental messaging, which was reported by The Atlantic Cities website. The research, which was recently published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, provides yet another glimpse into America’s polarization on just about any topic.

A group of consumers was first surveyed on general attitudes about reducing carbon emissions, energy dependency and the like to determine whether they were liberal, conservative or moderate. Then, with a fixed amount of money, they were given a choice between CFLs and traditional bulbs, and supplied with basic data on energy usage and longevity.

With the bulbs priced the same, all but one person picked the CFL. Even when the price of the CFL was bumped up, most shoppers picked it. But when a “Protect the Environment” message was affixed to the CFL, many conservatives and some moderates migrated to the old-fashioned bulb.

It seems that environmentalism conjures images and values that some conservatives don’t want to be associated with. While buying a Prius may make perfect sense on a lot of levels, some people will never do it because, you know, what if the neighbors start thinking they care about global warming, or, worse, agree with Al Gore! There goes the barbecue invite.

Polarization saps rational thought on many issues. When the background check bill for gun purchases failed, Richard Feldman, of the Independent Firearm Owners Association, a gun-rights group that backed it, said: “It really comes down to identity politics. If Barack Obama says that the sun rises in the East, well, if I’m on the other side, I know it must be false.”

In the early 1990s, conservatives in Congress pushed a mandate to purchase insurance to counter the health care proposal of the Clinton administration. But when President Obama grabbed the rudder, conservatives jumped ship and have been bombarding it ever since.

It strikes me as strange to hide the message or messenger, but whatever works. So if removing a “Protect the Environment” sticker from a light bulb furthers that goal, then do it. This should only take one person.

Terms of engagement. One of the more bizarre anti-global warming arguments is that the other side changed the term to “climate change” to cover for the “fact” that the planet is actually cooling. Never mind that 2012 was the 27th consecutive year that land and ocean temperatures have exceeded the 1960-1991 global average, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Plus, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations will soon surpass 400 parts per million for the first time, so man’s contribution hasn’t waned.

All that aside, the term “climate change” has been around for a long time. Do a search on Google Scholar and you’ll find that the term stretches back 50 years. The irony is that the second Bush administration substituted “climate change” for “global warming” at the suggestion of Republican pollster and messaging guru Frank Luntz.

In a memo, Luntz wrote:

“Climate change” is less frightening than “global warming.” As one focus group participant noted, climate change ‘sounds like you’re going from Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale.’ While global warming has catastrophic connotations attached to it, climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge.

In other words, “global warming” sounds like something you should act on – fast! So if you’re not inclined to do so, cool the language.

By the way, Luntz now accepts the global warming theory. He told “Frontline” in a 2006 interview that if people are still employing his old messaging about significant scientific doubts, well, it’s their responsibility to update their views.

Instead, they’re claiming it’s the other side that’s playing word games.

Associate Editor Gary Crooks can be reached at garyc@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5026. Follow him on Twitter @GaryCrooks.

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