Words can shape perceptions, but facts are facts

I was persuaded to use the phrase “climate change” about a decade ago, when a presenter at a conference I was organizing said she preferred it to “global warming,” a term then still common.

She argued, and I agreed, that the phrase better conveyed the idea that our planet faces a  multitude of challenges as the environment warms, from sea level rise to drought and more furious and frequent storms.

Ironically, we were adopting the language of Frank Luntz, a messaging guru then supporting Republican efforts to tamp down concerns about our rapidly warming world and blunt calls for disruptive and costly actions to address them.

As a pollster and spinmeister, Luntz understands the power of words. He studies them, and gauges their impact on people through focus groups and polls. He knows that when language delivers just the right emotional punch, it can move people in the direction you want them to go.

So he advised the George W. Bush administration to use “climate change” as a less scary option to “global warming.” “Government takeover of health care,” on the other hand, is scarier than the Affordable Care Act. So he convinced Republicans to use it to oppose Obamacare. He coined “energy exploration” to replace “drilling for oil,” and “death tax” rather than the more neutral-sounding term, “estate tax.”

Luntz has been like a piano player, striking minor chords for dark and frightening sounds when it suits the aims of his clients — like the fossil-fuel billionaire Koch brothers — and brighter tones when he wants to obscure trouble. (He argues that all the science wasn’t in when he opposed action to reverse global warming.)

“It’s not what you say that matters. It’s what people hear,” he told a 2013 gathering of College Republicans at the University of Pennsylvania, his alma mater.

He told them that voters respond better to “hardworking taxpayers” than “the middle class.” “Economic freedom” gains more support than “capitalism.” He also objected to the divisive and angry language of Fox News commentators and the late Rush Limbaugh, but only after being assured that his remarks wouldn’t be recorded. A student recorded him, of course, and when the audio leaked, the messaging master had no comment except to withdraw funding from the scholarship he had established in his father’s name.

On May 12, Luntz told New York Times opinion writer and podcaster, Kara Swisher, that he wishes he had spoken out more. He objected to the style and language of Donald Trump, if not his policies, and eventually quit the Republican party in January.

He now fashions himself as someone whose work seeks common ground. He points to his counsel that the Trump administration drop “border wall” in favor of “border security,” something everyone wants. “Vaccine passport” raises fear of government intervention. “Vaccine verification,” however, wins public support, he said.

But it’s hard to forget that over the decades, Luntz’s messaging advice helped usher in the angry polarization that four months ago spawned an insurrection. He worked on behalf of  House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who brought white-hot partisanship and winner-take-all politics into the mainstream in the mid to late 1990s. Luntz urged politicians to “talk like Newt,” describing Democrats with terms like corrupt,” “devour,” “greed,” “hypocrisy,” “liberal,” “sick,” and traitors.” Those words echoed over the decades and prepared us for the language of Donald Trump.

Luntz apparently got religion on climate change in 2017, when the Skirball Fire nearly turned his Los Angeles home to ashes. Two years later, he was one of just three Republicans to testify before the Special Committee on the Climate Crisis about breaking down partisan barriers and taking action on climate change.

Rising sea levels, melting ice caps, tornadoes, and hurricanes more ferocious than ever. It is happening, he said.

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