POLITICS

Are 'climate deniers' the new birthers in Obama's playbook?

President Obama's strongest supporters are executing a play that feels familiar after four years: Use humor and social media to marginalize Republicans as extreme and out of touch on all fronts, from substantive legislation on topics such as immigration to ephemera on the level of unfounded conservative suspicions that the commander in chief was not born in America.

This time, however, the fodder is climate change.

The nonprofit created to promote Obama's priorities, Organizing for Action (OFA), put together a climate staff in May and last week launched a campaign that handed out unicorn trophies to 135 congressional Republicans who have raised doubts about humans' role in climate change. These "Denier Awards" made a splashy stage for Obama backers to pre-empt GOP resistance to U.S. EPA emissions rules -- while signaling that the president's team sees a chance to build a national stage for an issue he was savaged as too silent on during his re-election run.

"You're beginning to hear the Obama team say, 'OK, you're going to attack us? It doesn't make sense for us to ignore it. Let's heighten these distinctions, let's expose these individuals,'" Anthony Leiserowitz, director of Yale University's Project on Climate Change Communication, said in an interview. "It plays into a broader narrative about the distinctions between the two parties."

The strategic advantages of the tactic are evident in the green activists' growing more heartened and mobilized since the president's June 25 climate speech at Georgetown University. Obama's relations with his environmentalist base, plagued by a Capitol stalemate on emissions during his first term and questions about his commitment to the cause that predated 2008, are at a notable peak as he takes up their banner (E&E Daily, June 28).

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350.org spokesman Daniel Kessler, whose group has pressured Obama for years over the Keystone XL pipeline, described the latest moves from OFA and the White House as a step toward a future where EPA power plant rules are only one piece of a broader climate agenda. "Knowing the president and his party are now willing to take on climate change and use it as a political weapon can only get us closer to the day when we have a comprehensive plan to combat climate change, and that would include a price on carbon," he said in an interview.

Casting climate science as the Obama camp's newest wedge issue would seem to bode well for EPA's prospects of rolling out its emissions limits with a minimum of resistance from conservatives, given that their multiple attempts to defund the implementation of the president's health care reform law have fallen flat. But at a time when the White House still has the opportunity to work with Republicans on immigration reform and must deal with them on keeping the government funded beyond the end of next month, antagonizing about half the GOP conference runs the risk of making climate change even more of a red-meat issue for the right than it is for the left.

For example, while OFA tweeted photos of lawmakers and aides accepting the unicorn Denier Awards, House Energy and Commerce Vice Chairwoman Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) posed with her prize for a combative response. "They killed a tree to give me an award for denying global warming on a 71 [degree] August day," she tweeted Friday.

Mike McKenna, a GOP energy strategist who lobbies for industry, pointed to reports that one OFA-backed climate rally in the capital drew zero supporters last week as a sign that the newly aggressive push could do little substantively but embolden more Blackburn-esque replies.

"By raising the issue, and then failing on any follow-through," McKenna said via email, "the Obama guys are actually doing their cause a disservice because they embolden folks on the other side. The more elected officials understand that they can raise all kinds of questions (science-based as well as economic) with impunity, the more likely they are to raise questions."

Among the 135 Republicans targeted by OFA is one whom Obama cannot avoid working with: House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), who told USA Today in November that "what has initiated [climate change] has sparked a debate" of a decade or more. Boehner's spokesman later told the Washington Post editorial board that his comments referred to the state of policy discussions, not of climate science.

The speaker's office did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the GOP leader's inclusion on this month's OFA deniers list.

'High-end viral potential'

Another Republican blasting the OFA campaign is Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, a walking, talking symbol of fossil-fuel influence for most green activists, who began on Wednesday to investigate potential coordination between the Obama administration and the White House's nonprofit cavalry (E&ENews PM, Aug. 14).

"There's no better measure of success than when you can get the chief climate denier in Congress to start throwing out conspiracy theories," David DiMartino, a veteran Democratic aide turned strategist who worked closely on the cap-and-trade battle, said in an interview. "The reality is, he's out of touch."

The urgency created by a response such as Inhofe's probe aligns with the general mission of the OFA effort, according to American University associate professor of communication Matthew Nisbet, who studies in depth the tactics used by both sides of the debate.

"What they're doing is socially and morally stigmatizing those political opponents who deny the science of climate change," Nisbet said in an interview.

"So instead of leaving the middle-ground public to be caught in these cross-pressures as the issue gains more salience for them, instead of it just being a 'he said, she said'-type echo chamber, they're sending a very strong message: ... Just like the birther claims were wrong and morally outrageous, and 'death panels' were wrong and morally outrageous, so are climate [deniers wrong] when people's health and safety are at risk."

The "high-end viral potential" of the unicorn-trophies strategy contrasts with the cap-and-trade era during Obama's first term, when "the issue was discussed almost exclusively in technocratic terms," Nisbet added. He and Leiserowitz of Yale University agreed that OFA's new approach is well-suited to engage sectors of the public previously distant from the risks of greenhouse gas emissions, even if it does not pay off at the ballot box against Republicans.

OFA did not respond to a request for comment on the new climate campaign. But the campaign carries an upside for the group specifically as it deals with slower-than-expected fundraising: no expensive TV advertising bills to pay and a simple benchmark for action in the White House-approved hashtag #ScienceSaysSo.

"It's fairly easy to make them a laughingstock," DiMartino said of the 135 Republicans, "because most people believe that what 97 or 98 percent of scientists say is probably right."

Using the term "deniers" rather than the milder "skeptics" reinforces the dichotomy Obama supporters hope to create between defenders of national action on emissions and Republicans pushing to slash EPA funding. Chris Prandoni, federal affairs manager at the conservative group Americans for Tax Reform, argued that the D-word obscures some nuance in GOP views on the matter.

"OFA/Obama present the public with a false choice: Politicians are either knuckle-dragging members of the Flat Earth Society or believe that anthropogenic activity is the driving factor determining present climate (Hurricane Sandy, droughts, etc.) and future climate," Prandoni said via email. "In reality, most people labeled 'climate deniers' would agree that humans influence the climate, to some degree."

Kessler, of 350.org, countered that "using climate change as a blunt object to beat Republicans over the head with" does not preclude the president's team from working with their political opponents on future action so long as lawmakers start with consensus on the need to cut carbon emissions based on scientific evidence.

"The reality of the situation is, right now, there's only one party that's serious about dealing with the problem, and that's the Democrats," he said.

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