Hyping Biden’s climate victory

6 mins read
Environmental activists U.S. Capitol Utopian Magazine

By Leslie Kaufman

“The storms are stronger. The fires are bigger. We are facing a climate emergency,” intones a voice as images of catastrophe flash on screen.

But then a reprieve: “And after decades of inaction, a president is finally doing something to fight it.”

So begins a 30-second ad, part of a national $10 million campaign rolling out this week. Think of it as an opening salvo in what will no doubt be a battle to define how Americans understand the climate provisions of the newly passed Inflation Reduction Act, which carries historic funding to cut carbon emissions and transition to clean energy. 

The ads are being funded by the League of Conservation Voters and Climate Power, two national environment advocacy organizations, with Future Forward USA Action, a nonprofit dedicated to helping rebuild America’s middle class. Pete Maysmith, senior vice president of campaigns for the League, said most Americans are not even aware of the legislation yet, and the coalition wants to shape its introduction. Midterm elections for Congress, of course, come in November.

Maysmith said the groups hoped to avoid an outcome like the aftermath of the Affordable Care Act’s passage in 2010, when Republicans flipped the House of Representatives due in part to negative perceptions of the law. “We can’t let that happen,” he said. “We need to tell the true story of the bill.”

There are many reasons that shaping perceptions will be important, says Anthony Leiserowitz, the founder and director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. There are the upcoming elections but also, for the law to reach its maximum impact, lots of Americans need to take action to take advantage of tax credits and do things like install heat pumps or buy their first electric car. “There certainly is a need to let a lot of the public know these new opportunities exist,” he said.

Political advertising on climate change is an emerging field. President Joe Biden himself took out climate ads in the closing days of the 2020 election. The League and Climate Power spent $50 million in TV and digital ads in the 18 months before the passage of the IRA to build momentum for the legislation. And Maysmith said his group also spent $2 million right after the bill passed to thank 120 members of Congress who voted yes. Still, Democrats are largely expected to run on the health-care provisions of the IRA. Health-care is a much less partisan issue than climate change in the US. 

But the folks behind the ads think that climate will resonate with voters as well. Two 30-second spots are running on cable channels and streaming platforms, especially those, like MTV and Comedy Central, that are aimed at a younger audience. Young Americans have been clear that they want to see real action on climate change. And this bill is “proof positive” that Democrats are getting it done, Maysmith says.

Leiserowitz agrees. ”There are a lot of people who are climate concerned voters who feel like Biden and the Democrats had let them down,” he said, because of the long struggle to pass the bill. It is important now before the Midterms to remind them that their vote in 2020 really did have impact.

In addition, climate may play a role in state races. Evergreen Action, another climate advocacy group, recently took out six-figure ad buys in Michigan and Nevada that support two embattled Democratic governors by highlighting their commitment to clean energy.

Since the IRA didn’t garner a single Republican vote in either the House of Representatives or the Senate, Republicans and their allies will certainly push to define the climate measures in the bill on their own terms. Fox News anchors have repeatedly conflated the new law with The Green New Deal, a sweeping set of vague climate and economic principals outlined by the New York Democratic congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that are perceived very negatively by many voters.

The good news, says Max Boykoff, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who studies climate communications, is that there is still a lot of low-hanging fruit when it comes to communicating both climate change writ large and the importance of this specific bill to voters. “In the US, only 35% of adults occasionally talk about climate change with friends and family,” he said, “so we know more stimuli in the public world can stimulate those conversations and open up possibilities for greater engagement.” 

While it is hard to measure the efficacy of any one ad campaign, Boykoff thinks there is cumulative effect. “There is no silver bullet, only silver buckshot,” he added. “The more that constituents see that their government is working for their benefit, the more it will be helpful information as they go into the voting booths.”

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