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Frank Luntz

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A pollster and media adviser, Luntz gained notoriety in the 1990s as a consultant to the Republican party. Luntz contributed to Newt Gingrich's 1994 "Contract With America" and authored a memo that laid the groundwork for efforts by skeptics to discredit the scientific evidence for global warming. He has since distanced himself from both the GOP and the memo. Here, Luntz contrasts the longevity of his memo with the failings of "hysterical" global warming advocates and explains why he thinks the issue will not play into the 2008 elections. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted Nov. 13, 2006.

What do you think most Americans think when they hear the term "global warming"?

I think Americans now believe that something has happened to the climate; that they think that the weather patterns are not the same as they were 20 years ago; that we think of tornadoes and of hurricanes and of course Katrina and heat waves and cold spells. And we now wonder, is it just Mother Nature, or is there something else that's at play here? We didn't used to think that way, but we do so now.

Do you think they make a distinction between "global warming," between "climate change"? Are those different words?

The public reacts differently to "climate change" than "global warming." Global warming is more frightening to the public. Global warming is something that has a long-term consequence to it, whereas climate change, to Americans, is a little bit more benign.

Every time that you see that for the eighth straight day there's 100-degree weather, or conversely, for the eighth straight day there's been snowstorms, we assume that it's part of this thing that's going on out there. We don't know what created it, we don't know what aggravates it, but we have this doubt, this nagging doubt -- and it's almost universal, 75 percent -- that something is up with the weather that did not exist 30 years ago.

Is there a resonance in the [phrase] "energy independence"? Is that on people's radar yet?

"Energy independence" is about as strong, as powerful, as voter-exciting a concept as anything out there. If you tell Americans -- the voters of any age, of any party -- that we're going to make this country energy independent in the next 20 years, you'll get a standing ovation. It's almost that way. It is the equivalent of sending a man to the moon and bringing him back safely. And, in fact, that's the phrase: If we can send a man to the moon and bring him back safely, then why can't we make America energy independent?

The danger with an issue like this -- and I think why it has not been more prevalent, more politically potent -- is that those who believe in global warming have tried to use it as a baseball bat to beat up the opposition.

Now, if you know the facts behind it, ... you know that it actually cannot happen; our demand for fossil fuels is too great to be able to achieve that. And yet the public says, you know what? We don't have to be 65 percent dependent; why can't we lower it to 50 or 40? Why can't we diversify? Why can't we make energy more efficient? We don't like the concept of being dependent upon anybody for anything that we need, and energy more than anything else. We don't want to be buying stuff from Arab countries that don't mean us well; we don't want to be buying energy from Venezuela with a leader [Hugo Chavez] that basically calls us crazy. And we think that we've got the science, the technology, the engineering -- why can't we do it?

It's part of this American exceptionalism: the idea that our scientists are the best in the world; that our engineers can do things that nobody else can do. If we can build a Hoover Dam and we can send people into outer space, then why can't we apply that technology to make us more energy independent?

... Global change, global warming, climate change, whatever you want to call it -- why wasn't that a midterm election issue?

This campaign in 2006 -- and this has happened now for a number of election cycles -- we're looking at things that affect us right now. Al Gore, in his movie [An Inconvenient Truth], talks about how this is an issue that if we don't get it right in the next few years, it may be too late; we may reach a tipping point. I don't know if that's true or not, but I do know that the fact that he says that this is still years out, when we see illegal immigrants coming across the border every single day, ... every American who's watching this right now says, "Oh my God, there really is a crisis; we've got to do something about it." When they see gasoline prices go to $3 a gallon so that they're actually having trouble making ends meet, they say, "Oh my God, there's an energy crisis; we've got to do something about it." When they see bridges to nowhere and wasteful Washington spending, they say, "That's not right; we've got to do something about it now." When we see outsourcing, big companies sending jobs, and you see the "For Sale" sign in your community, that's a crisis right now. That's the issue with global warming. It may be a crisis, but if it is, it's not right now.

I have seen some polls that say after Katrina, Americans, in a majority now, think that global warming is not something that will happen to their children, but will happen to them. ...

Just as 9/11 changed the way we look at national security, Katrina has changed the way that we look at weather and the way we look at global warming and climate change. But it's now been a year, and already you see a little bit of the filtering back; that sense of urgency has already dissipated. We are in some ways the most forgetful country. It's why companies can rebrand themselves; it's why politicians can have a 25 percent favorability rating today and a 50 percent favorability rating one year from now. We are forgiving, and we are forgetful, and that has caused, I think, a shift away from being so concerned about global warming that it wasn't an issue in this off-year campaign.

And so do you think that in the 2008 presidential campaign it comes back?

No, I don't, and I don't because you have to create a sense of immediacy. The only way that global warming will be one of the top three issues is if Al Gore runs, because he's so clearly associated with it.

But both [Sen. John] McCain [R-Ariz.] and [Sen. Hillary Rodham] Clinton [D-N.Y.] have a very strong policy on this.

That's different than actually making it your reason for existing. ... We will be talking about Iraq; we will be talking about Iran; we will be talking terrorism. On the domestic front, we're going to be talking about health care, prescription drugs and education. Now you tell me where global warming fits in on those. I've given you six issues that will be a higher priority than global warming.

I want to ask you about a memo that you wrote in 2000, because you crafted some language for President Bush.

The problem with that is that ... I never crafted anything for this administration. I don't work for this administration. ... There is so much stuff that's been attributed to me. I wish I had something to do with it, because I'd have a lot more corporate clients.

So let me ask you if this is what you wrote: "The scientific debate remains open. Voters believe there's no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate and defer to scientists and other experts in the field." Is that you?

That is me, and that was written -- this discussion of global warming and climate change is something I've been involved in since 1995. ... And back [in] '97, '98, the science was uncertain. You had a lot of people on one side, but you had a lot of people on the other as well. My understanding and my responsibility back then was to communicate the way things actually were rather than to have it politicized in one way or the other.

By 2000 the scientific consensus actually was not uncertain. It's essentially how it is today, which is the majority -- a consensus of scientists believe that global warming is a fact.

Listen to the word you just said: You were going to say "majority," and then you corrected it and said "consensus," because you believe consensus is a stronger word. That's the whole point. A majority could be 51 percent of the scientists: Which scientists? Which science? There are still people who argue, is the right definition of this global warming or climate change?

Forget what I do in terms of language. What's a better definition of what's happening out there? And, more importantly, what's causing it? That's the big issue. The danger with an issue like this -- and I think why it has not been more prevalent, more politically potent -- is that those who believe in global warming have tried to use it as a baseball bat to beat up the opposition. Instead of first trying to convince the public and then trying to take steps that don't penalize America at the expense of other countries, they try to use it as a wedge issue. In Northeastern states, in states that have moderate Republican voters, they turned it into a political issue.

Education is a great example. There are no Republican or Democratic sides on education; we all want good schools for our kids. It's one of those issues where you can get partisan consensus, because no one tried to make it into a political battering ram. That's exactly what they tried to do with global warming, and frankly, environmentalists who may have their hearts in the right place, their tongues are in the wrong place, and they are often their own worst enemies.

But from 2000 to today, the strategy of this administration is to hammer on the uncertainty of the science even as not just the consensus, but an overwhelming majority of scientists say and have been saying since before 2000 that the science is clear.

Well, I'm not a [defender] of this administration.

They used those words.

That's up to them. This was a document that was written years ago. They want to use those words. I don't work for this administration; I don't advise this administration.

... Did you know that this was the paragraph because they think that you are a wizard and that you know how to do this? Do you think that this was the paragraph?

I am honored to think that they think I am a wizard, although with their performance in the last year, I'm not sure if that's a compliment or an insult.

But they followed this like the Bible, and they hammered on the uncertainty.


And those are your words, and they used your words as a strategy to undermine the credibility of scientists. ...

But you realize this was written eight years ago. It was written long before this Bush administration was the Bush administration.

So it was just handed to them, or they read it in 2000? This was a 2000 memo?

The actual memo itself did not end up reaching the public. I think it was what, 2002, that The New York Times published it? The actual beginning of this document was written in 1995; it's part of research that I did that came up with the language of a cleaner, safer, healthier environment. So the genesis of this memo actually goes back now, what is it, nine years? ...

And it's funny, because if I wanted to get hired by energy companies, then you would actually think that this is something that I would promote: that I can create language that the White House uses, that members of Congress use, that the industry uses, because it's successful language. And yet I don't feel that way, because it's dated, and we do know more now than we knew then.

So would you not back this paragraph if you were asked today?

Today I would not have that paragraph in a document I put out about the environment or about energy, because I think the two are very much intertwined.

And do you think that people who still try to undermine the science and claim that it's uncertain are going down the wrong path?

No, because I'm a language guy; I'm not a policy guy. I know that my responsibility is to learn how to communicate, and I leave to others the decision of policy.

Nobody elected me to vote for or against emission standards, to vote for or against gasoline standards, to vote for or against Kyoto. I've got my own personal point of view, but no one cares about that. They care about what the public thinks, and they come to me to understand what the public thinks and then be able to communicate a point of view.

There's only one time -- I never talked about this before -- there's only one time that I actually got involved in this because I believed so strongly in it, and those were the Kyoto accords. I believe that this country, in gross amounts, does produce more harmful emissions, but based on what we produce in terms of products, in terms of agriculture, in terms of services, we are one of the least harmful countries. We are the world's bread basket; that is a fact. We provide more innovation than anybody else. We may not manufacture it anymore, but we innovate. And for all that we provide that the world consumes, the amount of harmful emissions we produce is much smaller than a nation like China or India, or a lot of those countries in the Far East.

And to have America have to agree to these standards -- because we've got accountability in this country, and you know that if you sign that document people will be screaming if you break it -- they don't have that same kind of accountability. They're not the same kind of democracy. And I really did not want to see the U.S. have to abide by rules that these other countries would just ignore.

So you were personally anti-Kyoto?

I was personally anti-Kyoto, and when I was given the opportunity to do messaging for it, I jumped at it because I thought that that agreement was wrong.

What would you do today? Say a group -- doesn't have to be a politician -- hired you and said, "All right, Frank, now we need some language."

I've done it. I've done it in the last year. I've worked for a number of environmental groups. That would surprise people who know my career, who recognize me from FRONTLINEs that I've done before. They'd be shocked at some of the organizations I work for.

I believe in common ground, and I believe in a consensus. There has to be a way that we can be environmentally protective and not be anti-economy. There has to be a way that those who care about the future both from an economic standpoint and a environmentally responsible standpoint can be in the same room and find agreement that moves us in the right direction.

So what's the language?

What's the language? It's a balanced approach; it's a common-sense approach. It takes into account this consensus that you speak of, and you even used the word, the word "consensus." Mark my words, the word "consensus" is going to be part of the environmental debate going forward, because it suggests that people -- rational people, decent people -- can come together and have an agreement, not only on what is happening in this country, but how best to deal with it in the future.

What language do you use to convince people that there needs to be policies now for events that may not happen for 50 years?

That's a good question, ... and there's a simple word: prevention. We are tired of dealing with crises when they hit. We expect our elected officials to deal with it so it remains only a problem and doesn't blow up into a crisis. That concept of prevention -- we believe it in health care, we believe it when it comes to financial security -- you can apply that to environmental security. Let us prevent the problem now so that we don't have to deal with the crisis and solve a crisis tomorrow.

So if I had a list of words, if I wanted to convince voters that climate change as opposed to global warming was an issue that we had to deal with, I would use the words "energy security," "prevention" and "consensus"?


What else?

My answer to you is come to the community and watch me do it.

Because is that what you're doing?

The words that I create are not my own. Maybe I'm the Johnny Appleseed of all this; I'm certainly not sufficiently creative to be able to discern these words. The words that I come up with are your words; they're the cameraman's words and the sound guy's words and your assistant's words. I listen to you all; here I am, responding to you.

This is not how I live my life. Ninety percent of the time I'm the one who's in your chair asking questions, and I listen very carefully to what you say. That's why I jumped on the word "consensus," because you replaced it with the word "majority." You also pay attention, because you're a professional at this, and you wanted to change the word. I will never forget that. You have actually helped me not just on this issue, but I will use that tomorrow when I've got a meeting tomorrow with about 25 members of Congress. I will talk about tonight's interview, and I will tell them [to] stop talking about the word "majority" and start talking about the word "consensus," because that will help build public faith that you're actually trying to get the job done.

That's what the American people want. Whether it's the environment or energy or jobs, they don't want ideology; they don't want bickering. They want accomplishment. They want you to do the job, get it done so they don't have to think about it in the future.

You are known for your political antennae: not just language, but when there's a shift in the public mood. ... Do you think that there is a tipping point coming, that there's a sense that we actually have to deal with this?

It could be. Here's the issue: If you're a politician that screams, you're the worst spokesman for it. ... And the problem with those who advocate a change to global warming is that, frankly, they're hysterical. Now, I used that word, and I had Richard Belzer, the comedian, rip the living hell out of me in front of about 500 people in New York. There's one person in particular, Janeane Garofalo, who's very concerned about global warming and the worst spokesman. Someone ought to tell her stay with movies, because you are not a good proponent of what you stand for. Her language is hysterical; her demeanor is hysterical. I used that word, and Belzer just went off on me.

I asked people when it was done, "How did you feel?" And they said that they disagreed with what I said, and they disagreed with my philosophy, but they felt so sorry for me, because Belzer ripped me apart, that he lost all his credibility. And in the end, they wanted me to do well because Belzer was too mean. ...

If you want to make it an issue, find people in the center who speak in tones like this -- who can sit across and not yell and not throw out invectives and not even use language like people like me create -- but have a rational, common-sense dialogue over the challenges of what changes in climate could be doing, are doing, and what is the best way to deal with it. That's how you make it an issue. ...

Sometimes the most powerful language of all is the language that is spoken most softly, and nobody ever taught them that. The softer that I go, the more the people are likely to pay attention. I never presented that memo; I never stood up at a conference. I gave it out, but that memo was never actually presented to people, and yet it still survives to this day because the memo spoke more than I ever could. ...

[What] scientists have been saying -- is it that they are saying it in a scientific kind of language that people don't understand?

Traditionally the worst communicators are doctors because they're not used to people. ... They're not good communicators, and they're not good candidates, because they don't work well with others; they're used to being on their own. Scientists are awful communicators because they spend most of their time in labs. They spend most of their time doing research, and their job is not to interact with other people except when they're defending a paper. They're not as effective, and the people who end up speaking about global warming are so emotional and so loud that you actually have to turn down the TV set.

Do you think, then, that this issue is simply a matter of communication?

So much of life is a matter of communication. So much of life itself is perception. This shirt is actually an expensive shirt, but it is so wrinkled that it looks to your viewers like I probably paid $7.99 for it. It's all perception. That's what messaging is: It helps explain; it helps set a context. And those who believe in global warming are so loud that it undermines the context. ...

Your memo, whenever you wrote it -- '95, '98, 2000, 2002 -- is still embraced by Exxon in particular.

Look, you want me to say it? It was a great memo. It was great language. I busted my ass for that memo. I have spent many sleepless nights going over focus group tapes, writing exercises, trying to figure out what language would work. And in the end, for that time, I think I found good language. I know that those who dislike my position or who resent the memo, they will acknowledge that it is good language. They could be just as effective, but they don't listen. ...

I get no credit for things that I have done that really -- the "death tax" is actually a more significant accomplishment, because it changed the way people regard that tax, than the work that I did on climate change. "Exploring for energy" changes the whole dynamic rather than calling it "drilling for oil." It's not "offshore drilling"; it's "deep-sea exploration." "Offshore drilling" -- I can see it; it's that oil well that's three miles out there that I can see when I'm on the beach. "Deep-sea exploration" is so far out there that I can't see it.

Words do matter, and that stuff is actually more significant, I think, than this memo. But obviously the memo bothered some people, because it keeps coming up and keeps coming up and keeps coming up. ...

[An] entire group of science skeptics grew up around that, who have in some ways moved the debate back to "scientists aren't really sure," when in fact scientists are sure.

Again, my own beliefs have changed from when I was tasked with that project. ... Back then HDTV did not exist; flat-screen TVs and plasmas did not exist; TiVo, my favorite invention of the 21st century, did not exist. Things change. Life changes. Conditions change. So it is unfair to take a document that was written primarily in '98, '97, '98 and apply it to 2006.

Even though some people still are.

That's their responsibility. They have to defend that.

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posted april 24, 2007

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