The Environmentalist Rhetoric Guide

Authors of dubious Michigan 'business leaders' poll on Obama energy plan also craft movement spin

Market research surveys commissioned by one of the nation’s largest environmentalist groups advises activists to “talk about yourselves as conservationists — not environmentalists,” “do not make global warming/climate change the primary rationale for conservation,” “do not use the threat of ‘sprawl’ unless with core supporters,” and “do not focus on ‘green’ jobs as a primary rationale for conservation.”

These quotes are found in a pair of documents, one from 2004 and one from 2013, that expose what might be called the environmental movement’s political messaging intended for public consumption.

The documents are based on research commissioned by The Nature Conservancy, which is generally considered to be less strident than most environmentalist organizations. The older one is located on a website of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, among the “course documents” for “Communicating Conservation to Citizens: Communications Course 2009.”

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The documents take the form of reports by two opinion research firms, Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates; and Public Opinion Strategies. These same companies were used recently to provide a dubious and nontransparent poll claiming a majority of "Michigan’s business leaders” support President Barack Obama’s proposed Clean Power Plan.

The reports include comments such as “scientists clearly link global warming to increasingly extreme weather events.” Such unqualified statements reveal the point of view of the researchers, which is expressed along with the findings of their research.

Here are a few excerpts from the documents:

From the 2004 document — “Do talk about yourselves as ‘conservationists’ — not ‘environmentalists.’  This bears repeating. Voters are more likely to view themselves as ‘conservationists’ than ‘environmentalists.’ Moreover, in the focus groups, there was a decided skepticism about the agendas of some ‘environmental groups’ who engage in land preservation.”

From the 2013 document — “Do not make global warming/climate change the primary rationale for conservation. While scientists clearly link global warming to increasingly extreme weather events that affect the safety of people and communities, it is not yet perceived similarly by the public. The most politically polarizing rationales for conservation are those that position climate change as the primary reason for engaging in conservation. Republicans and Independents rated these messages significantly lower than other rationales in support of conservation.”

“However, referring to climate change in passing as part of a broader argument for conservation has generally not had a significant impact — positive or negative — on responses. In the interest of continuing to expand and reinforce public attention to this vital issue, incorporating subtle references to climate change into otherwise strong messages may be advisable. This, however, is an area where location specific research is likely critical.”

From the 2004 document, and stressed again in the 2013 document — “Do talk about water first and foremost. Water cannot be stressed enough, and really it doesn’t matter how you say it. In fact, voters prioritize water as a critical reason to purchase and protect land, no matter how it is expressed: vast majorities of those polled see it as ‘very important’ to buy land to protect drinking water quality (84 percent); improve the water quality in our lakes, streams and rivers (75 percent); protect lakes, rivers and streams (72 percent); and protect watersheds (66 percent).”

“Moreover, water is tops in every region (not just the perennially thirsty West) and rates just as high in big cities (85 percent very important) as rural areas (84 percent). Most importantly, this data substantiates one of the things we heard in focus groups throughout the West — voters closely link land conservation with protecting water.”

2013 — “Do turn voters’ views of a tough Mother Nature to your advantage — by showing how conservation of critical natural defenses keeps communities safe. Whether wildfire, flooding, or hurricanes, voters tend to think of nature as being a force with which to be reckoned. That ‘one tough lady’ image can pose problems — the concept of ‘resilience’ actually serves to make voters less likely to feel we need to engage in restoration projects in recent focus groups along the Gulf Coast — but can also be an advantage. The idea that ‘natural defenses’ can serve as flood controls or storm-barriers is credible and resonates from Louisiana to North Dakota.”

2013 — “Do not count on public support for conservation unless you work to make it happen. Conservation is less of a concern today than in the recent past; economic issues have pushed it further down the list of most pressing concerns in voters’ minds. While voters value land, water and wildlife and want to conserve them, issues related to conservation simply are not everyday concerns for them. In recent research in six western states, we found that a majority (54 percent) admitted they had no idea of the position their Member of Congress has taken on protecting land and water.”

2013 — “Do not focus on ‘green’ jobs as a primary rationale for conservation. While the economy still tops voters’ priorities in our own polling, voters continue to find other traditional aspirational rationales for conservation more resonant — like leaving a legacy for future generations and protecting sources of clean air and water. In addition, some of the language used to describe these jobs can be off putting. Many do not understand the term ‘sustainable’ for instance. Similarly, many voters are tired of the term ‘green.’”

2004 — “Do not use ‘endangered species’ as interchangeable with wildlife — voters view them differently. While voters are broadly supportive of protecting wildlife, the focus groups demonstrated that ‘endangered species’ is a more polarizing term. Voters can point to examples where environmental regulations have held up important projects in order to protect what many deem to be obscure and unimportant species.”

2004 — “Do not say ‘open space.’ ‘Open space’ is not one of the better terms to use in the vocabulary of conservation, and ‘urban open space’ is even worse. In the focus groups, voters perceived ‘open space’ as empty land, not near them, and did not necessarily see how they benefited from it or could use it. ‘Urban open space’ was perceived as a bench between skyscrapers, or an abandoned lot.”

2004 — “Do not use the threat of ‘sprawl’ unless with core supporters. In the focus groups, ‘sprawl’ tended to elicit the most emotionally negative response of any words or phrases tested. However, it rated weakest of anything tested as a reason a state or local community should buy and protect land from development (only 41 percent rate it as a very important reason). ‘Reducing sprawl’ as a goal rates only slightly higher among urban voters (46 percent), but among more liberal audiences and traditionally more liberal urban areas, ‘sprawl’ can resonate. Fully 51 percent of self-described liberal voters nationally rate ‘reducing sprawl’ as a very important reason for their state or local community to buy land and protect it from development. In addition, voters living in mostly coastal urban centers — from D.C. to Boston, the entire West coast, and along the Great Lakes (Chicago, Detroit and up to Buffalo) rate sprawl 15 points higher than those in the interior U.S. or along Southern coasts.”

2004 — “Do not allow your effort to be positioned as anti-growth. The focus group research points to voters viewing growth as inevitable. They want growth that is well-planned, responsible, and does not negatively impact their overall quality of life. In fact, ‘protecting quality of life’ is the fourth highest rated reason for government to fund land conservation (70 percent very important reason).”

Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates (FM3) has not as yet responded to a phone call offering it an opportunity to comment. Neither has the Nature Conservancy.

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