Frank Luntz, Republican messaging guru, had a change of heart on climate change


Frank Luntz is a word guy who runs a polling and messaging strategy firm working for people who need to get away with bad things. Through his company Luntz Global, he created the blueprints for some of the most diabolically brilliant strategies of Republicans and shady corporations in the 90’s and 00’s.

A few of his greatest word flips:

  • From the “estate tax” to the “death tax
  • From “drilling for oil” to “exploring for energy”
  • From “global warming” to “climate change

Those last two are particularly destructive. By softening the language we all use to talk about the climate crisis, he’s sowed confusion, obscured the established science, and enriched the fossil fuel industry for decades. Because of that I’d argue he’s been one of the most consequential figures in the climate debate in America.

Words matter.

From his global warming memo – this is pure bullshit. The science community is as sure about human contribution to climate change as they are that smoking causes cancer.

But earlier this summer he changed his tune, big time. Now he’s trying to get Republicans on board with climate action. Partly, he sees that the political winds are shifting across both parties. But also, his house in Los Angeles was almost destroyed by the Skirball fire in 2017. So you know, like most humans, it’s probably more about that self preservation instinct.

Anyway, he’s come up with a list of do’s and don’ts from his focus groups on the subject. There are some really good nuggets in here.

  • USE: Cleaner, safer, healthier. LOSE: Sustainable/sustainability.
  • USE: Solving climate change. LOSE: Ending global warming.
  • USE: Principles and priorities. LOSE: Values.
  • USE: Reliable technology/energy. LOSE: Ground-breaking/State of the art.
  • USE: New careers. LOSE: New jobs.
  • USE: Peace of mind. LOSE: Security.
  • USE: Consequences. LOSE: Threats/Problems.
  • USE: Working together. LOSE: One world.

It’s important to think about (excuse the jargon) audience segmentation here. If you’re preaching to the choir, and liberal “elites” like me in NYC or California, maybe you can be a little more alarmist, because we get it and are already on board. In fact you might need to scare some of us into action at this point, like David Wallace-Wells so brilliantly did with his seminal piece in New York Magazine.

But Luntz’s talking points are great when we’re talking to Americans who don’t care about numbers aside from dollars and cents, and who don’t care about what’s happening to people in Asia or elsewhere.

Another piece of info that pairs nicely with his messaging strategy is the six Americas of global warming, part of a report on public sentiment put together by the Yale Program for Climate Change Communication. Here’s how things break down.

If you’re part of the “Alarmed” 29% like me, Luntz’s messages might not be for you. But for the other 71%, he’s on to something.

P.S. Just because Luntz has come around doesn’t mean we should celebrate him or forgive the damage he’s done. But his insights are clearly effective, so they’re worth paying attention to.

P.P.S. For further reading check out Luntz’s book Words That Work. It’s a must read for any copywriter or word person. Here’s a link to download a free PDF of the book, because we don’t need to be giving him our money.