The story of the Frank Luntz Memo

One of the tropes of environmentalism is that the (evil) Republican party used mind-altering framing techniques gleaned from Frank Luntz, a political strategist, to delay, disrupt or negatively affect in some form climate-related policy action in the United States.

This idea is has been so politically convenient, and useful, for environmental groups (who like to moan about their ‘failures’ and blame someone even as they mark off notch after notch on their policy totem-pole), Democratic Party supporters (for obvious reasons) and others , that Luntz’s name is invoked simply as an self-evident example of a black-ops framing hit carried out on the climate movement. Known simply as the Luntz memo, it was a 16-page pamphlet with which he’s supposed to have done this.

I offer two examples. First, you can catch from this clip, of the ho ho BBC’s Earth: The Climate Wars, what’s is pinned on Luntz (starting ~2 min in):

The essential bit transcribed (emphasis mine):

“But what was a secret was the strategy the Republicans used to get the American public on their side. That is, until a revealing document came to light in 2003. […] Frank Luntz was a pollster and political advisor with an impressive reputation. When an internal campaign memo he wrote in 2003 was leaked, it was revealed that it was the issue of the environment on which Republicans felt most vulnerable.”

[…][investigative gestures by narrator]

“Its pretty obvious that the aim of all this is to avoid taking action on climate change.”

Another one here, by the CBC:

Again, the point in question transcribed:

Underlying it all was a simple concept. The public can’t understand the complex science of climate change, [Luntz] argued, so convince them that scientists don’t fully comprehend it either. Then persuade them that without sound science it makes no sense to take preventive action at a huge economic cost. […] From Luntz’s lips to the President’s ears, that advice became George W Bush’s mantra …

The real question

Conspiratorial fear-mongering aside, what did Luntz really do? What tricks did he teach the Republicans? And why did he do it?

To answer these questions the first thing of course, is to find the Luntz memo and read it. This is important because you might notice is that it is not easy to get a hold of. You’ll also realise, there are any number of excerpted exegeses of the memo which push their inverted view by quoting selective passages from it. So, the next thing is to read it fully. Here it is.

What you’ll see, contrary to widespread rumour, is a document that is primarily concerned with strategies to connect to a majority whose views, as discovered by Luntz, were already favourably disposed toward the climate cause and the environment.

That’s right. Its about what Luntz found existing in the public, and his ideas for appealing to such an audience. The same thing has been turned on its head and blamed on him for having caused to come into existence, and nurtured to full growth.

For instance, Luntz found via his focus group methods that members of the American public believed “there [was] no consensus about global warming in the scientific community”. His recommendation, arising from what he found, was to make this lack of consensus an issue and defer to science, in order to win over such individuals.

luntz memo 1

The second famous item, the rebranding of ‘global warming’ into ‘climate change’, is even better. In the memo, Luntz is seen providing the insight that ‘environmentalism’ and ‘global warming’ invoke images of extremism and alarmist dogma, both of which turn off neutral voters who found ‘climate change’ more palatable.

luntz memo 2

How have the above been turned on their heads? Luntz is directly blamed for (i) trying to induce the American public to think there was no consensus about global warming. and (ii) attempts to rebrand ‘global warming’ to detract from its urgency. Quite the opposite of what he set out to do.

Consider how the environmental movement has used the Luntz memo. Firstly, it paints a picture of a nefarious conspiracy hatched by ‘industry’ to lull the population into sleep using clever slogans. Such characterization neuters Republican party attempts to gain a foothold in the climate debate arena. Secondly, it fixes blame for creating something he just found already existed. Lastly, even as it slams Luntz, it has borrowed and implemented ideas present in his report to advance its own cause.

Consider what has happened since the memo was written. Per Luntz’s focus group findings, a majority of the American public ‘believed in global warming, believed that humans were likely causing it, were not interesting in the science, but interested in positive solutions to the problem, wanted jobs, end to dependence on foreign oil, and a shutdown of outsourcing’. Correspondingly he came up with a number of words and phrases to be used by any political party to advance its case.

Last heard, he had just finished work for the pressure group Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

Postscript: Luntz is just another pollster who has consistently worked toward ending real debate over climate issues. His advice on environmental issues in the Luntz memo is virtually indistinguishable from what is in the current US administration playbook.



  1. citizenschallenge

    Hmmm so then why do your denialist types so often bring up the canard of global warming vs. climate change?
    ~ ~ ~

    Our “globe IS warming” and it IS bringing “climate change”, which promises to spiral out of control, if we… particularly your Republican/Libertarian leader types, continue refusing to face the facts of atmospheric greenhouse gases.

  2. deminthon

    Your extreme intellectual dishonesty is showing, as always. Luntz writes in the memo

    “The scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a
    window of opportunity to challenge the science. ”

    And challenge the science is indeed what you slime do … with misleading rhetoric and lies, and paying a handful of suitably corrupt types like Happer, Soon, and Singer.

    ” providing the insight that ‘environmentalism’ and ‘global warming’ invoke images of extremism and alarmist dogma”

    No, he found that “global warming” raises concerns in peoples’ minds that “climate change” doesn’t. Because you’re such an intellectually dishonest piece of stinking garbage, you don’t address whether such concerns are justified by the facts, you take it as a given (the whole heart of your ideology) that they aren’t and so you *prejudge* the very thought of it as “extremism” and “dogma”. Luntz’s whole point is that referring to “global warming” causes people to want to do something about it, and that’s the last thing that the GOP and the corporations it serves wants.