OFA frames climate change as public health threat

OFA supports President Obama's climate change plan.

Photo credit: Organizing for Action

On June 2, President Obama finally announced his plan to tackle climate change through EPA regulation of carbon pollution from coal power plants. This is Obama’s biggest climate change initiative yet — and given the current Congress, it’s also the only way he can implement something of this scale. After Congress’ failure to pass a sweeping climate bill in 2010, this is long overdue.

Unlike elections or major legislative battles, this plan will live and die in the federal rule-making process and the courts–two public arenas that aren’t usually associated with broad public participation and mobilization. But that doesn’t mean there’s no need for these activities. It’s in the president’s interest to build as much political support as possible for his plan to maximize its chances of not only  surviving court challenges (especially in front of an increasingly conservative and assertive US Supreme Court), but also the next administration. That push for political support has already begun.

On the day of Obama’s announcement, Organizing for Action sent an email urging support for Obama’s climate pollution plan. The email tells us a few things about how Obama’s political team will communicate about this plan, and how they will deploy OFA to support it (h/t @garthmoore for the email):

From: Barack Obama <info@barackobama.com>
Date: Mon, Jun 2, 2014 at 5:42 PM
Subject: Climate change
To: Jane Doe <jane.doe@gmail.com>

Jane —

I just proposed a plan that cuts carbon pollution from existing power plants 30 percent by 2030.

That’s a responsible, common-sense step to address climate change.

But we’re already getting intense opposition from polluters and special interests who like things the way they are.

OFA is fighting back to show there’s broad support for these new EPA standards. If you want action to combat climate change, you can add your name today.

Climate change is happening, and it’s happening now. As a president and as a father, I feel a moral responsibility to do something about it. The world our children grow up in depends on what we do today.

Carbon pollution is threatening our health right now. Over half of all Americans already live in areas where air pollution too often makes it unhealthy to breathe — it’s time to cut carbon pollution the same way we already regulate toxic chemicals in our air.

Modernizing our power plants so they pollute less will also spark homegrown clean energy innovation, creating jobs and growing our economy.

I’m not going to wait to take action on this.

Right now, big polluters are going to do everything they can to derail this momentum. They’ve been fighting these EPA standards since before they were even announced.

Your voice on this issue is the most powerful thing you’ve got in this fight. I need you to use it.

OFA is stepping up and gathering names in support of these EPA standards — you can add your name:



Barack Obama

Framing climate change: Accountability & public health, but no environment

OFA’s email mentions climate change several times, but doesn’t mention the environment in and of itself–not even once. This is important because much climate advocacy communication has focused on the potentially catastrophic effects of climate change on ecosystems and particular species (e.g. the ubiquitous polar bear). The downside of this framing is that sometimes  it can come across as alarmist, make people feel impotent in the face of a seemingly intractable problem, or arouse negative emotions about the issue that can block engagement with the issue. Instead, OFA relies on two main frames: accountability and public health.

The accountability frame usually places blame on special interests, politicians, and other political actors for obstructing action on issues. It sets up an antagonist as a target of the activist’s anger, which serves as motivation to take action. The reference to “polluters and special interests” is a typical example of this framing, which is very common among progressive groups. Research I conducted for my dissertation, which included climate change and environmental advocacy groups, showed that the accountability frame was the most commonly used by both types of groups in their advocacy emails.

The strategy of framing climate change as a public health issue has gained traction recently, partly due to studies that link the public health frame with positive emotions and support for some climate policies. Since even among Democrats concern about climate change doesn’t crack 40 percent, associating climate change with public health issue–a long-standing Democratic concern–is a smart communication strategy.

The ask: Action, or just fundraising?

While the messaging in this appeal seems pretty solid, its action request and ultimate goal is more nebulous. The email doesn’t ask for any concrete action other than to ‘add your name’ in support of the EPA regs. It’s not a traditional petition in that there’s no expectation it will be delivered to the EPA or anyone else, although presumably the signature count will be made public at some point.

This is the action page:

OFA climate regs campaign page

OFA climate regs campaign page

And taking the action leads to this page:

OFA donation page

OFA donation page

Right now, OFA seems to be using the climate regs only as a list-building and fundraising tool. Presumably the money could be used by the Democrats to build support for the regs; realistically, it will most likely be used to support election campaigns. Given that OFA has developed solid messaging to support the president’s plan, it would be a shame if this is where the campaign begins and ends.

Luis Hestres

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