A pair of top Democratic operatives advised business owners to avoid discussions of scientific fact and stick to personal stories when discussing climate change during a training webinar.
"If it’s just policy, if it’s just talking points, I can tear that apart if I’m a host" of a news program, explained Seth Pendleton, a partner at Democratic messaging firm KNP Communications. "I really can’t do that with a good story."
Pendleton and KNP partner Matthew Kohut, both veteran Democratic staffers, briefed members of the left-leaning trade group Business Forward on how to talk to reporters about climate change in a Tuesday webinar.
Their recommendations provide a glimpse into the Democratic messaging machine’s approach to the issue of climate change. In a debate often dominated by the minutiae of scientific studies, Kohut and Pendleton told Business Forward members to stay light on specifics.
The media training session provided tips ranging from effective posture and tone to specific messaging on the climate issue designed to convey that it is a pressing political problem that requires immediate action.
Kohut and Pendleton offered talking points that link climate change to specific extreme weather events even as they acknowledged the lack of scientific support for such claims.
"A host may say, ‘well are you saying that that event was caused by climate change?’ That’s one of those questions that we really can’t answer by saying yes or no," Pendleton admitted. "You don’t want to get caught up in this or that event did or did not happen quantitatively because of climate change."
"What you can say is … ‘The climate is on steroids. It’s like a baseball player on steroids. Now, is every home run they hit before or since then exactly because of steroids? No, but are we noticing that the ball sails out of the park a heck of a lot more than it used to, then the answer is absolutely.’"
That is a popular way of framing the climate issue among national Democrats. Sen. Ed Markey (D., Mass.) used that exact analogy to describe the problem last year.
Business Forward, whose corporate members pay an annual membership fee for access to its network of Beltway insiders, has worked to get segments of the business community on board with the Obama administration’s environmental regulatory agenda.
Tuesday’s media training included suggested talking points that mirror those used by leading Democrats, but that experts say distort the nature of the problem.
"Climate change equals lost dollars," Pendleton suggested as an effective talking point for member businesses. "I can tell you that climate change isn’t just abstract. Climate change costs me money."
He and Kohut frequently invoked hurricanes—specifically Katrina and Sandy—as a way of demonstrating the damage that climate-induced extreme weather can do to businesses’ bottom lines.
However, scientific data show that the frequency and intensity of U.S. hurricanes have both trended down since at least 1900, suggesting that the increase in carbon dioxide emissions since then have not exacerbated the problem.
A 2012 study by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), widely recognized as the leading scientific authority on the issue, found little evidence tying hurricane activity to climate change. In fact, it predicted a potential decline in hurricane activity going forward.
It is "likely that the global frequency of tropical cyclones will either decrease or remain essentially unchanged," the report found.
It expressed "low confidence in any observed long-term (i.e., 40 years or more) increases in tropical cyclone activity, after accounting for past changes in observing capabilities."
President Barack Obama frequently cites increasing damage associated with hurricanes as a financial impetus for action on climate change. However, the IPCC attributes that increase to the simple fact that there are more people living in more expensive houses in areas traditionally vulnerable to hurricanes, such as the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.
IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report in 2013 found little to no evidence to suggest that climate change is exacerbating droughts, floods, thunderstorms, hurricanes, or extratropical cyclones.
Roger Pielke of the University of Colorado’s Center for Science and Technology Policy Research called those findings "so unavoidably obvious that the IPCC has recognized it in its consensus."
"I have no doubts that claims will still be made associating floods, drought, hurricanes and tornadoes with human-caused climate change—Zombie science—but I am declaring victory in this debate," he wrote. "Climate campaigners would do their movement a favor by getting themselves on the right side of the evidence."
Despite the shaky scientific evidence for an increase in climate-induced extreme weather, Obama frequently invokes damage from such weather to make the case for political action on climate change.
It is likely not a coincidence that Business Forward’s messaging mirrors the White House’s. The group boasts about the influence that it has on White House policy. Business Forward members "have seen their recommendations reflected" in three trade bills, White House jobs legislation, Obamacare, and "every Obama budget," the group says.
Neither Business Forward nor KNP returned requests for comment by press time.
Update 12:25 P.M.: After publication, Business Forward spokeswoman Rachel Harvey said, "the goal of our media training webinars is to help business leaders learn to discuss how different policy issues affect their businesses. For example, our last training focused on international trade."
"When business leaders speak with media about policy issues, their job is to provide examples of how the issue has affected them," she said in an email.
Harvey pointed to IPCC findings that climate change may increase heat swings and "heavy precipitation events." She also pointed out a pair of other studies, one of which states, "‘there is no sound theoretical basis for drawing any conclusions about how anthropogenic change affects hurricane numbers or tracks, and thus how many hit land.’"
The other study found that, "in recent years, hurricane intensity seems to be lagging behind the correlation found earlier."