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Values Proposition

How to build voter support for sustainability in a polarizing political year

Engaging the electorate on sustainability issues requires authenticity and clear messaging.

An aerial view of a checkmark in the form of a clear pond in the middle of a lush forest

Source: Shutterstock/petrmalinak

The 2024 presidential election campaign has already begun. Barring a major change in the health status of the two elderly front-runners, or the legal circumstances of former President Donald Trump, there is no mystery about who will be leading their respective Democratic and Republican tickets. The entire House of Representatives is also up for grabs, as is one-third of the U.S. Senate.

Many challenging issues will confront the electorate: reproductive freedom; immigration; inflation and the state of the economy; the Israel/Hamas and Ukraine/Russia conflicts; climate change; and many others at the state and local levels.  

Most sustainability issues are not a central focus of this year’s campaign despite ongoing controversies concerning environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues, exposure to microplastics and litigation over the federal government’s degree of legal authority to implement environmental statutes. How, then, to present sustainability to the electorate?

Election choices

Both major parties and their candidates can be expected to roll out a number of positions to persuade specific blocs of voters to endorse their slate of candidates.

Democrats will cite a litany of accomplishments including a strong and continuing bounce back from the pandemic with a robust jobs market and declining inflation. They will celebrate major legislative accomplishments such as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (2021), the Inflation Reduction Act (2022) and the CHIPS and Science Act (2022), which, collectively, provide hundreds of billions of dollars in grants, tax credits and other financing for innovative clean energy technologies, semiconductors and public infrastructure. Democrats will also portray their actions to control greenhouse gases and other pollutants as advancing environmental equity for at-risk populations. The benefits of many of these initiatives have yet to affect voters, but they will be presented as investments for a better future.

Republicans will focus on the cost and economic disruptions of the Democrats’ economic and environmental plans. They will cite their fealty to market forces to optimize economic decision-making rather than government-determined industrial policies. At the same time, Republicans and their business community allies will continue to advocate government investments for carbon sequestration and development of hydrogen-based fuels. They will also portray ESG as European socialism and oppose additional ESG reporting as a burden upon business. Republicans enthusiastically support court challenges to the federal government’s regulatory authorities.

What not to do this election season

Election seasons are also characterized by gaffes that political opponents stand ready to exploit. Given the history of the two presumptive presidential nominees, this is likely to be a gaffe-filled campaign. Gaffes often reflect a strategic mindset that campaigns have about the electorate and its priorities and values. Some mistakes to avoid this campaign season include:

  • Inauthenticity. Voters are innately suspicious about politicians and often see through the difference between their campaign statements and how they actually voted. Republicans who show up at ribbon-cutting ceremonies to dedicate new infrastructure projects that they voted against is a continuing story. Similarly, Democrats who voted for clean energy legislation face criticism for their advocacy of local pipeline or fossil fuel energy projects.
  • Talking about processes rather than outcomes. Voters generally don’t have much interest or knowledge in how politicians or professionals exercise their craft — try explaining risk assessment or materiality evaluations to your family — and will tune out if that’s the focus of your communication. Rather, it’s important to present the direct, personal benefits of campaign proposals and the values they represent.
  • Removing popular products from the marketplace. The Biden administration dodged two politically sensitive bullets this year by allowing gas stoves to remain on the market (albeit with stricter energy efficiency standards in future years) and announcing plans to extend the 2032 deadline for emissions limits on internal combustion engines. Public opinion is extremely cautious about limits or bans on popular products in the short run and can quickly be mobilized into populist responses to preserve their freedom of choice in the marketplace.
  • Using unclear language. Decades ago, conservative pollster Frank Luntz advised his business clients that "climate change" would be a better descriptor to support their interests than "global warming." This terminology has subsequently become part of the accepted lexicon across the climate debate. In the 2024 campaign, technical, programmatic or elite-sounding terms such as "sustainability, "net zero," "ESG" or "transparency" should give way to language such as "environmental progress," "climate goals," "fairness and equity" and "openness," respectively. This substitution avoids the political trap that candidates are talking down to voters or don’t relate to their needs.

Assumptions about the electorate — and suggested messaging

Voter participation rates over several election cycles in 2020 and 2022 powerfully signal that the public is motivated to vote on many issues of deep personal concern to them. These include women’s fears over the growing loss of their reproductive freedoms, younger voters’ passionate beliefs about climate change and minority citizens’ priorities of societal equity and justice. While not all of voters’ priorities will directly bear on sustainability issues, a rising tide of voter engagement can provide environmental, public health and social issues with greater political momentum after the election.

With these factors in mind, sustainability advocates should focus on several simple, yet powerful messages during this season’s election campaigns:

  • "Vote!" Voting is the most important message — and action — that supports the sustainability agenda this year. Registering new voters and turning them and existing voters out will strengthen important political relationships up and down the ballot and pave the way for future "asks" from elected officials.
  • "Protect essential freedoms." These freedoms range from the preservation of clean air and water in local communities to protecting a woman’s right to make decisions involving her own body. This overall message can be subdivided for specific voting blocs (youth, women) while serving as an umbrella that summarizes core values.
  • "Save the future." This message embodies economic investment, innovation and security characteristics important to business and workers, but it also supports policies to protect against disruptive mega-risks such as climate change and identifies opportunities for future generations.
  • "Work together." As a whole, the American public is consistently receptive to efforts that submerge partisan bickering in favor of collaborative efforts that bridge political and policy differences that yield progress towards solving problems that affect their lives.

Communication on more specific sustainability issues — biodiversity, ESG, modernizing the electricity grid, regulatory policy — will be important in appealing to the blocs of voters more directly engaged in them. The ability to position these and other sustainability initiatives as proof points within broader messaging strategies can pay dividends with independent voters and further motivate those already seeking to have their voices heard.

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