Stanley Greenberg, World-Renowned Pollster, Talks Enviro-Politico Shop


Photograph: Jay Westcott/Rappor

Never heard of Stanley Greenberg? Probably means you've been living under a rock for the last, say, twenty years. He's a political mastermind — akin to being described as the world-champion of public opinion polls. His client list reads like a who's who of domestic and international government — Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Nelson Mandela and Ehud Barak. When the chance to talk enviro-political shop with the Grand Pooh-bah "o" Polling appeared, it was an easy vote of YES WE CAN!Greenberg, a seasoned pollster and political consultant, provides a firsthand account of the electoral and personal battles of such giants as President Clinton and Prime Minister Blair as they struggle to discover the best way to communicate what they believe to nations. He recently published a new book entitled Dispatches from the War Room: In the Trenches with Five Extraordinary Leaders — an enthralling memoir of how he aided five high-profile politicians to push their visions better and toward clearer policies. The book offers a unique insider's look at what made these intelligent and complex men perform the way they did. We had a chance to get the skinny on the eco-perspective of these five leaders from Mr. GREENberg himself.

Treehugger: Your new book profiles 5 leaders - which of them was the most passion about environmental issues...and which seemed the least interested? What is unique about how leaders approach environmental topics, like energy independence or species, in different countries?
Stanley Greenberg: For Tony Blair, global warming was a top-of-mind priority that he spoke about with alarm and frequently used to illustrate his views about community and individual. The crisis of global warming could not be addressed by any nation on its own but only in concert with other countries. It was deeply grounded in his world view and faith. Nelson Mandela also spoke about the environment but more about South Africa's natural beauty and the importance of conservation. He wrote about his time in prison on Robben Island and how he was steeled by the natural environment.


Photo from tonyblairoffice.org

It was not a factor in Goni's election in Bolivia, but he did speak too about the extraordinary beauty of this elevated country. It was not an issue in the election of Ehud Barak in Israel, though there is a national presumption in Israel that you must make wondrous things from what is naturally given, including the sun.

TH: Gallop's editor Frank Newport said recently that Al Gore is losing the battle for climate change...and that people aren't interested...as a pollster, have you seen the same thing with climate change and other environmental issues?
SG: Absolutely misconceived and a misreading of where the American public is right now. While it is true that voters are very focused on the economy, they do not make the trade-off that Gallup is forcing on them. Indeed, it is the opposite. Voters think investment in a clean economy and addressing global warming will help the economy. We're finding that Americans desperately want to get America running on clean energy. To a significant degree, it is because they believe clean energy will recharge the economy. In fact, Progressives should never make the choice, arguing that these challenges move together.

TH: So often Republicans seem to be on the wrong side of the environmental argument...what's the role of leadership to change that versus make it worse?
SG: Republicans haven't always been on the wrong side of the environment. Teddy Roosevelt was one of our country's great conservation leaders. Richard Nixon partnered with a Democratic Congress to pass some of the most significant environmental laws of the 20th century. But during the 1980s and 1990s, the Republican Party abandoned those principles. And when it started hurting them in campaigns, they decided to change their language, but not their policies. The Clear Skies Act made it easier to pollute the skies. The Healthy Forests Act made it easier to clear cut forests. Leadership isn't finding words that mask bad policy; it's finding compelling messages that describe good policy.

Republican political and elected leaders, including their allied public intellectuals and think tanks, are ideologically blocked from accepting that human behavior (e.g., private companies, coal companies, utilities and cars) causes climate change. Don't completely understand, as quite possible to treat this, as in Europe, as an externality. But they continue to doubt climate change and thus are losing younger generations and suburban voters.


Gallop Poll
TH: With regard to policy centering on the environment...do you think there's an essential need to have public opinion polls done to make sure it's what the country really wants? Or is it really up to the elected official(s)?
SG: Public opinion polls shouldn't be the method of discovering a problem. Leaders should understand the moment and challenge. I use surveys to develop the most powerful method to build public support and to judge progress in bringing change.

TH: I'm really interested in hearing more about your experience with Bill Clinton. Is there anything you can tell me that shows his level of interest for environmental issues...or something that surprised you about his views?
SG: During my period in the Clinton White House, we battled to pass his economic plan and health care reform — both were exhausting — one successful and one not. But Vice President Gore was insistent that part of the deficit reduction come from a carbon tax, which people forget, passed the House, before crashing in the Senate. I think Al Gore's understanding of the climate issues was critical to his selection as Vice President and Clinton supported him when Republicans attacked us in Michigan for wanting to abolish the internal combustion engine. Clinton agreed to an in-face spot with Gore, saying, you bet I'm thinking about the future. So, it was not our top issue, but it was with us in the choices we made in the campaign and early on with the economic plan.


TH: The Obama Administration has talked more than any other president about green...green energy, alternative fuel for cars, etc. Is this a good strategy for President Obama? How much of the future of green is now dependent on the success of him implementing green solutions?
SG: It's not just a good strategy, it is his mandate. We began to see an upheaval in the 2006 election about the rise of energy issues — driven in part by our oil dependence and role in the Iraq war and by rising gas prices. But voters were ahead of the politicians in wanting bold investments in alternative energy. By 2008, it was a top tier issue; indeed, it was the economic policy most favored by voters. I do think this marginalizes Republicans who can't begin to talk about the future unless they are part of the debate on alternative energy and a clean energy economy.

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