National environmental groups, conceding that global warming has lost much of its heat as a political issue, are now engaged in what the political online magazine Politico describes as a “rebranding.” Says the Politico article, “There’s been a change in climate for Washington’s greenhouse gang, and they’ve come to this conclusion: To win, they have to talk about other topics, like gas prices and kids choking on pollutants.”  

For the power business, this could turn out to be a positive development. It might expunge carbon dioxide from the regulatory libretto and refocus the ongoing opera bouffe on familiar themes. Perhaps we can drop the self-reverential handwringing about “carbon footprint” and worry about real, tangible, legally defined nasties such as SOx, NOx, and rocks.

This may be less a rebranding than a full-scale retreat. The message that the climate is falling around mankind’s head, pushed by environmental groups and former Vice President Al Gore for more than a decade, has failed to gain much political traction across the nation. In the process, the environmental movement has lost much of its luster and credibility.

The first priority of the Obama administration and its Democratic majority in Congress after the 2008 presidential election—cap-and-trade legislation—not only failed, but crashed and burned around the heads of the Democratic Party. The regulatory overreach gave the Republicans the political equivalent of heat-seeking missiles, and the GOP has used these weapons to punish Democrats. Take a look at this graphic from the Gallup polling organization to see what has been happening to support for environmental causes.

Why did the political message of man-made global warming fail? Aside from the fundamental problems involved in an issue that contained at least as much hype, non sequitur, and unstated political agenda as it did science, the doctrine of manmade global warming has a serious message debility. It doesn’t connect directly to the lives of the people it is alleged to affect. Climate change—which is historically the rule and not exceptional—happens very slowly. People do not experience climate discretely, as they do their economic circumstances.

So the climate catastrophists tried to focus on things that average folks do experience. All they could come up with that touches most people is weather, which, as Mark Twain famously noted, is something that everybody talks about but nobody does anything about. People do experience it. So the message of why we need to stop producing carbon dioxide, a conventionally harmless, even necessary and life-giving gas, switched to preventing extreme weather. Every hurricane, tornado, snowstorm, drought, flood, and famine became living evidence of the malign hand of man on the climate, according to the green liturgy.

But that hasn’t worked, either, in large part because it is totally bogus. Blaming every extreme weather event on the handiwork of man vitiates any science that is behind global warming. In focusing on weather extremes, the environmental groups rendered their hypothesis of manmade global warming unfalsifiable. In short, it stopped being science and became faith, one that few Americans were prepared to accept.

So it’s retreat, or rebranding, or whatever euphemism one might choose. You could also call it “back to basics,” in that the green groups say they are going to resume talking about asthma, public health, and the old messages of the pre-climate change days.

The Natural Resources Defense Council’s Heather Taylor told Politico, “We’re going to talk a lot about the health implications of dirty air.” American University public relations professor Matthew Nisbet, who advises green groups on messaging, wrote recently, “In a polarized America, if you are going to build support for candidates in the Midwest and other battleground states that will back legislation on climate change during the next Congress, you have to switch focus to emphasize public health and economic resilience, goals realized through incremental actions like eliminating coal plants and boosting fuel efficiency.” Politico described the new tactic as “a bit of bait and switch: Help elect global warming fighters by basing campaigns on kitchen-table issues.” 

Whatever the reason for the retreat, it is good news for those in the power industry who face persistent regulatory challenges to their operations. The move back to basics puts the regulatory debate back on common and familiar ground: real pollution, not the faux version represented by benign carbon dioxide.

It’s old whine in even older bottles. That’s probably a good thing for the regulatory debate.

Kennedy Maize is MANAGING POWER’s executive editor