Joseph P. Overton identified an important framework for climate activists to understand: the Overton Window, which defines the range of public policies that are okay to talk about without getting a lot of flak.
If a policy is in the Overton Window, the media will cover it and government will consider implementing it. Policies outside the Overton Window will be labeled “extreme” regardless of how good or needed they may be.
What’s in the window changes over time and people can have a big impact here. Consider Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. When Sanders received national attention for things like Medicare for All, tuition-free public colleges and $15 minimum wage, they were initially ridiculed in the media because they were outside the Overton Window. However, by the end of the campaign, these ideas had moved into the Overton Window. Florida, for example, while voting for President Trump in the 2020 general election, also passed a minimum wage of $15/hour.
The impact of the Sanders Campaign should hearten us — citizen action can move ideas into the Overton Window!
The Green New Deal, a framework for addressing climate change, has moved substantially due to the efforts of the Sunrise Movement, Senator Edward Markey and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — congressional sponsors of the Green New Deal — and many other activists and non-corporate politicians. President Joe Biden was moved to support a bigger climate action package than when his campaign began. THIS! believes that the effort to move the Green New Deal into the center of the Overton Window is a top priority.
Our actions as citizens can help make this happen. In general the more people are exposed to an idea, the more they will consider it. Most people take some time to change their views. It is important to give people “acceptance time” during which they can try on new opinions, values and beliefs.
So we must expand the conversation about the climate crisis and get as many people as possible talking about it. As Texas Tech climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe notes, “If you don’t talk about climate, why would you care? And if you don’t care, why would you act? Action starts with conversation.”
Dick Lamm’s 4 Stages of Policy Development
The importance of conversation is reflected in the four-step process for public policy change described by former Colorado Governor Dick Lamm:
Stage 1: No Talk — No Action
No one is talking about a problem or taking action because it is not yet seen as a problem. This described climate change for many years.
Stage 2: Talk — No Action
People are beginning to see the problem and talking about it but little to no substantive action is being taken to address it. This is a frustrating time for activists who are ahead of the curve on this issue: “It’s just talk! No one is doing anything about it!” But Lamm’s insight is that this is a stage we need to go through to get to the next two stages.
Stage 3: Talk — Action
Now people are acting because they see the problem clearly.
Stage 4: No Talk — Action
There is no longer need for talk because the problem is widely recognized and significant action is being take to address it. Think of driving drunk. It used to be something that was jokingly, even affectionately portrayed in movies and TV shows but now we don’t need to talk about it. It is settled public policy. If you drive drunk, you go to jail.
With the climate crisis, we are a long way from Stage 4 (No Talk — Action), but we have to move toward it as rapidly as we can. The more people we can get talking about climate change, the better, even if they begin as skeptics.
THIS! will launch a Climate Conversationalist training program soon to help move the climate crisis and the Green New Deal into the Overton Window. Stay tuned