With Congress preparing to debate climate legislation, environmentalists and their allies are spending millions on ad campaigns aimed at building public support for a cap-and-trade bill and scoring early political points.

While campaign-style advertising on legislative issues is nothing new, the ad buys are coming weeks before either chamber is likely to move a comprehensive bill to the floor. Both proponents and critics of the climate measure say the early ad blitz indicates that environmentalists know they have their work cut out for them in convincing the public and lawmakers to buy into the capping and trading of greenhouse gas emissions.

Environmentalists say a solid majority of voters is on their side and strongly favors not only a strong move toward renewable energy but also implementation of mandatory cap on carbon emissions. That is backed by recent polling that shows no reduction in public support for addressing climate change.

The ads are airing, environmentalists say, because they want to move early in light of what they see as a unique opportunity to move the legislation this year.

"This is real this time. Unlike last year, we have quick, comprehensive movement in the House, we have senators digging into the issues, and we have a White House that is asking with the cap on carbon," said Tony Kreindler of the Environmental Defense Fund. "It is go time right now."

The Environmental Defense Fund started airing its ads more than a week ago, and Kreindler said he believes the message – that climate change legislation can create jobs – has begun to be accepted by the American public, particularly in manufacturing areas hit hard by a severe recession.

"I don't think there's any question that folks have come to understand that these jobs are real," he said. "People see it, it isn't make-belief."

But polls that show steady public support for climate change also show that concerns about the economy far exceed those about the environment. Climate change, in particular, continues to place relatively far down in the polls on the list of issues of greatest importance.

A Gallup survey released last month showed that for the first time in the 25-year history of the poll, the majority of the public believed the economy should be given priority over environmental protection, even if the environment were to suffer to some extent. Just two years ago, 55 percent said they believed environmental issues should be given priority over the economy, while 37 percent said the economy should take precedence.

Today, support for the environment dropped to a record low of 42 percent, while support for economic growth reached a record high of 51 percent, according to Gallup. The poll of 1,012 adults conducted last month had an error margin of 3 percent.

"I definitely think that we are seeing heightened sensitivity to the economy side of the economy-environment tradeoff," said Scott Keeter, director of survey research at the Pew Research Center, adding that a number of other polls have shown a slight downward movement in numbers of people who list climate or the environment as a top priority.

"I don't think there's any way to explain that, other than people increasingly believing that the government's top priority should be on the economy."

'Jobs, jobs and jobs'

In light of that polling and continued grim economic news, it is no surprise that separate campaigns in favor of cap-and-trade legislation carry the same message: Pass a climate change bill and create jobs.

The largest campaign to date has come from a coalition composed of the Environmental Defense Action Fund, United Steelworkers and the Blue Green Alliance. The groups have started running a television, print and online ad campaign in nine states and the District of Columbia that features Braddock, Pa., Mayor John Fetterman, who describes how the former steel town has been decimated by job losses and could recover with increased development of components for alternative energy technologies.

The 30-second ads end with the tagline, "carbon caps = hard hats."

The campaign is expected to cost more than $3 million, and the ads will run through next month.

Additionally, the Blue Green Alliance has launched a television campaign with a roughly similar message across the Midwestern states, featuring workers touting the benefits of green jobs that could be created by "strong climate legislation."

The Alliance for Climate Protection will air radio ads in 15 states – focusing on districts that are represented by members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee – that also espouse the benefits of renewable energy. And the Apollo Alliance has started a campaign calling on Congress to include language in either a climate or energy bill this session that provides loans and grants to U.S. manufacturing companies to "retool" their factories to build renewable energy technologies.

All four campaigns, though calling for implementation of a carbon cap, make virtually no mention of the potential environmental benefits of such legislation and frame the issue almost exclusively in relation to job creation.

"The three top priorities for everybody on the Congress right now are job, jobs, and jobs," said Kreindler of the Environmental Defense Fund.

For the moment, environmentalists have the benefit of being mostly alone in ads on climate legislation. Though there are a number of fierce critics of the climate proposal, no group has yet launched a far-reaching campaign specifically designed to oppose the legislation.

"I think they're trying to score as many points as they can up front, and hold on in the fourth quarter," said Chris Tucker of the Institute for Energy Research, which has been critical of both mandatory carbon caps and the idea that they would create "green" jobs.

"They're trying to get folks to talk about it and generally support the idea, but they know it's going to get tougher as it goes on," Tucker added.

GOP's message

Already, House Republicans have built a message surrounding the issue that hinges almost exclusively on the argument that carbon caps will further raise costs for consumers and drive some business out of the country, further weakening the country's economy.

"When it comes to the issue of climate change ... it's pretty clear that if we don't work with other industrialized nations around the world, what's going to happen is that we're going to ship millions of American jobs overseas," House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said during an interview Sunday on ABC's "This Week." "We have to deal with this in a responsible way."

Environmentalists argue that their opponents have used those same arguments on any number of environmental issues and have not fared well with voters.

"It's been the major political challenge for any environmental public health and safety law for the last three decades," Kreindler said. "We've heard this sky-is-falling stuff forever. I don't think people are buying."

Others say the fate of any climate bill may indeed hang on just which side can better articulate its view of the "jobs" message.

"Right now, with everything going on the economy, if you can't shoehorn your message to those parameters, you don't have a message," said IER's Tucker, who previously worked in the House Republican leadership. "If you're not out there saying that whatever you're promoting is going to create jobs, it's not going to be something that's resonating."

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500