Running from Climate Change: The Obama Administration’s Changing Rhetoric

President Obama at COP15, AFP Photo


By Graciela Kincaid

At both President Obama’s “job speech” to the Joint Session of Congress and his speech at the Clinton Global Initiative last September, one issue was shockingly absent from the agenda: climate change. The term was scarcely mentioned in either speech, and more surprisingly, the administration also failed to deliver on the more popular message of clean energy. For all the talk of job creation and economic growth, the role of green jobs and a potential transition to a green economy were missing from the dialogue. In fact, lately the green jobs issue has taken a serious hit because green innovation has not been proven to create enough immediate “boots, jeans and helmets” jobs.

The phrases “climate change” and “global warming” have become all but taboo on Capital Hill. These terms are stunningly absent from the political arena, and have been since 2010. As Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) said on October 13th, “It has become no longer politically correct in certain circles in Washington to speak about climate change or carbon pollution or how carbon pollution is causing our climate to change.” Why?

As part of a Brown University research project this summer, I conducted a comparative analysis of the Obama administration’s use of climate change and clean energy rhetoric, and how they were changing. We examined 1,606 speeches by administration officials over three and a half years (January 2008-July 2011), assembling keyword counts from a campaign speech database and the White House Speeches and Remarks Archive. Rhetoric was sorted by categories: “climate” and “energy.”

The results were dramatic:

The ratio of the administration’s usage of “climate change” versus “energy” has changed significantly since Obama’s 2008 campaign days. “Climate change” rhetoric saw its brief heyday in 2009, thanks to the popularity of the President, the streamlined message of unified party government, and the hope for legislative action before the United Nations climate change negotiations in Copenhagen. Climate change rhetoric was most prominent during 2009, when it was mentioned 246 times and the months with highest frequency were April and November. Interestingly, the only point at which these two levels were equivalent was in November of 2009–the month the Copenhagen Conference began. Since then, the ratio of energy to climate rhetoric has steadily increased, and the phrase “climate change” is routinely omitted in favor of clean energy-related diction.

The difference in magnitude for the two classes of rhetoric usage is striking. The overall ratio for this 3.5-year period is 7.6:1; energy is mentioned over seven times for each mention of climate change. The ratio of energy to climate rhetoric usage was 9.6 in 2008, 5.0 in 2009, 10.6 in 2010, and 14.6 in the first half of 2011. These ratios climbed since President Obama took office–tripling between 2009 and 2011–revealing the administration’s urgency to outpace the depressing “climate change” imagery with the more upbeat promise of “clean energy.” Noteworthy are the State of the Union speeches, meant to be indicators of the president’s agenda. These speeches regularly favor energy to climate change messages. In 2009, climate change was mentioned only once while energy came up 14 times; in 2010, climate change was mentioned three times to energy’s 15; and in 2011 while energy was mentioned 9 times, climate change was not mentioned at all.

What has caused this significant shift in rhetoric? Climate change is apparently politically tainted, a doomsday issue, and the administration has re-branded it under a clean energy and energy independence discourse. The administration has clearly responded to increasing hostility (on one end of the political spectrum) towards the effort to address climate change, scrubbing out words like global warming, cap-and-trade, and climate change from agency communication. Surveys are showing drops in public concern for the issue, and since 2010 House Republicans have directed an increasingly right-wing agenda against it, striking down climate change legislation and funding at every opportunity. Climate change is a hard sell amidst the economic downturn, and the environment always loses to job concerns. By contrast, the push for clean energy seems bipartisan, positive, and more difficult to publicly oppose. The political calculus seems clear: job creation, national security, and oil independence all seem to be credible, patriotic, and appealing reasons to promote the green sector.

As the calendars flip once again into campaign season, we may see a different strategy from the Obama administration as it seeks to distinguish itself from its Republican challengers. We have already seen more proactive rhetoric from Obama, with digs such as this at Governor Rick Perry: “I mean, has anybody been watching the debates lately? You’ve got a governor whose state is on fire denying climate change.” However, the UNFCCC climate change negotiations in Durban this month saw little effort by the president to shift attention to the issue—Obama chose to send Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Busan, Korea for a conference on foreign aid instead of to South Africa for COP17. The president’s intentions are revealed by his weak rhetoric and avoidance of anything tainted with the terms climate change or global warming. Unfortunately, the atmosphere doesn’t understand our delicate sleights of tongue, only the gases that continue to belch from our cars and smokestacks.

1. “Climate” included the phrases climate change, changing climate, climate negotiations, climate bill, and global warming.
2. “Energy” included clean energy, renewable energy, green energy, energy economy, energy technology, energy independence, energy dependence, energy efficient, energy efficiency, energy security, energy capacity, energy supply, energy-saving, energy plan, energy policy, energy bill, energy jobs, energy industry, energy production, energy use, energy grid, energy future, energy development, energy revolution, energy prices, and energy needs.


6 thoughts on “Running from Climate Change: The Obama Administration’s Changing Rhetoric

  1. Heber Rizzo

    Have you ever considered the possibility that the “problem” is about lack of scientific evidence on anthopogenic global warming?

    Or perhaps on the lack of any warming since 1998 (in fact, there is a little cooling in that period)?

    Or maybe that you (the warmer team and acolytes) have been caught lying about science, and exaggerating about everything else?

    Or that common people has, at last, discovered that your proposals will cause poverty and famine all around the western world?

    Think about that.

  2. viejecita

    You Americans are lucky to have an administration which is not deaf to the increasing voices among real scientists who say that antropogenic climate change is not a proven fact.
    And that the fight against CO2 is much too expensive to be engaged in lightly.
    And that it would be much more effective regarding the people, ( which are what matters ), to prepare for possible floods, or whatever, by not granting construction permits in old river beds, etc etc, and it would be much cheaper too.

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