Will the State of the Union Address the State of the Planet?

Mon, 2011-01-24 10:41Chris Mooney
Chris Mooney's picture

Will the State of the Union Address the State of the Planet?

It’s freezing out in the northeast—and to hear some pundits and strategists tell it, global warming may be largely frozen out of President Obama’s pending State of the Union address.

In other words, if waiting for the president to say “climate change” is your drinking game strategy for tomorrow night, you may wind up painfully sober by the end of the speech.

As Joe Romm notes, even those pre-speech analysts who do intimately understand the climate issue (and most do not) want the president to talk about energy innovation, not how much of a risk we’re running from ongoing warming. And at a time when the unswerving focus is the economy and jobs, and the president has just named the CEO of a clean energy company, General Electric, to head his new Council on Jobs and Competitiveness, you have to figure they’re on to something.

After all, even in the last State of the Union Obama only mentioned climate change twice. And he only did so to quickly reframe it as a clean energy issue:

I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change.  But here’s the thing – even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy-efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future -– because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy.  And America must be that nation.

Should we be upset by this? Should we welcome it?

I’m in the political realist camp. The fact is that global warming has never fared well as an issue on the public radar, and when the economy is faltering that’s even more certain to be the case. Media attention to the topic has been in decline since 2007 and since the Copenhagen-Climategate double whammy of late 2009. Indeed, this is something that we’ve come to expect: Media attention to climate change will not correlate with the subject’s growing urgency; and politicians will act more like journalists than like scientists in how much attention they pay to the topic.

Don’t get me wrong: I think climate scientists should communicate clearly about climate science to address the many misconceptions out there on the topic—and they’re becoming better and better at doing just that, in real time. I also think it’s important to expose misinformation campaigns, and trace them to their corporate and think tank origins.

But I’m not sure that presidents, environmental groups, and even some leaders of industry are wrong to focus on a message about clean energy innovation, rather than warnings of planetary climate instability.

We know from a variety of sources (polling data, issue framing considerations, etc) that the “clean energy”/”green jobs” message is probably the best one to put forward if you want to prepare a political environment for solving the climate problem, especially in the wake of an economic downturn that is only slowly reversing. And that’s why everyone has been running around using it constantly–and why the president will surely use it tomorrow night as well.

But experience further teaches that even with what is probably the best message out there, you still don’t up and win the issue suddenly. It’s so bitterly fought that you barely break even.

I’m inclined to say that that—not the failure of President Obama to get into the details of climate science—is the really sad thing about the current state of affairs.

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