A New Year’s resolution for Obama: Figure out how to talk to the public about climate change


In the U.S., public understanding of and support for climate science and its findings about the likely consequences of global climatic disruption is seriously underdeveloped, and even appears to have slipped during 2009.  This may be due in part to the decision by President Obama and some of his strongest supporters to focus their message narrowly on the mantras of clean energy and green jobs, and their tactics narrowly on cap and trade legislation….

Post by Rick Piltz

The problem of global climatic disruption is much more than a problem of energy policy per se, and it calls for a continuous emphasis on climate science communication and on discussing the link between science and policymaking.  Without a better public appreciation for climate science and the likely consequences of inaction, it will be more difficult to maintain support over time for the rigors of a radical transformation of the energy system, and for the steps needed to support adaptive preparedness for damaging impacts in the U.S. and abroad. 

Obama’s way of talking to the U.S. public about climate disruption — to the extent that he talks about climate change at all, as opposed to “win-win” talk about clean energy — has been in the right direction, but it has been minimalist, sketchy, and lacking the depth and texture called for by the complexity and seriousness of the problem.  To develop his thinking and discourse, he could, for example, use material like that in the report released in June by his leading climate science officials – Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States

Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, an assessment report of the U.S. Global Change Research Program prepared by a team of leading experts, can be viewed on-line and downloaded here.

The book, published by Cambridge University Press, is available here and here.

All three of the above links include video of the report’s release by John Holdren, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Jane Lubchenco, Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and report co-editors Thomas Karl and Jerry Melillo.  Also see our post: Video link and key quotes from White House briefing on Global Climate Change Impacts report.

From the publisher’s web site (and Amazon):

Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States

Edited by:

Thomas R. Karl
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Asheville, North Carolina

Jerry M. Melillo
Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole

Thomas C. Peterson
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Asheville, North Carolina

Susan J. Hassol
Climate Communication, Basalt, Colorado

This book is the most comprehensive report to date on the wide range of impacts of climate change in the United States. It is written in plain language to better inform members of the public and policymakers. The report finds that global warming is unequivocal, primarily human-induced, and its impacts are already apparent in transportation, agriculture, health, and water and energy supplies. These impacts are expected to grow with continued climate change – the higher the levels of greenhouse gas emissions, the greater the impacts. The report illustrates how these impacts can be kept to a minimum if greenhouse gas emissions are reduced. The choices we make now will determine the severity of climate change impacts in the future. This book will help citizens, business leaders, and policymakers at all levels to make informed decisions about responding to climate change and its impacts.

Media Coverage:

New York Times/Climate Wire: U.S. Study Projects How ‘Unequivocal Warming’ Will Change Americans’ Lives – click here

Washington Post:  Report: Climate Change Already Affecting U.S.


About this report
Executive summary
1. National climate change
2. Climate change impacts by sector
3. Regional climate impacts
4. An agenda for climate impacts science
5. Concluding thoughts
Author team biographies; Primary sources of information; Acronyms; References; Photography credits.


’ … the most up-to-date, comprehensive, and authoritative assessment of climate change impacts on the United States. … [The report] is part of a larger process of public and policy-maker education about what the science is telling us, that one has to hope will contribute to how people think about specific legislative proposals, and the need to move ahead, after many years of dithering and delay.’
– John Holdren, assistant to the President for Science and Technology and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy

’ … human-induced climate change is a reality, not only in remote polar regions and in small tropical islands, but everyplace around the country, in our own back yards. It’s happening. It’s happening now. It’s not just a problem for the future. We are beginning to see its impacts in our daily lives. More than that, humans are responsible for the changes that we are seeing, and our actions now will determine the extent of future change and the severity of the impacts. … it is not too late to act. Decisions made now will determine whether we get big changes or small changes.

… If we take immediate and sustained action to reduce heat-trapping pollution, we can in fact avoid the most severe impacts … Much of the foot-dragging in addressing climate change is a reflection of the perception that climate change is way down the road, it’s in the future, and it only affects remote parts of the planet. … The report does exactly what is needed at this time, which is to emphasize the reality of climate change, the fact that it is urgent, that we [need to] reduce heat-trapping pollution, and the fact that it is happening everyplace. That is the most important information for decision-makers to hear right now, … The sooner we focus on getting our house in order, the better we will be prepared to be players on the international scene.’
– Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

‘By comparing impacts that are projected to result from higher versus lower emissions of heat-trapping gases, our report underscores the importance and real economic value of reducing those emissions. It shows that the choices made now will have far-reaching consequences.’
– Tom Karl, director of the NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center, Asheville, N. C., and cochair of the committee that pulled together the report

‘One of the messages that we are trying to make sure people understand is that stakes are high. This really is not an issue that you can think about in terms of, ‘oh, these things might happen in 50 years.’ Things are happening now.’
– Anthony Janetos, director of the Joint Global Change Research Institute at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, College Park, MD., a report coauthor

‘Elected officials and their constituents ought to be influenced by the kind of material in this report. I hope this whole [issue] of the climate change consequences gets into the bloodstream of the public discourse of the country.’
– Rick Piltz, director of the Government Accountability Project’s Climate Science Watch, Washington, D. C.

‘If the United States and the rest of the world don’t act together to address this global issue, we will be leaving generations with a much hotter and much poorer planet. … [lowering U.S. emissions] is a Herculean task. We can do it, but we have to greatly invest in energy [research and development], use all the tools we have today, and develop the new tools for tomorrow.’
– Rosina Bierbaum, codirector of the World Bank’s World Development Report 2010, and dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment

For more on the report and related issues see our earlier posts:  Assessment of Climate Impacts and Adaptation

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