State of the Union a key opportunity for Obama to raise profile of climate change impacts


President Obama’s first State of the Union address tonight presents a key opportunity for him to speak directly to the nation about the risks of climate change. In the wake of vicious attacks on the climate science community and the failure to achieve a binding agreement at Copenhagen, and with climate and clean energy legislation floundering in the Senate, the need for a strong message from the President is more urgent than ever.

Although tackling climate change was a signature issue for President Obama during the campaign, legislative efforts have lost steam in the Senate and the President has yet to make a direct appeal to the nation about the threat it poses and the need for action. In his first State of the Union address tonight, Obama is expected to use populist rhetoric to assuage fears about high unemployment, a growing deficit, and the perception that business-as-usual politics persists in Washington. But there has been no clear indication of whether the President will use this opportunity to reinvigorate the push for comprehensive climate and clean energy legislation.

White House messaging in support of climate and clean energy bills thus far has focused almost exclusively on green jobs creation and the elimination of dependence on foreign oil. Yet in an atmosphere of vast economic uncertainty and Republican fear-mongering about government spending, the rhetoric of green jobs has been unable to motivate widespread public support for addressing climate change and has opened the door to predatory attacks from those seeking to exploit scientific uncertainty for political ends.

Clearly Obama must speak primarily on the economy tonight, the issue most urgent to policymakers and the American people. However, a specific, direct appeal on the importance of addressing the causes and impacts of climate change, and a clear expression of the Administration’s willingness to do so, will go a long way toward laying the foundation for public support without detracting from his larger message.

We face a tremendous gap between what scientists warn about the dangers of global warming and what the public understands, and a discourse that has been hijacked by toxic, politically motivated attacks on the credibility of the climate science community. At the very least, Obama must reclaim the ability to frame the issue in terms of the strength of the science, and pave the way to toward ramping up pressure on the Senate to take action. 

The EPA’s recent Endangerment Finding under the Clean Air Act is clear: the current and projected greenhouse gases in the atmosphere threaten the public health and welfare of current and future generations. There is no excuse for why this conclusion is not a central part of the Administration’s messaging on what we were promised is a signature issue. 

Senate inaction also has international implications; failure of the Senate to codify a US commitment to cut emissions is likely to preclude the possibility of a binding global agreement to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. The stakes are too high for Obama to leave the fate of comprehensive climate and clean energy legislation in the hands of a weak messaging strategy and squander the progress that has already been made.

Previous CSW posts:

Obama on climate change action: Delay no longer an option, denial no longer an acceptable response (November 18, 2008)

President Obama should lead in talking about the consequences of inaction on climate change (June 18, 2009)

NY Times editorial echoes our view that Obama must speak out on climate change threat (August 10, 2009)

Obama in UN Climate Summit speech should talk about climate change impacts and the risks of inaction (September 21, 2009)

President Obama at UN Climate Summit talks the right talk … but will the US walk the right walk? (September 22, 2009)

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