"Obama and the Politics of Climate Science Communication"


What is lost when the President fails to communicate with the public about global warming and climate change?  What should the President say to the public -- beyond breaking the silence and tactically gaining public support by clearing the low bar set by the global warming disinformation campaign? Could he communicate authentically about the real implications of the climate change problem as it is understood by his science adviser and the leading climate scientists without creating a perfect political storm?  We frame this problem in "Obama and the Politics of Climate Science Communication," a paper presented at the International Conference on Culture, Politics, and Climate Change, held at the University of Colorado at Boulder in September.

"Obama and the Politics of Climate Science Communication," by Rick Piltz, director of Climate Science Watch (full text of the paper in PDF)

Culture, Politics, and Climate Change conference program

The following is an extended excerpt from the longer paper:

“The time for delay is over, the time for denial is over. We all believe what the scientists have been telling us for years now, that this is a matter of urgency and of national security, and it has to be dealt with in a serious way. That is what I intend my administration to do.”

--President-Elect Obama, December 9, 2008[i]

… With the Republicans having shifted sharply in the direction of denying the scientific case for anthropogenic climate change and resolutely opposing policy on mitigation and adaptation responses, the Obama administration has appeared unwilling or unable to forcefully articulate a pro-science, pro-action position that could turn the issue to their advantage. …

Especially from 2009 onward, global warming has been drawn into a polarized, partisan struggle for power and a very high-stakes policy conflict about the future of the energy system.  In addition, it has been drawn into a broader ‘culture war’ and ideological conflict over the role, scope, and direction of the U.S. government and the overall priorities of society.  The political conflict has made it difficult for political elites to conduct a pragmatic, problem-solving discourse informed by a shared understanding and agreement on scientific assessments of the climate change problem.  Rather, any attempt to discuss the implications of climate change for policymaking in terms that accept mainstream scientific assessments, such as those embodied in the National Research Council’s multi-volume America’s Climate Choices study, provokes immediate challenge and conflict.[ii]

This sets the bar quite low for making Obama appear reasonable on the issue.

*    *    *

“Climate change is an enormously important dimension of the energy challenge that we face, and larger environmental challenges that we face …The President is well aware of that. I certainly expect that there will be, at some point, going forward…a major speech from the President that puts all this together in a very forceful way. … It’s far, far more powerful when the President is out there saying it, and he will do that.

“The President understands with crystal clarity what a big deal this is, and it’s not just a matter of the stuff we should do even if we don’t believe in climate change. He believes in it, he understands it, and we’re going to get it done. …

“Unless and until the U.S. gets serious nationally about climate change – and we’re not serious until we put a price on greenhouse gas emissions – until we do that we’re not going to have the international agreement, we’re not going to have the mitigation that we need, and we’re not going to have the support for adaptation. …”

--John Holdren, White House senior adviser to President Obama for science and technology, during the Q&A following his remarks to the National Climate Adaptation Summit, Washington, DC, May 27, 2010[iii]

… This raises the question, is it possible to make significant progress on the climate change science-policy connection without an active communication between political elites and the public about the nature of the climate change problem and the associated policy issues.  The White House appears, for now, to be taking a ‘stealth’ approach of implementing executive measures in the absence of legislation, without talking to the general public about climate change.

Keeping the focus on Obama, I believe this approach has several unfortunate and damaging consequences that, whatever role it may play in his re-election effort, will make it more difficult to address climate change in the future unless he sets a significantly different course during a second term. If Obama is defeated for re-election, the same problem will need to be addressed with a different configuration of climate policy leadership.

I suggest there are several problems not addressed under Obama’s evasiveness on climate change.  These include: (1) the denial machine and the war on climate science; (2) the urgency and time-sensitivity of the sustainable energy transition; and (3) the problem of climate change preparedness.

The denial machine and the war on climate science –

Obama’s refusal, or inability, to find a way to communicate forthrightly with the public about global warming and climate change signals a failure to acknowledge, at the presidential level, the assessment of the problem that he is getting from the leadership of the scientific community. No drawing on the words of his science adviser John Holdren, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco, and other experts in government; no public acknowledgement of the America’s Climate Choices series and other significant reports of the National Research Council; no White House invitations to meet with and show support for James Hansen and other leading scientists.

The President has put forward no defense of the science community in the ongoing war on climate science and scientists, from 2009 onward, when the global warming denial machine went into full attack mode in Congress and in the policy advocacy world.  With climate science taking a beating from people whose political agendas are all too apparent, Obama has been pretty much AWOL. …

The sustainable energy transition

“What do we lose when global warming and climate change get repackaged as clean energy?” asks Max Boykoff in a Washington Post op-ed. “We wind up missing a thorough understanding of the breadth of the problem and the range of possible solutions. … The way we talk about a problem affects how we deal with it.”[iv]

The enormous and difficult project of decarbonizing the global energy system during this century is necessitated by the prospect of unchecked global climate disruption and its potentially disastrous consequences. A ‘clean energy’ transformation is an urgent, time-sensitive policy problem that should be understood as one of the components of a comprehensive climate policy. Martin Hoffert, Emeritus Professor of Physics at New York University, made this point in countering those who have advocated for decoupling the issues of human energy systems from climate change as a way to expedite progress on energy:

Without the possibility of catastrophic climate change radically changing Earth’s environment in decades to a hundred years or so, creating a new global energy system would be a problem for the 22nd Century plausibly tackled in a leisurely way without failure posing an existential threat.

[There is] plenty of coal to run high tech civilization at least another hundred years even with substantial economic growth by burning it in conventional coal-fired electric plants and making liquid hydrocarbon automotive fuels from it. It is planet-transforming climate change — from coal-burning plants now on track to be built by China, India and the U.S. that, de facto, will become the energy infrastructure of the middle and late 21st century — that makes a push to urgently transform of our energy system away from fossil fuels the challenge of the century.[v]

Todd Stern, Obama’s Special Envoy for Climate Change, acknowledged this point in a recent speech at Dartmouth College:

What we need is a straight-shooting conversation that explains what’s at stake in climate change and why we need action to accelerate the transformation to a clean energy economy. We can and should make clear that there are immediate, non-climate benefits to doing this – building America’s competitive future, since clean energy will be one of the defining industries of the 21st century; making our air cleaner; protecting our health against conventional pollution. But we also need to make clear that the severe risks of climate change make this transformation essential if we care about sustaining our health, our prosperity and our national security. Climate change is what makes the transformation of our energy system an engagement of necessity, not one of choice. …

While potent issues of the moment will always command our attention, we must also take the long view, acting now to avoid crisis down the road.[vi]

But how would the President reconcile such a framing, were he to adopt it as his own, with his administration’s promotion of an ‘all of the above’ approach to energy?  The President seeks political support in a difficult economy by emphasizing his administration’s stepped up support for oil production in the Gulf of Mexico, on federal lands, and in the Arctic, along with promoting the game-changing benefits of a long-term supply of natural gas produced by hydrofracking. Mountaintop removal coal mining continues, and more than five years after Massachusetts v. EPA there is no sign of a rulemaking to restrict GHG emissions from existing power plants.

Talking about the implications of climate science would require a politically inconvenient re-framing of the current energy discourse, which seems to be based on the premise that we are going to go on using coal, oil, and natural gas for the indefinite future, with no recognition of a need for a fundamental transformation of the energy system.

Climate Preparedness –

In addition to the question of mitigation – the reduction of GHG emissions from fossil fuels – there is the matter of global climatic disruption already underway.  The U.S., and the world, face a wide range of adverse and potentially disastrous impacts, arguably already beginning to manifest in heat waves, disrupted water resources, extreme precipitation, severe drought, flooding, extraordinary wildfires, and accelerated Arctic ice loss.

What message should the public be hearing from the President and from government leaders at all levels about the need for a national and international strategy for adaptive preparedness to deal with climate change consequences?  The U.S. has no national strategy for adapting to climate change, raising issues of the dangers of being unprepared for increasingly disruptive climate change impacts.  With Washington, D.C., elected officials largely silent, if not in outright opposition to acknowledging the problem, the burden shifts to states and local communities to lead in using impacts assessments in proactive policymaking.[vii]

The low salience of communication between political leaders and the public on the issues of adaptive preparedness arguably makes more difficult the challenge of creating the necessary public understanding and building and maintaining the necessary public support for the kinds of policies that will be necessary to deal with global climatic disruption.

*    *    *

Could Obama reasonably be expected to speak to the public about climate science and policy in the way we are told he has been given to understand the problem by his science adviser John Holdren and the mainstream climate science community?  If he truly understands what Dr. Holdren has presented in numerous talks and writings, as well as the conclusions of the key National Research Council reports, this could be seen as a daunting challenge in several respects.

In congressional testimony on “The Administration’s View of the State of the Climate,”  Dr. Holdren concluded:

While our understanding of the global climate system and our ability to project its future behavior have grown enormously over the past couple of decades, we cannot yet predict with confidence exactly where on a rising temperature trajectory these or other thresholds would be crossed. It seems clear, however, that the probability of crossing one or more of them goes up sharply as the global-average surface temperature increase compared to 1900 goes above 3.6°F (2°C). That is a major reason for the growing global consensus that worldwide efforts should limit heat-trapping emissions sufficiently to hold the average temperature increase to 3.6°F (2°C) or less.[viii]

In an analogous vein, The National Research Council’s America’s Climate Choices report, Limiting the Magnitude of Climate Change, in discussing goals for international efforts to limit climate change, focuses on analyzing a range of global atmospheric GHG concentrations betweeen 450 and 550 ppm CO2-equivalent.  The NRC panel concluded:

Global temperature and GHG concentration targets are needed to help guide long-term global action.  Domestic policy, however, requires goals that are more directly linked to outcomes that can be measured and affected by domestic action.  The panel thus recommends that the U.S. policy goal be stated as a quantitative limit on domestic GHG emissions over a specified time period—in other words, a GHG emissions budget.[ix]

Further analysis in this report suggest that a reasonable ‘representative’ range for domestic emissions, 170-200 Gt of CO2-eq for the period 2012-2050, would require roughly a reduction of emissions from 1990 levels of 50-80 percent.  Achieving the higher end of this range “will require a major departure from business-as-usual emission trends,” is the panel’s understated conclusion.

The framings in the America’s Climate Choices report and Dr. Holdren’s testimony suggest that, in order to prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system – the core goal of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change – there is a need for policy to constrain future GHG emissions within some kind of carbon budget, i.e., a limit on aggregate future GHG emissions. This would require a global budget, partitioned into national responsibilities. Following the implications of this framing to their likely conclusions: with consideration of the problem of equitable sustainable development and the need for buy-in from developing nations, and with the momentum of ongoing global warming and the current trajectory of global GHG emissions, we could calculate that, in order make its contribution to staying under a 2o C warming limit, the U.S. would have to embark immediately on a path toward radically reduced emisions and sustain it over a period of decades. With every year of delay, the transition would become substantially more costly and the goal would become more difficult to reach.[x]

If politics is the art of the possible, what U.S. political leader is going to take that up as a proposed policy?  In U.S. politics, the prospect of an aggressive climate policy could unleash a perfect storm of fundamental conflict.

Dealing with climate change calls for government action on a large scale, at all levels of agreements, with the United States constraining its own behavior in a multilateral context. It requires policy to regulate emissions of greenhouse gases and drive substantial reductions in emissions, on a path sustained over decades. It requires planning and implementing adaptive preparedness to deal with a wide range of disruptive climate change impacts. It calls for support for the research, development, and deployment of new energy technologies.

Taking policy in those directions is anathema to a significant percentage of the U.S. public and to powerful political and economic interests. There is a powerful set of interests in the U.S. that, in order to defend its ‘conservative’ value system and a deregulated free market, is willing to attack the credibility of climate science and even to call into question the integrity of the climate science community, in order to avoid coming to grips with the implications of this problem.  Naomi Klein contends:

The deniers did not decide that climate change is a left-wing conspiracy by uncovering some covert socialist plot. They arrived at this analysis by taking a hard look at what it would take to lower global emissions as drastically and as rapidly as climate science demands. They have concluded that this can be done only by radically reordering our economic and political systems in ways antithetical to their “free market” belief system. As British blogger and Heartland [Institute] regular James Delingpole has pointed out, “Modern environmentalism successfully advances many of the causes dear to the left: redistribution of wealth, higher taxes, greater government intervention, regulation.” Heartland’s Bast puts it even more bluntly: For the left, “Climate change is the perfect thing…. It’s the reason why we should do everything [the left] wanted to do anyway.”

Here’s my inconvenient truth: they aren’t wrong.[xi]

Wrong in their denial of climate science, Klein says, but not wrong in fearing that accepting the science will lead down a slippery slope toward undoing the free-market ideology that has dominated the global economy for decades.

The collision between climate science and the realities of U.S. politics today is such that, to repair the dysfunctional relationship, political leadership would have to tackle this situation and either transform it or decisively defeat the opposition. Climate change can’t be carved out and dealt with as a separate issue unto itself. It must be addressed in this larger context of what might be called a crisis of American democracy – which is due partly to the extent to which the economic interests of corporate power and wealth dominate the political process, and partly to the partisan, ideological, and cultural polarization that creates impasse in the policy arena.

It is no wonder that political leaders are reluctant to take this on.


[i] “Obama Vows Action on Global Warming,” Boston Globe, Dec. 9, 2008,  http://www.boston.com/news/politics/politicalintelligence/2008/12/obama_vows_acti.html

[ii] National Research Council, America’s Climate Choices reports, Washington, DC, National Aacdemies Press, http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12781

[iv] Maxwell T. Boykoff, “When did ‘climate change’ become ‘clean energy’?” Washington Post op-ed, January 27, 2012.  (Online title: “A dangerous shift in Obama’s ‘climate change’ rhetoric”) http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-dangerous-shift-in-obamas-climate-change-rhetoric/2012/01/26/gIQAYnwzVQ_story.html?hpid=z7

[v] “Martin Hoffert: ‘No. No. No to decoupling the issues of human energy systems from climate change.’” Climate Science Watch, September 20, 2010, http://www.climatesciencewatch.org/2010/09/20/martin-hoffert-no-no-no-to-decoupling-energy-systems-from-climate-change/; also, James Hansen, “Game Over for the Climate,” New York Times, May 9, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/10/opinion/game-over-for-the-climate.html?src=me&ref=general

[vi] Todd Stern, Remarks at Dartmouth College, Hanover, N.H., August 2, 2012, http://www.state.gov/e/oes/rls/remarks/2012/196004.htm

[vii] Nick Sundt, “Federal Report Warns of Costly Impacts to U.S. Cities from Changing Weather Extremes,” World Wildlife Fund climate blog, May 22, 2012, http://www.wwfblogs.org/climate/content/climate-change-urban-infrastructure-may2012

[viii] John P. Holdren, Testimony before the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, U.S. House of Representatives, December 2, 2009, http://globalwarming.markey.house.gov/tools/3q08materials/files/holdren.pdf

[ix] National Research Council, America’s Climate Choices: Panel on Limiting the Magnitude of Climate Change, Limiting the Magnitude of Climate Change, Washington, D.C., National Academies Press, 2010, http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=12785

[x] Jonathan Koomey, co-author of the first comprehensive analysis, in 1989, of the implications of a normative target of 2o C warming, argues for basing policy on setting a long-term goal and determining what it would take to reach it. In his new book, Cold Cash, Cool Climate (Burlingame, CA, Analytics Press, 2012), Koomey follows the logic of a carbon budget through its implications for emissions reductions and energy policy.

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