Yesterday, Barack Obama stood up to Big Oil and rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, effectively extinguishing a “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.” This is a huge victory for the climate, for the people, and for our future. But we can’t stop here. During this Tuesday’s State of the Union address, Obama has the opportunity to go one step further: talk about climate change.
In President Obama’s 2009 address, he underlined the necessity to “save our planet from the ravages of climate change.” In his 2010 State of the Union speech, President Obama affirmed the “overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change.” In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama did not mention climate change, not even once.
Bill Clinton talked more about it during his time in office. George W. Bush talked more about it. Admittedly the Obama administration has done more to implement regulations and standards to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than any other president in the last twenty years, he has couched the issue in terms of “carbon,” “climate change,” “global warming,” or even the “environment.”
How can we expect the country to combat climate change if the President can’t say “climate change”?
It’s time to end the euphemisms. What used to be called “pollution” has been re-branded as “emissions.” The grossly understated language of “global warming” has quickly diminished to “climate change.” Now, the rhetoric of climate change has been watered down to palatable bipartisan language of “clean energy” and “green jobs.” The effects of climate change are beyond catastrophic. They are unimaginably horrific. When we talk about climate change, we aren’t simply talking about an insignificant increase in carbon in the atmosphere. We are talking about staggeringly high temperature rises, rapid sea level rise, massive species loss, extreme flooding and drought, food insecurity, and grave health impacts, just to name a few. Some have suggested the term “hell and high water.”
When the President of the United States stops talking about climate change, people stop caring about climate change. The media stops covering climate change. Citizens stop believing in climate change. As constituency pressure wanes, politicians stop caring about climate change. It’s a vicious cycle.
Taking a vigorous public stance is important for five reasons:
1. Talking about climate change acknowledges the problem.
It’s hard to solve a problem without building consensus that the problem is actually a real problem. Across the world, governments are asking, “how do we mitigate and adapt to climate change?” Here in the U.S., political parties are still debating “is climate change real?” In no other country has public opinion on climate change been divided as such a stark partisan issue. With the most anti-environmental House of Representatives in the history of Congress, silence on climate change allows Republican skeptics to fill the void with misinformation. By failing to offer an alternative to climate denial, scientific fact and ethical necessity is abandoned in political discourse.
2. Talking about climate change accepts our responsibility.
As the largest historical contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, the United States has a moral responsibility not only to mitigate our own carbon footprint, but to substantially contribute to adaptation strategies for countries already feeling the effects of climate change. In a 2009 address to the Major Economies Forum on Energy and Climate Change, Obama articulated:
“We also agree that developed countries, like my own, have a historic responsibility to take the lead. We have the much larger carbon footprint per capita. And I know that in the past the United States has sometimes fallen short of meeting our responsibilities, so let me be clear, those days are over… I don't think I have to emphasize that climate change is one of the defining challenges of our time. The science is clear and conclusive, and the impacts can no longer be ignored.”
Unfortunately, the need for Obama to raise the salience of climate change is greater than ever if industrialized polluters are going to begin to reduce emissions and promote energy reform.
3. Talking about climate change motivates action.
“Green jobs” and a “renewable energy future” are strategies to improve the economy. “Combating climate change” is a strategy to improve the planet. Both are needed to complement each other. Addressing climate change head-on recognizes the interconnectedness of people to the natural world, and reminds us that we cannot behave as if we are separate from our biotic community. Not talking about climate change maintains the delusion that we can continue business as usual economic and political systems without sacrificing for the common good. If the Obama administration fails to provide a rationale for energy reform (climate change) and exclusively speaks to market mechanisms or technological approaches, the reasoning for action falls short. Economic determinism – coal is cheap, plentiful, and domestically available – will obstruct comprehensive and lasting solutions.
4. Talking about climate change leads the way.
The United States has the potential to usher in an era of innovation, green jobs, and a renewable energy future. Tens of millions of people, both at home and abroad, will be tuning into Obama’s State of the Union broadcast. If the president takes the lead to guarantee emissions reductions and promote energy reform, American citizens will listen and countries will follow. But, as Jonathan Lash of the World Resources Institute writes, “By excising ‘climate change’ from his vocabulary, the president has surrendered the power that only he has to explain challenging issues and advance complex solutions for our country.”
5. Talking about climate change wins elections.
Enlightened political self-interest suggests that “endorsing the existence of warming, human causation, and the need for ameliorative action” wins votes among both Democrats and Independents, and does not lose votes among Republicans. According to a recent report by Stanford University’s Jon Krosnick, “research suggests that it would be wise for the President and for all other elected officials who believe that climate change is a problem and merits government attention to say this publicly and vigorously, because most Americans share these views. Expressing and pursuing green goals on climate change will gain votes on election day and seem likely to increase the President’s and the Congress’s approval ratings.”
Politicians avoid talking about the hard issues in the election year. But it’s actually not in Obama’s self-interest to censor his language when it comes to climate change. Environmentalists’ support of Obama has waned in recent years. President Obama has the opportunity to repair frayed relations with environmentalists, distinguish his position from flip-flopping Republican front-runner Mitt Romney, and (re)set the tone for his re-election campaign.
Last month, I stood up at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and implored the U.S. negotiating team to set aside partisan politics and commit to a fair, ambitious, and legally binding climate treaty. Failure to address climate change is not only wrong-headed short-term political expediency, but also a long-term obstruction to solving the grave political, economic, and environmental challenges of our time. Young people around the country are asking President Obama to stand up and speak out for more urgent and ambitious action to combat climate change.
Go ahead, you can do it, President Obama.
Break the silence. Be a leader.
Just say it: climate change.