ANALYSIS: Obama’s State of the Union must sell the climate challenge as war

Publish date: February 11, 2013

As mainstream spin doctors and pundits in Washington regurgitate White House leaks that President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech Tuesday evening will be shine a spotlight on the economy, others suggest it will be the second round of climate and energy fireworks that characterized his inauguration address.

The truth will likely lie in between as he addresses the annual joint session of the House of Representatives and the Senate tomorrow evening.

But one of the strongest indicators that he could let loose with some of the oldie-but-goodie environmental tunes that cemented his popularity during his early first term is that he essentially has nothing to lose as a second-term president, who, judging by his across the board populist rhetoric at his inauguration, could aim for the jugular on his signature issues.

In other words, Obama must pitch efforts against climate change – in his characteristic soaring rhetoric – as nothing short of a matter of national and international security. This time against a less amorphous enemy, and one that has shown itself in raging wildfires, freak-of-nature storm, withering drought, broken heat records and nearly supernatural blizzards.

For him to convince a jaded environmental lobby and doubters alike that he means business on international US involvement in climate negotiations, emissions cuts at home, and jobs in the renewable sector, he will have to speak in detail, and spell out how he plans to accomplish his goals – and then get round to the business of doing it.

If he is honest about addressing these issues, it won’t be pretty.

In his first term, Obama rarely spoke about the urgent and fearful nature of the climate crisis, or how long and difficult—politically, economically, diplomatically and in terms of civilian displacement and death—it will take to solve.

While the US languished in the depths of the Great Recession in 2009, the president’s advisers told him that speaking about an environmental problem—especially one on the scale of global warming—was political poison. They cooked up a way to reframe the issue. Rather than describing the perils of rising sea levels, Obama promised the nation he’d jump-start the economy with a shiny-sounding clean-energy plan that would soon create millions of green jobs.

Return to the word ‘climate’

The speech that launched Obama’s second term signaled that he intends to talk about a darker but more honest reality.

“None can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms,” he said. And instead of promising a wealth of green jobs just around the corner, he said, “The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult.”

This was a far more sober view than his first term efforts that promised the renewables sector would put a chicken in every pot.

A cursory reading of US media shows that those close to the president expect him to talk a lot less about the glories of green jobs in the second term – and a lot more about the long-term struggle ahead to overcome the challenge of climate change. That’s a much less pleasant message, but it may be necessary to prepare the public for what’s to come. Some of the previews include images of New York City’s Battery Park area underwater; the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Katrina from which Gulf States have still to recover; the summer of 2012 during which more than 2,100 all-time-high temperature degrees were not only broken but decimated; freak tornados in the US midwest. And shall we add to that millions in Africa – where the impacts of climate change are already a fact of life – who are on the move and in constant danger of internecine bloodshed over resources as basic as water?

Obama doesn’t have to sweeten the bitter pill this time around. Unlike four years ago, when a cap-and-trade proposal to restrict carbon emissions was still on the table, the president has no reason to anticipate any cooperation from Congress in forging a climate plan.

But this time around, he can, on a national level, direct his own orchestra, using the Environmental Protection Agency to wield his executive authority to churn out aggressive, top-down regulations requiring coal-fired power plants, oil refiners, and other polluters to slash their carbon emissions—a move that is sure to trigger some bloody sword fights with Republicans and the fossil-fuel industry—but are nonetheless his only recourse over a recalcitrant Congress concered only with the millions from the fossil fuels industry that have secured their sinecures as nay-sayers to progessive energy and environmental polices.

And this is something that should be addressed in the State of the Nation:  The public should be prepared for ground combat over EPA regulations of coal plants, of hydro-fracking, and of carbon.

Further candor will be required of the US president: Obama should detail how near impossible it will be to take on climate change in a meaningful way, espcially given 20 years of failure of the UN process to bring it to heel. The world is, in fact, worse off in terms of emissions since the Kyoto protocol was conceived — thanks largely to the US.  Even today, 95 percent of the US cars are fueled by petroleum, and fewer than 5 percent are electric or hybrid vehicles. Fossil fuels generate 80 percent of the country’s electricity. Only about 5 percent comes form renewable sources.

What ‘breakthroughs’ are required to get the US bac in the climate game?

Given the lay of the US landscape, rolling out serious measures on climate change could take decades to achieve, and it will require technology – some of which is ready to go out-of-the-box, while others are not yet even yet on the horizon. Encouragement and funding to develop these innovations from the highest levels is necessary.

Yet, no matter how Obama strains for an international climate agreement, he is, in that context, constrained by the whims of a teetering Congress. And even if cap and trade emissions are fully approved, the US’s current contributions to emissions cuts hovering at 17 percent are still but spit on a fire thanks to the recalcitrance of other greenhouse-gas-belching economies like China, India, and even Russia, and will offer nothing of substance.

The reality of renewable jobs

Some jobs in the renewable sectors once painted as the New Jerusalem by Obama in his rookie years are meanwhile bound to be created. Should the world’s leading economies outpace America in this endeavor – as many are likely to do – it could create the impetus in the US to do the same, in pursuit of winning the race to create mega-profits, which such businesses are poised to creat. This is not out of reach for the US, whose American Recovery and Reconstruction Act (ARRA) of 2009 still has billions earmarked in loan guarantees to help kick-start companies pursuing renewable energy. 

Selling the American public what it apparently wants

Polls since before the presidential election have shown growing numbers of Americas believe global warming is caused by human activity, and that they are willing to shell out to avert climate change’s effect. 

In a September 2012 poll by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, 88 percent of respondents said the United States should make an effort to reduce global warming, even if it has economic costs.

But polls allow for anonymous piety – and are certainly not binding referenda – and when it comes to selling those very poll results back to Americans – who are so rightfully weary of further pummeling at the hands of the economy and last week’s spike in unemployment – could be like selling brimstone in Hell. 

The US, and the world, then, deserve to hear tomorrow night how the earth’s most powerful political and his rejuvenated team of progressive thinkers can package this in thoughtful and specific terms.

Adopting a war footing

Previous administrations have been able to sell privation and sacrifice to the American public when faced with war. Combating climate change, too – though devoid of the symbolics of yellow ribbons and bumper stickers – is itself nothing less than war, stretching borders and threatening the future of humanity. And it’s already in full-swing and climate change is winning as politicians drone on about essentially isolationist policies.

When viewed in that perspective, tomorrow night’s speech could prove to be Obama’s moment to put climate change and renewable energy back into the national, and international, vocabulary.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get our latest news

Stay informed