State of the Union 2013 – What Obama Did and Did Not Communicate on Climate

State of the Union 2013 – What Obama Did and Did Not Communicate on Climate

As a communicator immersed in climate communication and public engagement over the past eight years, it was a relief to hear the topic of climate change being prioritized in political discourse during President Obama’s State of the Union speech. Especially given how climate was largely dropped out of public debate during the recent presidential election, this is certainly a step in the right direction.

When it comes to incorporating best practices in climate communication, President Obama got a number of things right:

  • Recognize that climate disruption is real and poses a significant threat. Obama called the challenge out directly early and acknowledged the severity of the threat.
  • Focus on the trends, not on single storm events. One of the examples the President used is that the hottest 12 years in recorded history have occurred over the last 15 years.
  • Emphasize there is scientific consensus. President Obama remarked there was “overwhelming evidence” that can’t be ignored.
  • Make the issue relevant to people’s lives. By tying climate change to Hurricane Sandy and personal stories of storm survivors, the President added an emotional element to the debate and made the issue feel closer.
  • Include hopeful yet realistic solutions to the problem. Obama clearly called for action in Congress, pledged action from the White House, and challenged Americans to join in the effort to cut energy wasted in our homes and businesses in half over the next 20 years.
Unfortunately, the speech was also a humble reminder that we have only begun the climate conversation and still have a long way to go to build the type of public awareness and political will that is needed.

Communicating about climate is complex and it can be difficult to make the connections between climate and other issues people care about. That was the lost opportunity in last night’s address and perhaps why the speech sounded like a list of issues, versus a vision for how we get from where we are at to where we need to be.

To be fair, a number of links were made across priority areas, such as the need to invest in clean energy as a way to create jobs, or the need for “modern pipelines” that can withstand storms. At the same time, the narrative took advantage of the fact that most people do not think systemically and will not necessarily pick out the disconnect between prioritizing action on climate and promoting domestic oil and gas production.  

We need to make clear the interconnections across the issues – such as the fact that “carbon pollution” comes from burning oil and gas – and begin to come to resolution on solutions.  

This doesn’t need to be a conversation about progressive versus conservative agendas, about big government versus small government or adding more red tape to any one’s lives. In Senator Marco Rubio’s response to the State of the Union, he mentioned that there is a role for government and it is to “keep us safe, enforce rules, and provide security against the risks of modern life.” I believe most Americans would agree with that statement regardless of their political ideologies.

Climate disruption, more than any other issue, presents a risk that threatens our short-term and long-term safety and security.  We need to speak unapologetically for the rules that need to be enforced, or reinvented, to help to level the playing field in a changing climate and we need to start talking about ways to decrease the increasing risk of climate impacts in modern life. 

This is about protecting our families and our neighbors. At some point, we need to be willing to talk about how climate change will make current immigration issues seem petty and that reducing carbon emissions might be a critical component of a long-term immigration solutions strategy. That climate disruption is already beginning to stress our emergency response and health care systems and may make our debates over FEMA and Medicare reforms inconsequential. That the infrastructure we invest in will need to not only deliver basic services but will be relied on to protect us from growing extremes in our weather patterns.

The gap between the public conversations we are in and the conversations we need to have remains, but at least there is some momentum to now work with. Here’s what I wish a speech on climate change would have included


Photo via US Gov Flickr user The White House