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Obama Does Care More About Climate Change Than Bush, But He Has to Say So

Of course the president understands and cares about climate change. So why's he afraid to talk about it?

A lot of people are making a big to-do of the fact that President Obama didn't even say the words "climate change" during his State of the Union address. London's Guardian went so far as to say, in a headline, that "Barack Obama less interested than Bush" in climate change. As evidence, they included this chart, which reveals "aggregate mentions of 'climate change', 'global warming' and the 'environment' in the state of the union address since 1990."

To be fair, Guardian correspondent Suzanne Goldenberg's analysis wasn't as stubborn as the headline. Goldenberg's article centered on the idea that this very conscious omission of "climate change" language was a reflection of the White House's view that climate change isn't a winning message. There's no doubt that's what Obama's advisers feel, and there's no question that we'll be hearing plenty about clean energy and little to nothing about climate change. This, of course, delights the Breakthrough Institute and others who have long argued about the ultimate failure of fighting a partisan, ideological fight.

The Guardian's headline writers are completely wrong, of course. We need to remember to pay attention to what Obama does, and not what he says, and he has—to very little fanfare—done more to advance the climate cause than any other American president. (I know, that bar is set awfully low.)

That said, the language does matter. Because the sad reality is that all of these massive energy investment proposals are going to face a Republican House that is vehemently against any spending initiatives. As great as the language sounds, it has no legs whatsoever in Congress. So it's not only pointless, but dangerous for the president to dance around climate change. It needs to be the reason for the massive investment. Competing with China is important, yes. But really, securing the stability of our climatic systems for generations ahead—for sake of our economy, national security, and general well-being—needs to be better understood by all. The American public needs to understand the threat, and what's at stake. These investment proposals don't stand a chance otherwise.

Eventually, maybe only after the 2012 elections, Obama will have to give another speech. One that makes clear to the entire country that our government is taking the climate challenge seriously, as a threat to our way of life.

Over on Climate Progress, Bill Becker, executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, gives what I believe is a damn good example of what that speech would look like. It is well worth reading the whole thing, but here's a taste:

In short, we stand at the crossroads of two futures here in the United States and worldwide. One road leads to increasing disruption and damage, and escalating economic and military insecurity. I would call this the “business as usual” road, except the emissions we’ve already put in the atmosphere guarantee that business as usual no longer is an option, whichever road we take.

The second road takes us to a clean energy economy, to greater economic security, to fewer international tensions and resource conflicts, and to new industries and jobs. It takes us to a new American century of leadership and prosperity, and to a future we will be proud to leave to our children.

We know that all countries, including ours, will have to adapt to the climate disruptions that are inevitable because of greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. The issue today is whether we will trigger tipping points that cause climate change to accelerate beyond our control. The second road is still open, if we choose it quickly. And I emphasize again: The choice is not a partisan issue. As one observer has put it, there is no Right or Left at this crossroads. There is only backward or forward.


We know that this administration understands the severity of the threat, and we can only assume that they believe the best way to address it right now is to avoid talking about it. This is shortsighted and foolhardy, and I welcome the day in the not-too-distant future when our elected officials aren't afraid to talk about the biggest threat our nation has ever known.

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