Barack Obama’s re-inauguration provided plenty to talk about – but only one real surprise. After a long, frustrating first term in which climate change was notable only by its absence from policy and rhetoric, Obama headlined his speech with a strong, unambiguous commitment to renew America’s efforts to tackle climate change.
It is more than a little absurd that a few sentences were received with such desperate gratitude by environmental campaigners around the world. That the leader of the American government acknowledges that something ought to be done about climate change should not be news in 2013.
But it is – and thankfully, Obama’s climate silence is finally over:
“We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.
The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”
The language with which the climate silence was broken was intriguing.
For a speech of this significance – setting the agenda for his second and final term in office – every word would have been crafted and sweated over. So when Obama talks about ‘our obligations as Americans’ (patriotism), refers to a duty of care from God to care for the planet (religion), and confronts directly the science-denial of the Republican Right (‘some may still deny the overwhelming judgement of science’), he is using some very interesting and strategically deliberate ways of framing climate change.
Obama’s choice of rhetorical frames tells us more than simply that climate change is back on the agenda. It tells us how climate change is going to be re-animated in the American mind – signposts to the way that Obama wants Americans to think about climate change.
Obama wants to persuade the American public that not acting on climate change is a betrayal to their children, God and their country – powerful, deeply American values. If he manages to do this, he will have achieved what every environmental campaigner for the past two decades has failed to do: break climate change out of its ‘environmentalist’ niche, and make it something that ‘ordinary’ folk care about.
As if to answer Obama’s rallying call for confronting climate change, Greenpeace released a report identifying 14 enormous fossil fuel projects that would – if they were all to go ahead – push us past the point of ‘no return’ regarding the ‘2 degrees’ limit that is widely considered to represent ‘dangerous’ climate change.
From offshore oil drilling in Brazil, to the Tar Sands in Canada, these industrial projects would all but condemn us to a hugely unpredictable, unprecedented and over-heated world. They are climate disasters waiting to happen, or, as Greenpeace describe them, ‘carbon bombs’.
As James Murray, editor of Business Green pointed out, ‘carbon bomb’ is an incredibly powerful term:
“For too long environmental campaigners and green businesses have spoken about ‘carbon
emissions’ and ‘climate change’ and ‘sustainability’. It is time to talk of ‘climate crisis’, ‘gargantuan carbon bubbles’, and ‘carbon bombs’…The ‘carbon bomb’ is in danger of going off. We have never needed the clean tech bomb disposal team more”
Murray’s views will resonate with many climate change campaigners frustrated with the lack of urgency that has infected everything from international negotiations to behaviour change campaigns. The carbon bomb is a war metaphor. A co-ordinated societal response on the scale of a war effort would undoubtedly be more proportionate than the extensive deckchair re-arrangement plan currently in place.
But is it a useful way of reaching the un-convinced, or otherwise disinterested?
There is a fair amount of academic research that has asked whether – and under what circumstances – using fear and threats is a good tactic for public engagement. The take home message is that fear can motivate engagement and behaviour change, but only when the threat (e.g. lung cancer from smoking) is personal, tangible, direct and something under and individual’s control.
As Boris Johnson’s willful and calculated misrepresentation of the difference between weather and climate proved this week, the evidence outside of people’s windows can be important. In the US, Hurricane Sandy prompted Mayor Bloomberg to break cover on climate change. In Australia, adding a new colour to the temperature scale has provided a powerful visual signal that the climate is changing.
But in the UK, in January 2013, we see snow but no carbon bombs.