By now President Obama’s climate speech at Georgetown University has been thoroughly dissected — even vivisected if you count live blogging and tweeting — by pundits, wonks, and other interested parties. But since you can never, ever have too many opinion pieces on any subject, allow me to put in my two cents from a political communication perspective. Here are five things that in my judgment Obama did very well with his speech:
He brought the media spotlight back to climate. A very popular notion among the political class is that presidents have unique access to a “bully pulpit” that, if deployed, can move public opinion noticeably in one direction or another. This leads to repeated variations of the assertion that if only President X (most often Obama) would talk more often about or make a “big speech” about issue Y — in this case, climate — the public would follow. Political scientists have shown that presidents don’t have this kind of influence on the public. But presidents do have enormous influence on what the media talks about, which in turn has enormous influence on public attitudes. Communication researchers call this process agenda setting, and its importance should not be underestimated. If a president starts talking about an issue — and hypes it the way the White House did before this speech — the media is more likely to talk about it more; and the more the media talks about an issue, the more the public is likely to regard that issue as important, and judge our leaders by what they’re doing about it. Overall, this is very good for climate, which has been neglected by the public for years due to issues like terrorism, war, and the economy.
He made climate tangible for Americans. One of the biggest problems surrounding climate communication is that climate change can often seem like an abstract and remote problem. Environmentalists and climate activists have done themselves no favors by too often talking about the damage global warming will cause to ‘the planet’ or ‘the environment’, or to species like polar bears that — worthy of protection as they are — seem very remote to most Americans. This is why communication researchers have been investigating how to talk about climate change in ways that connect with the public more closely, such as emphasizing its public health dimensions. Obama bypassed that trap by repeatedly connecting climate change to more immediate concerns for Americans: worsening wildfire seasons; diminishing snowpacks that are hurting tourism in many states; rising insurance premiums and food prices; failing crops; shrinking supplies of drinking water; rising sea levels near coastal cities like New York; and many others. Although the more abstract ways of talking about climate may resonate and help mobilize those already concerned about the issue, the more immediate concerns that Obama emphasized may help move those who fall in the ‘cautious’ segment of the population in terms of level of concern about climate to the ‘concerned’ or even ‘alarmed’ segment.
He mobilized the base. The very fact that Obama was making a big presidential speech about climate change had a galvanizing effect on climate activists. My entirely anecdotal observation of reaction to the speech on social media and other online outlets tells me that the speech was very well received across the board. Furthermore, many of Obama’s policy proposals and pronouncements, such as a stronger commitment to using the EPA’s Clean Air Act authority to regulate coal power plants and his declaration that “our national interest will be served only if [the Keystone XL pipeline] does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution” lined up closely with the policy preferences of climate activists. In addition, lines such as “[w]e don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society” were crowd-pleasers. On both content and tone, Obama mostly pleased a segment of his base — what political scientists call issue publics — that cares intensely about climate change. This has important implications for the upcoming mid-term elections. Our most recent election cycles indicate a deadlock in which Democrats turn out their voters successfully during presidential elections, but fail to mobilize their base with equal intensity for the mid-term congressional elections. Combined with recent redistricting changes favorable to Republicans, Democrats may be looking at divided government for years to come — unless they can manage to mobilize a greater portion of their voters during the mid-terms. A new climate push from the executive branch could galvanize Democratic-leaning voters — especially younger voters — who care about climate change intensely.
The catch, of course, is that it could also mobilize opponents of climate action and exacerbate political polarization around climate change, which will make it harder to pass federal legislation in the future. Obama and his advisers may have concluded that they will have no negotiation partners on climate for the foreseeable future, and that the best change to pass legislation will be to recapture Congress. Galvanizing the climate change issue public may help achieve that goal, but it’s too soon to tell.