Obama's First Rule About 'Climate Change': Don't Say 'Climate Change'

Barack Obama: a 2009 off-the-record event marked a strategic decision by the White House to downplay climate change. (Photograph: Michele Eve Sandberg/Corbis)

Obama's First Rule About 'Climate Change': Don't Say 'Climate Change'

Off-the-record meeting in 2009 exposes long history and underlying strategy of President's "climate silence"

Before Hurricane Sandy, before the presidential debates--even before Barack Obama knew he would be facing off against Mitt Romney in his reelection campaign--his administration made a key strategic decision regarding climate change that speaks volumes about how major political operatives have decided to deal with, or this case not deal with, the reality of climate change.

As new reporting by The Guardian's environment correspondent Suzanne Goldenberg illustrates, the Obama campaign made one thing very clear to select green groups at a private, off-the-record briefing in 2009: "climate change was not a winning message."

"What was communicated in the presentation was: 'This is what you talk about, and don't talk about climate change'," Betsy Taylor, president of Breakthrough Strategies and Solutions, told The Guardian about the meeting. "I took away an absolutely clear understanding that we should focus on clean energy jobs and the potential of a clean energy economy rather than the threat of climate change."

And the message stuck, says Goldenberg. "Subsequent campaigns from the Obama administration and some environmental groups relegated climate change to a second-tier concern," she writes. "After industry and conservative groups mobilized to attack Obama's policies and climate science in the summer of 2009, the topic was seen as an even greater liability and politically toxic."

"If you want people to make the big changes that are required by the science then you are going to have to explain to people why that is necessary." --Bill McKibben, 350.org

Climate change was not discussed during any of the three presidential debates between Obama and Romney. Though moderators failed to bring up the question, there were plenty of opportunities to bring up the idea, notably when issues of national energy policy surfaced as they did at several times.

Little is expected on this issue from Romney as his party has consistently been drenched in the climate science denialism trumpeted by the fossil fuel industry and rightwing conspiracy theorists.

But Obama, despite occasional mentions, has largely followed the outline expressed in that meeting back in 2009 by neither including climate change in his stump speech or making a strong argument--at any point--about why the issue of global warming is a key component of his thinking on energy and the environment.

Why? According to Goldenberg: "The White House, after studying polling and focus groups, concluded it was best to frame climate change as an economic opportunity, a chance for job creation and economic growth, rather than an urgent environmental problem."

Despite the White House directive, however, not all of the environmental groups agreed with the strategy.

"I thought it was a mistake and I told them," said Bill McKibben, who heads the 350.org group, who was one of the few people at the meeting to voice his misgivings. "All I said was sooner or later you are going to have to talk about this in terms of climate change. Because if you want people to make the big changes that are required by the science then you are going to have to explain to people why that is necessary, and why it's such a huge problem," he said.

Subsequent to that dissent, 350.org launched a frontal assault on the administration-- even as they urged their members to wear 2008 Obama pins and t-shirts--as they staged mass civil disobedience in front of the White House to pressure the President to put a halt to the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

With only days left in the campaign, it seems unlikely--now that even Hurricane Sandy seems unable to pry the words "climate change" from either candidate's mouth--that this established policy will change.

Though no one wishes it, scientists confirm that more storms like Sandy should be expected. Perhaps one of them will crack the political silence on climate change once and for all.

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