Obama speakingWas the U.N. Climate Summit held in a marble bathroom?Photo: U.N./Marco Castro It was no barnburner of a speech, but President Obama’s address at the U.N. Climate Summit Tuesday morning amounted to the boldest climate change speech of his presidency. That’s because it was essentially the only climate change speech of his presidency.

Until now, President Obama’s message about energy has been all clean-tech innovation, green jobs, and economic growth, with just passing mentions of climate change. Candidate Obama, to be clear, had plenty to say about climate (example: his interview with Grist in July 2007). On Tuesday he finally returned to the topic.

“No nation, however large or small, wealthy or poor, can escape the impact of climate change,” he said in the address to world leaders. “Rising sea levels threaten every coastline.  More powerful storms and floods threaten every continent.  More frequent drought and crop failures breed hunger and conflict in places where hunger and conflict already thrive.  On shrinking islands, families are already being forced to flee their homes as climate refugees.  The security and stability of each nation and all peoples—our prosperity, our health, our safety—are in jeopardy.  And the time we have to reverse this tide is running out.”

By comparison, Obama’s Earth Day speech in April was all about the economic potential of clean energy:

We can hand over the jobs of the 21st century to our competitors, or we can confront what countries in Europe and Asia have already recognized as both a challenge and an opportunity:  The nation that leads the world in creating new energy sources will be the nation that leads the 21st-century global economy.

Now Obama may have just been telling leaders at the U.N. what they wanted to hear, making the right gestures without committing to much. As my editor points out, the only hard number in the speech was G20—Obama didn’t pressure Congress to commit to specific emissions cuts. And he hasn’t yet given a climate-focused speech like this directly to Americans. But he still spoke about the underlying reason for an energy revolution, and that’s significant.

In green circles, there are endless discussions about what messages play best—the green jobs stuff, the think-of-our-children appeals, the moral reminders that the Third World poor will bear the brunt of our pollution’s impact. There is room for all of them, of course, but conventional wisdom is that jobs and prosperity talking points are much safer than the buzz-kills about suffering. Tuesday’s speech was a tentative departure from that script.

Full text of the speech.