Anyone who takes the threat of climate change seriously has to view the reelection of Barack Obama with great satisfaction. The American people rejected Mitt Romney, a candidate who mocked the threat of climate change, much to the delight of his base. Among the millions of Americans already suffering from climate impacts, and the thousands who spend their waking hours pushing for urgent action, glasses were raised, and rightfully so. But if we look at the past few months with clear eyes, we must acknowledge that our victory toasts are bittersweet, given the near total refusal by both candidates to discuss climate change.
At Forecast the Facts, we called that refusal climate silence, and during the campaign, thousands of Americans, dozens of organizations, and numerous pundits joined us in doing so. But in the wake of the President’s reelection, and an acceptance speech in which he talked about “the destructive power of a warming planet,” there is a temptation to claim victory. Unfortunately, such a claim would miss the point entirely.
When we launched ClimateSilence.org, we did so with a specific analysis idea in mind. Before the campaign, we conducted exhaustive research into what the candidates had been saying about climate change, both during the presidential race and throughout their careers. One thing became immediately clear — the candidates were talking about climate change. President Obama, in particular, was diligent in mentioning climate change just enough so that no one could say that he wasn’t saying the magic words. And he was careful to talk about it almost exclusively to highly targeted communities — students and hardcore progressives — so he wouldn’t alienate any of those swing voters who his advisers believed would be turned off by an honest discussion of the problem.
But while the President would occasionally mention climate change on the campaign trail, there were two things that he (and Governor Romney) were totally unwilling to say:
1. Our nation has been wracked by extreme drought, wildfires, and floods fueled by climate change.
2. To avoid catastrophic global warming, we need to keep 80% of known oil and gas reserves buried in the ground.
In plainer terms, the President consistently refused to explain that the effects of climate change are hitting us right now, or offer any serious blueprint about how we can solve the problem.
I cannot imagine any unemotional assessment of the Obama campaign, or his acceptance speech, that contradicts this evaluation. Time and again the President refused to link climate change to the very real, very immediate destruction of extreme weather. And he had plenty of opportunities: When the Midwest was struck by the nation’s worst drought since the Dust Bowl, when Colorado was racked by unprecedented forest fires, and most notably when Hurricane Sandy came crashing through the campaign’s final week.
On energy policy, the President’s rhetoric was so far away from an honest assessment of where our country needs to go that it would be laughable if it wasn’t so enraging. His “all-of-the-above” strategy is more accurately described as “more-of-the-same.” And in evidence of how unwilling the President was to level with the American people, he regularly attacked Mitt Romney for saying in 2003 that coal kills people, even though he, his campaign staff, and most of America (including coal miners) knows full well that coal does, in fact, kill people.
Many Obama partisans, particularly in the environmental community, defended the President’s rhetoric throughout the campaign, saying that we should focus not on what the president says, but rather what he has done, and thus what we believe he will do in the future. On this point, it’s important to reiterate something we have said from the beginning of the campaign: we do not think that just talking about climate change is enough. What is needed is bold action, and that will require overcoming any number of practical and political challenges.
But it is also true that what the President (and by extension all those in power) says about climate change (or really any issue) has enormous significance. It really matters whether the President describes climate change as an urgent problem that is affecting Americans now, or something that might affect their children or grandchildren, or whether he says that slowing the rise of the oceans will be a huge challenge that will require massive changes in our entire society and deep sacrifice from the American public. To suggest otherwise is to throw away everything that we know about history or politics or basic human interaction.
When Winston Churchill rallied Britons in the face of a German bombardment, he did not sugarcoat the severity of the situation, nor did not diminish what would be required of his fellow citizens. Rather, he spoke honestly about the danger and called on people to be bigger, braver, and better than they thought they could be. (Anyone who questions whether such comparisons to war time are appropriate should go to Rockaway Queens right now, which can only be described as a war zone.) Nothing less than such a clarion call is required on climate, and the President has refused to offer one since the failure of cap and trade and the now well-publicized decision by his advisers in 2009 to stop talking about climate change.
The President’s refusal to seriously discuss the issue almost guarantees that our nation will not respond with the intensity and urgency required. We are in a crucial moment right now, when the President and the nation decide what we will focus on for the next four years. There are many important causes, ones that I feel deeply passionate about both politically and personally. But I am certain that, as Chris Hayes has said so eloquently, years from now, the only measuring stick that our descendants will use to assess this moment in history is what we did about climate change. And in that sense, the equation remains simple: words alone won’t save us, but silence seals our fate. President Obama’s campaign was defined by climate silence, and he has yet to break that silence. Which is why we won’t stop pushing until he does.