How President Clinton, ‘Explainer-in-Chief,’ Frames Climate Change

Clinton Photo

Insights from the former President on talking with those steadfastly rejecting climate science, on the ‘Tattoo Vote’ … and on the ‘economic argument.’

Bill Clinton, whose popularity has soared in his post-presidential years, now bestrides the media world as a kind of communications savant. His tour-de-force speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., only burnished that image, and the strength of his rhetorical powers are one of the rare things many on both sides of the political aisle seem to agree on.

The Clinton Global Initiative and Clinton Climate Initiative appear to many to have found ways to work across party lines and forge unlikely partnerships. As Ryan Lizza notes in The New Yorker, Republicans have been extolling Clinton’s legacy of compromise and deal-making (even if only tactically, to contrast it with what they see as President Obama’s extremism).

Of course, it is worth remembering that a bipartisan coalition in the Senate rejected the Kyoto Protocol in a 95-0 vote before Clinton could even formally propose the treaty. Clinton now says that he failed to make an economic argument for the treaty, and his subsequent climate work has been informed by that stinging defeat and its underlying causes.

A review of Clinton’s post-presidential statements and work on climate change shows him engaged in a strategy different from that of his former vice president, Al Gore. They appear to have rarely joined forces on the issue, even though Clinton has been working on climate issues since 2006. While Gore has relentlessly made the scientific argument to the public, Clinton has engaged in a lower-key strategy, making a comparatively small number of speeches on the topic and looking for small-bore opportunities to do low-carbon projects in cities.

Some might describe Clinton’s as an “actions-speak-louder-than-words” approach, and it relies heavily on an economic framing, rather than on moral, scientific, or public health arguments. But that doesn’t mean Clinton has not occasionally commented on hot-button aspects of climate change.

With Clinton now again engaging actively in electoral politics as part of the current presidential campaign — and with people involved in the climate change cause grappling for a fresh dialog amid policy disappointments and public apathy — The Yale Forum thought it a good moment to look at a representative sample of Clinton’s rhetorical framings of the climate issue.

Below is a selection of Clinton quotations over the past few years:

Tattoos for Green Energy Advocates

“Those of us in this green energy field, we ought to have a tattoo test. The more people with visible, impressive tattoos who advocate green energy and understand what it does for a country’s economy, what it does for its country’s independence and what it does in the fight against climate change, the more we’re going to have success in Washington, D.C…. Think about the tattoos. You win the tattoo vote, we’ll have the damnedest environmental policy you ever saw.”

Needed Again … ‘A Stakeholder Society’

“Our diversity is important. Differences of opinion are important. You know things I don’t. Nobody is right all of the time. A broken clock is right twice a day. All of us are living between those two extremes. If your purpose is to reach an agreement, then your disagreements become exceedingly valuable, because they give you a better outcome. If your purpose is winner-take-all, then your disagreements are paralyzing and doom you to fail. Which is why I keep pushing people to do something [on climate change] with somebody else, even if it seems too small against the big problem. We are going to have to become a stakeholder society again. That’s the only thing that works.”

(Two quotes above taken from remarks at National Clean Energy Summit 5.0, August 7, 2012)

On Economics: Saving the Planet Beats ‘Burning It Up’

“My strategy on [engaging deniers] is very simple. Some people who are climate skeptics are climate skeptics because it’s in their interest to be. They just want to preserve the old energy economy, and there’s not much I can do about that. But what I am trying to do, literally all the time, is to prove that saving the planet is better economics than burning it up. Not 10 or 20 or 50 years from now — [but] now. There are a lot of climate skeptics but their reasons are being chipped away…. There are a lot of people who have a different view. Their view is, ‘Look, this may be good, this may be bad. But God almighty the world is coming apart at the seams economically and we’ve got other fish to fry. We have to deal with other things.’ [For] those people, you must prove it is good economics to change the way we produce and pursue energy…. So what I do to try to overcome the climate skeptics is to figure out how to solve the financing problems, because fundamentally all the financing problems look alike. Whether you’re dealing with clean energy or energy efficiency, the costs are all up-front and the savings are all in the back….”

Do Something … ‘No Matter How Small’

“Every now and then I’ll give a speech on this … but I try not to give many speeches on this energy stuff, the environment. I just try to do one project after another. I figure if we just keep lining ‘em up and pushing ‘em down, and lining ‘em up and pushing ‘em down, at some point denial will no longer be an effective strategy. And that’s what I recommend to you: Do something, no matter how small it is.”

(Two quotes above from remarks at London School of Economics, July 12, 2012)

Cities and Private Sector for ‘Real, Tangible Actions’

“When I began work on this as a private citizen, I wanted to leave the policy to the policymakers, the politics to the politicians, and try another approach: Do more specific projects in cities around the world, involving the private sector whenever possible, to implement real, tangible actions, to drive home the reality that this work is both essential to avoid the worst consequences of climate change and good economics. In 2006, my foundation began working seriously on this issue in partnership with the C40 mayors to lower the carbon footprints of their cities, to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, and in so doing to improve the quality of the air, the water and the infrastructure of local citizens.” (Quote from C40 Rio +20 Address, June 18, 2012)

Making Climate Denial ‘Politically Unacceptable’

“If you’re an American, the best thing you can do is to make it politically unacceptable for people to engage in denial. I mean, it makes us — we look like a joke, right? You can’t win the nomination of one of the major parties in our country if you admit that the scientists are right? That disqualifies you from doing it? You could really help us there. It’s really tragic because we need a debate in America, and in every country, between people who are a little bit to the right and people who are a little bit to the left about what the best way is to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. What is the most economical way to do it? What will get more done quicker? There are all these things that in any other country would occupy a lot of space on the ideological spectrum from right to left, and we can’t have this conversation because you’ve got to deny it?” (Quote from Clinton Global Initiative, September 21, 2011)

Happy About an Observation by Senator James Inhofe

“Down in Washington, the leader of the deniers of climate change in our Congress, the Senator from Oklahoma, was noting that we, at the same time it was too warm here [in Vancouver, during the Winter Olympics], we had the snowiest February we had on the East Coast. It was snowing all the way from Maine down to Florida. It was snowing in Florida. And Washington was under a mountain of snow. And he looked out of the Capitol and said, ‘You know, look at all that snow on the ground. That proves that global warming is a hoax.’ Actually I was happy when he said that. Because the Republicans always said that only the Democrats believe what happened in Washington, D.C., reflected the real world.” (Quote from remarks to Vancouver Board of Trade, May 20, 2010)

John Wihbey

A regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections, John Wihbey is an editor and researcher at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. (E-mail: john@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @wihbey)
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6 Responses to How President Clinton, ‘Explainer-in-Chief,’ Frames Climate Change

  1. Nullius in Verba says:

    I like the tattoo idea. What tattoo does Clinton have?

  2. John Garrett says:

    It is astounding to me that— given the highly equivocal and ambiguous nature of the evidence— anyone (particularly those acquainted with scientific method) would conclude that CO2 is the sole forcing in the climate system.

    We have now witnessed sixteen (16) years with no global warming. How long will it take for the evangelicals and the propagandists of the CAGW conjecture to admit uncertainty or the possibility of error?

  3. I was once a staunch supporter of Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party.

    Climategate emails and documents showed a serious problem in Nov 2009

    Attempts to whitewash, excuse or ignore fraudulent data have now exposed the sixty-four year journey to Climategate and a tyrannical one-world government.

    http://omanuel.wordpress.com/about/#comment-1369

    - Oliver K. Manuel
    Former NASA Principal
    Investigator for Apollo

    “Oh what a tangled web we weave,” . . .
    For later coincidence to concede !

    • Dan Rogers says:

      Mr. Manuel,

      If President Obama really believed Albert Gore’s indictment of carbon dioxide as the potential destroyer of nearly everything on Earth, Mr. Gore would now be the Administrator of the USEPA. He isn’t, and that says a lot.

      I am sorry about your fears about tyrannical world government. I think those fears are unfounded, and I am afraid that your expressing those fears does significant damage to your powers of persuasion. I don’t doubt that you really do have those fears, but most of us have heard such forebodings before, over and over again, for decades, and nothing has come of them. A much more palpable threat to society is the very real attempt by Mr. Gore and his people to pull the wool over all our eyes about climate change and its causes and effects.

  4. Paul Quigg says:

    My tattoo vote is the shelf space on environmental literature in my book stores. Shelf space is down about 80% since 2007, the year of “An Inconvenient Truth”. The 80% matches my estimation of the public’s interest in climate change.