Blanket Media Coverage Follows Obama Inaugural Comments on Climate

Protest photo

Media across the U.S. and beyond spent reams and gigabytes of digital space reporting and assessing — upwards, downwards, and sideways — President Obama’s Inaugural Address comments on climate change.

We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries — we must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure — our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared. – President Barack Obama, January 21, 2013

It was a climate statement unprecedented in an Inaugural address. President Obama positioned his declaration on climate change after an appeal against the nation’s economic disparities and an affirmation of his health care reforms. But it came before he addressed war, peace and national security. Clearly, Barack Obama wanted Americans to know that climate change is among the top items for his second-term agenda.

But will major federal action on climate change be part of his legacy? That depends on what he does, with or without Congress. “We will respond to the threat of climate change,” the President said. Easier said than done, responded a blizzard of media news stories, editorials, analyses, blog posts and other commentary over the past week. We review some of them here, day by day, over the week following his address.

Sunday, January 20

Getting an early start on that week, Washington Post editors on the day of the official Inauguration (the day before the public Inauguration) appealed to the President to push for a carbon tax during his second term, and to stop framing climate change as an opportunity to create jobs.

“Straight talk is important,” the editors wrote. “Policies to reduce emissions should not be justified with appeals to green jobs or energy independence. Americans should hear from their leaders about the risks the planet faces and why it makes sense to spend now to head off more costly consequences later.”

Monday, January 21 (the public Inauguration Day)

One of the first reactions of Obama’s Inaugural address came at 1:18 p.m., in a Washington Post blog. “The President liberals were waiting for is (finally) here” was the headline for a blog post by Chris Cillizza, who went on to list climate change as one of “a laundry list of progressive principles” — along with gay rights, voting rights and Medicare and Social Security — that Obama invoked in his inaugural address. Later in the week, the blog post would be criticized by climate change blogger Joe Romm of “Think Progress,” who railed against confining the global threat of climate change to the language of partisan politics.

In her Wall Street Journal article, “Obama Vows Aggressive Agenda,” reporter Carol Lee barely mentioned the President’s remarks about climate change in a story that quoted reactions only from Republican legislators. “Mr. Obama on Monday promoted a list of domestic goals favored by liberals, including equal pay for women, expanded voting rights and a shift to sustainable energy sources,” she wrote.

Long-time climate change blogger and former New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin called Obama’s remarks “heartening” in his Dot Earth blog post, going on to write:

It’s time for the President to move from pledges on such initiatives to action. Back in 2010, without setting a timeline, John P. Holdren, the President’s science adviser, said a “major speech” on climate change was forthcoming from the president. Hopefully, this is the year, not only for a sustained rhetorical focus, but a suite of initiatives.

Revkin reserved some space in his post to criticize  the “unfortunate mashup” in the President’s speech that claimed that the “overwhelming judgment” of scientists about climate change points to agreement over the basic science of greenhouse gases and whether fires, drought and other extreme events seen in recent years are the result of global warming. Revkin’s post goes on to consider how the overall statement may be interpreted by Americans with particular points of view, and he provides a series of links making both his own and those other analyses well worth reading.

Climate change blogger Joe Romm from “Think Progress” debuted a new moniker for the President: Climate Hawk, complete with a clever graphic. “These are, I believe, his longest and strongest remarks on the subject in any major national speech, let alone one of this import,” Romm wrote. It’s a theme others picked up on in coming days: “We will soon see if these words have any meaning whatsoever — since approving the Keystone XL pipeline would utterly vitiate them.”

The New Yorker magazine published a series of essays on Inauguration Day.

David Remnick, writing an essay from the Amtrak Quiet Car after watching the inauguration for the past six hours, described Obama’s address as “infinitely better, more self-assured, more politically precise than his first.” If the pronouncements are followed by action, Remnick said, the speech would go down in history as one of the “most important American political addresses of the modern era.” Remnick, like the Washington Post‘s Cillizza, framed the President’s “insistence on the science of climate change and his extensive vow to pursue policies aimed at reducing the peril” as one of the “touchstones” of a “clear liberal agenda.”

John Cassidy, in a New Yorker post entitled “Obama the centrist comes out as a liberal,” wrote: “The news lede was the promise to tackle global warming, a commitment that will have surprised and delighted environmentalists.”

Again, it’s unfortunate that climate change was once again framed as a “progressive” or “liberal” issue — the result of which is to diminish the challenge the nation faces to partisan politics.

In a fairly long post, Amy Davidson devoted just a few words to the President’s remarks on climate change: “… failure to respond to climate change ‘would betray our children and future generations,’ he said. He did little about that in his first term; here, as in many other places, one hopes the State of the Union has more specifics.”

A few voices from the U.K. checked in on Inauguration Day, including The Economist, which summed up Obama’s address as an appeal “to complete the Great Society project of such progressive forefathers as both Roosevelts and Lyndon Johnson, and make it sustainable in an America that faces unprecedented global competition.” Obama directly challenged “the core beliefs of today’s Republican Party,” offering, among other rhetorical spears, a “backhand slap for climate-change deniers.”

The Guardian, rather than including climate change as one of many issues the president discussed in his address, devoted an entire article to the subject.

“Barack Obama said more about climate change in his inauguration speech — and expressed it more forcefully — than he did at any point in the 2012 election campaign and during much of his first term,” Suzanne Goldenberg of The Guardian wrote. Goldenberg went on to report that environmental groups were happy with the remarks, but they want to see more specifics.

Obama’s address certainly resonated with writer and climate activist Bill McKibben of 350.org, who sent out an e-mail blast on Inauguration Day to promote a Washington D.C. rally February 17 against the Keystone pipeline project.

… we know that even if the President is sincere in every syllable, he’s going to need lots of backup to help him get his point across in a city dominated by fossil fuel interests. And, given the record of the last four years, we know that too often rhetoric has yielded little in the way of results.

… Together we’ll send the message loud and clear: “If you’re serious about protecting future generations from climate change, stop the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. If you can do that, Mr. President, we can all work together to help build a climate legacy that will be a credit to your critical eight years in office.”

Tuesday, January 22

Day 2 coverage from national media outlets began with several stories that picked up more squarely on Obama’s climate change rhetoric.

Juliet Eilperin in The Washington Post wrote that “Obama chose to make a moral case — rather than an economic or national security one — for taking action” and that the president, by elevating the climate issue so forcefully, has decided to make his response to global warming “a defining aspect of his legacy.”

Eilperin also offered among the first insights into how the Obama Administration may tackle the challenge, including regulatory options to cap greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants, policies to promote energy efficiency, and an expansion of renewable energy initiatives. Eilperin also reported that the administration will likely build public support for his climate policies through Organizing for Action, an offshoot group to Obama’s reelection campaign. Eilperin also pointed to the administration’s pending decision over the Keystone XL pipeline project as an early test of its resolve.

In a long news analysis, Richard Stevenson and John Broder of The New York Times called addressing climate change the president’s “most prominent policy vow” and an answer to those who questioned whether the President viewed action on climate change as a “realistic second-term priority.”

Having learned lessons from his first term, Obama will sidestep Congress and focus on what it can do administratively “to reduce emissions from power plants, increase the efficiency of home appliances and have the federal government itself produce less carbon pollution.”

Stevenson and Broder wrote that Obama’s new expected approach to global warming reflects “his evolving sense of the limits of his power and his increased willingness to work around intense conservative opposition rather than seek compromise.”

The analysis, along with those of others, anticipates that EPA regulatory actions to reduce emissions from coal-fired power plants, sure to face legal challenges, will take center stage, supplemented by energy efficiency and conservation initiatives.

Stevenson and Broder also wrote that the White House recognizes large hurdles in addressing climate change through legislation given other big issues in Congress — gun control, national debt, immigration — and continued gaping partisan divides on Capitol Hill.

Their analysis also quoted conservative groups, among them the Koch brothers-supported organization Americans for Prosperity. “(Obama’s) address read like a liberal laundry list with global warming at the top,” said the group’s president, Tim Phillips. “Americans have rejected environmental extremism in the past and they will again.”

Time Magazine‘s Bryan Walsh offered a reality check for those who would argue that Obama had done nothing about climate change during his first term. Billions in the stimulus plan for green technologies, tighter auto fuel efficiency standards, and EPA action to tighten air pollution standards all marked some degree of progress, he said.

Walsh also cited a pair of papers that conducted a post-mortem on the administration’s failure in 2010 to pass a comprehensive energy bill. “In a nutshell, climate advocates followed a bad legislative strategy, one that focused on allying with business interests even as the increasingly radical Republican party was less interested in listening to those large corporations,” Walsh wrote.

Walsh also cited a post by Washington Post blogger Brad Plumer reviewing options available to Obama for his second term. Check it out here.

Among the political/policy press, the National Journal offered a rundown on how the Obama Administration can act on climate change without congressional action, and it also ran a story on January 22 on how top Senate Democrats are publicly ready to back Obama and EPA on climate change initiatives.

The Hill, meanwhile, reported on California Senator Barbara Boxer’s urging EPA to make the most of its power. Boxer chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Reporting on Obama’s impending decision regarding the Keystone pipeline project included one treatment of the issue from Politico and another from the Associated Press.

On television, there was plenty of reaction.

MSNBC called Obama’s focus on climate change “the Obamacare of the second term,” while ABC News offered a transcript of the press briefing with Jay Carney (referenced earlier in this piece) in which reporter Jonathan Karl pressed for specifics but received few.

“The NewsHour” on PBS, however, offered little perspective on Obama’s remarks on climate change from a panel of guests.

Fox News, meanwhile, through Sean Hannity, referred to Obama’s “radical second-term agenda” and “Obama’s To-Do list … More Gov’t, Gun Control, Climate Change, Amnesty.” House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-CA, said Obama’s address outlined a “progressive party agenda, not something for all of America to get behind.”

CBS News considered Obama’s next moves on climate change as part of an “ambitious liberal agenda.” CBS White House Correspondent Major Garrett was among those reporting on the administration’s reluctance to engage Congress on climate change action and pointing to EPA’s regulatory authorities.

Here are some other reports from around the country, in reaction to the President’s Inaugural Address.

Vermont Public Radio (“All Things Considered,” NPR): “In Second Inaugural, Obama Makes Climate A Priority

Climate Wire / E&E Publishing: “Obama vows action on climate change during second term” and “Despite dawn of a new term, forecast cloudy for energy and enviro issues

KPCC (Southern California): “President unlikely to get support from Congress on climate change

San Francisco Chronicle: “Obama remembers climate change

Grist (David Roberts): “Climate change and the cult of the presidency

The Independent (U.K.): “Climate change Obama can believe in” and “Editorial: Climate change is back on the agenda, at last

Reuters: “Obama wins praise abroad for climate change goals

Globe and Mail: “Barack Obama talks alternative energy while counting on an oil boom

The Guardian (U.K.): “Can Obama make defeating climate change his legacy?

Wednesday, January 23

Two days after the President’s inaugural remarks, there were more substantive reports on the President’s possible next steps, and more editorials and news stories. Some highlights include:

National Geographic Daily News, which outlined ten ways that Obama could tackle climate change — compiled from climate change experts from around the country. Among them: sunset coal with new incentives and regulations, invest in nuclear power, kill the Keystone XL pipeline, protect the oceans, experiment with capturing carbon, grow government research on new energy sources, and tax carbon.

Bloomberg, in a column by Cass Sunstein of Harvard University’s law school, called for unilateral U.S. action to curb emissions — despite what any other nations do or not do.

Reuters predicted that the “administration is likely to rely mostly on existing rules and on flexing executive power to execute its second-term environmental agenda, sidestepping Congress as it sets about radically reducing greenhouse gases generated by major polluters.”

Bloomberg BNA offered an overview of the political landscape facing the President.

The Wall Street Journal posted an essay from Bjorn Lomberg, who wrote that the “scary examples” of weather-related events Obama cited “suggested that he is contemplating poor policies that don’t point to any real, let alone smart, solutions. Global warming is a problem that needs fixing, but exaggeration doesn’t help, and it often distracts us from simple, cheaper and smarter solutions.”

While attacking what he sees as “alarmism,” Lomberg continued: “This does not mean that climate change isn’t an issue. It means that exaggerating the threat concentrates resources in the wrong areas…. In the long run, the world needs to cut carbon dioxide because it causes global warming. But if the main effort to cut emissions is through subsidies for chic renewables like wind and solar power, virtually no good will be achieved — at very high cost …. Instead of pouring money into subsidies and direct production support of existing, inefficient green energy, President Obama should focus on dramatically ramping up investments into the research and development of green energy …. let’s drop the fear-mongering exaggeration—and then focus on innovation.”

The Los Angeles Times predicted that Obama would begin with executive powers but that meaningful legislation in Congress may yet be possible down the road.

In an editorial, the Houston Chronicle criticized the President for his past approaches toward supporting renewable energy projects.

(The) administration’s method of having government pick winners and losers is itself a loser. Trying to pick the lucky winners while rewarding your friends is no way to build the bridge to a sustainable future. It’s old school, and we don’t mean that as a compliment. It’s crony capitalism. It has no place in this process.

Solyndra and several other examples of costly failures prove the point beyond further discussion. Conservatives are on target when they argue strenuously against proceeding in this fashion. We must not. President Obama’s election victory in November was many things, but it was no mandate for more of the same in this arena.

Listening with Texas ears, we kept waiting to hear about how we get to the happy day of complete reliance on sustainable energy. We’re still waiting.

We have a proven winner that should be used to bridge our economy to a sustainable energy future.

It is, of course, natural gas, which burns cleanly, is abundant and can be extracted safely with the proper regulation in place. But the president uttered nary a word about natural gas on Inauguration Day.

And so your grade on climate change is, respectfully, sir, “Incomplete.”

More news stories from January 23:

Politico: “Obama’s covert plans for climate and “Boxer targets energy efficiency for climate strategy

CNN: “Environmentalists want Obama to steer clear of Congress on climate change

ABC News (Australia): “Rhetoric easy, action harder for Obama on climate change

Agence France Press: “Obama to build on first term climate change efforts

New Scientist: “Barack Obama promises US action on climate

Mother Jones: “Does Obama mean it this time on climate?

Think Progress (Joe Romm): “Two hopeful signs the Obama administration will not approve the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline” and “White House: ‘We are going to achieve the President’s goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 17 percent by 2020′

Thursday, January 24

Toward the end of the week, UPI.com posted a guest column from Peter Morici, an economist and professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland.

Morici argued for exploiting natural gas, was skeptical of carbon trading schemes, and suggested that the U.S. “should require that foreign products sold in the United States meet the same emission standards as those made in the United States.”

“This would require that developing countries like China not exploit the cost advantages from dirty production methods, and these requirements could be crafted to meet World Trade Organization requirements by treating domestic and foreign producers equally. That would reduce U.S. CO2 emissions without encouraging U.S. energy-intensive industries to migrate to China and other developing countries where they make the problem worse not better.”

The National Journal, meanwhile, speculated that Obama’s intention to use the EPA as an instrument of executive action on climate change could place “the Environmental Protection Agency at the center of a political battle, as Senate Republicans use the process of confirming a new head of the agency as a chance to weigh in on or even block what they see as regulatory overreach by the administration in pursuit of climate-change goals.”

Kimberly A. Strassel of The Wall Street Journal, in an opinion column entitled “The Real Obama Climate Deal,” echoed other reports that suggested that the EPA will be the administration’s instrument of choice in Obama’s second term — albeit with much stronger rhetoric.

“With the election over,” Strassel wrote, “all pretense is gone. Democrats won’t waste political capital on a doomed cap-and-trade bill. Yet they’ll get their carbon program all the same, by deputizing the EPA to impose sweeping new rules and using their Senate majority to block any GOP effort to check the agency’s power grab. The further upside? Brute regulation is not only certain and efficient, it allows vulnerable Democrats to foist any blame on a lame-duck administration.”

Strassell went on to discuss Obama’s strategies in either very realistic or very cynical terms — depending on your point of view:

“Consider what the mighty oil-and-gas lobby might be co-opted to do — either out of gratitude for the president’s backing or fear that he might turn on it. Consider how the political environment might change if the industry threw its weight behind a carbon tax or the EPA climate scheme. Consider that this might prove an easy call, given that a tax would be borne by its customers, while EPA regs will mostly crush coal. Consider that numerous Big Oil chieftains have already endorsed such a carbon levy. And who says Mr. Obama has to decide Keystone XL or anything else soon? He could hold out, to see what he can extract in return.

“… All this is food for thought for those conservatives who have been lulled into complacency by the stall of cap-and-trade. A big climate agenda is coming, only on very different terms. If Republicans hope to spare the economy that pain, it’s time to adapt.”

More news from Thursday, Jan. 24:

E&E Publishing: “Obama’s climate volley sets oil industry’s focus on EPA

Reuters: “Obama climate push to tie environment, jobs: White House adviser

Edmonton Journal: “Kerry to make informed decision on Keystone after State Department

Think Progress (Joe Romm): “January 24 News: White House says it has ‘no intention of proposing a carbon tax’

Friday, January 25

As the workweek came to a close, blogger Joe Romm of Think Progress offered a criticism of Lomberg’s Wall Street Journal column. He acused Lomborg of “doublethink,” and said Lomborg’s “latest op-ed in the Wall Street Journal switches between recognizing the risks of climate change and rejecting the need for meaningful action in the near term.”

“Lomborg incorporates misleading and discredited scientific information to justify dangerous delays in climate action,” Romm wrote.

On another front, several reports focused on John Kerry’s views on climate change, and what he might do as Secretary of State. In a report titled “John Kerry: Mr. Climate,” Politico writers Darren Samuelsohn and Jonathan Allen wrote:

Obama’s choice of John Kerry as the nation’s top diplomat is the strongest signal to the international community — and the smart set in Washington’s political class — that the president is truly committed to striking deals designed to save the world. Add that to his mention of climate change in his inaugural address, and it’s giving hope to greens that Kerry will make climate change a key part of his portfolio at Foggy Bottom.

Kerry, of course, co-sponsored the Kerry-Lieberman climate bill that never made it out of the Senate, and he’s traveled the globe to attend climate conferences, even if only for a few hours. “Obviously, he has enormous credibility. I think that’s going to help,” Phil Schiliro, former Obama White House legislative director, told Politico. “Combine that with the fact that the President has such a commitment to the issue, and it sends a good signal.”

Other reports focused on the fate of the Keystone XL pipeline, and Kerry’s role in that future. They include reports from Bloomberg and from The New York Times.

Among other reports during that week after Obama’s speech:

Politico: “Would White House green team help on climate?

Charlotte News-Observer: “Obama sounds strong on climate change, but what next?

Dallas Morning News: “Editorial: Obama must fight for balanced policies on climate change

Saturday, January 26

With the arrival of the weekend, and five days since the Inauguration, Reuters posted a story on how companies that specialize in energy efficiency systems are expected to profit from Obama’s second term climate initiatives. Among the winners: companies such as Honeywell International, Inc., Johnson Controls, Inc. and Ameresco Inc.

In The Wall Street Journal, writer Keith Johnson discussed a persistent disparity between younger people and seniors in their views on the climate change threat. Only 28 percent of respondents 65 and older think there is solid evidence the earth is warming because of human activity, versus 42 percent overall, according to a poll by the Pew Research Center in October.

The increasing power of younger voters, however, could make aggressive action on climate change easier, Johnson wrote. But when remains a big question. As Johnson wrote: “… the age divide isn’t enough to change the dynamics in Congress, where lawmakers are well-aware that older voters turn out more frequently and broad action to address global warming isn’t on the immediate agenda.”

Other posts on Saturday, January 26:

E&E Publishing: “Nothing to fear but inaction on climate change — Kerry

Think Progress (Joe Romm): “WashPost and AP: Obama is ‘liberal’ because he agrees with most Americans we need more climate action

Sunday, January 27 appeared to be an unexpectedly light day for news, analysis, or editorials on Obama’s climate remarks in the Inaugural Address. But Monday and Tuesday offered a few items worth mentioning:

Monday, January 28

National Public Radio reported on the struggle of faith-based groups to awaken a sense of consciousness among Americans on the climate issue (see the Yale Forum’s 2012 series on the topic), and the encouragement they felt after Obama’s Inaugural Address.

The piece pointed to some of the challenges that faith-based groups face in reaching people: “Surveys have consistently shown that while faith-based groups may draw attention to what they characterize as the biblical imperative to be good stewards of the Earth, their efforts don’t move public opinion on what is now one of the most deeply divisive, politicized issues in America.”

Also on Monday, New Scientist ran a column by environmental writer Fred Pierce that argued that President Obama could “blow his climate credentials” if his administration approves the Keystone XL pipeline project.

The Tampa Bay Times, meanwhile, ran an editorial arguing for action to aggressively cut greenhouse gas emissions:

Florida’s miles of coastline are especially susceptible to powerful hurricanes from a warming planet and extreme flooding from rising seas. There may be reasonable disagreements over precisely what steps to take. But doing nothing in the name of protecting the oil, gas and coal industries would, as Obama warns, betray our children.

Also on Monday, economist Robert Stavins of Harvard University wrote as a guest with Think Progress that Obama’s Inaugural Address “surprised many people — including me — by the intensity and the length of his comments on global climate change.” He re-printed an interview he participated in five days before the inauguration, with Harvard Kennedy School, on his views on how Obama can approach climate issues in his second term. The long discussion, from the perspective of a well-known economist on energy issues, is worth reading.

Tuesday, January 29

One more post here, from Hilal Elver from U.C.-Santa Barbara, published by Al Jazeera, in the news in North America recently because former Vice President Al Gore sold his Current TV cable network to the organization and, among other things, defended its journalistic approach to climate change.

In her column, Elver laid out the challenges Obama faces in coming years in a wide-ranging essay. But Elver said, in a single paragraph that follows a discussion of the Keystone XL pipeline, that the obstacles ahead can be summed up briefly:

This pipeline controversy is a clear example of the clash of competing economic and environmental interests: on one side, the promise of job creation, cheaper oil and natural gas, and energy supplies that will free the United States from its dependence on Middle Eastern sources of oil; on the other side, environmental destruction, a heightened risk of destructive oil spills, and more importantly, an increase in GHG emissions. There is intense countervailing political pressure being directed at Obama by advocates of these two opposing positions.

Bruce Lieberman

Bruce Lieberman is a freelance writer covering science and environmental topics. He has more than 20 years experience in the news business. (E-mail: bruce@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @brucelieberman1)
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One Response to Blanket Media Coverage Follows Obama Inaugural Comments on Climate

  1. Dan Rogers says:

    The world still is undecided, it seems. Should we try to stop climate change, or should we realize that we cannot stop it and instead take sensible steps to prepare for it?