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The President, in his climate change speech, hit the right notes but didn’t connect them in a memorable tune. He left that communications task to his supporters.

Evaluations of the President’s June 25 climate change speech at Georgetown University on June 25 have predictably followed political leanings. Mindful of the gridlock in Congress, the left→center, for the most part, regard Obama’s climate action plan as a good faith “Oval Office” effort. The center→right, by contrast, decry top-down impositions and predict dire consequences for the U.S. economy.

But the Obama speech was not just a matter of policy; it was also a very public instance of communicating climate change. Given what behavioral scientists and practitioners have learned over the past decade, what can be said about President Obama as a climate change communicator?

‘The Politics of Climate Change Forum’

A Washington, D.C., event the week before Obama’s Georgetown University speech indirectly reviewed some of what has been learned about communicating climate change.

Published accounts of “The Politics of Climate Change Forum,” convened by American University and The New Republic (TNR) at the Newseum on June 19, focused largely on White House staffer Heather Zichal‘s confirmation that a major policy address was forthcoming. But nine other policy professionals, activists, and journalists also participated in the event.

A panel moderated by senior New Republic editor Jonathan Cohn, “Rethinking Our Responses to Climate Change,” included John Balbus, senior advisor for Public Health at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences; Anne Kelly, director of Public Policy for Ceres; and Daniel Lashof, director of the Climate and Clean Air Program at Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Each discussed how best to engage the public.

Balbus, citing research work by academic researchers Anthony Leiserowitz* and Edward Maibach, reviewed benefits of communicating climate change as a health issue. He touched on ways to improve public health by reducing “short-lived climate forcers” like black carbon, hydrofluorocarbons, and methane.

Kelly said more and more businesses are preparing to act on climate change — by improving efficiencies, eliminating waste, and setting emissions reductions targets. Businesses want to escape “the ghetto of short-termism,” the narrow focus on the bottom-line for the current quarter. But, she said, they also seek “guardrails” of coherent and consistent regulations.

Lashof discussed connections between climate change and extreme weather, the subject of a report recently released by the NRDC. Americans have vivid personal experiences with extreme weather, he said, and threats posed by extreme weather are more persuasive than, for instance, threats climate change poses to polar bears.

All three panelists stressed the need to communicate clearly and directly.

Again pointing to survey research by Leiserowitz and Maibach, Kelly listed three criteria for effective communication: simple message, repeated often, by credible messengers.

Lashof drew a lesson from national health campaigns against smoking. That message was simple and direct, he said: “Smoking causes cancer. Full stop. We need to say that climate change causes extreme weather. Full stop.”

But Balbus cautioned that national public health campaigns take time “to ripen” and noted that long after the Surgeon General’s “Report on Smoking and Health” was launched in 1964 smoking remained widespread.

In sum, the three panelists pointed to research indicating that Americans can most readily connect climate change with their daily concerns if it is framed as a health issue, linked with extreme weather, or tied to their concerns about the economy. But efforts to communicate climate change with any of these frames, research also suggests, still need a simple and memorable message repeated often by credible messengers.

Parsing President Obama’s Climate Speech

So how does the President’s speech measure up using these fairly simple criteria? An analysis of the topics or frames used in the speech suggests he hit the right notes but not in a very simple, or memorable, way. Consider the speech as a whole.

Photo of Obama
A hot and steamy Washington day in late June provided a backdrop for Obama’s climate talk at Georgetown University. 

Like the classic five-paragraph essay, the President’s speech has an introduction, three main points or parts, and a conclusion. The President announced his three-part plan at the end of the introduction:

And this is my plan to meet [this challenge] — a plan to cut carbon pollution; a plan to protect our country from the impacts of climate change, and a plan to lead the world in a coordinated assault on a changing climate.

He did not in the speech give equal attention to these three components. Instead, the 6,000-word speech allotted 38 of the 90 paragraphs to his “plan to cut carbon pollution”; seven paragraphs to the effort to protect the country from climate impacts; and 11 paragraphs to global leadership. (The other 34 paragraphs are divided between the introduction (20) and conclusion (14).)

Flagging the paragraphs within each part for mentions of extreme weather, health concerns, or economics, one finds that these frames play prominent but very different roles in the speech.

The six paragraphs linking climate change to extreme weather are divided between the introduction and the “plan to protect” section. The President listed memorable examples of extreme weather immediately after he introduced the problem of climate change. Some he listed again in promising the federal government will support state and local actions to “prepare for the impacts of climate change that we cannot avoid.”

Many of the risks posed by extreme weather also pose threats to public health. Most of the seven paragraphs that touch on issues of public health, however, appear in the “using less dirty energy” portion of Obama’s first plan. Here he explained how public understanding of the Clean Air Act has evolved in response to a succession of different environmental problems: toxic chemicals, acid rain, and climate change.

Links between “clean” and “health” and “dirty” implicitly justify measures to reduce use of “dirty energy.” While extreme weather provides vivid reasons to act, the concern for public health provides a rationale for using the Clean Air Act for that purpose.

The 18 paragraphs that use the economic frame are distributed among the three subsections of the plan to cut carbon pollution: “using less dirty energy” (by far the longest subsection), “using more clean energy,” and “wasting less energy throughout our economy.”

In the first subsection, Obama anticipated the argument that America depends on readily available and affordable energy provided by fossil fuels:

Now, what you’ll hear from the special interests and their allies in Congress is that this will kill jobs and crush the economy, …. And the reason I know you’ll hear those things is because that’s what they said every time America sets clear rules and better standards for our air and our water and our children’s health.

Obama drew on historical examples to rebut this argument — versions of which the American Enterprise Institute and The Heritage Foundation soon offered in response to his speech, as he had anticipated. Obama cautioned that the U.S. will not soon leave fossil fuels behind, but on the way to using less fossil fuel, the U.S. can use the less dirty fossil fuel that is natural gas.

In the next subsection, “using more clean energy,” Obama touted what he sees as economic benefits — innovation and jobs that can’t be outsourced — of a transition to clean, renewable energy. One can infer the economic benefit of the final part of the “plan to cut carbon pollution” from the subtitle for the section: “wasting less energy throughout our economy.”

An economic frame appears in 20 percent of the paragraphs in Obama’s speech, and its impact is amplified by the strategic deployment of the extreme weather and public health frames in another 10 percent of the paragraphs. So 30 percent of his speech uses frames or associations recommended by researchers. (Note: In the infographic the White House prepared for the speech, the emphasis on extreme weather is even more apparent. It is the focus of the first box; public health is only an “also” note at the bottom of that box.)

The President’s ‘Ask’: Become Better Communicators

But does the speech include a simple, memorable, and oft-repeated message? And is Obama a “credible messenger” for that message?

There is no one-or-two-sentence statement of a core message repeated several times over the course of the speech. “Need to act” might be the closest equivalent, but that doesn’t deliver a message specific to climate change. Create a wordleTM from the President’s speech, though, and one discovers keywords he repeated often:

Obama said “carbon” and “pollution” together 30 times over the course of the speech; only “energy” appears more often (41 times). Unlike “energy,” however, the pairing of “carbon and pollution” creates an implicit argument, linking greenhouse gas emissions with “dirtier” and more directly toxic substances. As a “public bad,” “pollution” creates a demand for public action.

In the last four paragraphs of his speech, Obama did ask his audience to take public action.

Understand this is not just a job for politicians. So I’m going to need all of you to educate your classmates, your colleagues, your parents, your friends. Tell them what’s at stake. Speak up at town halls, church groups, PTA meetings. Push back on misinformation. Speak up for the facts. Broaden the circle of those who are willing to stand up for our future.

… Make yourself heard on this issue.

For a major presidential address on climate change, this final “ask” may surprise many. Obama does not ask for his listeners’ input on his proposed plan. Nor does he ask the public to call or write their representatives and senators in Washington. (Because of the congressional “gridlock” highlighted in the speech, the legislative route is treated as a dead end, which may also explain why Obama did not immediately take his climate action plan on the road to drum up support, the usual follow-up to a major policy address.) Nor did the President ask the public to reduce their own “carbon pollution,” a tacit acknowledgement that the problem is too big for individual solutions alone.

Instead, it seems, Obama asks his listeners to become better climate change communicators.

Communicating the Failure of Communication

While the speech models elements of current research on communicating climate change, it also documents a breakdown in communication.

Obama repeatedly stresses (in seven different paragraphs) the long and generally bipartisan history of the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency, and even the world’s first joint efforts on climate change. But he also recognizes that effective communication is now blocked “because climate change has become a partisan issue.” For some significant portion of the American public, Obama must, of course, realize that he, as a politician, cannot be a “credible messenger” on climate change, no matter how simple or memorable the message.

But he still has substantial authority to act on climate change through regulations and initiatives.

In a strange way, then, Obama’s speech announces that although he cannot effectively communicate the need to act fully on climate change, he can and will act on his own. For his listeners he leaves the task of communicating the meaning of his actions to others as, in Balbus’s phrase, the issue “ripens.”

Effective? Perhaps if you’re the President of the United States. And then only maybe. As with “Obamacare,” Americans cannot yet know whether and how well “Obamaclimate” will work unless and until it is implemented.

*Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Communication, is Publisher of The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media.

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