President Barack Obama gave a prominent nod to climate change in his inaugural address, devoting about seven percent of the speech to the issue and signaling that it will be a priority in his second term in the White House.
Whether that actually happens remains very much to be seen, of course. But Obama’s emphasis on fighting manmade climate change and advancing “sustainable energy” lifted the hopes of climate-action activists and may have hinted at coming efforts by the president to rally public support – something he reportedly plans to do for his policy initiatives in general.
One word choice that may be telling was the president’s reference to those who “may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science.” In the rhetorical combat surrounding the climate issue, it’s a tougher, more in-their-face approach to talk of climate-change “deniers” and “denial” than to use the less-charged “skeptic” and “skepticism.”
Joe Romm, a prominent climate-action advocate for the liberal Center for American Progress who has often criticized Obama’s performance on climate change, enthused in a post on his Climate Progress blog that he believed the president’s attention to the subject represented “his longest and strongest remarks on the subject in any major national speech, let alone one of this import.”
Here is the paragraph on climate change as it appears in the prepared-for-delivery transcript of the inaugural address released by the White House:
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 is 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.
The references to “all posterity” and “our children and future generations” clearly echoed the efforts of climate-action supporters to cast the issue in terms of intergenerational obligation – as a pressing occasion to do right by people who will have to live with the impacts of a changing climate in the future.
That sort of appeal to action, in turn, echoes the concept of sustainability, one common definition of which involves economic activity that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
The same theme was also echoed in Obama’s decision to refer to “sustainable energy sources,” rather than using synonymous terms that their advocates often employ – “clean energy,” “renewable energy” and “green energy.”
The president also framed climate change as a security issue – something that climate-action and non-traditional-energy supporters have been trying to do for several years as the prospects for their interrelated causes waxed and waned and they searched for new communications strategies to appeal to public concerns that aren’t confined to environmental quality and conservation, per se.
The framing of climate in the speech was evident in the way Obama bracketed that issue with sections on other issues that he couched explicitly as “security” concerns.
In the paragraph preceding the climate passage, he defended the key federal social programs of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security in terms of the “basic measure of security and dignity” they provide. In the paragraph following the climate passage, he introduced a discussion of military and foreign-policy matters, declaring that Americans “still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war.”
In Romm’s brief commentary on the inaugural speech, he noted that “Obama went all climate hawk on America.”
“Climate hawk” is a term increasingly used by Romm and some other climate-action proponents in the last few years to describe a certain position on climate change and related energy issues. It was introduced and popularized in 2010 by David Roberts, a writer for the online environmentalist magazine Grist.
Roberts wrote at the time that his introduction of “climate hawk” was “emphatically not” an effort to “rebrand environmentalism.”
Please kill me if I ever have to listen to another discussion about rebranding environmentalism. The point is not that environmentalists need something new to call themselves, but that the class of climate hawks is not coextensive with the class of environmentalists. They are not the same group. In a Venn diagram, there would be substantial overlap but also substantial … underlap? nonlap? disjoint? Point is, there are plenty of people who understand climate change and support clean energy but do not share the rest of the ideological and sociocultural commitments that define environmentalism as historically understood in the U.S. (Which is fine!)
First and foremost, [climate hawk] doesn’t carry any implications about The Truth. It doesn’t say, “I’m right, you’re wrong. I’m smarter and more enlightened than you.” Instead it evokes a judgment: that the risks of climate change are sufficient to warrant a robust response. By definition, everyone must make such judgments on their own. Rather than being a Manichean choice — you get it or you’re stupid — it becomes about values, about how hard to fight and how much to sacrifice to defend America and her future. That’s the right conversation to be having.
In foreign policy a hawk is someone who, as [former George W. Bush administration Defense Secretary] Donald Rumsfeld used to put it, “leans forward,” someone who’s not afraid to flex America’s considerable muscle, someone who takes a proactive attitude toward gathering dangers. Whatever you think about foreign policy, is that not the appropriate attitude to take toward the climate threat? Does it not evoke a visceral sense of both peril and resolve, the crucial missing elements in America’s climate response?
Will Obama prove to be a climate hawk in his second term? As we said (admittedly uttering the obvious on that second term’s first day), that remains to be seen.
In a statement issued shortly after the president spoke, Luke Metzger, director of the Austin-based Environment Texas organization, sketched out key actions that environmentalists and other climate-action supporters will want from the president:
President Obama’s second term offers tremendous opportunity to turn the tide on this problem. Starting with rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline, the president must make fighting global warming a central priority.
Over the next four years, we are counting on President Obama to set tough limits on carbon pollution from power plants, continue investing in the development of clean, renewable energy sources, including wind and solar power, and to implement dramatic energy efficiency improvements that will cut dangerous pollution and protect our environment and our families.
– Bill Dawson
Image credit: Joe Immen