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Obama’s State of the Union Address – Silence on Climate Change Speaks Volumes

27 Jan 2011

President Obama delivered his annual State of the Union address to Congress on 25 January, which traditionally provides an opportunity for the President to outline his political priorities for the coming year. As a bellwether for the American political climate, it made for depressing evidence of how far tackling climate change has slipped down the political agenda since Obama took office in 2009.

Coloured by the changed congressional landscape since November’s mid-term elections, which saw the election of a number of climate sceptics and a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives, Obama’s speech focused on the popular bipartisan theme of delivering jobs and economic growth through innovation.

What was striking is his speech was the conspicuous absence of climate change, which did not receive a single direct or oblique mention. This is in marked contrast to his 2009 address when he spoke of the need to “save our planet from the ravages of climate change” through “legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America.” The rhetoric has even palpably shifted in the past year; his 2010 State of the Union address underlined his eagerness to advance a “comprehensive climate and energy bill.”

On a positive note from an environmental perspective, he discussed the opportunities afforded by clean energy technologies. Calling on Americans to respond to China’s increasing dominance in the renewable energy space, President Obama spoke of the challenge posed by China as “this generation’s Sputnik moment,” picking up on recent comments by U.S. Energy Secretary, Steven Chu (who visited the IIEA in November). Specifically, he announced the elimination of subsidies to the oil industry and set a target for 80% of U.S. electricity needs to be met by clean energy sources by 2035, as “clean energy breakthroughs will only translate into clean energy jobs if businesses know there will be a market for what they’re selling.” Particularly striking in the President’s comments on clean energy, however, was his exceptionally broad definition of “clean”, which included coal, gas and nuclear amongst the mix: “Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal and natural gas…we will need them all.”  Michael Levi of the Council of Foreign Relations has an initial assessment of this target here.

While his discussion of clean energy may appease some critics of U.S. inaction and give some cause for optimism, the silence on climate change speaks volumes about Obama’s priorities for 2011 and for the 2012 re-election campaign. As Ezra Klein pointed out last year in the Washington Post, how can you address climate change without even using the words “climate change?” Words matter, in government as in election campaigns. And nowhere are they traditionally more painstakingly considered than in the annual State of the Union address.

Obama’s reticence on climate change is perhaps an inevitable response to the constrained policy landscape in which he finds himself. Following last summer’s collapse of the American Clean Energy and Security Bill in the Senate, which would have delivered cap-and-trade legislation, the policy avenues open to the administration on climate mitigation are now limited. The administration’s intention is to pursue an incremental strategy, which focuses on using Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) instruments to regulate greenhouse gases, and on garnering bipartisan support for legislation in specific policy domains, such as fuel standards and energy efficiency.

Even these modest measures must proceed in an environment increasingly hostile to climate action, however. The Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, which played a crucial role in shaping the debate on the science and politics of climate change, has been disbanded in the newly Republican-controlled House. Bellicose statements from Republicans on constraining the EPA’s power to regulate greenhouse gases have become commonplace, with former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, recently even calling for the abolition of the agency.

In another blow to the administration’s efforts on climate change, yesterday’s Irish Times also reports that Obama’s climate and energy adviser, Carol Browner, is to leave her position and may not be replaced.

While compromise is an inevitable feature of government, there are concerns that Obama is being forced to abandon too much on the climate agenda in an effort to appease Republicans. What he cannot compromise on, however, is the need to communicate the idea of climate change itself both domestically and globally. While making clean energy a key priority in this year’s speech sent an important and welcome signal about Obama’s priorities, choosing to avoid the language of climate change entirely spoke volumes from a man fully aware of the power of words to shape political realities.

As an independent forum, the Institute does not express any opinions of its own. The views expressed in the article are the sole responsibility of the author.


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