A not-so-green State of the Union?

Following President Barack Obama’s January 25, 2011 State of the Union address, the UK Guardian printed an article entitled “Climate Change: Barack Obama Less Interested than Bush, Analysis Reveals.” The article criticizes President Obama’s failure to mention climate change in his address, and signals that this omission marks a shift in the President’s environmental policies. Specifically, the article focuses on attention given to the issue of climate change in State of the Union addresses over the past 20 years, through consideration of how many times the phrases “climate change,” “global warming,” and “environment” were spoken in these speeches, and concludes that President Obama has dealt with the issue to a lesser degree than his predecessors.
Arguably, there are many explanations for President Obama’s selective word choice. Not speaking directly to the issue of climate change in his State of the Union addresses does not necessarily signal, as the Guardian suggests, an alteration in his position the issue since highlighting it in his campaign just a few years ago.

In fact, the speech directly addressed environmental concerns in the form of renewable energy and clean technologies. Obama’s first concrete statements in his recent State of the Union address, following his enunciation of overarching goals for the future of the nation, came in the form of investment strategies—in “biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology, an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people.” “Already, we’re seeing the promise of renewable energy,” President Obama said, and followed this statement with an anecdote about two brothers who ran a roofing company, which was hit hard during the recession. The brothers revamped their business plan and, with government financial assistance, began producing solar shingles—“reinvent[ing]” themselves, a transformation which he recommends for more Americans. He commended the California Institute of Technology for their work on solar powered cars, and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for increasing efficiency of their nuclear facilities. He urged scientists and engineers to focus on clean energy problems, promoted research and incentives to replace dependence on oil with biofuels, and pushed education to train our next generation to work on these vital issues. In his speech, President Obama set two definitive goals in support of these themes: to have one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015, and for 80% of our nation’s electricity to come from clean energy sources by 2035.

President Obama’s treatment of these issues is further illustrated by the breakdown of subjects on the White House’s web site. “Energy & Environment” are conflated into one section, which addresses first energy, then climate change, and finally general environmental achievements. What is interesting is that although climate change is addressed on this page, and is given equal footing as are energy and environment, it is not mentioned explicitly in the heading of the page. However, this does not mean that it is not being addressed. The site explains that “the President is working with Congress to pass comprehensive energy and climate legislation to protect our nation from the serious economic and strategic risks associated with our reliance on foreign oil, to create jobs, and to cut down on the carbon pollution that contributes to the destabilizing effects of climate change.” In this one statement, President Obama recasts his efforts to fight climate change not as directed towards this end, but rather at achieving several less contentious subparts. Despite this somewhat disjointed approach, he has started international dialogue on climate change through talks in Copenhagen, assembled a task force to make adaptation recommendations, and his EPA has begun the process of greenhouse gas cataloging and regulation throughout the nation. As conceded by the Guardian, President Obama has done more to affect change in the area of climate remediation than either Bush or Clinton.

It is unfair to categorize President Obama’s failure to speak directly to combatting climate change as a renunciation of his goals. While the Guardian characterizes his failure to mention climate change as placing into a “no-go” area, it can more accurately be perceived as a political and tactical move. President Obama has chosen to couch the issue in less divisive terms which are more easily digestible by the general public—such as increased national security through reduction of dependence on foreign oil, clean energy job creation, access to public transportation, and “protect[ing] our planet”—consistent with his push for bipartisanship. He is taking positive environmental steps under more widely acceptable terms, and it is certainly unfair to categorize his engagement as lesser than his predecessor, whose efforts Obama’s EPA has endeavored to reverse throughout his term in office. Though perhaps he is missing an opportunity to garner public engagement and support, we should judge his commitment to the environment in general, and to climate change in particular, by his achievements, not by arbitrary criteria like the number of times he utters a particular phrase.

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