Obama channels his inner Al Gore in climate change messaging shift

President Obama is channeling his inner Al Gore in his new climate push with a public relations strategy that breaks with his first term.

Obama, in short, is now talking loudly and directly about the peril of climate change as he promotes an array of executive-level actions.

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“There has definitely been a messaging shift,” said Brad Johnson of the advocacy group Forecast the Facts.

“The recognition that Americans are already suffering the consequences of climate pollution is long overdue,” adds Johnson, who, alongside other activists, criticized the barely cameo status that climate had in the 2012 campaign.

The president packed last week’s big climate speech with calls to heed scientists’ warnings, a strong attack on climate skeptics, and full-throated claims that the planetary stakes are immense.

“I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing,” he said at Georgetown University.

Obama spoke of the economic and human toll of extreme weather events like big storms, floods, wildfires and droughts.

“Those who are already feeling the effects of climate change don’t have time to deny it – they’re busy dealing with it,” he said.

Joe Romm of the liberal Center for American Progress, writing on his blog in late June, was delighted that Obama “went full climate hawk.”

Gore, who complained two years ago that Obama had “failed to use the bully pulpit to make the case for bold action” on climate, also touted last week’s speech.

The former vice president, a longtime advocate for aggressive policies to cut carbon emissions, called it “by far the best address on climate by any president ever.”

While activists have welcomed Obama’s newly aggressive tack, it’s facing strong criticism from the right.

“The economy stagnates. Syria burns. Scandals lap at his feet. China and Russia mock him, even as a ‘29-year-old hacker’ revealed his nation’s spy secrets to the world. How does President Obama respond? With a grandiloquent speech on climate change,” conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote in Friday’s Washington Post.

Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, are alleging the plan will hurt the economy, a notion the White House is pushing back hard against.

And while Obama’s plan doesn’t rely on Congress, GOP political operatives are vowing to tether vulnerable Senate Democrats facing reelection in 2014 to the plan in states such as Arkansas, North Carolina and Alaska.

The president’s head-on treatment of climate hasn’t been confined to his Georgetown speech.

A week earlier in Germany, on June 19, Obama called climate change “the global threat of our time,” and his second inaugural speech also addressed the topic in sweeping terms. 

For Obama, it hasn't always been this way.

An energy-centered economic case dominated White House messaging for much of his first term.

Obama and other officials said renewable energy policies and efficiency were vital to U.S. competitiveness and jobs in emerging green technology industries, warning that these industries can’t be ceded to China and other nations.

For large swaths of Obama’s first term, warnings about the planetary risk and economic peril of climate change were the “B” message from the White House – at most.

Analysts and advocates alike took notice.

“There is a worrying sort of polling conclusion they have come to, that the actual problems – climate change and global warming – don’t poll well enough to talk about, and that creates a very evasive sort of explanation of this issue,” Washington Post analyst Ezra Klein said in June of 2010.

It wasn’t just Obama who sought to make the case for carbon-reducing policies on grounds other than climate change at a time when the sour economy dominated domestic politics.

In March of 2010, when major climate change legislation still had a faint pulse, then-Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) shaped his sales pitch to fit the awful economy.

“What we are talking about is a jobs bill. It is not a climate bill. It is a jobs bill, and it is a clean air bill. It is a national security, energy independence bill,” Kerry, now secretary of State, told reporters back then as he sought traction for an ultimately doomed Senate climate bill.

To be sure, the White House has not stopped making the jobs case for lower-carbon energy – in fact his Georgetown speech was shot through with it. But he’s also making a much more head-on case about the perils of climate change.

The messaging has changed alongside the political landscape.

Big climate legislation died in the Senate in 2010 and was never the top White House priority during Obama’s first term, anyway.

Now Obama’s not running for reelection, the economy is sluggish but improving, and several high-profile natural disasters – including Hurricane Sandy – have thrust climate into the spotlight, at least periodically.

With no hope for a major bill, Obama is taking an array of steps that don’t require congressional approval, including Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

“Speaking directly about the need to fight climate change goes hand in hand with putting a strong regulatory approach first. As a second-term president who knows the GOP House will not legislate on carbon control issues, Obama and his people are now speaking mainly to and for environmentalists,” said Theda Skocpol, a Harvard government and sociology professor.

“And they have their eye on the judgment of history, rather than the judgment of the mass electorate,” adds Skocpol, who has written widely on the politics of global warming.

Matthew Nisbet, an associate professor of communication at American University who also analyzes the climate movement, said the White House is “fitting a message to new conditions and a new audience.”

He said that during the first term, Obama’s team was trying to get Republicans, conservative Democrats and business leaders behind cap-and-trade legislation during a major recession.

“Now they are looking to appeal to their activist base and moderate voters during a time of extreme weather and dangerous climate impacts, hence a different message strategy,” he said.