Well, what do you know, President Obama can say the C word after all. Until last night’s speech at the Democratic National Convention, “climate change” had virtually disappeared from Obama’s public vocabulary. So it was a surprise to hear him affirm that, “yes, my plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet, because climate change is not a hoax. More droughts and floods and wildfires are not a joke. They are a threat to our children’s future.”
The president was obviously drawing a contrast with Mitt Romney, whose speech at the Republican National Convention last week mocked the very idea of caring about climate change. “Four years ago, President Obama promised to begin slowing the rise of the oceans,” the Republican nominee said as the party faithful chortled. “And heal the planet,” Romney added to further laughter. “My promise is to help you and to your family.”
The Romney campaign apparently plans to make this attack a continuing theme. Two days later in the battleground state of Ohio, Romney repeated it, demonstrating once again how extreme today’s Republican party has become. Even George W. Bush, for all his resistance to tackling climate change, never made fun of it.
“It is nothing short of terrifying to imagine a party that openly mocks climate change taking back the White House,” the Obama campaign fired back via e-mail. True enough. But the president’s own statements, before last night, have not been terribly reassuring either, if only because there have been so few of them. Ever since his cap-and-trade legislation crashed and burned under intense Republican fire in 2010, Obama has avoided the term “climate change” in public.
So does his convention speech signal that Obama will now champion the climate fight? Or was he merely punching back at Romney and telling the Democratic base what they wanted to hear?
Some historical perspective might be useful. For decades, Democratic politicians have shunned the “L word”: liberal. For most of his presidency, and especially for the past two years, Obama has done the same with the C word. Aside from his acceptance speech, and three much briefer mentions in speeches to university audiences in Virginia, Colorado and Iowa the week before, Obama appears not to have brought up “climate change” publicly a single time in 2012. (Yes, he used the term in his interview with Rolling Stone in April, but only after the interviewer raised the subject.)
The White House press office did not respond to a request for a list of president Obama’s mentions of climate change.
The president has preferred to talk instead about “clean energy.” And as in his acceptance speech last night, he usually does this in the context of advocating an “all of the above” energy strategy: exploiting all available sources, including oil, gas and what he (inaccurately) calls “clean coal.”
Obama told Rolling Stone he expected climate change would be an issue in the presidential campaign, and he promised to “be very clear in voicing my belief that we’re going to have to take further steps to deal with climate change in a serious way.” Except then he didn’t.
It hasn’t been for lack of opportunity. Beginning in June, the United States has suffered one of the hottest summers and worst droughts in its history, sparking wildfires and stunting crops. Meanwhile, the Arctic ice cap has melted to its lowest level on record. Talk about terrifying. When white ice is replaced by dark seawater, more of the sun’s heat is absorbed rather than reflected, accelerating global warming. The loss of Arctic ice is the “equivalent of about twenty years of additional carbon dioxide being added by man,” Peter Wadhams, a professor of ocean physics at the University of Cambridge, told the BBC.