The Observatory

Climate talk promised, but reporters may need to prod

By Curtis Brainard
May 1, 2012

Three cheers to Rolling Stone cofounder Jann S. Wenner for getting President Barack Obama to utter the words “climate change” for the first time in a long time.

In a wide-ranging interview published Wednesday, Obama used the term six times in responses to three different questions, surprising many pundits and environmentalists who’d come to believe that the chief executive had all but abandoned direct talk about climate change.

The issue was a conspicuous, if not central, part of Obama’s campaign in 2008.

“My presidency will mark a new chapter in America’s leadership on climate change that will strengthen our security and create millions of new jobs in the process,” he told a group of governors and other officials two weeks after his election.

Since then, the “c-word,” as The New York Times’s Andrew Revkin put it, pretty much vanished from Obama’s public remarks. While the president spoke of “saving the planet from the ravages of climate change” in his first annual State of the Union Address, and of the “overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change,” in the second, he dropped the term in the last two installments.

Obama has devoted significant time to discussing the virtues of clean energy, but commentators from The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein to Grist’s David Roberts have argued that that’s not enough, and that he won’t be able to address climate change without talking about it directly.

In the interview with Rolling Stone, Obama finally gave the issue back its name. Responding to a question about the impact of building the Keystone XL pipeline and burning the tar sands oil it would transport, he said:

The reason that Keystone got so much attention is not because that particular pipeline is a make-or-break issue for climate change, but because those who have looked at the science of climate change are scared and concerned about a general lack of sufficient movement to deal with the problem…

I suspect that over the next six months, this is going to be a debate that will become part of the campaign, and I will 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.

 

The statement is already paying off in miscellaneous coverage. Nowhere in the Rolling Stone interview did Obama mention his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, by name, but Politico and others have used his remarks to produce stories about their sharply divergent climate views.

An editorial in The Washington Post rightly argued that Obama still “needs to show he’s serious about climate change,” adding that:

So far, dealing forthrightly with the world’s rising temperatures has been far down the list of priorities in Washington, and the president has shown little willingness to stick his political neck out on the issue.

Indeed, Obama may have promised to be more vocal, but bloggers Joe Romm and Adam Siegel, who advocate a strong and rapid response to climate change, pointed out that he failed to refer to the problem in his annual Earth Day address on Sunday.

Let that be a reminder to reporters that if Obama’s prediction comes to naught, and neither he nor Romney voluntarily bring up climate change in coming months, it will fall to journalists to drag it out of them, just as Wenner did.

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