Obama’s big shift on climate messaging

Chris Mooney picks up an interesting point about Obama’s climate change speech last month:

If you watched President Obama’s major speech on climate change, you may have noticed a recurrent phrase: “our children.” The president said the word “children” fifteen separate times in the speech. He also spoke repeatedly about “future generations” and how a sweltering planet imperils them. The threat of climate itself, meanwhile, garnered considerable scientific detail in the speech, replete with references to dangerous and destructive impacts that are already occurring—from rising seas to parched land and torched forests. “I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing,” the president said.

When you stop and think about it for a minute, the messaging change here is pretty extraordinary. After all, four years ago the administration’s central talking point on climate change did not mention climate change. Rather, the idea was that greening our economy would confer a major benefit in the form of a profusion of green jobs. “It’s ironic that the administration, which helped launch ‘don’t talk about climate change, talk about economics and jobs,’ has flipped to ‘let’s talk about climate change and frame it in moral terms,'” says Joe Romm, a former Clinton administration clean energy official and editor of the leading climate blog Climate Progress. Meanwhile, as a Google Trends search shows, interest in “green jobs” peaked early in Obama’s first term and has been declining ever since.

It’ll be interesting to see whether a similar shift starts to become evident in Labour’s climate change messaging here in the UK (let’s not pretend that messages from the ‘greenest government ever’ have any relevance other than a certain bleak amusement value).

I quizzed Ed Balls on this at a Labour dinner last week, and his messaging was still firmly about how climate change could support the economy, both through green jobs and contributing to growth more generally. This was also very much the key message of his Statesman article to coincide with his appearance on a Green Alliance panel on 10 July; coverage here.

But while there’s undoubtedly much that Balls will need to do to get the Treasury to a better place on low carbon investment – see John Ashton‘s excellent speech on this – Labour will be missing a trick if it frames its climate messaging primarily in green economy terms.

For one thing, the ‘green jobs’ story doesn’t altogether stack up, as I argued in this blog post ages ago: “doing anything effective on climate will create both winners and losers – and the losers will tend to be noisier and more visible”, at least in the short term.

More fundamentally, though, messages about safeguarding our kids’ future are simply more resonant. Balls wants Labour’s key message going in to the next election to be “you’ll be better off under Labour”. Fair enough. But as Obama’s new stance emphasises, he should also set out why their kids will be better off under Labour too.