State of the Planet

State-of-the-onionIf there is reason to be pleased that the issue of global warming made it into both President Obama’s January 13th Inaugural Address and February 12th State of the Union Address, there is less reason to be reassured by what he said. Here is why.

First, Obama didn’t use the phrase ‘global warming’ to identify the issue, but instead chose the more innocuous sounding ‘climate change.’ For a president who has tended cave on issues when faced with strong opposition that is not a good sign.

Second, there is disturbing squishiness in other language that Obama used. He did not clearly endorse the anthropogenic causes of global warming with the phrase ‘the overwhelming judgment of science’ in the State of Union Address. Did he mean the consensus among climate scientists that global warming was occurring or the consensus among climate scientists that it was caused by human activity?

Third, global warming is obviously secondary to the issues of unemployment, inequality, guns, and perhaps immigration in the two speeches. While Obama used the phrase ‘climate change’ only 4 times in the two speeches, he used the word ‘job’ 34 times, the word ‘market’ 8 times, the phrase ‘middle class’ 6 times, the word ‘gun’ 11 times and the words ‘immigrant’ or ‘immigration’ 6 times.

Fourth, the discussion of global warming is wrapped somewhat differently in the two speeches. Treated as a matter of religious stewardship in the Inaugural Address, it becomes a component of energy policy and economic opportunity in the State of the Union Address. Anxiety about stormy weather figures in the presentations of global warming in both speeches – much of the American public now believes that the two phenomena are related – but that big difference between the evocations of God and Mammon suggests that Obama is uncertain of the way forward.

Fifth, there is the lack of specificity about how government should respond. Although the president endorsed the “market based solution” of John McCain and Joe Lieberman as something for the Congress to enact in the State of the Union Address, he merely threatened to direct his Cabinet “to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.” As promises go, that is especially unimpressive. Why must he and the American people wait for Congress to fail to act before he does? After four years in office and little attention to the issue, why another delay? If Obama was more serious about global warming, he would have offered a timetable for action with specific goals and measures to be taken to achieve them by his administration.

More, much more, than what we have heard in these two speeches about global warming is needed.

Photo: screen shot from President Obama's State of the Union speech delivered February 12, 2013 - click here to view the speech.
John Hickman

John Hickman

John Hickman is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he teaches courses on war crimes, comparative politics, and research methods. He holds both a PH.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. Hickman is the author of the 2013 Florida University Press book Selling Guantanamo.