“What do we lose when global warming and climate change get repackaged as clean energy?” asks University of Colorado Prof. Max Boykoff in today’s Washington Post. “We wind up missing a thorough understanding of the breadth of the problem and the range of possible solutions,” says this leading scholar of climate change communication. We agree with Boykoff and would add some points about climate change preparedness that perhaps his column inches in the Post didn’t allow room for. And we could argue that Obama’s approach to talking about climate change is an example of political opportunism in dealing with inconvenient truths.

[We’re reading Boykoff’s new book, Who Speaks for the Climate? Making Sense of Media Reporting on Climate Change, and plan to have a report on that soon.]

In “When did ‘climate change’ become ‘clean energy’?” (hard copy title) – “A dangerous shift in Obama’s ‘climate change’ rhetoric” (online title), Boykoff leads with:

What happened to “climate change” and “global warming”?

The Earth is still getting hotter, but those terms have nearly disappeared from political vocabulary. Instead, they have been replaced by less charged and more consumer-friendly expressions for the warming planet.

President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday was a prime example of this shift. The president said “climate change” just once — compared with zero mentions in the 2011 address and two in 2010. When he did utter the phrase, it was merely to acknowledge the polarized atmosphere in Washington, saying, “The differences in this chamber may be too deep right now to pass a comprehensive plan to fight climate change.” By contrast, Obama used the terms “energy” and “clean energy” nearly two dozen times.

That tally reflects a broader change in how the president talks about the planet. A recent Brown University study looked specifically at the Obama administration’s language and found that mentions of “climate change” have been replaced by calls for “clean energy” and “energy independence.” Graciela Kincaid, a co-author of the study, wrote: “The phrases ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ have become all but taboo on Capitol Hill. These terms are stunningly absent from the political arena.” …

As for the focus on ‘clean energy’, Boykoff concludes:

[T]alking only about clean energy omits critical biological and physical factors that contribute to the warming climate. …

“Clean energy” also neatly bypasses any idea that we might need to curb our consumption. If the energy is clean, after all, why worry about how much we’re using — or how unequal the access to energy sources might be? …

When the president moves away from talking about climate change and talks more generally about energy, as he did in the State of the Union, calling for “an all-out, all-of-the-above strategy that develops every available source of American energy,” the impact is more than just political. …

The way we talk about the problem affects how we deal with it. And though some new wording may deflect political heat, it can’t alter the fact that, “climate change” or not, the climate is changing.

It seems clear that there is a conscious decision by government leaders and advocacy groups to play down explicit discussion of climate change when dealing with issues of clean energy. I believe this is a strategic error, although it is understandable as a short-term tactical approach, given the political difficulties that currently affect climate policy.

Climate-action supporters now typically focus on opposing ‘dirty’ energy and supporting ‘clean’ energy alternatives, with narratives about green jobs, air and water pollution, public health, energy independence and national security — with greater or less emphasis on climate change per se depending on the tactical circumstances, or on the commitments of particular advocates.

This effort includes a lot of good and necessary and important work. In particular, I would note the efforts to shut down coal plants and abolish mountaintop removal coal mining, the campaign to stop the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to carry tar sands oil from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast, and the many efforts to put facts on the ground with deployment of solar and wind energy and energy efficiency improvements.

But the clean energy frame has, thus far, not been sufficiently strong to overcome established patterns and organized resistance. And where is the urgency driving a clean energy revolution, if not for the potentially disastrous impacts of global climatic disruption? As Prof. Martin Hoffeert at NYU has said (Martin Hoffert: “No. No. No to decoupling the issues of human energy systems from climate change.”):

“Without the possibility of catastrophic climate change radically changing Earth’s environment in decades to a hundred years or so, creating a new global energy system would be a problem for the 22nd Century plausibly tackled in a leisurely way without failure posing an existential threat.

“Plenty of coal to run high tech civilization at least another hundred years even with substantial economic growth by burning it in conventional coal-fired electric plants and making liquid hydrocarbon automotive fuels from it. It is planet-transforming climate change — from coal-burning plants now on track to be built by China, India and the U.S. that, de facto, will become the energy infrastructure of the middle and late 21st century — that makes a push to urgently transform our energy system away from fossil fuels the challenge of the century. …”

If climate change is dropped from the discourse because it seems politically inconvenient, how much time will be lost, how will public support be maintained through the costs and inconveniences of a sustainable energy transition?

President Obama, by failing to address climate change forthrightly in his public communications, leaves a void where presidential leadership could play a valuable role – an indispensable role, it can be argued.

In addition – and here we get into an essential set of issues that Boykoff does not address in his Washington post guest column – the focus on ‘clean energy’ puts the emphasis too narrowly on mitigation, on reducing emissions. What this misses, of course, is that, beyond the whole question of emissions reductions and alternative energy development, there is the fundamental problem of global climatic disruption already underway, and the need for a strategy of proactive adaptive preparedness planning and action.

The U.S. faces a wide range of adverse and potentially disastrous impacts, arguably already beginning to manifest in disrupted water resources, extreme precipitation, severe drought, flooding, extraordinary wildfires, accelerated Arctic melting, and record heat. How does the country begin to address this reality, domestically and globally, if the President and other ‘leaders’ and the policy intelligentsia decide it is politically inconvenient to discuss climate change as such? How does the public get the message it needs to hear?

I believe that scientific integrity and government accountability, as well as the politics of successful long-term strategic policymaking, demand that political leaders and the public pay attention to what climate science is telling them, make that a serious component of the national discourse, and begin to take immediate steps to change our trajectory.

As James Hansen has said (Hansen: Obama must defend climate scientists and “facing the difficult truth of climate science”):

“The predominant moral issue of the 21st century, almost surely, will be climate change. So far Congress has been steamrolled by special interests….The president must get involved. He must explain the situation to the public and use his bully pulpit to persuade Congress to do what is right for the nation and future generations. …

“The president should unequivocally support the climate science community, which is under politically orchestrated assault on the legitimacy of its scientific assessments.…Why face the difficult truth presented by the climate science? Why not use the president’s tack: just talk about the need for clean energy and energy independence? Because that approach leads to wrong policies…”

The goal should be both to avoid consequences of global climate disruption that would be unmanageable and, to the extent possible, to manage those consequences, already becoming evident, that will be unavoidable.

I see no way to deal with climate change unless people are willing to talk about climate change. This should not be all that difficult. I believe that ‘solving’ climate change, i.e., developing the capacity to deal with it as an ongoing policy and societal management problem, cannot be done indirectly through a stealth approach, as a byproduct of addressing other related issues, such as green jobs from clean energy development, essential as that clearly is.

Earlier posts:

On The Yale Forum’s question: ‘Climate Change’ … and ‘Global Warming’: The New Dirty Words? And If So … What Then?

Obama’s approach to climate change is both part of the solution and part of the problem

An earlier Boykoff analysis:

Accounting for an evolutionary shift in U.S. newspaper coverage of anthropogenic climate change