Barack ‘no narrative’ Obama still giving lessons in how not to communicate

The White House is just lousy at messaging across the board, as I and others have noted many times.

Obama also seems to have bad luck.  He endorsed offshore drilling shortly before the biggest offshore oil disaster in history.  He embraced new nuclear power plants in a speech last February, and now we are seeing the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl unfold.

But in many respects people make their own bad luck from a messaging perspective when they don’t have a coherent guiding philosophy that they explain to people again and again, a narrative, as it is more popularly called (see Is progressive messaging a “massive botch”? Part 2: Drew Westen on how “The White House has squandered the greatest opportunity to change both the country and the political landscape since Ronald Reagan”).

Ironically, Obama has so wanted to be a Reagan, but whatever one thinks of Reagan — and certainly he helped destroy US leadership in clean energy, among other things — he had a story and he stuck to it, so much so that he is revered for things that he never even did.  How else could a multiple tax-raiser be revered by those who make no new taxes a litmus test?

There was no philosophical or political reason for Obama to embrace offshore drilling, especially when he did, since he got nothing in return for it.  Same for nuclear power.

What inspires this latest post is Obama’s refusal to make the clear case that Republican budget cuts would be devastating to the health and well-being of this country.  A number of people have complained to me just how bad last week’s press conference was.  Let me pull out just the question and answer on the budget:

Q … And my question on the budget is — there’s been some criticism from members of your own party about your leadership on negotiations on spending. And I’m wondering, given that, if you can talk about where you stand on a three-week CR, on longer-term priorities, and what you would and would not accept on cuts.

THE PRESIDENT: … Now, with respect to the budget, I think it’s important to understand that right now the discussion is about last year’s business. We’re talking about how to fund the remainder of this fiscal year. This is an appropriations task. And we have been in very close contact with all members of Congress — both parties. I’ve had conversations with Mr. McConnell, I’ve had conversations with Mr. Boehner, I’ve had conversations with Nancy Pelosi, and I’ve had conversations with Harry Reid about how they should approach this budget problem.

Here’s what we know: The Republicans in the House passed a budget that has been now rejected in the Senate. They are not going to get 100 percent of what they want. The Democrats have put forward spending cuts, many of them pretty painful, that give Republicans already half of what they were seeking, because they’re the right thing to do. Many of those cuts are ones that were already embodied in the budget that I proposed for 2012. Now, that’s been rejected as well.

So here’s what we know — that both sides are going to have to sit down and compromise on prudent cuts somewhere between what the Republicans were seeking that’s now been rejected and what the Democrats had agreed to that has also been rejected. It shouldn’t be that complicated. And so what I’ve done is, every day I talk to my team, I give them instructions in terms of how they can participate in the negotiations, indicate what’s acceptable, indicate what’s not acceptable. And our expectation is, is that we should be able to get this completed.

Now, because I think neither Democrats or Republicans were in the mood to compromise until their 100-percent maximal position was voted down in the Senate, we’ve probably lost some time. And we may not be able to fully resolve this and meet next week’s deadline for the continuing resolution, which means that there may be potentially one more short-term extension.

Have you fallen asleep yet?

From a rhetorical perspective, he repeated the word “conversations” four times in one breath, so that’s presumably what he wanted listeners to come away with.  Obama is the converser in chief.

I suppose that his advisors have poll-tested this gobbledygook whereby he triangulates himself between the Democrats and Republicans while sort of staying above the fray, which is to say, by not doing anything but conversing.

And so a great nation crumbles.

Somewhere around this point in the answer is where the PBS Newshour got so bored it cut off the clip, so when I was watching it I thought it was even worse than it actually is.  I thought Obama hadn’t defended anything in the budget.  But it turns out he did.

But let me just make some broad points about this. Number one, we can’t keep on running the government based on two-week extensions. That’s irresponsible. We’ve got a war in Afghanistan going on. We’ve got a wide range of issues facing the country on a day-to-day basis. And the notion that we can’t get resolved last year’s budget in a sensible way with serious but prudent spending cuts I think defies common sense. So we should be able to get it done.

Point number two. There are going to be certain things that House Republicans want that I will not accept. And the reason I won’t accept them is not because I don’t think we’ve got to cut the budget; we do. And we’ve already put forward significant cuts in the discretionary budget, some of which have not made members of my own party happy.

But the notion that we would cut, for example, Pell Grants, when we know the single most important thing to our success as a nation long term is how well-educated our kids are, and the proposal that was coming out of the House would cut this year about $800 out of Pell Grants for 8 million kids, and if were extended into next year would cut in half the Pell Grants that they’re receiving — that makes no sense. The notion that we would decide that, under the Republican budget proposal, to eliminate 200,000 Head Start slots that also would mean the layoffs of 55,000 teachers — that doesn’t make sense.

Pell Grants and Head Start.  That’s it.  Good ‘ole education.  Can’t go wrong with defending the education of our children.  How about defending clean air and clean water for our children, too?

The principle that I’ve tried to put forward since the State of the Union is we’ve got to live within our means, we’ve got to get serious about managing our budget, but we can’t stop investing in our people. We can’t stop investing in research and development. We can’t stop investing in infrastructure — those things that are going to make us competitive over the long term and will help us win the future.

Specifics?  Nahh.

And so I’ve communicated directly to Speaker Boehner as well as to Republican Leader McConnell that we want to work with them to get to a sustainable discretionary budget. And we think it is important for us to stop funding programs that don’t work. But we’re going to make sure that we hold the line when it comes to some critical programs that are either going to help us out-educate, out-innovate, or out-build other countries.

Last point I’ll make on the budget. The Republican budget that passed out of the House included a whole range of what are called riders. These aren’t really budget items. These are political statements. And I want — I’ve said, again, directly to Speaker Boehner that we’re happy to discuss any of these riders, but my general view is, let’s not try to sneak political agendas into a budget debate. If Republicans are interested in social issues that they want to promote, they should put a bill on the floor of the House and promote it, have an up or down vote, send it over to the Senate. But don’t try to use the budget as a way to promote a political or ideological agenda.

I think that’s the American people’s view as well. I think one of the messages that the American people have clearly sent is get serious about living within our means and managing our budget in a responsible way, and stop with the political bickering. And if we have that view in mind, then I think that not only can we get this short-term issue resolved, but I think we can actually solve the long-term budget issues as well.

Live within our means?  How about not die within our means?  Peter DeFazio says “people will die” from GOP cuts to NOAA, disaster response programs.

This lame messaging — where Obama tries to be GOP-lite on the budget — isn’t even working, as yesterday’s Pew Research poll results show:  “Republicans Are Losing Ground on the Deficit, But Obama’s Not Gaining.”  Presumably Obama is so obsessed with the deficit because his advisors think it will help with independents.  Too bad for Obama that more independents understand the basic economics — spending cuts cost jobs:

Interestingly, Obama’s spokesman recently got some cajones:

The White House is bashing a proposed Senate GOP amendment to small business legislation that would nullify the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to regulate greenhouse gases.

“This amendment rolls back the Clean Air Act and harms Americans’ health by taking away our ability to decrease air pollution,” Clark Stevens, a White House spokesman, said in a statement Tuesday night.

He adds:

“Instead of holding big polluters accountable, this amendment overrules public health experts and scientists. Finally, at a time when America’s families are struggling with the cost of gasoline, the amendment would undercut fuel efficiency standards that will save Americans money at the pump while also decreasing our reliance on foreign oil.”

The White House decision to weigh in directly on the amendment signifies the stakes of the escalating Republican-led effort to crush a major part of the Obama administration’s environmental agenda.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is seeking to attach Sen. James Inhofe’s (R-Okla.) bill that would kill EPA climate rules to pending legislation that would reauthorize key small business programs.

The same block-EPA bill cleared the House Energy and Commerce Committee Tuesday afternoon.

Memo to White House:  Could you have that blunt message delivered by Obama himself, not a spokesman — during prime-time?


44 Responses to Barack ‘no narrative’ Obama still giving lessons in how not to communicate

  1. Obama needs to hire great communications/marketing guru/s. There are plenty out there. Take Seth Godin for a change. Drop the tongue and cheek. Just KIS. No one “remembers” details..

  2. Prokaryotes says:

    Sidenote, i think the white house energy spokesman we saw the last days on NHK done a good job. We need this kind of intelligent urgency when solving the energy crisis and jumpstarting the next industrial revolution.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Obama seems to want to be liked, while Franklin Roosevelt said about the richest, greediest conservatives who most despised him, “I welcome their hatred” because he knew that meant he was doing the right thing.

    Time to do the right thing, and to welcome the hatred of those doing the wrong thing.

  4. Michael Tucker says:

    To be honest, during the campaign, he endorsed ‘clean coal’, more drilling, and nuclear power; he has always been a supporter of those. However, he had been very strongly in favor of closing Guantanamo.

    Well, after becoming president, he discovered he was wrong about Guantanamo and he was wrong about holding prisoners indefinitely without charges. Someone explained to him what the issues really are and he is now completely in favor of keeping the prison open. He is working on a new policy to justify our political prisoner policy and to distinguish it from countries like China and N Korea.

    He has learned nothing after the Gulf disaster – still issuing ultra-deep drilling leases.
    He still believes in ‘clean coal’.
    He still wants those loan guarantees for nuclear plants in the budget.

    I sure wish those folks who ‘enlightened’ him on Guantanamo would help with the energy issues.

  5. Jeff Huggins says:

    My sense is this (and please tell me if I’m wrong): President Obama wants to appear like a strong principled Democrat TO Democrats. He wants to talk — to have conversations and make speeches and say good things — to Democrats in a way that convinces us that he still has the values and views that he told us he had, when trying to get elected. But he does not want to appear to have those views, or to hold them seriously, to Republicans or to many Independents. He seems to want to appear to be “all good things” to “all people”. He thinks this is possible, and he thinks that continual talking and compromising will accomplish the task.

    Frankly, and sadly, I do not know what he stands for any more, or even if he stands for much of anything. Indeed, the very phrase ‘stands for’ indicates the problem: Merely talking about values is not the same as actually ‘STANDING FOR’ them. One must take a stand! And he often hasn’t and usually doesn’t, it seems to me. Unfortunately, this seems especially true when it comes to climate change and energy issues.



  6. Here’s what is truly amazing to me. The progressive ‘literati’ KNOW what an abject failure Obama has been to date. And yet, they’ll be lining up next year to vote for the man. We scream at him for not having cajones when we haven’t any of our own.

  7. paulm says:

    He should start reading Julia-Gillard’s book not Reagans….
    Friends lend me your ear….


    Friends, the second US President John Adams once famously said that “facts arestubborn things.” No opinion poll can change the fact that climate change is real. It is caused by human activity. And we must cut carbon pollution. In a nation rich in fossil fuels, I wish it were not so. But it is.

  8. toby says:

    I think Obama will be re-elected bacause there is such a dismal field lined up against him. The Republicans have self-destruction written all over them, just like it was written all over Bush and the neo-cons in 2000. However, just like Bush, they will do a lot of damage.

    Obama is a paradox .. he ran a legendary campaign, but was a lousy communicator all along (who knew?). The Don Quixote dream of leading a bipartisan regime in an era of good feelings he must know by now is just hopeless.

  9. Douglas says:

    I suspect, as Jeff hints at, the problem goes beyond messaging. I now wonder what the guy actually *believes*. Based on his campaign and hiring choices, I never thought he would be a strong progressive. But now he is in danger of making Clinton look like a radical lefty.

  10. with the doves says:

    As others note, it’s hard to say what Obama believes, except that bipartisanship is a good thing.

    He and his team seem to have their money on economic expansion through next November that (combined with people’s natural repugnance toward the GOP) will carry him to victory. Maybe so. But for what? Why does he want this job?

    And if the economy falters? Right now we have not heard a plan or commitment to reset America to deal with a world with limited resources. Likely the voters would go GOP again, not out of any real love for them, but out of frustration with the failure of the change candidate to really do anything fundamental to address the issues that affect our lives.

  11. Peter M says:

    Obama is no FDR- nor Harry S. Truman, nor JFK or LBJ all whom taunted the republicans and the wealthy, along with big business.

    It makes me wonder why the Democratic party nominated this enigma. What where they hoping for? Certainly not this.

    If Obama stepped aside, and served one term, I would be cheering.

  12. Michael Tucker says:

    Republicans have no serious idea of how to improve the economy or to create jobs. They say no to everything except invading Middle East countries. Everything is too expensive: the US is broke, we cannot afford to test our nuclear power plants, we cannot afford to provide clean air and water, and we cannot afford to fund NOAA, the USGS, or the NWS. But we always have funding to make war.

    No matter what, I will still take President Obama. The Republicans would have to resurrect TR to get me to even consider a Republican as a possible choice.

  13. Robert says:

    The messaging is just fine, as you pointed out many times in posts like this:

    The problem is the lack of execution. Always a problem when you are trying to drag 300 million people in a direction which they don’t really want to go.

  14. Mark Shapiro says:

    Michael Tucker @ 4 –

    re Guantanamo, in 2009 the United States Senate voted 90-6 against closing it.


    Presidents don’t get to override 90-6 votes. That was a testament to how scared and cowed the American populace has become. We were afraid to bring a couple hundred toothless criminals to our shores. We might get cooties!

    Our plutocrats rule the airwaves. They own the MSM, literally and figuratively. They define the conventional wisdom. The only hope begins with taxing the rich.

    If you want progress on anything, tax the rich. Reduce their power. Reduce their cachet.

    Do we want progress? Tax the rich. (Then end the wars.)

  15. Joan Savage says:

    One difficulty is the approach of a conciliatory debater, “But let me just make some broad points about this.” Asking for permission to speak comes oddly from a commander-in-chief who was duly elected to represent the USA. In comparison, by the time RFK said, “Let me just say this..” a couple of times, he was losing a debate against Reagan.

    The abominable national debt, chronic war and impending environmental changes prompt me to want a tough Churchill type who gives us the blood-sweat-and-tears message, so we can coalesce for the common welfare.
    I don’t know if the political climate is ready for that, but I am.

  16. Richard Brenne says:

    I was thinking “Gee, I really agree with that comment Anonymous (#3) made,” then realized that it was me after we’d just changed computer servers.

    Yesterday on CNN during an interview with Wolf Blitzer, Hilary Clinton said something like “We need to realize that everything is changing, including seismic activity and climate, including earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, hurricanes, heat waves and many other things we’ve never seen before like this.”

    Along with all of Joe’s posts and the comments there and here, it makes me wonder what a Hilary presidency would have been like. That quote is very sophisticated relative to those of any other leader at her level or higher that I’m aware of.

    Bill Clinton was on David Letterman (and/or Jon Stewart) and said, “We’ve got enough houses, office and other buildings, now we need to retrofit them with better insulation and windows.”

    Neither of those quotes is exact, but both make me feel that they’re getting the big picture better than other leaders except for those far lower in the hierarchy like Representatives Jay Inslee (climate and energy), Peter DeFazio (same), and Roscoe Bartlett (peak oil).

    Of course it’s much easier for a Secretary of State and ex-president to be candid, and Obama’s wanting to be liked more than doing the right thing for all those he represents might make him the latter.

    Just always keep in mind that as bad as Obama and most other Democrats can be, right now most Republicans, including all the most powerful ones, are infinitely worse.

  17. Prokaryotes says:

    Obama Seeks Review of U.S. Nuclear Facilities

    WASHINGTON—President Barack Obama on Thursday ordered a “comprehensive” review of U.S. nuclear facilities and said he doesn’t “expect harmful levels of radiation” from damaged nuclear reactors in Japan to reach U.S. soil.

  18. Solar Jim says:

    The president is bad at communicating because he is only somewhat less corrupt than right-wing republicans, which limits what he may say. The president and his party are primarily financed by Wall Street and the Republicans are largely funded by fossil and uranium fuels (atomic fission). So citizens are primarily screwed in a Vice Of Plutocracy, with increasing costs for health. Until money is removed from governance the people get the best laws the monied plutocracy can buy.

    War Is Peace. The president states we are at war. Has the congress actually Declared War? Or is the “stinking cesspool of graft and corruption-by-wealth” at war with the people? The very concept of American Democracy has become a very sad, sickening joke.

    So let’s all raise the national debt ceiling so the rich can make money doing nothing but financing our pain, while we stew around in foreclosures, job losses and “clean and safe” multiple atomic meltdowns. And let’s not forget to include nuclear weapons in our budget.

  19. with the doves says:

    Michael Tucker @12 – you are right about the GOP. That’s why we need an effective opposition.

  20. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Paulm #7, Gillard’s speech was so good that I suspect that she has been kidnapped and replaced with a double. After over a year of idiocy and incompetence, she delivered a real rallying-cry for action and against the denialist industry. But will she stick at it when the Murdoch reptiles strike back? That is the question. I fervently hope so because those creatures must be confronted and routed if we are to have any hope.

  21. riverat says:

    Obama knows in the wake of Citizens United that if he upsets the right too much they can drown him in a tsunami of money in 2012. There is far more money available for things like that on that side of the political spectrum.

  22. MarkF says:

    When you have statements like this:

    Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.)

    “On Monday night in an interview with a radio host back home, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) came to a stark conclusion: the banks own the Senate.

    “And the banks — hard to believe in a time when we’re facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created — are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place,” he said on WJJG 1530 AM’s “Mornings with Ray Hanania.” ”

    when this statement barely make a ripple, and nobody even bothers to deny it.

    you know there’s something seriously wrong with government.

    And it’s actually worse, if possible than it was when he made that statement.

  23. Anne says:

    I’ve always had the distinct impression that the Barack Obama on the campaign trail was kidnapped and an imposter put in his place on inauguration day. Expected campaign politics aside, this man really did undergo a transformation as he stepped over the White House transom. I do not give much credence at all to conspiracy theories, but someone once told me that Barack Obama once did something extremely compromising and that he’s got puppet strings on him now as a result. I reject that theory, but when you imagine that large corporate types have a figurative gun to the President’s head, his behavior becomes more understandable: we just can’t see the invisible gun. It is refreshing to see the behemoth bad actor corporations getting more heat applied to them like the infamous Koch brothers, but in my mind, the more we can deflate corporate America in favor of smaller businesses, unions, and more decentralized markets, the more the President will be able to do what we elected him to do: govern, and lead.

  24. Steve says:

    What I find disturbing is how cavalierly both parties have thrown the victims of the economic collapse under the bus. Obama’s performance is pathetic and is about what we would have expected from the previous administration. See Paul Krugman’s “The Forgotten Millions” in today’s NY Times.

  25. Lewis C says:

    Richard at 16/.

    “Yesterday on CNN during an interview with Wolf Blitzer, Hilary Clinton said something like “We need to realize that everything is changing, including seismic activity and climate, including earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, hurricanes, heat waves and many other things we’ve never seen before like this.”

    This is one hell of a statement, on the record and unqualified, from the US Secretary of State.
    Crucially, it acknowledges the changing profile of seismic activity, for which there is only one driver hypothesized with scientific credibly, namely cryosphere decline due to climate destabilization.

    I’d been wondering about the extraordinary scale of nuclear power policy review around the world, including –
    Venezuela scraps plans for a Russian plant;
    Germany orders closure of 7 old plants by dictat ‘for review’, and govt speaks of getting out of nuclear a-s-a-p;
    EU Climate Commissioner declare an ‘all-renewable’ EU power sector is perfectly doable by 2050;
    Switzerland & Austria halt new plants’ licensing process, as does Bulgaria;
    China halts licensing and puts completion of some plants under construction in doubt, thereby disrupting its entire energy supply projections overnight.

    Seeing that events at Fukushima have been perfectly predictable for decades, given an unprecedented Mag 9.0 earthquake and tidal wave, and that there is as yet only the risk, not even the fact of widespread heavy contamination, the scale of this worldwide review within days seems entirely bizarre without some other imperative urgent driver.

    For want of any other explanation, I suggest that they’ve received the same scientific information on the seismic consequences of a declining cryosphere as has la Clinton, with the unprecedented Mag 9.0 quake near Japan acting as confirmation, and have recognized that it transforms the geological basis of nuclear energy’s design-safety demands, and thus multiplies their costs untenably, while also putting at risk a great many extant plants.

    If you can spot any other plausible driver (this effective across so wide a range of nations) I’d be very interested to read of it.

    Could you possibly track down the video of Clinton’s statement and get us a word perfect quote of it ? It’s going to become an important item I think.



  26. Lewis C @#25 and Richard @ #16: The USGS says that large earthquakes are NOT on the increase, although we are better able to locate earthquakes now because we have more sensors. Of course, all the other things (floods, hurricanes, extreme weather events are increasing in frequency and intensity because (in part) of climate change, but I’d need to see some peer reviewed evidence that the number of earthquakes was also increasing.

    Are Earthquakes Really on the Increase?

    We continue to be asked by many people throughout the world if earthquakes are on the increase. Although it may seem that we are having more earthquakes, earthquakes of magnitude 7.0 or greater have remained fairly constant.

    A partial explanation may lie in the fact that in the last twenty years, we have definitely had an increase in the number of earthquakes we have been able to locate each year. This is because of the tremendous increase in the number of seismograph stations in the world and the many improvements in global communications. In 1931, there were about 350 stations operating in the world; today, there are more than 8,000 stations and the data now comes in rapidly from these stations by electronic mail, internet and satellite. This increase in the number of stations and the more timely receipt of data has allowed us and other seismological centers to locate earthquakes more rapidly and to locate many small earthquakes which were undetected in earlier years. The NEIC now locates about 20,000 earthquakes each year or approximately 50 per day. Also, because of the improvements in communications and the increased interest in the environment and natural disasters, the public now learns about more earthquakes.

    According to long-term records (since about 1900), we expect about 17 major earthquakes (7.0 – 7.9) and one great earthquake (8.0 or above) in any given year.

  27. Leif says:

    Anne @ 23: That hypothesis and does explain a lot in light of the Presidents performance. I tend to stay away from conspiracies as well but “Something” did happen to the pre-President that is hard to explain in light of post performance. It is impossible to imagine any person in the world that does not have some skeleton in their closet and it is clear that the moneyed interests will do ANYTHING to protect their larder.

    The question then becomes, how to proceed if in fact President Obama is now a puppet? He is still the President. Will he tread water for a shot at a second term? Perhaps he will be inspired by Julia Gillard’s outting. Time is of the essence.

  28. Sailesh Rao says:

    Perhaps, George Carlin was a sage and philosopher and not just a comedian:

  29. Leif #27 and Anne #23: You are speculating about something about which there is no evidence. What I see when I look at the President is someone doing the hardest job on the world about as well as one could expect, given the gigantic messes he inherited. Like Joe and you, I wish the President would be louder and more persuasive about the need for climate action,but let’s not start making ill informed speculation–that’s what the Becks of the world do, and we sure don’t need any more of that.

  30. Leif says:

    I must admit that the imagination runs amuck at times like this and I apologize. Just trying to get a handle on strange times.

  31. Peter Sergienko says:

    I’ve always found President Obama’s overarching narrative to be bipartisanship. I haven’t read his books and need to, but based on his campaign and all the information about his life story that have filtered through the media, his attachment to process and his ultimate belief or faith in America’s systems of governance make sense to me. He also seems to see his Presidential role more as mediator than advocate, which is not an effective role for building or even maintaining support among his base.

    Unfortunately, bipartisanship is also a terrible narrative. Is anyone other than a former law professor really passionate about governmental and administrative procedures? With regard to substance, bipartisanship puts your supporters on equal footing with your opponents because it essentially concedes that both sides have valid claims to the truth and that the answers lie somewhere in the middle of those competing claims. Pretty tough to fire up the base when you start by telling them that the Republicans have some good substantive ideas that need to be incorporated into the final legislative product.

    Of course, the American governmental process has proven totally incapable of addressing the problems caused by unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions. There are obvious reasons for this that have been discussed here ad infinitum. In summary, though, our system has failed us as follows: (1) there are not equal claims to the truth; (2) one “side” of the “debate” refuses to even reasonably debate potential solutions; (3) the side that refuses to engage moves in lock-step support of the status quo; (4) the side that refuses to engage holds enough political power to prevent action for as long as it remains in their political interest to do so; and (5) if we were going to solve the problems of unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions through the orderly adoption of domestic laws and policies, as well as international treaties or other agreements, we probably needed to act years or even decades ago.

    Thus, the tragedy of President Obama’s faith in bipartisanship is its inherent inability to deal with a problem like unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions and I strongly suspect he is well aware of this failing. To his credit, President Obama has taken important administrative actions that have at least put some speed bumps on the road to climate catastrophe. Whether the speed bumps were placed behind or in front of the car careening toward the cliff on the business as usual path remains to be seen. But, with the forces of BAU pressing on the accelerator and engaging in a strategy that, at best, is akin to slamming on the brakes at the very last minute resulting in humanity teetering on the precipice at the end of the drive, it’s not looking good.

  32. Richard Brenne says:

    Jonathan Koomey (#26) – I agree with everything you say, in fact I just biked over some old volcanoes (in Portland’s West Hills) and am doing so as soon as I finish this to speak again to scientists at the large Portland USGS office and geology professors including the current and former department chairs at Portland State.

    As a writer, filmmaker and someone who produces and moderates panel discussions about climate change and related issues (not this one yet, but hopefully soon), I always look to who most feel are the best experts, and that would be the USGS and geology departments like the one at Portland State, in fact one of their professors did much of the work you’re citing.

    Often there is one scientist who is ahead of the curve on things. In the case of ozone that was Paul Crutzen and then Susan Solomon, who I featured in a 1992 documentary I produced. In climate change generally I look to Jim Hansen and Kevin Trenberth as being ahead of the curve.

    On this subject I feel the world’s leading expert I know about (I’d love to know others!) is Bill McGuire in Britain, who is the head of a global hazards division there. Here are some links to some of his writing, which is excellent. Because he checks out in areas I know some things about in climate change, neither being too conservative (as most scientists are) or using hyperbole (which he doesn’t), I generally trust him.

    Here’s the abstract to McGuire’s paper, Joe’s excellent post about that here at CP, and an article McGuire wrote for the UK Guardian:

    A hasty connection is not to be made on this, and at this point I’d call it conjecture, but it stands to reason that shifting weight from the ice of places like Greenland to the oceans and adding the weight of 8 inches of sea level rise in the last century might help in some cases to light the fuses that ignite the powder kegs of tectonic stresses that are already in place.

    If that’s so as McGuire and others think, then when we see a foot, two, three, six, ten, 15, etc of sea level rise, we should expect to see more dramatic seismic activity. McGuire says that when the Mediterranean Basin filled with water from the peak cold of the last ice age about 18,0000 years ago to half that time, there was a 300 per cent increase in volcanic activity during that period.

    So you’re right that Hilary could either be a little hasty in drawing those conclusions, or, depending on if her wording was careful enough (I was just quoting her from memory, probably poorly), she could be ahead of the curve of understanding of even most geologists and USGS scientists. This is quite a new understanding in geology, and geologists are notoriously conservative for a number of reasons. One is that all scientists tend to be conservative, another is that geologists work for and represent very conservative institutions like the USGS, another is that geology has such long time scales and such great forces that geologists feel climate change and especially humans must have small impacts by comparison, and lastly many university geology departments (especially the biggest ones) are funded largely through fossil fuel dollars and this permeates the culture of those departments whether their professors know or admit to that or not. That’s part of the reason I’m especially close to the scientists at university geology departments like Portland State that do not have that connection (another is that I can ride my bike there).

    So your points are well-taken and I don’t disagree with anything you said, it’s just that the points I’m making (and especially that Bill McGuire is making) are to be superimposed over those.

    And I’d love to know how much Hilary knows and think I’ll call her, because there’s not much going on in the world for her to be concerned about right now.:)

    Thanks Jonathan!

  33. Merrelyn Emery says:

    It seems to me that there has been an increase in protests and demos in USA recently. These seemingly small things can be embryos of social change and while none of them are directly about CC they can change the social climate from one based on apathy to one based on activism. Keep your eyes on it. Your friends are not always in high places, ME

  34. Richard #32. It’s not implausible to me that melting billions of tons of ice and rising sea levels could have some of the effects you posit, I just wanted to see evidence to that effect. You have my thanks for supplying some links that I will now dig into.

  35. Lewis C says:

    Richard –

    how about that quote of Mrs Clinton on TV? It would be much appreciated.



  36. Lewis C says:

    Jonathon at 26 –

    it seems you have a lot more faith in the USGS than I do – mine was blown by reading their projections of massive oil reserves in the arctic – or more accurately by the ludicrous methodology used to support the required conclusions.

    That position is not helped by the links you posted, which indicate a/. that their assessment of no significant change in seismic activity is drawn from a period far less than the 30 years required for statistical significance, and, (astonishingly) b/., that they decided back in 2000 to stop tracking events below Mag 4.0, unless they occurred within the borders of the US.

    The strong rise in frequency of low level events in Greenland since then is thus wholly ignored by USGS – so what else are they missing around the world ?

    Moreover, no mention is made of a large minority of the greatest seismic events in history having occurred in recent decades.

    For a properly comprehensive catalogue of seismic events on which to base credible statistical analysis, I’d suggest looking to European or Russian sources, or perhaps Chinese.

    However, the point of my post was to ask what other information than acceptance of a cryosphere-geosphere destabilization link could have caused so wide a range of govt.s, mostly without even a marginally effective anti-nuclear lobby, to undertake such drastic nuclear-policy changes within days of the Mag 9.0 near Japan ?

    The impacts of that unprecedented event at Fukushima were generally predictable decades ago – and thus cannot logically be regarded as the driver of this sudden profound change – those impacts are in effect ‘old news’.

    In addition to the nations I listed above, I’ve since learned that both Israeli and Chilean govts. have made clear that they’ll no longer be pursuing nuclear energy (the US-Chile deal on training engineers was to have been signed with much fanfare next week during Obama’s visit – instead, to avoid the embarrassment of its cancellation, it’s been signed behind closed doors by second-rank officials).

    Perhaps the most telling statement has been from nuclear-dependent France, which has declared that it will not export its nuclear tech to nations without at least Japan’s level of development, in order to raise the feasibility of effective disaster management. (France is not previously noted for having much interest in such ethical foreign policy concerns, let alone for assuming its nuclear plants will produce disasters).

    This decision, within days of the Mag 9.0 quake, not only voluntarily diminishes the viability of the French nuclear industry, it also starkly poses the question of just what has changed in their risk assessments in the last 8 days ? Something so drastic that they’ll turn and walk away from global market share in a supposedly key low-carbon energy technology . . . ?

    Should any plausible alternative driver for all these diverse govts’ policy reversals occur to you, I should be very interested to discuss it, as I’m not stuck on cryosphere decline impacts as the driver – I just have nothing else that meshes with the observed number, speed and degree of official policy changes as an alternative explanation.



  37. Richard Brenne says:

    Lewis C (#35) – I looked everywhere and couldn’t find a transcript or a clip. Maybe someone else will have better luck. It was Hillary Clinton interviewed by Wolf Blitzer on CNN’s Situation Room March 16, 2011 and another crack at it from memory:

    “We’ve had a lot of earthquakes, tsunamis and other events we haven’t expected over the last 10 years, and we’ll see climate change and many more intense storms as well. All these things seem to be intensifying.”

    Maybe she wasn’t necessarily linking them, but maybe she was. . .

    Oddly at that point Wolf howled like his namesake and Hillary just looked at him and there was an awkward pause.

  38. Prokaryotes says:

    In September of 2009, just after back to back earthquakes in Samoa and Indonesia, I wrote an article entitled “Climate Change, A whole lot of shaking going on” where scientists have theorized that Earthquakes are increasing due to an unlikely cause – Climate Change.
    The theory is that while Earthquakes on different Tectonic plates do not cause others to occur, for instance the Samoan and Indonesian quakes happened within one day of each other, they can be correlated to other quakes and seismic activity – specifically to ‘glacial quakes’ caused by fast melting and moving multi-ton glaciers on Greenland.

    It’s been nearly 2 years since then, let’s reconsider this theory, and remember, 2 years is not even a blink of an eye in Geologic time.

    The latest scientific discipline to enter the fray over global warming is geology.
    And the forecasts from some quarters are dramatic – not only will the earth shake, it will spit fire.
    A number of geologists say glacial melting due to climate change will unleash pent-up pressures in the Earth’s crust, causing extreme geological events such as earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic eruptions.
    A cubic metre of ice weighs nearly a tonne and some glaciers are more than a kilometre thick. When the weight is removed through melting, the suppressed strains and stresses of the underlying rock come to life.
    University of Alberta geologist Patrick Wu compares the effect to that of a thumb pressed on a soccer ball – when the pressure of the thumb is removed, the ball springs back to its original shape.
    Because the earth is so viscous the rebound happens slowly, and the quakes that occasionally shake Eastern Canada are attributed to ongoing rebound from the last ice age more than 10,000 years ago.
    Melting of the ice that covers Antarctica or Greenland would have a similar impact, but the process would be accelerated due to the human-induced greenhouse effect.
    “What happens is the weight of this thick ice puts a lot of stress on the earth,” says Wu. “The weight sort of suppresses the earthquakes but when you melt the ice the earthquakes get triggered.”
    The Earth’s crust is more sensitive than some might think. There are well-documented cases of dams causing earthquakes when the weight of the water behind a dam fills a reservoir.

    Alan Glazner, a volcano specialist at the University of North Carolina, said he was initially incredulous when he found a link between climate and volcanic activity off the coast of California.

    “But then I went to the library and did some research and found that in many places around the world especially around the Mediterranean they see similar sorts of correlations.”
    “When you melt glacial ice, several hundred metres to a kilometre thick . . . you’ve decreased the load on the crust and so you’ve decreased the pressure holding the volcanic conduits closed.

    “They’re cracks, that’s how magmas gets to the surface . . . and where they hit the surface, that’s where you get a volcano.”

  39. Prokaryotes says:

    While the number of quakes has remained constant, the number of high intensity quakes has increased. Already, in the decade of the 2000 to 2010 we have had more 8.5 Earthquakes than the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s combined – 4 total, with none in the 3 previous decades.

  40. Richard Brenne says:


    Great article and points. I think you, Bill McGuire and others who are onto this will be proven correct over enough time, and the implications will be huge as the melting accelerates. This will be added to the list of concerns including ocean acidification, ozone pollution, sea level rise, flooding and droughts (with global famine being the worst and biggest result), and burning fossil fuels will be the largest factor in each.

    Just a small addendum: On the list of the 24 greatest earthquakes in recorded history over 426 years, 5 from 8.5 to 9.1 have occurred within the last 6 and a quarter years. Seismographs have only been able to measure earthquakes anywhere in the world since 1980, but there were local seismographs back to China in AD 132 that could measure them in the region, and wherever there was a lot of damage or even a tsunami an ocean away, geologists have been able to estimate the earthquake’s power through various means, so the list of 24 might include a fairly high percentage of all the 8.5 and above earthquakes that have occurred over the last 426 years, so to get 5 in the most recent 6 years is remarkable.

    This might fall in the range of natural variability, but it might not. There are seven from 1950 through 1965 that are on the list of 24 largest and one large earthquake might be a factor in another within a short period of time, especially those on a related fault. The three in Sumatra have the best chance on the list of being related to each other. There had been a few inches of sea level rise up through the 1950 – 1965 period and many large nuclear explosions (the largest, the 50 megaton Tsar Bomba in 1961, corresponds to an 8.22 earthquake itself) so humans might have an impact one way or another (this is often the case, even though the exact impacts might take time to be accurately identified). And even if not, certainly increasing population, building and all other infrastructure in vulnerable areas is beyond question.

    Here are the five, with their rankings (some are ties) among the 24 largest earthquakes on record.

    3 December 26, 2004 Sumatra, Indonesia 9.1

    4 March 11, 2011 Tōhoku region, Japan 9.0

    8 February 27, 2010 Maule, Chile 8.8

    14 March 28, 2005 Sumatra, Indonesia 8.6

    17 September 12, 2007 Sumatra, Indonesia 8.5

  41. Lewis C says:

    Richard – many thanks for trying to find the clip of la Clinton and the pathetic interviewer.

    Maybe it’ll turn up somewhen.

    To avoid repeatedly hunting our way downpage to this post, I’d suggest that we’d do well to transfer discussion of the cryosphere decline and seismic activity to the Open Discussion post, which will stay visible for a bit longer.

    Up sticks ?



  42. Leif says:

    Bernoulli’s Principal: Pressure exerted on any portion of a confined fluid is transfered equally and undiminished to all portions of the remaining container.

    Clearly the molten core is a confined fluid. Clearly melting of significant amounts of ice here and there relieve significant pressure on said confined fluids. So to does removal and redistribution around the globe of large volumes of oil and gas and even water from the mantel thus change the pressure dynamics of the confined fluid core. It is not a big stretch of the imagination to attribute that pressure differential having effects in far flung locations. Not just in close proximity to the actual pressure release.

  43. Richard Brenne says:

    Lewis C (#41) – Good point, wanna transfer any of these comments over?

    Because I’m chronically behind whatever curve there is to be behind, I often am about the last to comment on threads. I notice Leif, Mulga, maybe yourself and others do the same. The deepest and most philosophical threads often have many of their finest comments near the end.

    So I’ve made it a habit to surf the last comments in the most important posts, often the ones with the most comments. The stuff at the end is often among the most amazing, unique and creative of all.

    So while you’re one of the people I find myself constantly agreeing with and feel it’d be great to take this conversation over there (although it might be played out, maybe better to get those most interested to come here, or to bring it up again in a new post), I’d also suggest that those who are interested surf the end of the most interesting posts and threads – I think whoever does will be glad they did.

  44. Paul Kelly says:

    What are the chances of a solid Progressive like Bill McKibben running in either the Democratic primary or the general election?