The Sounds Of Silence: Team Obama Launched The Inane Strategy Of Downplaying Climate Change Back In March 2009

Last week the UK Guardian published a bombshell piece on the origins of the fatefully dreadful decision to try to sell the climate bill without talking about the climate

The story describes a March 2009 meeting at the Old Executive Office Building, the White House informed the leading environmental groups that it had decided climate change was not a winning message. The blunt headline:

Revealed: the day Obama chose a strategy of silence on climate change

Betsy Taylor, president of Breakthrough Strategies and Solutions, was at the meeting:

“What was communicated in the presentation was: ‘This is what you talk about, and don’t talk about climate change’.” Taylor said. “I took away an absolutely clear understanding that we should focus on clean energy jobs and the potential of a clean energy economy rather than the threat of climate change.”

The message stuck. Subsequent campaigns from the Obama administration and some environmental groups relegated climate change to a second-tier concern.

Most (but not all) environmental groups either agreed with the conclusion or felt they were not in a position to do go against the White House strategy:

“When the White House invites you to a meeting and says: ‘here is how we are going to talk about these things’, it sends a very clear message,” said Erich Pica, president of the US Friends of the Earth Action, who was also at the meeting.

Now with Obama fighting for re-election, and the climate agenda stalled and under constant attack from Republicans and industry, environmental groups acknowledge the go-softly strategy was a mistake.

I have confirmed with Taylor and Pica the accuracy of this story, one more sad chapter in the textbook the Obama administration is writing on how not to do communications.

In 2010 I discussed Eric Pooley’s reporting that former White House Senior Advisor David Axelrod and former Chief-of-Staff Rahm Emanuel were the driving force behind the decision to downplay climate change — see “The unbearable lameness of being (Rahm and Axelrod).” I learned independently that the White House communications team (whom Axelrod helped set direction for) shot down a late-2009 effort by the Office of Science and Technology Policy to push back against the phoney attack on climate science the followed the theft of the University of East Anglia e-mails.

It bears repeating that this White House “strategy” was a bad idea from the beginning and based on faulty polling analysis (see, for instance,”Polling Expert: Is Obama’s Reluctance to Mention Climate Change Motivated by a False Assumption About Public Opinion?” and links below).

Support for climate action and aggressive clean energy policies actually rose slightly in 2010 climate action even during the depths of the recession, even in the face of an unprecedented fossil-fuel-funded disinformation campaign during the climate bill debate — even without the White House using its bully pulpit to tip the scales further (see “Memo to policymakers: Public STILL favors the transition to clean energy“).

The fact is climate action and clean energy have both consistently been shown to be winning “wedge issues” that split the most conservative elements of the Republican party from moderates and independents, who are closer to Democrats on both issues (see Krosnick: Candidates “May Actually Enhance Turnout As Well As Attract Voters Over To Their Side By Discussing Climate Change“).

The Guardian story asserts, “The White House, after studying polling and focus groups, concluded it was best to frame climate change as an economic opportunity, a chance for job creation and economic growth, rather than an urgent environmental problem.”

But even back then Mark Mellman, a leading pollster for progressives since 1982, explained just how wrong-headed this conclusion was in a May 2009 op-ed headlined, “Voters: Act on global warming“:

In fact, most Americans believe global warming is real, is happening now and constitutes a serious threat, particularly to future generations.

… voters are demanding action to reduce the carbon pollution that causes global warming. In the Yale/George Mason poll, two-thirds urge Congress to do more on the issue, and in our survey, 77 percent favor action to reduce carbon emissions. In an April ABC/Washington Post poll, 75 percent supported federal regulations on the release of greenhouse gases.

In short, a strong public consensus has emerged on the reality and severity of global warming, as well as on the need for federal action….

When 84 percent of Democrats, 70 percent of independents and 56 percent of Republicans think global warming is harmful to people; when 86 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of independents and 62 percent of Republicans favor action to reduce the carbon pollution that causes global warming — it is time to take yes for an answer; it is time for elected officials to recognize the consensus and act, instead of heeding those who, inexplicably, regard a nearly unprecedented level of public unanimity as a prerequisite for legislative accomplishment.

And so the Democratic establishment and most major environmental groups went along with a messaging strategy that tied one arm behind their backs, a point the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein made in his article, “Can you solve global warming without talking about global warming?

Some groups never stopped talking about global warming. You may have heard of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. It’s where I work. Climate Progress is a project of CAPAF.  I think it’s safe to say CAPAF never stopped talking about global warming. Indeed, I argued against downplaying climate change as far back as May 3, 2009.

Bill McKibben, fortunately, also thought it was a bad idea at the time and still does. As he told the Guardian:

“I thought it was a mistake and I told them,” said Bill McKibben, who heads the group, who was one of the few people at the meeting to voice his misgivings. “All I said was sooner or later you are going to have to talk about this in terms of climate change. Because if you want people to make the big changes that are required by the science then you are going to have to explain to people why that is necessary, and why it’s such a huge problem,” he said.

Indeed, the biggest recent political success of the environmental movement, halting the approval of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, was done by talking explicitly about global warming.

Earlier this year I asked McKibben to comment on his winning Keystone strategy, and he wrote me:

Talking about climate was precisely what rallied most of the people who came out to oppose the Keystone Pipeline. The largest civil disobedience action in 30 years on any issue saw people from all 50 states taking part, not jsut or even mainly the 6 along the pipeline route. When we circled the White House five deep with people, the most common banner was simply a quote from Obama: In my administration the rise of the oceans will begin to slow.

People sense in their bones–especially on a week like this–that the climate is starting to shift–this issue is moving quickly from the theoretical to the deeply real.

What’s so head-exploding about the White House strategy is how self-fulfilling it was. The Guardian offers this explanation as one reason team Obama (mistakenly) thought climate wasn’t a winning issue:

Raising the topic would also leave Obama open to attack from industry and conservative groups opposed to intervention in the economy.

Seriously. As if Koch brothers and the right wing media weren’t going to make such attacks anyway!

Pooley explained the self- defeating nature of climate silence in a 2010 piece:

Obama’s stealth strategy had a fallacy at its core. The strategy assumed it was possible to be stealthy on this issue. It implied that if Obama didn’t elevate the issue, the opposition wouldn’t elevate it either. But the professional deniers — PR men and women paid to sow doubt and confusion on the issue — were getting louder every day. And Obama passed up chance after chance to talk about it.

One final point: The President always had a moral obligation to talk about climate change even if his team had misread the polling and thought it was not a winning issue. To paraphrase a point I made in May 2009:

We are engaged in a multi-year messaging struggle here. The planet is going to get hotter and hotter, the weather is going to get more extreme.  One of the reasons to be clear and blunt in your messaging about this is that even if you don’t persuade people today, the overall message will grow in credibility as reality unfolds as we have warned. To shy away from telling people the truth because they don’t want to hear it or they think it’s liberal claptrap is just incredibly un-strategic. The White House doesn’t want people to talk about “global warming,” or its link to extreme weather, which, as I have previously argued, is in fact the same thing that the climate deniers want — see “Why do the deniers try to shout down any talk of a link between climate change and extreme weather?” You must tell people what is coming, not just because it is strategic messaging, but also I believe because we have a moral responsibility.

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37 Responses to The Sounds Of Silence: Team Obama Launched The Inane Strategy Of Downplaying Climate Change Back In March 2009

  1. Merrelyn Emery says:

    What is the purpose of this article? To point out Obama’s doubtful morals? The day before the polls? Or to prove he and his team don’t understand the strategy of the direct approach? Or that CAP doesn’t understand the strategy of the indirect approach? ME

  2. Gestur says:

    Good post Joe. I’ve been waiting for it here.

    As I noted in a comment a few days ago, I keep coming back to that incredibly insightful post-mortem of the demise of Cap and Trade in the Senate in 2010 written by Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker in 2010. After rereading that piece, I’ve come to believe that the Obama Administration really did not want that piece of legislation passed. And it’s not just that he wasn’t fully engaged in the issue, although that certainly seems true from Lizza’s piece. In fact I’ve come to the conclusion that his Administration committed no less than three acts of what can only be called sabotage of that heroic effort by Kerry, Lieberman and Graham.

    At the end of March 2010 Obama simply announced that large portions of U.S. waters in the Gulf of Mexico, the Arctic Ocean, and off the East Coast would be newly available for oil and gas drilling. Kerry, Lieberman and Graham had been holding that as a card they hoped play to garner more support from Republicans, and Obama simply threw it away gratis, not even notifying them that he was going to, according to Lizza. And earlier that year Obama’s budget proposal provided for $54.5 billion in new nuclear loan guarantees, which again KLG had hoped to use as a promise to get more Republican support, and here it too was simply given away. Finally—and the mis-step that probably pushed Graham out of the game—came when someone in the Administration leaked to a Fox News correspondent that Obama opposed increasing the tax on gasoline as part of this legislation, when KLG had spent incredible political capital and hours getting various interested parties to agree not to call it a tax.

    A sad chapter of history, to be sure.

  3. Climate change is writing its own story, but it makes it a hell of a lot harder to get anything done when the White House refuses to discuss the truth because of some focus-group messaging strategy.

    For the environmental groups to buy into the party line was a sad mistake. That was all three years ago, and virtually all the noise about climate change, other than on this blog and McKibben’s, has been made by the well-financed, disingenuous “skeptics.”

    Barry O wants to make sure we have his back. What about the other way around for those of us whose kids and grandkids are at risk due to climate change?

  4. prokaryotes says:

    I find it odd that this is revealed a few days before the election day.

    And i just thought it would be handy to remind us what climate action’s we can assume under Mitt vs Barack.

  5. Maybe Obama’s more “bought” by big oil than we think. It will be interesting to see what, if anything happens in the first couple of months of his second term vis-a-vis climate change.

  6. DRT says:

    Well, first as always Joe, thanks for the post.

    What I get from this is that there is a sad and disheartening lack of leadership and vision on the part of Obama and his team. I guess I am naive, but the idea that the administration relies on polling data to make decisions on how to address the fate of the planet leaves me angry and disillusioned.

    He, Obama, says we have to push him, so I guess we’ll have to push him. How many millions camping in Washington for how many months will it take to get a real climate bill passed?

  7. Gestur says:

    Phillip, the short answer to your question—I now believe with high confidence—is that nothing will come of it. To argue for this rigorously would take a whole post. Here’s the Cliff Notes version. There are two possible ways that a carbon-pricing scheme with meaningful levels of prices that starts soon and thereafter accelerates smartly and annually could be passed in the next two years. The traditional way would be by the Obama Administration directly presenting a bill to Congress and working closely with Congress to eke out its passage. As it happens—and it’s called Real Politik, in fact—a necessary condition for a major piece of legislation like this to be passed in a president’s 2nd term is that the president campaigns vigorously and relentlessly on it in his reëlection campaign. I could give you quotes from yet another great article by Ryan Lizza in The New Yorker from no less than David Axelrod and Paul Ryan that show just how universally this is considered simply as a necessary condition. Obama, as we now know, chose not to do this, not even mentioning a carbon pricing scheme in his campaign. So scotch that route. This year, as I think you were referring to in your comment about the next several months, we have another possible route. And that would be if a carbon-pricing scheme with meaningful levels of prices that starts soon and thereafter accelerates smartly and annually is brought to Congress as part of a solution to the looming fiscal cliff. Some climate hawks have suggested that a tax on carbon could be a way of both maintaining these tax reductions/avoiding the worst budget cuts and bringing in additional revenues to keep the deficit from ballooning because of their continuation. The implementation of a tax on carbon could raise enough money—if dedicated to this purpose only—to substantially lower the deficit. But almost no members of Congress have been talking about it. Indeed, there has been a group of six Senators—from both parties—who once again are trying to reach some agreement before the lame duck Congress reconvenes. Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said recently, however, that she wasn’t aware that any of her colleagues had floated the idea of adding a carbon tax to the budget mix. And even a member of Congress in favor of a carbon tax, Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), was recently quoted as saying: “You need to have people out there thinking about it and talking about it, so that it doesn’t come at them cold”. Guess what has not been talked about widely and publically?

    I conclude, sadly, that we will not see any price put on carbon emissions in the next two years, and that means the next four years.

  8. prokaryotes says:

    “.. Obama Administration directly presenting a bill to Congress and working closely with Congress to eke out its passage.”

    Documenting Votes From ‘The Most Anti-Clean Energy, Do-Nothing, Pro-Pollution Congress In History’

  9. prokaryotes says:

    Debt and (Carbon) Taxes: Obama’s Last Chance for Climate Redemption is Just After 2012 Election

    Obama could trade both the Bush tax cuts and the corporate tax rate reduction for a carbon tax. No, I’m not saying he will. I’m only saying that he could — and indeed, it strikes me as his only opportunity in his entire second term to enact any policy that would actually reduce absolute levels of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

  10. Ozonator says:

    A non-extremist governor of Louisiana once tried to clean up auto pollution with higher standards for vehicle exhaust. Every GOP-Bubba decided to put off maintenance until their Murphy James (Mike) Foster, Jr. (grandson of Jim Crow) politicians could get voted in and stop any such progress. During the transition, they voted with cars and trucks that belched smoke that filled the city of Baton Rouge almost as bad as Exxon on a good day. That was when I learn that I had asthma and unusual death stalked the sick. At the very least, President Obama’s plan left the Koch Bros holding money they ended up spending in California – illegally as we found out today.

  11. Gestur says:

    prokaryotes, with respect, I think that perhaps you have missed my point. I was trying to make the case that, as I believe all politicians would agree, a 2nd term president needs to carefully set the stage in his reëlection campaign for what he wants to get passed in his second term. If he does not do so, he stands a nil chance of getting any major legislation passed. Obama did not do this, and by not doing so he has foreclosed the possibility of any significant legislation. This, I would claim, is independent of any particular Congress; it’s simply Real Politik. I do not contest that the Republicans in the present Congress have been hostile to just about any initiative of Obama’s. But the fact remains—as uncertain as the outcome of any such initiative would have been for Obama in his reëlection campaign—what we know for absolute certainty is that when someone does not try, nothing comes of it.

  12. prokaryotes says:

    Gesture, that sounds reasonable, you certainly have a point there.

  13. AA says:

    You overestimate the power of the administrative branch.

    Besides, if you think that Republican opposition could have been overcome by offering a few more “goodies,” you have not been paying attention.

    Remember the debt ceiling debacle?

  14. idunno says:

    In a rush, only reviewing headlines…

    So, Obama is “inane”, huh?

    Should I vote for Romney, on climate?

    Sorry, no time, will check headlines (only, like 90% readers) tomorrow.

    Will CP still be endorsing Romney/anti-Obama/don’t-bother ticket in headline on election day?

  15. catman306 says:

    If you live in a solid blue or red state, vote for Jill Stein. It won’t change the electoral votes but it just might persuade some politicians that green will be the new blue/red.

  16. addicted says:

    And finally (apologies for taking so much space), this article is preceded by an article by Cara Pike talking about reactions to Sandy.

    The “It’s Global Warming, Stupid” Bloomberg News visual and the related social media response can in the short term feel satisfying for those who have wanted to see action for some time. It is the scratch that reaches the itch of long-term frustration. But I think an approach focused on the facts and arguably void of compassion for people alienates those who are still coming to terms with the reality of climate disruption and what it means for all of our lives.

    So, why do we believe that the correct approach in 2009 was not talking about green jobs, and focusing on compassion for people who lost jobs?

  17. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    To show the farce of ‘democracy’ in a system where twp unelected insiders, following mysterious agendas, can negate the votes and impassioned idealism of tens of millions.

  18. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I followed Nader with his ‘Prepare to be disappointed’ observation, and Chomsky, and expected Obama to act as he has. He was designed to disarm the popular angst created by the Bush II disaster and ensure ‘business as usual’. I know that this isn’t a popular view, but I think its truth or falsity will be revealed by the first few months of the next Obama term. I hope I’m wrong, and will be exposed as a disgruntled curmudgeon, but I’m pretty confident that I will not.

  19. L.D. Gussin says:

    We are seeing the effect of this bad strategy now in Michigan, where a ballot initiative to constitutionally mandate 25% renewable energy by 2025 NEVER mentions climate change.

    Right wing think tanks like Mackinaw Center and backward-facing Michigan utilities have poured enormous resources into defeating the initiative. Every big and small media outlet in the state has discussed it; 4 in 5 oppose it. The opposition got a pass on even having to mention climate change. A huge chance to talk state-wide about reality has been lost.

    Going forward, I believe, the context for every clean energy, smart grid, carbon tax, and energy efficiency effort has to follow the facts and explicitly be climate change.

  20. SecularAnimist says:

    What’s most appalling about this is that the “leading environmental groups” apparently see fit to take marching orders from the White House, and follow along in lockstep with whatever “messaging strategy” the Obama administration thinks will serve its political interests — when they should be doing the exact opposite, pressuring the Obama administration to do what’s really needed to address the problem.

    This is why it’s the new wave of organizations, like Bill McKibben’s, that are leading the campaign for action, and not the old-line “leading environmental groups”.

  21. Raul M. says:

    Mother Theresa”s talk about – Yesterday is gone, tomarrow isn’t here yet, we have today, so lets get started seems nice to actually do something about something.
    Thanks Joe the explanation of the events seems very clear. It seems that the White House needs a ground swell of opinion that is very noticeable to the carbon industries. One that is more noticeable that the profits from the industries.
    With climate disruption such a ground swelling of public opinion becomes closer every day.
    People wont be able to take the weather for granted if it is not nice.
    Just thinking.

  22. Anne says:

    This isn’t really news, or, a bombshell. It’s been known all along — but more than just a handful of enviros (not a perjorative term at all, I promise). Taylor and Pica had plenty of company at the meeting and word got out FAST that climate change, per orders of our commander in chief, was gonna be understated or unstated in the White House approach to sustainability, and everyone out there needed to go along with that. It made us all mad, it made us all sad, but those feelings at the time were drowned out by GLAD that “W” was finally OUT and “Si Se Puede” Barack Obama was IN. It was wrong, in so many ways, then, but even more so, now. This was a tactical and strategic error of grandiose proportions: the epitome of moral decrepitude.

  23. Michael Berndtson says:

    To remind us Democrats that Axelrod has a two digit IQ and RE thinks his kids will be safe from climate change in Hyde Park at the U of C lab school.

    This post perfectly explains the problem with many environmental groups like EDF, Breakthrough, and a whole host of others. They promote a “common sense”, “solutions oriented”, centrist agenda. They take on a role of marriage counselor between the Republicans and Democrats or greens and fossil boys in an attempt to reach a consensus or middle ground. The analogy would be a wife (greens) and husband (Chamber of Commerce/fossil boys) enter counseling. The wife has two black eyes and a broken arm. The counselor (EDF et al) recommends that the wife apply a thicker base and less blush over here eyes and an arm cast less conspicuous and more becoming.

    The environment is getting hosed by these “common sense” approach groups probably just as much as the fossil fuels industry and its plethora of fake science groups.

  24. Anne says:

    On Friends of the Earth website in March 2009: ” Our planet is warming at an alarming rate, but scientists say we can solve the climate crisis if we act quickly. That’s why it’s so important for President Obama to strengthen the target he’s set for reducing global warming pollution by the year 2020.

    Unfortunately, Obama’s current proposal is to return to 1990 pollution levels by 2020. This would be a significant reduction, but not nearly enough. Let there be no mistake: if we fail to reduce pollution much more swiftly than the Obama administration is contemplating, we face the prospect of irreversible climate impacts that could devastate human civilization.

    President Obama is concerned there isn’t enough political support for the strong pollution reductions that are needed — that corporate lobbyists and Washington insiders are more likely to pay attention to policy details like a 2020 emission reduction than citizens and voters like us.

    Let President Obama know we’ll provide the grassroots support that will make stronger pollution reductions possible — and we’ll also forward your message to congressional leaders.

  25. Ken Barrows says:


    You are not wrong, but he’ll require cars to get 75 mpg in 2030 and that will satisfy many.

  26. Ken Barrows says:


    I don’t know. Isn’t the difference here between say a 3% annual rise in world carbon emissions and a 2.8% rise?

  27. Anne says:

    This article fleshes out the entire arc of Barack Obama’s approach to climate and energy. Highly recommended reading.

  28. Mike Roddy says:

    I agree, Philip. The drift of this article is to assume that Obama’s decision to ignore climate change came from fear of public opinion. Why should we assume that, given how much power the fossil fuel and banking industries have on our government?

    We, the people, are not going to ever be privy to conversations between Obama and the oil/banking people. I suspect that they frightened him about economic collapse, using bad data, of course. Obama would not have known better.

  29. Mike Roddy says:

    Most “green” NGO’s sold out a long time ago, Secular, and are trading on reputations.

  30. Anne says:

    Though should mention — while historically instructive and offers some good perspective – it’s written by a conservative who works with Boyden Gray and doesn’t share the sustainability/environmental viewpoint. It’s worth the read, nonetheless — what do they say, know thine enemy?

  31. Jay Alt says:

    I conclude many of us were deceived. This was aided, as mentioned, by the great relief at Bush’s departure. Yet how many times was this phrase used about Obama and Climate Change? – ‘Obama gets it. He really gets it.’
    Well, what did we get? Clearly not what we expected.
    Many stories were written on the high quality of science and climate advisors selected by this Administration.
    Experts in their field with years of negotiating experience, lifetimes spent planning for just such a moment.
    Were they were as distracted, short-sighted, or self-deceived as I? What will they say when they decide to speak?

  32. L.D. Gussin says:

    I think that’s a gross exaggeration and not helpful. We need respectful criticism and a goal of solidarity. The fight is hard, most campaigns fail, bad decisions are made.

  33. Gestur – Could climate change itself force everyone’s hand? What happens after the next Sandy?

  34. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Representative democracy has serious problems but the question is how you get anything done when it is dead locked and you have to make progress. Refresh your Sun Tzu, ME