Historian Douglas Brinkley: “We Need a Presidential Prime Time Address on Global Warming”

So few public figures who are not scientists or environmentalists speak out on climate change these days that it is noteworthy when one does.  MSNBC’s Martin Bashir show had a segment a few weeks ago on “The political legacy of Hurricane Irene” with historian Douglas Brinkley, author of “The Great Deluge,” about Katrina and New Orleans.

Bashir asked Brinkley whether Obama’s failure to mention climate change was an opportunity that’s been missed. Brinkley’s answer was quite solid for someone whose specialty is not climate:

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I’ve often said that future generations, which of course include future historians, will judge Obama (and Bush and all current political leaders) harshly for inaction on climate change.  How could they not when they will be suffering through multiple catastrophes post-2040 that could have been prevented or seriously reduced — widespread Dust-Bowlification; multi-feet sea level rise followed by SLR of 6 to 12+ inches a decade until the planet is ice free; massive species loss; the ocean turning into large, hot acidified dead zones; and ever-strengthening superstorms that bring devastation to country after country that equals or surpasses what has happened to Texas, large parts of the East Coast, Moscow and Pakistan and Nashville and New Orleans (see “The failed presidency of Barack Obama, Part 2“).

After calling on Obama to deliver “a presidential prime time address on global warming,” Brinkley, who has authored and edited books on Ronald Reagan, compares Obama’s inaction on climate to Reagan’s on AIDS.  He says “you see President Obama at this juncture needing to lead on  the global warming issue.”

Brinkley goes on to say:

You know I’m here in Austin right now and it’s  109 degrees.   All over the country, in the Great Plains, there’s drought, there’s wildfires that have been going on  in New Mexico, there’s a lot of  unprecedented weather patterns going on here.  We all know the word global warming, but only the president has a security documents.

So I would urge President Obama … sometime within the, say, next half a year, come to the American people and say  I came into office giving a lot of speeches about global warming, here’s what we know about it and here’s  some of the things we might have to do with the future to make America safe.

If you listen to the entire interview, then you heard Bashir say that when he interviewed Bill Nye the science guy, Nye was supposedly “absolutely clear that hurricanes like this were the result of climate change.”

As you can guess, Nye didn’t quite say that.  Here’s that interview:

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33 Responses to Historian Douglas Brinkley: “We Need a Presidential Prime Time Address on Global Warming”

  1. Peter Mizla says:


    1 degree C rise from the pre industrial era is enough to turn the great plains and western mid west back into a dust-bowl, no?

    what are we now? around 0.7-0.8 C above the PI era? are we not cutting it very close? we should reach 1 degree by the early 2020’s

    Obama is a rank fool- by 2030 he will be remembered as another Robber Baron from the late 20th- early 21st century ‘Gilded Age’.

  2. Joan Savage says:

    I’d like to give Obama and everyone a language to talk about climate change that doesn’t take a paragraph to explain each event. But it has to be an informed process to develop the language.

    If meteorologists and climatologists will give us way to classify hurricanes by how much water they move, extent of storm surge, as well as wind speed, that could be very useful.

    I would not be at all surprised if hurricanes are found to be changing character, not just amplitude, in response to climate change. A soggy cyclone as wide as Texas is not the same phenomenon as a drier one that whips around in a smaller circle.
    We are running out of classifications for drought, “exceptional” has been added on top of “extreme,” but either of those words suggest an end-point, an “it doesn’t get any worse” category, which are false inferences.

  3. Why say”multiple catastrophes post-2040?” What makes you assume that the next tipping point is going to wait 30 years? I think it’s dangerous to let inferences color the debate.

  4. Lou Grinzo says:

    I hate to say this, because of how witheringly cynical it sounds, but I think it’s a very useful way to view the political aspect of our climate mess: Reduce everything to incentives and power, and the actions of major entities (people as well as organizations) become very easy to predict.

    We will not see meaningful movement from US policymakers on climate issues until they are convinced that they will pay a sizable penalty at the ballot box for not doing it. Period. As long as they can convince themselves that this very real and very terrifying problem — which they don’t know how to “fix” in a politically palatable way — doesn’t matter enough with the public to change how they vote, then they’ll say a lot of green words and nibble around the edges of the problem with things like higher CAFE standards, but shun change of the needed scope and depth.

    Eventually the voters will wake up; I’m 100% sure of that. The only question is whether it will happen via people like McKibben organizing us now or via people being impacted by floods and droughts and storms almost every year for a couple of decades. If it’s the latter we’re in very deep trouble, as we’ll have then locked in a world of hurt and squandered any chance at all of taking action before things started to get ugly.

  5. John Hartz says:

    The Big Greens and the progressive movement should join forces to press this matter. Whether President Obama and his handlers like it or not, climate change will one of the primary issues in next year’s campaign.

  6. John Tucker says:

    The comparison to Reagan´s utter failure on AIDS is apt and will dictate how Obamaś administration is judged.

    Indeed its sad; what is looking like the two greatest mitigate-able if not preventable challenges in our century share the same beginnings with respect to the political sphere. Both leading to incomparable expense, irreversible loss and colossal failure for the exact same reasons.

  7. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    One, well crafted speach could do so much. People listen to the President and Networks broadcast his speaches.

    Only Fox cuts him off, and that would be newsworthy. It would show just how pro the right wing of the Republican Party Fox is.

    In half an hour, Obama could achieve more than Al Gore did in 24 hours plus the movie. The President’s position is a powerful one.

  8. Ernest says:

    I don’t think he’s thinking about 2040. He’s thinking about next year and “jobs” and the debt which also has immediate priority in the public’s mind.

    Stephen Colbert’s interview of Al gore 9/13/11. SC: “You’re a guy saying you got a broken foundation down in your house and I’m telling you my second floor is on fire .. and that’s the economy in this metaphor. I have to put out the economy fire before I work with your foundation global warming. Is this too technical?” AG: “I marvel at the sophistication of your metaphor.” SC: “Where’s my nobel prize?”

    Having said that, when there are record floods and record blistering temperatures, second year in a row, and the public is wondering “what’s going on” next spring/summer, that would be a good time to make a speech on what scientists thinking about climate change (without over stating the case, but neither understating it either based the best science). The GOP of course, will reflexively dispute it. It will highlight the contrast between the parties in an election season. It will help energize the base. It’s an opportunity to stand on the right side of history. And the weather will make a good prop.

  9. Paul magnus says:

    We are in deep trouble!

  10. Sasparilla says:

    Mr. Brinkley is totally correct, of course. We need a President to do this – its that big an issue and its almost too late to prevent nature from taking over control from us (if not too late already with the warming already baked in).

    Unfortunately, the President we have isn’t going to doing it – you don’t give a Prime Time Address unless you are actually taking massive action on that particular issue and our President has been making choices directly against this issue since he came into office.

  11. Jeff Huggins says:

    Judging Harshly

    “… future generations … will judge Obama … harshly for inaction on climate change…”

    I agree. But I also think they will, and should, judge US harshly if we don’t consider our tactics carefully, speak clearly to Obama, set conditions, insist on responsible action, and be clear and not vague about it. In short, I think we should take a stronger and clearer stand with President Obama in relation to his upcoming decision regarding Keystone XL. The same goes for insisting that he should get clear, and be clear, with the American public regarding climate change — although words alone will not do it, and we shouldn’t be satisfied with mere words anymore.

    I think people should consider taking a stronger and clearer stand, and to that end I’ve submitted a proposed guest post that I hope Joe will choose to run, as one point-of-view that should be considered. I’ve called it “Game Over?”

    We may judge President Obama harshly, and should at this point, but in the end we’ll need to look at our own actions — what we’re doing and what we’re refusing to do; what we’re considering and what we’re apparently refusing to consider. So let’s at least consider our options, clearly. The clock is ticking. Will we do it?

    Be Well,


  12. Pythagoras says:

    All opposition to taking action on global warming in the US originates with the free-market think tanks — CATO, CEI, US Chamber of Commerce, Heartland Institute — which serve as the voice to the oligarchs that dictate American right-wing politics. Action on global warming will occur when Charles and David Koch, Rupert Murdoch, Richard Melon Scaife, and others realize that their position on global warming cannot be maintained in the face of over-whelming empirical evidence. At that time, they will come to realize that all their political gains will be jeopardized by inaction on climate.

    What will be the trigger for this change in attitude?
    – Perhaps evidence that the Saudis can no longer meet world demand and gasoline prices skyrocket
    – Perhaps another hurricane hits New Orleans and more climate refugees depart
    – Perhaps it occurs in ~2016 when Arctic becomes ice free in the summer and there is graphic video of polar bear die-off
    – Perhaps it occurs when Russian wheat, US wheat and Australian wheat harvests all are stricken by excessive rain and/or drought and world food stocks plunge and prices skyrocket.

    Or perhaps these old anti-communist cold warriors just die away and their conspiracy theories with them.

  13. Michael Heath says:

    While I hope you’re right I have almost no confidence you are. The media with access to the candidates have zero ability to even scratch the surface on AGW issues nor do they seem inclined to even raise the issue.

  14. Bob Carver says:

    If Obama gave a speech on Global Warming it would swell the ranks of the deniers. No, that’s not the right tactic. Get Obama to deny Global Warming and you have a much better chance of convincing everyone it’s real. Obama is the most hated President in history.

  15. John Hartz says:

    “Obama is the most hated President in history.”

    How do you know this to be true?

  16. Paul Magnus says:

    Obama has failed me, he has failed my children, he has failed humanity.

    He could still help the situation though…

  17. Mike Roddy says:

    Good point. I will most likely be dead by 2040. For many others, anything that far into the future is just not real.

    Global warming is causing plenty of problems right now, and not just extreme weather. As for tipping points, note that the media barely mentioned the Shakova Arctic Shelf study or the Russian forest fires, both key feedback loops. Better communication of the possibility of sudden jumps into another state is critical.

    Oops, I forgot. The media companies don’t think that the American people are entitled to receive that knowledge- either that, or they think that keeping advertisers happy is rule #1.

  18. Mike Roddy says:

    I don’t see people like Koch and Sciafe changing. They are crazy.

  19. Mike Roddy says:

    Yup. For some reason, the Left thinks that Obama will awaken and deliver that speech, but the evidence for that is non existent.
    You might as well imagine Michele Bachmann making a transformative global warming speech.

  20. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    There is every indication that Obama “gets” AGW. From his 2008 campaign, to his Sec. of Energy, to his chief science adviser, everything indicates that he understands
    AGW. But he is a politician first – one needing to win re-election. And if he is re-elected… well… then we can all hope again.

  21. Lollipop says:

    Not crazy–greedy. They will change when it is profitable to change. Until then the rest of us have to work to overthrow them and undermine their power

  22. Pangolin` says:

    There simply aren’t enough deeply concerned green citizens to make a dent. In 2002-2003 millions of americans joined public demonstrations against prosecuting a war in Iraq. They were completely ignored by TPTB in D.C. and are being ignored to this day.

    To get the kind of massive social changes needed to stop accelerating climate change it might take 20, 30 or 50 million people concerned enough to disrupt business as usual through peaceful means. I just don’t see that happening in even a decade.

  23. Roger Shamel says:

    Folks at GWEN, the Global Warming Education Network, have long been calling on Obama to give a “State of the Climate” address.

    As pointed out in your post, Joe, this is the perfect time to do so. Americans feel that the ‘wild weather’ has gotten weird.
    All the GOP candidates but Huntsman seem to be turning from the science and technology that made America a jobs- and economic- superpower. So, are you gonna tell me that all the president’s best people can’t find a way to exploit this situation for the mutual benefit of Obama and the billions of people who do, or will, depend on a livable climate?

    All they’ve got to do is explain that human and US progress have resulted from science, that nearly all of our jobs, that our systems for survival (including our defense) depend on science, and that we can confidently expect that our future wellbeing depends on paying attention to science–including the science of global warming.

    Obama could go on to make this simple point, “Folks, there’s been a lot of misinformation on this subject, but, having consulted with our very best experts on the topic, I am here to tell you that global warming is real and that is a very important part of our future. “Handled properly this is the greatest opportunity our country has ever faced–an opportunity to put millions of Americans to work in well-paying jobs that cannot be shipped overseas–an opportunity to capitalize on American science and technology which is second to none. “In the next 45 minutes I am going to give you an outline of what we must do,and what we will do to maintain American jobs and American prosperity in the 21st century.”

    Please join with thousands of others in urging President Obama to “Educate and Lead” on climate. Call the White House at 202-456-1111, go to and make a comment, following the “Contact Us” button in the upper right, write a letter (The White House, WDC, Zip Code 20500), or simply sign the following petition put up by GWEN:

    This is an idea whose time has come. Obama could become a hero, and a two-term president if he’ll make this address. If not, then I’ll be returning all of his request for support letters to Boston’s Obama 2012 headquarters and shifting my support to someone who supports the science of global warming and is willing to say why!

    Warm regards,

  24. John Hartz says:

    Scratch any of the Teapublican candidates and any member of the the Tea Party and you will get, “Global warming is a hoax.”

    That is why a well-organized and coordinated joint effort by environmentalists and progressives can elevate climate change to a major issue in the 2012 Presidnetial election.

    If not us, who?

    If not now, when?

  25. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Lou, that’s not ‘witheringly cynical’-that is simply looking reality in the face, without the rose-coloured spectacles that MSM brainwashing fastens onto us all.

  26. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    A ‘well-crafted speech’ would simply imply, to these cynical neurones, that the US ruling caste has decided that Obama is a safer bet than any of the Republican loons, and he will be granted a second term in which to serve his real masters. Thus the business at hand will be the return to the ‘confidence-man’ role he pulled off with such aplomb in 2007-8.

  27. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I actually can imagine Obama giving such a speech, to suck in those that voted for him in 2008 again, but I wouldn’t believe a word of it.

  28. Paul magnus says:

    Climate change: who cares any more?
    By Simon Kuper
    Published: September 17 2011 00:47 | Last updated: September 17 2011 00:47
    When someone offered me a trip to India, I said, “Definitely.” A couple of years ago I’d have fretted about the carbon emissions. But like almost everyone else, I have given up trying to prevent climate change. We in the west have recently made an unspoken bet: we’re going to wing it, run the risk of climatic catastrophe, and hope that it is mostly faraway people in poor countries who will suffer.

  29. a face in the clouds says:

    Don’t wish to sound Texas-centric but I’ve sent letters formally inviting President Obama, Speaker Boehner and Senator McConnell to come drive with me from Austin to Indianola. I’d like for them to see the future and how it ends — at a ghost town. I went down a month ago and returned without a single bug stuck to the windshield or grill.

  30. Raul M. says:

    My guess is that things heat up and they cool down.
    When they heat up enough they start to glow. That glow is photons making a (quantum leap?) jump to the ways of light.
    So as our environment leaves the comfort zone we also
    Start to glow? It’s a good guess that my brain needs to
    Be comfortable.

  31. John McCormick says:

    It’s easy for Bob when he uses throw away lines like that.