Moral Majority: Team Obama Finally Embraces The Winning Argument For Climate Action

“… remind everyone who represents you at every level of government that sheltering future generations against the ravages of climate change is a prerequisite for your vote” — Obama 6/25/13

“We have a moral obligation to act” — #1 message in post-speech talking points from team Obama

“Republican leaders have a clear strategy for combating President Barack Obama’s climate agenda: Don’t talk about the science” — Politico 6/27/13

“Once third-rail issues transform into moral imperatives, impossibilities sometimes surrender to new realities — Salon 2/13/13

Wednesday, the Supreme Court sided with marriage equality. The Court struck down the unconstitutional Defense of Marriage Act and re-opened the door for gay marriage in California.

I’m sure you all know the argument that won in the Supreme Court, the argument that has led toward a sharp swing of public support for LGBT rights in the past decade, the one repeated endlessly by advocates for change: Legalizing gay marriage would be a big job creator. Yes, in the face of strong religious and conservative objections, the public and the Court were persuaded by the growing call for a jobs plan from florists, caterers, photographers, wedding planners, DJs, celebrity bookers, gown and tuxedo stores, marriage counselors and even divorce attorneys.

Oh wait, that wasn’t the winning argument. As Salon explained in a late 2011 article, “Gay rights’ surprise weapon: Morality,” what “moved gay marriage into the mainstream in 2011” was “morality.”

They did it — and this is the lesson that the gay revolution holds for any progressive movement — not by asking for “tolerance.” They didn’t ask people to accept gay marriage by holding their moral noses. Rather, they set out to change change people’s minds about what is moral.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority in the decision striking down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), said DOMA “violates basic due process and equal protection,” that it represents a “deprivation of the liberty” people are guaranteed by the Constitution, and that it “humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same sex couples.” Strangely enough, I couldn’t find the word “job” anywhere in the ruling.

I mention all this because, for virtually the entire first term, the White House made the jobs and economic arguments preeminent in the climate debate while downplaying the science. Worse, back in March 2009, team Obama actually told the leading environmental groups that everyone pushing the climate bill should downplay the threat posed by climate change — the core of any moral argument for action.

Last year, the UK Guardian published “Revealed: the day Obama chose a strategy of silence on climate change” on the origins of the fatefully dreadful decision to try to sell the climate bill without talking about the climate.

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.

And so the Democratic establishment and most major environmental groups went along with a messaging strategy that tied both arms 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?

To be clear, I am not opposed to the clean energy jobs message at all. Indeed, Climate Progress has probably published more articles on that message then any other publication in the world. But the problem with making it the exclusive or even primary argument is that it opens up the obvious response, well, if it’s jobs that you seek, then 1) we can give you some tax credits and 2) our (dirty) industries can also provide jobs, so let’s keep supporting them.

Worse, by focusing exclusively on the economic argument, you actually undercut your moral position. You allow the fossil-fuel funded disinformation campaign to (falsely) argue that clean energy is just another special interest.

Henry Waxman (D-CA), the Ranking Minority Member of the Energy and Commerce Committee, made this point in his opening statement for an oversight hearing on “Solyndra and The DOE Loan Guarantee Program.” In rebutting the standard GOP attack on the argument that Solyndra “shows the folly of federal investments in solar and other clean energy technologies” and that “the government should not pick ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in the energy marketplace,” Waxman explained:

This sounds superficially appealing, but there is a fundamental flaw in their logic. The majority of Republicans on this Committee deny that climate change is real. If you are a science denier, there is no reason for government to invest in clean energy.

That final sentence cuts through the fog of this debate like the Fresnel lens of a lighthouse lamp. For science deniers, clean energy is just another special interest, hardly different from, say, natural gas or, for them, even oil and coal.

The essential rationale for government action, as progressives and climate hawks know, is a moral one based on the science: We must start rapidly getting off of fossil fuels ASAP to preserve a livable climate — to maintain a carrying capacity anywhere near the projected mid-century population of this planet — by limiting warming to under 4°F. Indeed, we know that even if we miss that target, the shift is inevitable by midcentury, else we face warming far beyond 7°F globally — beyond 10°F over most of U.S.! — with multiple, simultaneous catastrophic consequences that are almost beyond imagining.

That’s why, this blog and others have urged for years that the message be flipped around. Now, Obama is finally starting to get it right. That became clear in his second inaugural address, when the president framed climate action and inaction in moral terms, as a betrayal of future generations.

And in his big Wednesday speech, the President went full climate hawk, with an extensive discussion of climate science, extreme weather impacts, the absurdity of denial, and the moral urgency of action.

The centrality of the moral argument was underscored when Politico published team Obama’s talking points:

TALKING POINTS — STAY AWAY FROM ECONOMIC ARGUMENT: A set of talking points issued by a coalition of Obama supporters recommends downplaying some of the economic and jobs benefits of a climate action plan he rolled out yesterday and instead focus on the harm that Americans are suffering. The “message guidance” to a network of Obama advocates contained a table listing “Dos and Don’ts” that suggested campaigners should not “lead with straight economic arguments” or to “try to suggest net job increases.” Darren Goode again:

Yes, the messaging has flipped entirely:

The talking points themselves are straight out of the climate hawk playbook:

A simple 3-part message formulation should be used for maximum effect with general audiences.1. We have a moral obligation to act.2. Communities all over America are already being harmed.3. The president’s climate plan is full of common sense solutions including first-ever limits on carbon pollution from power plants.Short interview-ready formulation:1. We have a moral obligation to future generations to leave them a planet that’s not polluted and damaged by carbon pollution….

The talking points note that this messaging is backed by extensive polling (as CP has pointed out for years):

“We have a moral obligation to future generations to leave them a planet that’s not polluted and damaged” — 93% agree, including 67% who strongly agree (Benenson Strategy Group for the League of Conservation Voters, 2/12/13)…“We have an obligation to future generations to do something about the issue of climate change. We need to make sure that this is not a problem that we simply pass on to future generations to deal with because it will just keep getting more expensive and painful if we put it off. — 65% say fairly important/very important reason government should act (Hart Research Associates for CAC, 1/29/13)

But the point Salon made earlier this year in an article on LGBT rights, gun control, and immigration is that progressives don’t need polling to know that the moral argument is the winning one: “Once third-rail issues transform into moral imperatives, impossibilities sometimes surrender to new realities.”

I’m delighted that team Obama finally has embraced the winning message. As I’ve noted before, some groups never stopped talking about the threat posed by global warming. I think it’s safe to say the Center for American Progress Action Fund where I work never did. 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.

Last 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 … that the climate is starting to shift–this issue is moving quickly from the theoretical to the deeply real.

The majority of Americans understand the moral imperative of climate action. Finally, it seems, the president does too.