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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