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Revealed: The Day Obama Chose a Strategy of Silence on Climate Change

Sandy has blown climate change back on the agenda—and many believe the White House was wrong when it decided in 2009 that climate change was not a winning political message.

| Sat Nov. 3, 2012 6:03 AM EDT

"I thought it was a mistake and I told them," said Bill McKibben, who heads the 350.org 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.

The stealth approach also gave the opposition an opening. The White House reluctance to even mention climate change allowed some in industry and on the right of the political spectrum to discredit climate science.

Others argue the strategy of downplaying climate change was a political necessity. It was naïve to expect to get ambitious measures through Congress in a debate clogged up with scientific detail.

"I don't think it was a mistake," said Steve Cochran. vice-president of climate and air at the Environmental Defense Fund. "The people that supported climate were already with us. The people who had questions needed arguments beyond climate, which led to more and more focus on arguments beyond climate."

Campaign groups agree Obama continued to push the climate agenda, even if he did so below the radar, through the Environmental Protection Agency regulations and other branches of the government.

The economic recovery plan included some $90 billion for green-ish measures, such as high speed rail and public transport, and weather-proofing low-income homes.

Obama also publicly embraced some environmental measures, standing out in front when the administration proposed raising car mileage standards in May 2009. But the president left climate change out of his Earth Day event, and was a no-show in June 2009 at the release of a landmark scientific report on how America's cities and coastlines would be affected by climate change. There was no mention of climate change in his 2012 State of the Union address.

Environmental groups, taking their cue from the White House, also downplayed climate. The coalition pushing for climate change law in Congress called itself Clean Energy Works. The bill itself was called the American Clean Energy and Security Act. Campaign groups ran ads featuring former steel workers in green helmets talking about the well-paying new jobs building wind turbines.

"If you look at the messaging being done during the climate legislation, it was mostly not about climate," said Carl Pope, who was then the executive director of the Sierra Club. "They realised it was going to be a big target as soon as it passed the house."

And it nearly didn't pass. The House of Representatives' vote on the climate bill was uncomfortably close, 219-212, with only eight Republicans supporting and 44 Democrats opposed, and it set off a furious backlash.

The oil and gas industry alone spent $175 million in 2009 trying to block climate legislation, according to Open Secrets, which tracks money in politics. The conservative Tea Party movement turned opposition to climate legislation, even climate science, into an article of faith.

In the summer of 2010, the US senate dropped the bill, with then Democrat Senate majority leader Harry Reid admitting: "We know we don't have the votes."

The administration and environmental groups talked about climate change even less, said Pica, and when they did the connections were even less clear.

Facing public confusion about the green jobs promised by Obama's recovery plan, and skepticism about his promise to build a clean energy economy, administration officials switched to talking about climate through healthcare or even national security. They recruited Iraq war veterans to talk about wind energy.

"There was a really big emphasis on talking about what I call the sub-narratives—that there were other ways to speak about the opportunity and the challenge of climate change rather than calling it that," said Maggie Fox, the chief executive of Al Gore's Climate Reality Project. "There was a whole suite of sub-narratives: national security, clean energy future, diversification of energy, health, future generations… "

But Fox acknowledges none of those reasons—although compelling—went far enough in justifying the need for sweeping transformation needed to avoid catastrophic climate change. "Over time it became in effect an absence of conversation about climate change as a threat, and I think in the end that proved to be unwise because it is the one reason all these storylines matter."

The problem now, say campaign groups, is that it has become even more difficult for politicians to talk about climate change, even when evidence is all around them in extreme weather events and even when there is growing public concern about climate change. A Yale University study last month found 70 percent of Americans now believe in the reality of climate change, a sharp rise over the last two years. The administration, the campaigners say, missed an educational opportunity.

Obama, in debates and in campaign stops, continued to talk up the importance of investing in America's future through building a clean energy economy. But the connection to the threat of climate change was lost.

"It's really hard to sell clean energy. Clean energy is really struggling because the story has gotten garbled," said Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation. "You can't have a clear conversation, and the reason there can't be a clear conversation is because of this elephant in the room which is climate change."

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