In public, the president never makes the case for addressing global warming in environmental terms alone. That bothers Damon Moglen, who works on climate change for Greenpeace.
"You do not see the president doing what he has done on health care: going out into the public and explaining the problems of climate change, and demanding from the Congress a science-based policy commensurate with the risks we face," Moglen says. "So, we need to see much more leadership from Mr. Obama."
Another environmental activist, Jonathan Lash of the World Resources Institute, says the White House approach makes political sense — especially today. He says the president is being pragmatic.
"We're in the depths of the most serious recession that the United States has faced since the Great Depression," Lash says. "We're at 10 percent unemployment, and that's what Americans are concerned about. They need to know that taking action now is not something that will prolong the recession but will help us out of the recession."
Overall, I agree with Lash about the need for pragmatism. However, studies in environmental messaging point to dangers of emphasizing economic benefits alone, and failing to tie in credible, concrete and emotive environmental appeals -- the type Moglen is saying Obama should be using. For example, in my October Yale Forum piece, I noted that:
Studies find that emphasizing the people benefits (e.g., economic, health, etc.) of taking an action is important. However, some researchers point out that emphasizing people benefits alone can actually lead to weaker behavioral changes than emphasizing both environmental and people benefits. Others recommend encouraging fans to imagine themselves as climate change and clean energy trendsetters, and to base their choices on that mission and identity.
Presenting messages in moral terms helps strengthen their influence. For example, an advocate of legislation might argue: "With the incredible environmental, economic, health and security benefits of climate solutions, it's wrong to not support the bill. Taking action is the right thing to do, and you are a good person for doing it!"
President Obama still has some work to do on the messaging front. Granted, we all do!
Update: Bill McKibben jumps into the mix with a pointed critique of President Obama's approach to climate change messaging - phew!
Update 2: Read David Roberts' response to McKibben -- he says McKibben is wrong to blame Obama, and the real problem is the U.S. Senate. Is your head spinning yet?