Why was Barack Obama’s climate change speech a milestone?

Author: Margot Le Guen, Co-founder of CliMates, she was vice-president from 2011 to 2012. She graduated from Science Po Paris with a Master’s degree in International Affairs and a minor in Environment and Sustainable development. Interested in the science of climate change, she continued her studies with a M.A at Columbia University in which she fostered her expertise on energy issues. She is currently working for the International Research Institute for Climate and Society on financial mechanisms to make the agriculture sector in developing countries more resilient.

President Obama disappointed many climate activists by his recurrent tendency to make emphatic wordy speeches pinpointing the urgency to act against climate change without actually instigating the action himself. “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations”, he said at his inauguration speech in January. “If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will”, he said at the Union Speech.

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Yet, on Tuesday June 25th 2013, things changed. Why was the “We Need to Act” speech at Georgetown different, and better?

1. Unite!

The most important achievement of this speech was his successful demonstration of how and why Democrats and Republicans should leave dissensions apart and tackle climate change together: climate change can be a common playing ground since it is already affecting the country. As a great American communicator that he is, President Obama drew attention to the severe impacts of climate change on key American symbols: farmers, mountain communities, consumers of any kind, firefighters (!), the paternal figure that he loves embodying but also taxes and insurance premiums! He may have even winked at Sarah Palin mentioning the hot temperatures in Alaska a week earlier…

2. “It used to be a bipartisan issue!”

Looking back in history, he made those Republicans who have been blocking any type of climate policies in the recent years, see their own contradictions: previous progressive laws and policies on climate issues were actually led by Republican leaders! He also complimented Kansas, Ohio and Oklahoma, Republican States which are heavily investing in clean energies, for their fight to preserve tax credits for renewable energies.

3. ‘Murica!

What a better way of convincing the political center to act against climate change than pulling the patriotism card? He repeated at length how the American people are capable of engaging into this transition towards a low-carbon economy and how they can win this challenge! Anyhow, climate change can be the new platform of American leadership at the global level, both in the race for renewable energies and in the arena of international negotiations.

4. Ca$h

“Don’t bet against American workers. Don’t tell folks that we have to choose between the health of our children or the health of our economy.” What a clever way to turn climate deniers into anti-growth and prosperity!

5. At this point, it’s not about policies, but about politics.

Economic, scientific, political science experts have made thousands of recommendations on how to act against climate change: today, there needs to be a leader showing the way! President Obama was this leader on Tuesday. He delivered an inspiring, hopeful and stimulating speech, urging the civil society, youth and families to raise awareness and take immediate actions. And this is undoubtedly the right way to do it.

6. Checkmate

But Obama did not only manage to seduce the center of the political chessboard. He left environmentalists speechless when he mentioned the Keystone project proving that he is 100% conscious of the energy reality in the US and ware of the controversies about his policies. As a matter of fact, NGOs preemptively placed protesters outside of the Georgetown campus anticipating he would not talk about this burning and unspeakable issue. Hearing that the pipeline could only be approved if the project doesn’t « significantly exacerbate the climate problem », they had to withdraw their troops and congratulate the President for such a move. “And in a move that made me jump for joy, he gave a shout-out to the growing fossil fuel divestment movement,” declared the executive director and co-founder of 350.org!

7. Heading to the right direction

Surely, words shall not suffice. Yet, he revealed great first steps towards a promising climate policy: ending the ability of power plants to emit unlimited carbon pollution, investing in clean energy, preparing for climate impacts, and reengagement in the international climate process: President Obama certainly convinced me this time!

 by Margot Le Guen

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