Climate rhetoric - From apocalypse to action in Obama’s State of the Union
- 13 Feb 2013, 16:30
- Kate Pond
Barack Obama is a master of rhetoric - and last
night he gave one of the most important speeches of his second
term, laying the foundations for his policy priorities over the
next four years. Language and discourse expert Kate Pond examines
the text of his inaugural and State of the Union speeches for clues
about the story the administration wants to tell on climate
The Inaugural and State of the Union (SOTU) speeches
use three interlocking frames, all of which are frequently used in
climate change rhetoric: apocalypse,
social progress and responsibility, and
Frames are always present in language. They tailor
the message to the audience and offer context for understanding the
information given. They set a storyline with causes and
consequences indicating - among other things - blame,
responsibility, and what can be done.
Frames can define particular words - and in the same
way, words can activate frames. So how does Obama use these frames
in his speeches?
Apocalypse is the most
commonly used of these frames: it uses the easily recognisable
language of catastrophe to indicate urgency, but it can also make
people feel they're impotent to stop the threat. By combining
it with other frames, Obama seeks to tap into the apocalypse
frame's well-known language, but neutralise the idea of
powerlessness. He moves instead into a frame that indicates moral
responsibility (the social progress frame),
and then into the economic frame, which spotlights
The inaugural: Setting the tone
respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure
to do so would betray our children and future generations."
preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God".
inaugural speech combines these frames
to create a linear relationship of authority, action and
consequence. Ordained by God, action is urgently required to avert
social, environmental and economic catastrophe.
Obama gives primacy to "the overwhelming judgement of
science", which then locks into the economic and social frames to
repeatedly position responsibility for action at the feet of "we
the people". Basically, acting on climate change is
everyone's responsibility: we have the scientific evidence and the
tools to do it.
The apocalyptic frame appears
predominantly in negative terms emphasising the urgency of action:
"raging fires"; "crippling droughts"; "the destructive power of a
Meanwhile, the statement that the planet was
"commanded to our care by God" appeals to a higher order and
indicates that humans have a duty and a responsibility. But it also
indicates that while we can ameliorate the impact of climate
change, human action is ultimately limited.
If he left it there, Obama would run the risk of
playing into the apocalyptic frame's
associations with powerlessness. So he counters that idea with the
frame of social responsibility.
According to this frame, doing nothing is a
"betrayal" to the generations that will follow us and past
generations, specifically the Founding Fathers. Obama says action
on climate change is "what will lend meaning to the creed our
fathers once declared".
This links into the economic frame,
and the potential for action. Obama promises "new jobs" and "new
industries" to maintain the US's "economic vitality". Even the
natural environment gets a fiscal metaphor, refigured as a
He promises economic competitiveness abroad as well
as at home thanks to green industries, stating America "must lead",
and cannot "cede [technological advances] to other nations".
Here "cannot" - as opposed to 'will not' - suggests
it's unthinkable for the US to fall behind global
competition, while "must" implies urgency.
This frame also gives a second interpretation to the
appeal to divinity: that failure to act goes against a divine
State of the Union: building on the
news is, we can make meaningful progress on this issue while
driving strong economic growth."
Last night, Obama further developed his framing of
climate change. Taken together, the collective use of the three
frames redefines words related to climate change within the master
frame of economic growth, innovation and
prosperity - and this is what
State of the Union is all about.
A master frame is the one that focuses the message
and affects what the other frames convey. In this case, Obama's
counting on the economic frame to have a wider
appeal among the US population than environmentalism.
Reframing climate change as an economic problem
allows for the presentation of an economic solution.
All of the topics Obama addresses in SOTU -
education, employment and wages, Medicare, energy and climate
change, security, manufacturing and technology - are expressed as
parts of economic growth. He sidelines
apocalypse in favour of an empowering narrative of
opportunity and innovation.
So he describes extreme weather events as "more
frequent and more intense", and stresses urgency in a call to "act
before it's too late", but he immediately balances this with
a narrative of economic opportunity: "We can make meaningful
progress on [climate change] while driving strong economic
This hinges on renewable energy sources as job
creators essential to keeping the US competitive. He says: "As long
as countries like China keep going all-in on clean energy, so must
Just as important is the capacity to act. As Obama
has it: "We are finally poised to control our own energy future".
The economic master frame's
dominance relies heavily on an economic solution - "a bipartisan,
market-based solution" - alongside investment in new technologies
and reducing energy wastage being beneficial to the nation,
business and the individual.
Leaving apocalypse behind
By connecting these frames, Obama puts action in the
spotlight - it's not only possible to act, he says, it's our moral
and economic duty. He rams the point home with
verbs of future action in both speeches: "I will", "we can", "we
Constant repetition of collective pronouns in the
inaugural speech ('We the people' appears five times, for example)
consolidates a focus on togetherness and personal responsibility.
Meanwhile, SOTU in particular is characterised by
progress, reform and collective action. It contains verbs and
adjectives that suggest advancement: "drive", "greater", "speed",
These combine with a definite statement of intent and
accountability in SOTU. Lines like "If Congress won't act soon to
protect future generations, I will" suggest action to combat
climate change is necessary, imminent and a key part of the "task
of us all as citizens of the United States".
This movement from apocalypse to action lays the
foundations for the rhetorical approach to climate policy in
Obama's second term. It aims to indicate to the audience there's
real hope that the administration will take steps to reduce carbon
emissions and promote cleaner energy.
Dr Kate Pond has a PhD in English from the
University of York. Her thesis was on metaphor, and she is
interested in rhetoric and discourse analysis.
Photo: Creative Commons