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Mat Hope

Mat Hope

29.01.2014 | 3:35am
Science communicationDecoding Obama’’s climate and energy rhetoric in 2014’s State of the Union address – in three charts
SCIENCE COMMUNICATION | January 29. 2014. 3:35
Decoding Obama’’s climate and energy rhetoric in 2014’s State of the Union address – in three charts

President Obama has promised the US government will undertake a “year of action”, and that includes tackling climate change.

For the last couple of years, the president has used his annual state of the union address to nudge climate change up the government’s agenda. His latest speech on tuesday evening was no different.

We break down the key climate and energy messages from President Obama’s sixth state of the union address – from facing climate facts, to addressing “carbon pollution”.

Climate change is still on the agenda

President Obama doesn’t always mention climate change in his state of the union addresses.

The term was absent from his 2011 speech, with some commentators accusing the president of running scared over an issue that had become ideologically tinged.

This year – as with the last two addresses – he did mention it, however.

We searched for the term ‘climate’ and its variations (such as ‘climatic’) across Obama’s last six state of the union addresses. The results show Obama has used the early addresses of his second four-year term to promote climate action, in contrast to a dip at the end of his first term:

Obama climate line chart
This year, the president equalled his past record of mentioning climate change 3 times.

He told members of congress – who dragged their feet on climate legislation in Obama’s first term – that “the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact”.

Climate leadership

But it’s not just how often Obama mentions climate change that matters, it’s also what he says the US should do about it.

While Obama tried to get Republicans and Democrats on board with neutral language about “clean energy” in 2011 and 2012, the president changed direction in 2013 – threatening Congress with executive action should it not act on climate change.

And he was as good as his word. Last summer, Obama rolled out his Climate Action Plan which sought to curb emissions from the most polluting power plants, and commit the US to international action, without needing Congress’ approval.

The table below shows the evolution of Obama’s climate change rhetoric: from renewables, to ‘clean energy’, to climate action.

Obama climate quote table

Today’s speech was all about shoring up his position. Obama said the US “had to act with more urgency” on climate change – investing in natural gas as a “bridging” fuel, as well as investing in solar and renewables to help reduce emissions.

‘Clean energy’ and ‘carbon pollution’

Despite Obama’s more combative tone on climate change in recent years, his state of the union addresses are normally more preoccupied with “clean energy”. This year, “carbon pollution” emerged as his pet phrase, however.

As this pie chart shows, Obama has mentioned clean energy considerably more often than climate change in his state of the union addresses:

obama climate pie

Clean energy can refer to anything from wind and solar power, to attaching carbon capture and storage technology to coal plants, or ensuring methane doesn’t escape while extracting shale gas. By pursuing all those options, the president claims to be addressing climate change through an “all of the above” energy policy, which sits well with Republicans attached to the fossil fuel industry.

As such, over the course of his six speeches he has mentioned ‘clean energy’ 24 times, compared to 11 climate change mentions, and only 7 for renewable energy.

But that got pushed aside tonight, as the president talked about addressing “carbon pollution”.

Before tonight, the president had only mentioned “carbon pollution” twice – now it’s five times.

The phrase is a relative newcomer to the climate debate. It’s basically a way of talking about “carbon dioxide emissions” without actually having to use the term, which has become politicised in the US debate.

So while Obama’s 2014 state of the Union address may have pushed climate change on the political agenda for another year, it suggests he’ll continue to try and tackle “carbon pollution” through any means available – and that includes using coded language to talk about the impacts of emitting more carbon dioxide.


Methodological note:

The above content analysis was conducted doing a simple term search across the transcripts of President Obama’s annual state of the union addresses. In the case of climate change and renewable energy, variations were also searched for and included in the results (such as ‘climatic’ and ‘renewables’).

This sort of analysis is far from perfect - as we've discussed in detail here - but it does offer an interesting, numerical means of going behind headlines and high profile media stories. All the analysis presented here is undertaken with full acknowledgement of that caveat.

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