During a busy political week that included major Supreme Court decisions and the passage of a landmark immigration bill in the Senate, President Barack Obama also delivered a forceful speech outlining an ambitious plan for tackling climate change. In addition to a recalcitrant Congress that the president is using his executive powers to bypass, Obama faces challenges related to public opinion. With polling consistently showing Americans’ widespread lack of concern with climate change, his approach raises interesting issues related to communicating with the public on energy and the environment.
A poll released by the Pew Research Center after Obama’s second inaugural address found that Americans ranked climate change last on a list of 21 priorities for lawmakers. While a growing number of Americans acknowledge it as linked to human activity, it still rates much lower than the deficit, jobs, immigration and gun control in terms of issues the public wants the government to address.
A more recent Pew Research survey of 39 nations found that Americans are among the least apprehensive about climate change with only 40 percent saying global warming poses a major threat to the U.S., compared to a median of 54 percent in the global survey. At the same time, American people are, on a per capita basis, among the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases.
Complicating matters further for the president is the fact that energy issues are complex and driven by a range of technical factors related to science, financial markets, technology, regulation and global politics. This makes for a public that often has a basic, and sometimes inaccurate, understanding of energy issues. In fact, a 2012 study by Public Agenda found that more than half of Americans cannot name one type of renewable energy, nearly 40 percent cannot identify a fossil fuel and many wrongly think the U.S. gets most of its oil from the Middle East.
So, how did Obama choose to present his plan in the face of these difficulties and what can we learn from his approach?
First, the president focused the centerpiece of his plan on an idea Americans have more consistently supported – ordering the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from existing power plants. An August 2012 poll by the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation found that 74 percent of respondents backed this approach, and support has been at 65 percent or higher since 2009. With power plants responsible for 40 percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, Obama stressed to the general public that they should not be allowed to “dump limitless carbon pollution into the air for free.”
Second, Obama appealed to Americans by focusing on the need to protect future generations from global warming, as well as protect coastlines and cities from flooding and sea-level rise. Climate-related tragedies, such as Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, often spur public attention and calls for action to address the risks from climate change. In highlighting the need to take action now to protect our planet, Obama asked Americans to “push their lawmakers and their communities to take action.”
With several parties – particularly Republican members of Congress and the coal industry – quick to condemn the plan and legal challenges regarding the EPA regulating emissions from power plants almost certain, it remains to be seen how the measures Obama introduced will fare. One thing that is for certain is that politicians and businesses communicating with the public on energy and environmental matters will continue to look for new approaches to overcome the dual obstacles of prioritization and understanding among the American public.
By focusing on an idea most Americans support and that does not require them to change their day-to-day behavior, as well as highlighting a desire to protect future generations and help prevent additional climate-related tragedies, the president was able to break down complicated issues and appeal to concepts that most of the general public can agree with. While on a lesser scale than a presidential address, through research into issues that resonate with their audience and presenting information in a straight-forward manner, politicians and businesses can take a similar tactic in communicating with their respective audiences on issues related to energy and the environment.