Politics & Policy

Obama’s Special Brand of Climate Doomsaying

Obama speaks to the media in Paris, December 1, 2015. (Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty)

In Paris yesterday morning, President Obama suggested rather dramatically that unchecked “climate change” would mean “submerged countries, abandoned cities, and fields that no longer grow.” Almost immediately, social media was set alight by mockery and the rolling of eyes. And with good reason. For decades now, Americans have become accustomed to hearing tales of imminent destruction, and to finding themselves very much alive after that vaunted seventh seal has been opened. Whatever power the environmentalists’ admonitions may once have had over the national psyche, they seem now to be received with a dull disinterest — or, worse, laughter. The Boy Who Cried Wolf was a warning, not an instruction manual. Do our doomsayers know this?

Perhaps they do not. Over the past 15 years or so, the residents of these United States have been subjected to an almost endless stream of hysterical, green-tinged hype. In 2009, we were told by Al Gore that “the entire north-polar ice cap during some of the summer months will be completely ice-free within the next five to seven years.” (It wasn’t, and the disaster date has been recalibrated for the middle of the 21 century.) A year earlier, we were told by ABC that, come June 2015, New York City would be underwater, gas would cost over $9 a gallon, and a carton of milk would set consumers back almost thirteen bucks. (Instead, the price of gas has been cut in half, milk has remained as cheap as ever, and New York has managed just fine.) And a year before that, we were told by the chairman of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri, that “if there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late.” (It’s a claim that his successor is now repeating over and over again in Paris, with different years serving as the point of no return each time, natch.) Oddly enough, nobody seems to have learned anything from these mistakes. As I write, the sillier among America’s progressive commentariat are trying desperately to blame the rise of ISIS on excessive Western carbon emissions. It won’t end well.

It’s hard work selling radicalism when people can’t see the ill you’re attempting to fix.

Given that he seems to occupy a similar space within the system, it may be tempting to cast Barack Obama as just another cog in this long line of whirring Malthusian doomsayers. In truth, though, the president’s approach is a touch more sophisticated than most, and deserves to be treated as such. Unlike, say, serial embarrassment Paul Erlich, Obama generally tries to avoid making things up from whole cloth or extrapolating beyond all defensible reason. Instead, he prefers to play a clever linguistic shuttle-game, in which the same carefully selected words are used to defend two dramatically different positions. When intending to make a dramatic impact on the international stage, Obama and his team speak in the heady language of Armageddon, referring liberally to submerged countries and swallowed cities and fields that just won’t grow. But when challenged on the specifics, they run backward and hide behind the nitpicking analysts at PolitiFact and the Washington Post. This, I’d venture, is no accident.

#share#Instead, Obama has noticed just how much meaning is contingent upon context. When he shifts into Doomsayer Mode, the president intends his audience to hear “submerged countries” and think of Denmark; to hear “abandoned cities” and think of Los Angeles; to hear “fields that no longer grow” and think of the Dordogne. Later on, when he is back in his usual Detached Professor Mode, his inner lawyer comes out to parse the claims more critically. At this point, the images of Valhalla fade into the background and the pedantry begins. “This terrible storm was the product of climate change” becomes, “Actually, some storms may be getting a little worse.” “This lovely country will sink” becomes, “Actually, one waterlogged island is now a bit deeper underwater than it was before.” “The world will struggle to grow food” becomes “Actually, there are some fallow fields in California . . . ” Provided that the “Yes, Obama Was Right” headlines can be written without a complete abandonment of standards, the president wins. Why did he say this morning that, “You go down to Miami and when it’s flooding at high tide on a sunny day, the fish are swimming through the middle of the streets”? We’ll know soon enough, I’m sure.

EDITORIAL: The Climate-Change Distraction in Paris

It’s hard work selling radicalism when people can’t see the ill you’re attempting to fix. It’s even harder work transmuting the modest proposition that “Mankind is having an impact on the climate” into the alarming claim that “Mankind is irrevocably destroying the earth.” Both tasks become a good deal easier when you know how to bend your language to suit each and every occasion, and goodness knows Barack Obama is a past master at that. 

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