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It was a great speech, with all the evocative imagery, rousing sentiment and rhetorical flair one has come to expect from Obama.

Speeches made by major political leaders are political events in themselves, not merely plans of action, or infotainment. In this sense the 6000 words delivered yesterday at George Washington University in the sweltering heat represented a huge step forward in terms of American leadership on the pressing global issue - an issue that Obama referred to in shorthand as "the destructive power of a warming planet" in his second inaugural address.

Of course, it didn't go far enough, but everybody knows that, even the President himself. Yet it really went pretty far, with lots of tangible action points that don't depend on congressional approval. In light of  political and economic constraints, perhaps we couldn't really have asked for more at this point.

Obama removes jacket at the start of his speech.

Image via

A few highlights:


  • Obama used the first images of the earth from space in 1968 to open and close the speech:


"While the sight of our planet from space might seem routine today, imagine what it looked like to those of us seeing our home, our planet, for the first time. Imagine what it looked like to children like me. Even the astronauts were amazed. “It makes you realize,” Lovell would say, “just what you have back there on Earth.”


  • He gave a lucid scientific description of the problem, and was unequivocal about rejecting climate change denial: 


"Nobody has a monopoly on what is a very hard problem, but I don’t have much patience for anyone who denies that this challenge is real. (Applause.) We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society. (Applause.) Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it’s not going to protect you from the coming storm."


  • His speech dealt with plans both for three forms of climate change mitigation (limiting the effects/potential damage by reducing emissions) and various kinds of adaptation(acknowledging that some degree of damaging climate change is now inevitable and/or already underway and preparing for its effects). He captured this distinction quite nicely with a simple car metaphor:


"Using less dirty energy, transitioning to cleaner sources of energy, wasting less energy through our economy is where we need to go. And this plan will get us there faster. But I want to be honest – this will not get us there overnight. The hard truth is carbon pollution has built up in our atmosphere for decades now. And even if we Americans do our part, the planet will slowly keep warming for some time to come. The seas will slowly keep rising and storms will get more severe, based on the science. It’s like tapping the brakes of a car before you come to a complete stop and then can shift into reverse. It’s going to take time for carbon emissions to stabilize."

Yesterday was a political breakthrough, but the ecological breakthrough we need may only come from a breakthrough in economic thinking about the feasibility of a post-growth economy.

On balance the speech has been well received by Obama's liberal base and most environmentalists. However, relative to the scale of the challenge it falls some way short and many have expressed reservations about the implicit and explicit commitments in his plan.

Nafeez Ahmed calls the plan 'fracked up' in the Guardian, in sense that it is premised on using shale gas and nuclear power as transitional energies alongside carbon capture and storage, without facing up to the scientific evidence on these technologies. For instance, Shale Gas might emit less carbon than other forms of gas or oil when measured in the short term, but over a 20 year measure, they are probably much worse for the climate.

My own concern with the speech is that it still hinges on the premise that we don't have to choose between addressing climate change and economic growth. As Obama puts it:

"Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth."

Almost everybody would want that to be true, but is it right? Where is the argument that there is no contradiction? As I try to argue in detail, here and here, I haven't yet seen a credible macroeconomic model that indicates how you can keep emissions to acceptable levels and increase GDP, even when you give Obama massive benefits of the doubt on our capacity to innovate on energy production and consumption around the globe. More recently Ian Christie advances the case on why understanding this link between the perceived growth imperative and climate risk is so central and so difficult.

Yesterday was a political breakthrough, but the ecological breakthrough we need may only come from a breakthrough in economic thinking about the feasibility of a post-growth economy. It's hard to imagine an American President giving such a speech, but then again, it was hard to imagine Obama.


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