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In his 14 November press conference, President Obama took a serious question about climate change. Amid his response,

So what I’m going to be doing over the next several weeks, next several months, is having a conversation, a wide-ranging conversation with scientists, engineers and elected officials to find out what can — what more can we do to make short-term progress in reducing carbons, and then working through an education process that I think is necessary, a discussion, the conversation across the country about, you know, what realistically can we do long term to make sure that this is not something we’re passing on to future generations that’s going to be very expensive and very painful to deal with.
When we consider "an education process," a critical skill of a quality educator is the ability to see and exploit "teachable moments".   When it comes to climate change, we have had all too many climate disruption teachable moments in 2012 just in the United States. Putting aside record-low Arctic Ice extent and mass, climate-influenced disasters in many nations and regions, the United States has seen dramatic weather events and conditions that reflect human-driven climate change's increasing impact.  These include
  • A period of heat waves that, in unprecented manner, broke 1000s of high-temperature records throughout the lower 48;
  • An extensive -- and severe -- drought that still reigns supreme in much of the nation;
  • The damaged agricultural system -- whether shriveled corn, skyrocketed hay supplies for cattle, or ...;
  • The Derecho that shut down the Federal government and left much of the East Coast without power for days;
  • Hurricane (Frankenstorm) Sandy with its damage to much of the eastern United States and especially devastating impacts on New Jersey and the New York City area.

These climate disruption teachable moments are having an impact on Americans' understanding of and concern about climate change.  Sadly, these teachable moments have been ignored (or even worse, essentially repudiated) by the Obama Administration.  There have been no serious discussions of how climate change impacts are driving up food costs nor discussion of how the heat wave is portending future weather patterns nor outlining how various storms fit directly within scientific predications as to climate change impacts.  Instead, climate silence has dominated rather than skillful seizure of teachable moments to help move the national conversation forward
"to make sure that this is not something we’re passing on to future generations that’s going to be very expensive and very painful to deal with."
Hey Jay While the President's comments Wednesday provided grounds for (guarded) hope that the President and the Administration will move down a path toward seizing such teachable moments, comments the next day by White House press spokesman Jay Carney to a press gaggle demonstrate that this process should begin with senior White House staff up to and including the President.

As happened with the President, Jay Carney was launched a softball question related to Hurricane Sandy that offered opportunity to move the nation down the "education process".  Carney response (full question and answers after the fold) might be generously described as a swing and a miss ....

Several items drive this.  When asked about whether the President would discuss climate change in his speech in hurricane-devastated New York, Carney stated:

The President made clear yesterday that we can't attribute any one single weather event to climate change.
Yes, the President did make that comment but, as scientists focused on extreme weather event attribution put it in a Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society peer-reviewed article, "scientific thinking has moved on".  

The appropriate discussion, especially for non-scientists like the President and Jay Carney and this author, is not "did climate change cause this specific storm" but 'Did change helped contribute to the conditions in which the weather event occurred and did climate change worsen the storm/impacts".  With Hurricane Sandy, as to that second question, the answer is an unequivocal yes. We can start with the simple fact that sea-level rise from human-caused global warming heightened the storm surge levels.  

Rather than iterating "we can't attribute", White House spokesman Carney could have helped moved the education process forward commenting that:

"As the President said yesterday, we cannot specifically attribute a single weather event's cause to climate change however we know that we are having an impact on the climate system.  

Some scientists are using an excellent analogy: we are putting the climate system on steroids.  And, just as we can't say that any specific Barry Bonds' home run came due to steroid use, it is impossible to look at his home run record without an asterisk as to his steroid use, we can't look at Hurricane Sandy without understanding that climate change contributed to it."

And, then, since the question focused on the speech of the day, Carney could have added: "In any event, today's speech will focus on the immediate challenges that those hit by Sandy face and to engage with those helping those damaged by Sandy rather than to engage in the climate change education process that the President committed to yesterday."

Another failure to seize the teachable moment (and, more appropriately, to use that moment to make a mistaken point) came with this exchange:

Q I’m just speaking of the aftermath yesterday -- [President Obama] seemed to almost go out of his way to dismiss the idea of a carbon tax, kind of rule it out. Why did he -- why was he so --

MR. CARNEY: We would never propose a carbon tax, and have no intention of proposing one. The point the President was making is that our focus right now is the same as the American people’s focus, which is on the need to extend economic growth, expand job creation. And task number one is dealing with these deadlines that pose real challenges to our economy, as he talked about yesterday.

First, why the unilateral disarmament to declare "we would never propose a carbon tax".  Carny could have said that "Of course, we're hearing all this carbon tax discussion but the White House is not working on it and we have no intention of proposing one."  The first part of the response removes, unnecessarily, this legitimate policy option as something in the White House's quiver.  This seems absurd even if the President doesn't intend to use it.

Second, and far more importantly, Carney's response seems to imply that he (that the Administration) buys hook, line, and sinker the utter falsehood that it is 'environment vs economy' rather than 'environment and economy'. Sadly, the President's words in his press conference suggest that Carney was truly doing his job: speaking his boss' mind.  The NY Times, among others, truly hit hard on the President's potential reversalon the huge economic benefits that can accrue from a serious attention to and investment in climate change mitigation. Focusing on Climate + Energy Smart practices and policies, somewhat in line with what the President promised in the press conference to focus on, will have economic benefits. (Sadly, the analysis even by proponents of action has systematically understated the value of action.) And, as seen throughout our climate disruption disasters of 2012, leaving environmental issues on the policy-making cutting-room floor has huge negative economic impacts.

President Obama's three key science-related appointments at the start of the Administration were quite telling.  Steve Chu (Secretary of Energy), Jane Lubchenco (Director, NOAA), and John Holdren (Presidential Science Advisor) have a very strong career overlap: each of them were serious and accomplished scientists in their fields who determined that the need for better understanding of science issues (most notably related to climate change) demanded that they evolve themselves from 'simply' scientists to science communicators capable of communicating effectively with non-scientists (whether policy makers, business community, the general public, otherwise ...).  And, all three are quite effective communicators and educators with deep and substantive knowledge of climate change risks and opportunities.  Considering this, the President's "educational process" might best begin by having these three foster a deeper understanding in the White House staff along with, then, unmuzzling them for serious engagement with the American public as to how science can inform policy-makers on climate change risks.

NOTE:  There are many places to look for effective climate communication, including among politicians.  President re-elect Obama could do worse than looking to Presidential Candidate Obama in 2007:

"Most of all, we cannot afford more of the same timid politics when the future of our planet is at stake. Global warming is not a someday problem, it is now.

In a state like New Hampshire, the ski industry is facing shorter seasons and losing jobs. We are already breaking records with the intensity of our storms, the number of forest fires, the periods of drought. By 2050 famine could force more than 250 million from their homes — famine that will increase the chances of war and strife in many of the world’s weakest states. The polar ice caps are now melting faster than science had ever predicted. And if we do nothing, sea levels will rise high enough to swallow large portions of every coastal city and town.

This is not the future I want for my daughters. It’s not the future any of us want for our children. And if we act now and we act boldly, it doesn’t have to be.

But if we wait; if we let campaign promises and State of the Union pledges go unanswered for yet another year; if we let the same broken politics that’s held us back for decades win one more time, we will lose another chance to save our planet. And we might not get many more.

I reject that future. I would not be running for President if I didn’t believe that this time could be different.” “The first step in doing this is to phase out a carbon-based economy that’s causing our changing climate. As President, I will set a hard cap on all carbon emissions at a level that scientists say is necessary to curb global warming — an 80% reduction by 2050. To ensure this isn’t just talk, I will also commit to interim targets toward this goal in 2020, 2030, and 2040. These reductions will start immediately, and we’ll continue to follow the recommendations of top scientists to ensure that our targets are strong enough to meet the challenge we face.”

That, for the record, was Senator Obama back in 2007.

There is also President Obama as an example of excellent climate change communicator (2009) :

Now, the choice we face is not between saving our environment and saving our economy.  The choice we face is between prosperity and decline.  We can remain the world’s leading importer of oil, or we can become the world’s leading exporter of clean energy.  We can allow climate change to wreak unnatural havoc across the landscape, or we can create jobs working to prevent its worst effects. We can hand over the jobs of the 21st century to our competitors, or we can confront what countries in Europe and Asia have already recognized as both a challenge and an opportunity:  The nation that leads the world in creating new energy sources will be the nation that leads the 21st-century global economy.

America can be that nation.  America must be that nation.

NOTE:  And ... if the President truly wants to start an educational process and get the ball moving, perhaps he should have senior staff attend Do The Math events and speak to those who will be outside the White House tomorrow, 18 November, to bring attention to reasons why Keystone XL costs are far higher than its benefits for the nation and humanity.

Originally posted to Climate Change SOS on Sat Nov 17, 2012 at 07:39 AM PST.

Also republished by Climate Hawks and Progressive Policy Zone.

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