Will Obama let the climate do all the talking?

Climate chatter may seem loud to those who seek it, but it occupies a vanishingly small part of public debate in the United States. This pair of images that Andy Revkin has shared shows this only too well.

Meanwhile, too much of what has been said and written about climate change has come from the shouters not the listeners — from oversimplifying environmental groups or conservative conspiracy theorists or powerful vested interests or proud anti-science billionaires. As an example of the latter, here’s what Donald Trump told his nearly two million followers on Twitter on 6 November 2012.

This kind of idiocy cannot sustain itself. It won’t be long before everyone knows someone who suffered the effects of an extreme climatic event. Climate change — that once intangible and distant concept — is doing the leg-work for the communicators who have struggled to make this issue feel real.

Hurricane Sandy hammered home that point. Whether or not humanity had a hand in the storm’s impact is fairly academic (see David Shukman’s report on what science can and cannot say at this stage). What really matters is that Sandy showed that even a rich city in the world’s most powerful nation is vulnerable.

Some commentators hope Sandy has blown open a door to a mature conversation in the United States about climate change. It’s a conversation the world needs Americans to have — both with each other and with the rest of us.

But a quick read of George Marshall’s thoughts on psychology and climate change suggests it might take more than disasters to get the conversation rolling.

This is where President Obama needs to step up. In his 2012 election victory speech Obama said: “We want our children to live in a world… that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.” Does he mean it this time, or was this just another tease?

In the past Obama has flirted with a leadership role on climate change. But he has blown hot and cold — courting climate action in 2008 then shying away in 2009. He barely mentioned climate change in recent months — not even in the pre-election debates — and this in the year of a record-breaking US drought and super-storm Sandy.

Obama’s strategy has been to follow public opinion rather than lead it. This may have seemed astute, for few Americans are ready to confront a climate narrative that so forcefully challenges their worldviews, which hinge as they do on faith, freedom and the pursuit of the mighty dollar. But as Calestous Juma has pointed out: “The fact that you aren’t interested in climate change doesn’t mean climate change isn’t interested in you.”

It will take leadership, tolerance and safe spaces to encourage the American public to join the climate conversation. Obama must reject his old ‘now you see it… now you don’t‘ approach to climate change, which allowed his opponents to shackle the discourse to a political roller-coaster whose only destination was deadlock.

The world needs climate conversations that involve Americans as citizens, not just as Democrats or Republicans. The alternative is to let the climate itself continue to do most of the talking — and none of the listening.