Obama finds changing public perceptions on warming remains an uphill battle

Can President Obama say anything helpful about climate change?

He's unlikely to include a blockbuster announcement tonight in his fifth State of the Union address, and it might be a stretch to expect a redefining statement, such as when he dismissed the chances last year that a spate of disasters was just a "freak coincidence." Superstorm Sandy was among them.

In years past, he prodded Congress to tackle warming by making utilities provide more clean energy. Lawmakers never came close. Last year, he wanted to get American motorists "off oil for good" through an Energy Security Trust. It wilted in Congress.

Tonight's speech stands to be different. The nation's most prominent advocate for climate action will no longer be pitching solutions. If he mentions warming, it will probably be in defense of his plan to tighten carbon emissions at new and current power plants, observers believe.

That might begin with the American public. Some believe the president is better able to convince the public that warming is happening since announcing the nation's first plan to reduce greenhouse gases last June. Obama and his government are no longer in a "state of drift," another advocate said.

"Both the president's words and the actions of his administration are treating climate like it's a reality. I think that's going to have a big impact on the public and the issue," said Angela Anderson, director of the climate program at the Union for Concerned Scientists.

But can the president really convince Americans that climate change is more than a string of theories found in dense scientific studies? And does he need to?


Some have doubts.

Are Americans ahead of Obama?

It's true, he's the only climate leader being broadcast into millions of homes. But it's likely that most viewers already believe climate change is a problem. They're just waiting for the government to catch up, some social scientists say.

A recent Gallup poll found that 57 percent of Americans believe humans are the main cause of warming. In theory, at least, that number could generate a majority coalition in the House of Representatives.

Instead of asking whether Obama can sway the public, the question that should be asked is whether the public can influence Obama, said Jon Krosnick, a social scientist at Stanford University who studies attitudes about warming.

"He could spend time trying to convince people that climate change is real and human-caused and a problem, [but] he's already said that many times and most people already believe it," Krosnick said. "It's not obvious to me why it's in his political interest and the country's interest to spend more time saying that. It's sort of like saying, 'People get killed by guns.' We don't have to argue about that.

"The issue is, what's government going to do?"

To Krosnick, Obama's reliance on regulations to reduce emissions at electricity plants marks a weakening of both the president and, potentially, the public's concern about the issue. By highlighting the landmark U.S. EPA regulations in tonight's speech, Obama will also be underscoring his own failures: He has stopped pursuing the wide-ranging effort to build carbon prices into every aspect of the economy, one of his key campaign promises.

That could send a stronger message to the public, in the wrong direction, than a few lines of support for action in his State of the Union address, Krosnick said. By that, he means Obama's scaled-back objectives could lead some to believe "there was no problem in the first place" on climate.

"It may actually cause a backsliding [in polls], particularly if Republicans were to gain in the 2014 midterm elections, if the White House were to turn over to the Republicans and the skeptical voice becomes louder," Krosnick said.

How to use the 'bully pulpit'?

Others question whether Obama has any sway at all over the public. He's no longer the fresh face of politics, after all, calling for post-partisan solutions. To many conservatives, he's an ideological firebrand -- a super-liberal pursuing environmental policies that stand to trade coal-fueled boilers for windmills.

Any mention of climate change will be designed to excite Democratic voters in a midterm election year, when low turnout is expected, said Neil Newhouse, who served as Mitt Romney's pollster during the last presidential election campaign.

"The interest in this issue is very narrow," Newhouse said.

Perhaps Democrats agree. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's (Nev.) campaign sent a one-question survey to supporters yesterday asking what they think Obama should talk about in his speech. The choices included income equality, Social Security, creating jobs and balancing the budget. Climate change wasn't on the list.

When it comes to swaying public opinion, some pollsters think movies, talk radio and mainstream media have roughly the same influence as a president. Attitudes might go up or down when all those things work together, but generally a politician is unable to move the needle all alone, said Lydia Saad, senior editor at Gallup.

"That has to permeate somewhere," she said of Obama's effect on people's perceptions. "But I just don't think that's the biggest factor right now, without the president really using his bully pulpit more extensively."

The numbers seem to back her up. Roughly the same number of people are concerned about warming now as in 2009, when Obama took office. The high point happened just before then, at the end of President George W. Bush's second term.

Weather speaks louder than words

Different factors can push those numbers up or down, but they tend to stay within a certain range, Saad said. "Climategate" and other efforts by climate skeptics to challenge the science probably had a dampening effect. But she said the most persuasive message is the weather.

"Year across year, sometimes the differences depend on whether it was a cold or warm winter," Saad said.

Heather Zichal, who recently stepped down as Obama's top climate and energy aide, suggested that Obama's objective is meant less to convince Americans that climate change is happening and more to make the case for action.

In that vein, she wouldn't be surprised to hear Obama zero in on lawmakers who question the science.

"The whole push on climate deniers, I think, is incredibly important because it helps build the logical conclusion: If you accept the science, you can't have no plan to tackle it," Zichal said last week.

In last year's address, Obama pointed to a drought that was choking the nation's middle, wildfires that raged in the West and the flooding of Superstorm Sandy. He got it right, said Eileen Claussen, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

Today, when Obama speaks during a severe cold snap that's settled across much of the nation, it's important for him to focus on the impacts of climate change, not the scientific stuff that's jabberwocky for most Americans, she said.

Even then, it will be difficult to sway people's attitudes. Climate change is something they need to experience for themselves.

"I think you have to keep pointing it out, and at some point the physical changes will get to more and more people," Claussen said. "But can he change anyone's mind by talking about it? I don't know."

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