Tuesday, 8 November 2011

'Climate change' not high on President Obama's agenda towards the end of his first term

The analysis below suggests that as President Obama nears the end of his second term in office, 'climate change' continues to slide down his agenda. A quantitative content analysis1 of his Speeches and Remarks from 2009 through 2011 (so far) shows that he is mentioning the phrase 'climate change' increasingly infrequently. Furthermore, when he does mention it, he often does so in speeches with a foreign policy focus, suggesting that he may have lost hope of any real success on the issue in the United States itself.

The dataset:
The data is taken from the White House Press Office’s record of ‘Speeches and Remarks’ available on WhiteHouse.gov. In total, the search returned 90 cases where ‘climate change’ had been mentioned in President Obama’s Speeches or Remarks from 2009 through 2011.

Mentions of ‘climate change’ by year:

In 2011, climate change has so far been mentioned in 20 of President Obama’s official speeches or remarks. This is down from 2010 where the number was 45, but looks set to be slightly higher than the 2009 total of 25 speeches and remarks in which ‘climate change’ was mentioned (see figure 1).

Figure 1: President Obama's 'Speeches and Remarks' containing references to 'climate change', by year
Mentions of climate change by ‘issue tag’2:
The White House Press Office assigns an ‘issue tag’ to each of the President’s Speeches and Remarks. These issue tags are not discreet: i.e. a single Speech or Remark can be tagged as relating to both ‘Energy and the Environment’ and ‘Economy’. Furthermore, not all Speeches and Remarks are tagged. Of the 90 Speeches and Remarks in the sample, there were 88 tags across 21 issue categories. The most common issue in which ‘climate change’ was mentioned was ‘Foreign Policy’ (accounting for about 30% of the total issue tags). The next two most common issue tags were ‘Economy’ and ‘Energy and the Environment’ (both accounting for about 17% of the issue tags overall). Figure 2 shows a complete breakdown of the issue tags assigned for Speeches and Remarks containing references to ‘climate change’. The ‘Other’ Category contains those issue tags that were assigned less than 3 times overall.

Figure 2: Issue tags for Speeches and Remarks containing mentions of 'climate change'


2010 was the year for climate change for President Obama

2010 not only had more mentions of ‘climate change’ in President Obama’s Speeches and Remarks overall, but ‘climate change’ was mentioned in reference to a far larger number of issues. While in 2011, ‘climate change’ has only been mentioned in speeches relating to 7 different issues, in 2010 it was mentioned in relation to 20 different issues. In other words, while ‘climate change’ has been largely restricted to statements relating to foreign policy, the environment, and the economy in 2011 – in 2010 President Obama was keen to make it part of many other stories; from ‘Healthcare’ to ‘Education’, and ‘Homeland Security’ to ‘Immigration’.

The amount of Speeches and Remarks that ‘climate change’ has been mentioned in 2011 so far suggest that it will feature more often throughout the year than in 2009, where the President’s attention was required in other policy areas such as healthcare, but not as often as in 2010. The mentions of ‘climate change’ were relatively low in 2009  in spite of electoral pledges in 2008 on the issue of climate change that the President seemed to abandon relatively early on in his term. Likewise, this analysis suggests that the Copenhagen climate change summit in December 2009 led to greater engagement with the issue of climate change by the President in the aftermath of its failure, rather than in the significant run-up to the summit itself.

'Climate change' is considered a foreign policy issue

This analysis also shows that ‘climate change’ is much more likely to be mentioned by the President in terms of foreign policy than anything else. While some of the cases here were Speeches and Remarks to domestic organisations, such as the Democrat National Committee, many were to foreign press-packs or joint-statements with Premier’s from other countries. This suggests that the President is far more likely to discuss climate change in the international arena (in terms of both policy and setting) where it can be framed in terms of shared duties, than at home where the issue remains controversial or non-salient.
It also suggests that the President is more likely to mention the issue when there is some implicit international pressure. It suggests that if the President’s focus is solely on domestic affairs, then climate change is far less likely to feature in one of his Speeches or Remarks. However, in the international arena the President – and by default, the United States – are forced to engage with the issue of climate change much more frequently.


1. This analysis is a quantitative content analysis. As such, it relies on the categorisations of both ‘Speeches and Remarks’ and ‘issue tags’ of the White House, not the author. Furthermore, there are limits to how much ‘mentions’ of ‘climate change’ can tell us; with some mentions obviously being more significant than others.
2. To clarify, the ‘issue tags’ are different to ‘speeches made’. For example there are 88 issue tags in the dataset for 90 speeches. This is a subtle but important difference. For instance, President Obama does not mention ‘climate change’ in reference to ‘foreign policy’ in 45% of his speeches. Instead, of the mentions of climate change in the dataset, 45% of them are in reference to foreign policy issues. I.e. it is 45% of the tags, not the speeches.

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