Science & Research

Undergrad finds trend in climate rhetoric

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, February 10, 2012

Last summer, Graciela Kincaid ’12 was digging around for White House budget statistics on climate finance policy as part of her Undergraduate Teaching and Research Award when she stumbled across something that caught her attention.

“I started looking at speeches online and just out of curiosity started doing word searches on them,” she said.

Poring over speeches and press releases of the Obama administration’s top officials, Kincaid compared the number of times officials referred to “climate change” versus the number of times they cited “clean energy.” Intrigued by the possibility of exploring rhetorical trends, Kincaid mentioned the project off-hand to her mentor, J. Timmons Roberts, professor of sociology and environmental studies and director of Brown’s Climate and Development Lab. Roberts encouraged Kincaid to follow through on the project, and Kincaid “was off to the races,” Roberts said.

After examining 1,908 administrative speeches delivered since January 2008, Kincaid uncovered a poignant rhetorical trend in the administration’s climate and energy references. Administrative language involving climate change had been radically swept away by optimistic talk of “clean energy.” 

Comparing the number of times the word “energy” was mentioned compared to “climate” during the Obama presidency, she found an average ratio of 7.6:1, meaning for every seven times energy was referred to, climate was mentioned once. The ratio has doubled in magnitude between 2009 and 2011, according to Kincaid’s study.

“Her study is totally new, really, because nobody had tracked how much climate change was being spoken of by the administration,” Roberts said. “We all sort of noticed that he’d stopped talking about it.”

In his 2011 State of the Union address President Obama referred to energy nine times but steered completely clear of the words “climate change.” 

What the president says signals his agenda and his priorities and sets the tone of the general debate, Kincaid said. 

“It’s like talking the talk and walking the walk,” she added. “If he doesn’t talk about it, there’s just this silence that isn’t going to be filled.” 

Obama’s change in rhetoric is largely due to the increasingly polarized political climate, Kincaid said. Climate change was mentioned most frequently in December 2009, when Obama attended the Copenhagen Summit. But the midterm elections of 2010 resulted in a stronger conservative influence in Congress, and factors such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, negative public opinion surveys and failure of cap-and-trade policies in Congress have struck a huge blow to hopes of domestic climate change policy, Kincaid said.

After analyzing her results, Kincaid offered to sell the study to several blogs but was rejected. Instead, she decided to publish her findings on the recent startup blog of the Climate and Development Lab.

“The study ended up getting a lot more attention than we thought it would,” Kincaid said. Kincaid’s article quickly became the blog’s most viewed link — and important players were noticing.

The New York Times found Kincaid’s study and tipped off several professionals at other universities, said Max Boykoff, professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a research fellow at Colorado’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. After checking out the study himself, Boykoff deemed Kincaid’s systematic examination of rhetoric “constructive” and published an opinion piece entitled, “A dangerous shift in Obama’s ‘climate change’ rhetoric,” in the Washington Post Jan. 27.

“The argument I make is supported by the data (Kincaid) had gathered,” Boykoff said. “It’s only when someone systematically looks at these issues that we gain a greater appreciation for the larger patterns taking place.” 

Obama’s change in rhetoric is an adaptation to political conditions in Washington D.C., Boykoff said. 

“Climate change in the U.S. has become such a politically polarizing issue,” he added. “Other issues such as energy efficiency and switching to renewables actually do appeal to people across the spectrum. Maybe Obama and his staff are attuning to these trends and are adjusting their language accordingly.” 

Rhetorical fine-tuning is especially important as election time nears, said Shawn Patterson ’12, president of the Brown Democrats. 

“It’s hard to come out against clean energy,” he added. Obama’s move is a “bipartisan attempt to make progress in the direction he wants to go in addressing climate change,” while taking the Republican majority in the House into account. Obama doesn’t want to waste political capital on projects that aren’t going to get anywhere, Patterson said.

The political flipside is slightly more critical.

“As we get closer and closer to election time, Obama is under pressure to show that he’s actually been doing something in office,” said Terrence George ’13, president of the Republican Club of Brown University. “I think he’s trying to push more popular things closer to election time. Global warming is still a contentious issue, but energy production isn’t quite so much.” 

Kincaid said she is disappointed that Obama has never used the bully pulpit when it comes to climate change. But as she spoke with White House staffers during the course of her research, she said she was pleasantly surprised to find that climate change is a personal issue for the president.

“That made me feel good and like I wasn’t just being really idealistic in hoping that my president cared about climate change,” Kincaid said.

Kincaid’s study will be presented at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting in Denver this August. Until then, she will continue to fine-tune her study and said she is hoping to publish in a professional journal in time to “catch the wave” before election time.