There are curious things happening with climate change narratives. In this excerpt from his Republican convention acceptance speech last night Romney delivers a line about climate change with mocking pauses that look, to my British eyes, pure Glenn Beck. What does this say about the way we message climate change?
The line is “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans (13 second pause)
And to heal the planet (3 second pause)
My promise is to help you and your family.”
Watch it carefully because the delivery is a meticulously choreographed mime. Romney breaks his gaze from the audience, and does a little eyes to heaven, lip biting act that is all about communicating clearly to the audience that this is not a podium style rhetorical pause ( such as “think not what your country can do for you…….) but a Jack Benny stand up comedy pause. The body language suggests that he is like a long suffering but resigned parent holding in his real views about the President’s ‘stupidity’. Watch it and see what I mean.
To me this signals several things. Firstly that the political discourse as a whole is being strongly influenced by the mocking parodic style of the shockjocks. This is nothing new- Reagan had his ‘zingers’ and every presidential debate has one rehearsed one liner that they hope will make the news headlines. But the theatrical contempt is something new. Look for example at Bush’s delivery in the 2000 debate against Gore “I’m beginning to think that not only did he invent the internet, but he invented the calculator as well”. The intent is to mock (and it references attack ads), but the delivery is stiff and literal.
It is also a step change in the way that politicians talk publicly about climate change. So this is no longer a debate about the science, or the policy response (as it was under Bush)- it is now a debate about competing versions of reality and fantasy. The line about slowing the rise of the oceans is skillfully chosen as it frames climate change as both a natural cycle and an inevitability. The mocking pause clearly signals that attempts to stop it are therefore a self aggrandising folly. Here in Britain the resonance would be with King Cnut (Canute) who ordered the tide to stop coming in. I suspect in America is more likely to be with Moses. It is a quote that appears on some Christian Conservative sites as evidence that Obama claims to be the Messiah.
And this all makes you wonder at the ineptitude of Obama’s own script writers. This was not some throw away line in a minor interview like Gore’s claims to have invented the internet- Romney is misquoting the meticulously honed language of Obama’s own acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in 2009. Of course, we know that it has been distorted and removed from context, but surely it was not smart in any context to talk about “healing the planet”- a phrase that immediately triggers an association with the most woowoo end of New Age greens.
And, when there is so much that can be said about the short term impacts and opportunities of climate change, it was surely not bright to reference the one impact that is probably the most distant, protracted and unavoidable. He might as well have promised that his presidency would be the point at which the North Pole or the glaciers stopped melting. Let’s face it, this was a gift to his opponents.
So, if this is a harbinger of what is to come, we can expect that climate change will continued to be used in this election as a metaphor for an ideologically driven fantasy rather than as a a real issue that should be weighed and evaluated. Few people vote, and even fewer are party activists, but this framing is powerful and toxic.
POSTSCRIPT- I like this from Joe Romm:’s Climate Progress blog
Reacting to the resounding laughter among delegates to those comments, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes said the moment would someday “be in documentaries as a moment of just ‘what-were-they-thinking’ madness.” As a former documentary maker I had exactly this feeling, though Chris Hayes put his finger on it- this is one of those Peace in our Time, Read My Lips, Mission Accomplished moments that will make it onto the stupidities of the century B roll.