A leaked memo about climate change explains why we’re unprepared

Summary: A leaked memo from the highest levels of the Democratic Party leadership discuss how to build public support for large-scale climate policy initiatives. It shows why their efforts failed, and raises questions about the coming Hillary Clinton administration.

“We don’t even plan for the past.”
— Steven Mosher (member of Berkeley Earth; bio here), a comment posted at Climate Etc.

Climate Change Drama

Memorandum: “Climate: A unifying theory to the case“,
Emailed from John Podesta to Chris Lehane, 28 January 2014.

This memo was emailed to Podesta (a senior White House official) from Lehane (partner in the strategic communications firm Fabiani & Lehane, dissolved in Nov 2015). We have it courtesy of Wikileaks — and whoever leaked it to them.

John Podesta was Chief of staff to Bill Clinton and Counselor to the President for Obama. He is Chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Chris Lehane – When an attorney in the White House Counsel’s office, he and his current business partner Mark Fabiani called themselves the “Masters of Disaster” for their work as a “rapid-response” team responding to the many scandals of the Clinton Administration. Lehane co-authored a book on damage control titled Masters of Disaster: The Ten Commandments of Damage Control. Jim Jordan, Kerry’s former campaign manager, called him ”a master of the political hand-to-hand” for his work as a political strategist.


“Thank you for asking us to share some ideas for a holistic approach to climate. Per your direction, the goal is to unify policy, politics, and communications to help the Administration best execute an informed plan over a multi-year time period. …this document is intended to provide some food for thought as the Administration refines its thinking on climate. …{it} addresses the four components that the Administration may want to consider as it seeks to lead on this issue.

  1. Three-Year Framework. …
  2. Right v. Wrong. Make the case that climate must be approached as a challenge of historical social change where progress will depend in part on successfully casting the issue in moral terms of who is right and who is wrong …
  3. The Big Idea. …{It} could drive an Administration-wide approach to climate for the next three years. …
  4. 2014 Action Plan. …

“To achieve victory, we must treat climate change as an issue of historic importance that is worthy of a true political social movement to create change. This political social movement must be founded on moral principles with stark definitions of who is right and who is wrong, and it is important to outline the historically negative, irreversible implications if we were to not succeed.

“By pursuing this as a political social movement, President Obama and his Administration will best be able to assure that his legacy includes his unprecedented leadership on climate that initiated the shifting of the country’s political tectonic plates to enable transformative climate change policy, before it was too late.

“…At the end of the day, given the powerful and entrenched interests that are opposed to climate change policy, one needs to have an organizing platform that defines the Administration as being morally on the right side of the issue and, equally important, defines the opposition as morally responsible for an issue that threatens the health and welfare of the American people. …

“Define the issue as between those who believe in the science, and therefore are taking steps to respond to the scientific findings, versus those who do not believe in the science. The power of this approach is that it puts the opposition in an indefensible box (the vast majority of people believe the science that climate is changing); it fits into what we call the Troglodyte Narrative (anti-women; anti-Latino; anti-gun safety; anti-common sense fiscal policy; and anti-science) that is raising basic trust issues for the Republican Party – especially with electorally decisive voter cohorts. You either believe in basic science or you are against basic science — in which case you fail a basic requirement for being capable of occupying public office. …

“The Winning Principles

“The Big Idea will need to be animated by three principles that the wedge political policies would connect with (think of FDR’s Four Freedoms or TR’s Three C’s). In the context of being informed by various campaigns (candidate and ballot initiative) in which climate was deployed as a decisively winning political issue, there are three issues that really stand out as wedge principles that could undergird the Big Idea (whatever the Big Idea may be).

“Health/Safety. The opposition is engaged in practices or holding positions that are demonstrably imperiling the health and safety of our people. This ranges from macro issues like extreme weather to local issues like drinking water, air quality and rail safety to micro issues like children’s asthma. People care when the health and safety of their families are implicated.

“Pocket Book. People care when climate impacts them economically. On the positive/aspirational front, this principle can be about whether new green jobs will be based here or overseas or how citizens are able to save money by paying less for energy. …

“Accountability/Responsibility. Follow the money. Who is accountable/responsible for the bad things that are happening, and how are they rigging the system to benefit from the bad things? …

“2014 Action Plan

“…Establishment of an extreme weather SWAT team prepared to work together and engage when extreme weather happens — including response; local outreach; media; science information about historic nature of the event; and coordinating possible principal travel (POTUS, FLOTUS, VPOTUS, Cabinet).”

———————— End excerpt. ————————

Victory Is The Goal


The most important thing about this memo, obvious almost three years later, is its complete failure. Few Americans consider the environment our most serious problem. It is a minor issue in the presidential election, seldom even mentioned. Climate change isn’t among our top 10 fears.

The approach is pure politics, with little mention of science. For example, the SWAT teams {as we have seen} blame all “extreme” weather on climate change — ignoring that extreme weather is normal, occurring before any anthropogenic effects. The IPCC has repeatedly explained this, not just in their regular Assessment Reports but also in the 2012 report “Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation” (SREX).

Worse, the binary framing (“the vast majority of people believe the science that climate is changing”) ignores the key issues of how much change is likely from anthropogenic sources — and when. That is the area of debate among climate scientists (there is as yet no consensus), and the necessary input to make public policy decisions.

Describing climate change as a moral issue probably seemed like a sure winner to Lehane, especially with academia, journalists, and most NGOs as supporting players. But that prevented political compromise or any rational discussion of costs vs. benefits — both essential elements of successful public policy. It polarized the issue so that America has taken few measures to even prepare for the repeat of past weather (as Hurricane Matthew reminded us).

Worse, Lehane does not mention what he relies upon as the authorities for science. The IPCC? NOAA? The alarmists that journalists love for their exciting soundbites? The climate scientists who write the IPCC’s Working Group I reports devote great effort to explaining their state of knowledge — and the large uncertainties in much of it. There is a large gap between the certainty of warming since the early 19th century plus the large role of anthropogenic forcings since 1950 — and the massive unknowns driving climate during the 21st century.  All that is lost when the issue is defined in purely moral terms.

So they lost. Clinton’s probable win (in March I predicted a landslide) gives Lehane and his fellow activists a second chance. Will they learn from their failures in the 28 years since James Hansen’s 1988 testimony to Congress ignited the movement? Or will they have sufficient political power to push through their agenda despite their weak political support and ineffective plans?

There are better ways to handle major public policy issues. Climate change, our mad foreign wars, and our mishandling of so many other key challenges — these show our dysfunctional politics in action. We can do better.

Truth Will Make You Free

For More Information

Please like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information see The keys to understanding climate change, My posts about climate change, and especially these…

  1. Is our certain fate a coal-burning climate apocalypse? No!
  2. Manufacturing climate nightmares: misusing science to create horrific predictions.
  3. Despair about the fate of Earth: a win for the doomsters.
  4. Nassim Nicholas Taleb looks at the risks threatening humanity.
  5. Ignoring science to convince the public that we’re doomed by climate change.
  6. A new study shows why we are polarized about climate change.

To learn more about the state of climate change…

see The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change by Roger Pielke Jr. (Prof of Environmental Studies at U of CO-Boulder, and Director of their Center for Science and Technology Policy Research).

The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters and Climate Change
Available at Amazon.

8 thoughts on “A leaked memo about climate change explains why we’re unprepared”

  1. “There are better ways to handle major public policy issues. Climate change, our mad foreign wars, and our mishandling of so many other key challenges — these show our dysfunctional politics in action. We can do better.”

    Agree so with the above. Problem is, where we are in the process with the two major (Hmm, is that the correct word?) choices as candidates we’re stuck between a bad place and a bad place.

    So I’d suggest the only way we can do ‘better’ right now is to communicate in depth and regularly with our representation at all levels in the near term. Disheartening as it is let’s act like Americans and not members of separate tribes and let’s ‘fix it’.

    (Thanks for the venue to get that off my chest).

    1. Danny,

      “the only way we can do ‘better’ right now is to communicate in depth and regularly with our representation at all levels in the near term.”

      Sad but true. But more importantly, we need to think of the future. Otherwise we will have similarly unpleasant choices in 2020 and after. We have devolved from citizens into consumers, whining that the menu isn’t worthy of our awesomeness. We need to get involved, taking control of the machinery.

      This is one of the great themes of the FM website, and the least possible. The posts discussing ways to reform America spark an almost uniform whining. It’s too difficult. Too much work. Too much risk. At least this response highlights, as no analysis can, the broken part of our political system.

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  3. While the present administration, and the purported future administration (though we know now that a Clinton administration is not to be) is clearly using ‘feelings’ as the primary argument about how to approach Climate Change, it does not actually reflect the real science in any way.

    They admit that many people ‘feel that Climate Change is man made and something can be done about it’, but fail to even hint that those feeling might be based in fact. That they want to herd people via their emotions rather than their intellect is bad enough, but the most egregious element in this whole fiasco is that they are willing, and seemingly anxious, to sped billions if not trillions of dollars to achieve something that is not achievable. It is the absolute worst kind of hoax and it is being perpetuated by people only interested in maintaining political power despite the fact that it will cause millions of human beings to suffer hunger and deprivation by denying them the energy they need to have better lives.

    It is a sad and disgusting commentary about men in power!

    1. Jack,

      “using ‘feelings’ as the primary argument about how to approach Climate Change”

      “They admit that many people ‘feel that Climate Change is man made and something can be done about it’”

      That’s an interesting perspective, that it is all about feelings. Can you provide some evidence. I don’t even recall surveys asking how people “feel” about client change. Rather they ask about people’s thoughts and beliefs, quite different things from “feelings”.

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