Its the Climate, Stupid: Bill Clinton’s Change Rhetoric and the Ghost of Kyoto

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Paul Sabin
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This essay uses the fields of climate communication and presidential rhetoric to analyze the Bill Clinton’s rhetoric on climate change. Using data from a presidential speech database, I show that Clinton avoided talking about climate change in his first term but spoke of it incessantly during his second. In 1997, he launched an awareness-raising campaign around climate change to build support for the Kyoto Protocol; the campaign has as yet received little scholarly attention. I analyze the language Clinton used to describe climate change – focusing on the overarching frames he utilized in his climate-related speeches. I argue that by framing climate change as an environmental challenge and as a problem of the future, he chose a losing message that alienated portions of the public and increased apathy about climate change. Problems with his overall communications strategy on Kyoto are also brought to light. While he made an unprecedented effort to educate the public about climate, Clinton made crucial errors in his bid to build public support for the Kyoto Protocol, some of which still linger with us today.