My colleague Eric de Place just gave you the painful details about how Obama is pretty much full of hot air when it comes to actually, truly cutting climate warming emissions. (It’s painful because it’s true. Dave Roberts also wonders if the plan has any bite when it comes to regulating coal.)

But there’s good reason that climate change activists, policy experts, and environmental organizations across the globe were nonetheless elated by the president’s speech.

For one—sadly—given the starvation conditions we’re working under, we’re hungry for any scrap we’re thrown. We gobble it up. We relish it. It’s like our first square meal in years. And so it tastes good. Really good.

And this wasn’t just any old scrap. This was POTUS. As KC Golden explains on his blog today, to all those folks who were (understandably) stuck thinking that climate change “must not be that big of a deal since nobody important seems to be doing anything about it,” it matters that the president in particular is saying it’s a big deal and saying we’ve got to do something big. Here’s KC:

And at the risk of being called a romantic (it won’t be the first time), it’s not just any-old-body doing something about it. It’s the President of the United States. It’s the single person on the planet who has the greatest capacity to mobilize for solutions at scale. Let’s face it, we can all do our part within our sphere of effectiveness, but if that person is silent on the matter—as he was for much of his first term—it’s hard to feel very hopeful about our small contributions. Of course he can’t “solve” climate disruption unilaterally, but he has more ability to create the context in which all of our efforts make sense and scale to the problem than any other individual. Until yesterday, he hadn’t done it. And now that he has, I think it will have an impossible-to-measure but profoundly important impact on our work.

Secondly, whatever hot air inflated the content of his plan (and all the emissions sources he’s busy okaying that he failed to mention), Obama’s message is right on. Needless to say, Obama is quite good at stirring emotions—and that’s what the American public needs on climate change, a danger that can seem pretty abstract. He did all the right things, from couching the problem in core American values (responsibility, courage, ingenuity, resolve, and patriotic pride) to building a simple and powerful climate narrative, defining the threat we face, our quest for solutions, the villains standing in the way, and the heroes who will triumph. (This narrative structure is effective because our brains are wired to interpret the world through story. Stories are the way we convey meaning, emotions, and values. And these familiar narrative elements make the message more accessible and memorable.)

First, Obama is straight about the threat, including a no-nonesense look at the science of climate change in basic terms and an emphasis on the costs and loss of lives, property, and livelihood experienced by Americans right now—including dangerous, extreme weather, wildfire, drought, and floods. He lays out the threat as a real and present danger to our kids.

He is unequivocal about our quest. He frames this as a war—a “coordinated assault.” But this isn’t just any war—this is a moral obligation to protect young people, our kids, and grandkids. We “combat this threat on behalf of our kids,” he says. And he mentions kids, children, grandchildren, future generations, young people at least a dozen times. Obama says that he’s speaking not just as president, but as a father and an American. (In addition, according to Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones, “the two-page outline of the plan sent to reporters Monday evening came with the subhead ‘Taking Action for Our Kids.'”)

Perhaps the most powerful language about the quest is when he says that “someday, our children and our children’s children, will look at us in the eye and they’ll ask us, did we do all that we could when we had the chance to deal with this problem and leave them a cleaner, safer, more stable world? And I want to be able to say, yes, we did. Don’t you want that?”

When it comes to villains, he doesn’t go as hard as some would probably like against Big Oil or King Coal as the obvious roadblocks to our nation’s progress (he just can’t), but he does talk about dirty fuels, he does call for ending tax breaks for big oil companies (and says the word “divest” without further comment). He goes harder on the science denial set (“I don’t have much patience for anyone who denies that the challenge is real. We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society.”) and political obstructionists, calling them on their partisan gridlock and challenging their pessimistic arguments:

See, the problem with all these tired excuses for inaction is that it suggests a fundamental lack of faith in American business and American ingenuity. These critics seem to think that when we ask our businesses to innovate and reduce pollution and lead, they can’t or they won’t do it. They’ll just kind of give up and quit. But in America, we know that’s not true. Look at our history…

So the point is, if you look at our history, don’t bet against American industry. Don’t bet against American workers. Don’t tell folks that we have to choose between the health of our children or the health of our economy.

In fact, Obama turns the tables and calls these obstructionists the “doomsayers,” insisting that we don’t have to choose between the health of our children and the health of our economy, but can protect our environment and promote economic growth and jobs at the same time.

  • The message here is that no one should doubt our ingenuity and resolve, that we can rise to the challenge and succeed, and that anybody who says we can’t, forgets who we are. It goes a long way to define the villains in the story—and the heroes as well. It’s about what we stand for and who we are.

    And he finishes by further defining and also recruiting American heroes: “Americans are not a people who look backwards; we’re a people who look forward. We’re not a people who fear what the future holds; we shape it. What we need in this fight are citizens who will stand up, and speak up, and compel us to do what this moment demands.”

    For all these reasons, this speech serves as a playbook for anybody who wants to move hearts and minds on climate change policy. (To get started, read the transcript of Obama’s speech, and/or check out our climate narrative talking points memos—here and here).

    Because if Eric is right, we’ll need all the good messaging and other strategies we can muster to find the political will and public pressure to hold Obama himself accountable for the real emissions reductions and climate solutions that he speaks so powerfully about.

    In other words, the scraps he threw us yesterday ward off our hunger and give us enough energy to stand up and fight for the full meal deal. And hopefully they gave Americans who haven’t been paying much attention a taste of what this is all about and why it matters.