A gettysburg address for climate change?

December 21, 2013, 9:37 am

JohnShepardClimateConversation_featured_image500pxThe recent coverage of the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address got me thinking, could there ever be a Gettysburg Address on climate change?

No doubt, there’s a lot that we can we learn about that speech’s ability to resonate with the American public, across multiple generations, that might assist in efforts to communicate about climate change.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting parallels between slavery and climate change. What I’m talking about here is good communication – something climate science sorely needs. Many commentators and historians have noted the Gettysburg’s brevity (270 words), simplicity (mostly two-syllable words, no jargon), and how it relates to some of our nation’s founding principles (freedom, democracy, a perfect union).  Others pointed to the speech’s structure (addressing the past, present, and future) and its final call to action.

From a speech writing standpoint, duplicating these hallmarks is do-able.  Probably the most challenging aspect would be figuring out which principles to touch on that would speak to the widest audience and galvanize them to action. Would these be drawn from our founding documents, elements common to multiple faiths, or another global set of values?

What I struggle with is the right timing and context, and who the messenger would be. Unfortunately, I think it’s going to take one or more dramatic and destructive weather events to galvanize public attention and someone who can speak to our better natures to garner the political will and mobilize action at the right scale to really make a difference.

When that time comes, I hope that someone, somewhere, will have an opportunity to demarcate a moment when our nation, and perhaps humanity in general, will see fit to unify, this time for different reasons, in order to meet a different kind of challenge, but one that is just as important, if not more so, for human history.



The following two tabs change content below.
John Shepard

John Shepard

An environmentalist, John Shepard has lived with his family in Tucson, Arizona, since 1995 . His work takes him throughout the American West and Northwest Mexico, giving him a first-hand look at how climate change is impacting the region’s landscapes and communities.

2 Responses to A gettysburg address for climate change?

  1. Mike Burkholder

    March 22, 2014 at 11:37 am

    I admit it’s generalization but, in the US the belief in the importance of family and children is most often proclaimed by those who are more likely to deny climate change. Couching the argument for altering our course as a method of avoiding the risk of climate change’s most likely harms to the lives of our children and grandchildren might be a useful lever to move opinion.

    The counter argument to this would most assuredly be about the harm which taking action would do to the economy.

    This would then allow us to call into question which of these would cause the greater damage to the generations which follow us.

    If we pose the question of how we will eventually be viewed as ancestors due to the decisions we make at this critical point in time we shift the focus from wallets to posterity and, hopefully, to true family values. Gambling that the greater harm will not befall our descendents due to our decisions becomes less palatable when presented this way.

    I admit that this doesn’t sound like the kernel of an environmental Gettysburg Address but maybe this should be the way we approach those who do not share our level of concern.

    That brings me to my other point. I doubt that any argument will sway the “true believers” amongst the climate change deniers but this should be useful in moving those who are in the indifferent middle to a more concerned position.

  2. John Shepard

    John Shepard

    March 24, 2014 at 9:10 am


    The impact of decisions on our children and grandchildren (“future generations”) is an argument often put forward by environmentalists on a host of issues. I’m not sure how effective it is as a way to frame issues. Maybe there is a need for a different messenger to bring this argument forward.

    Same applies to the economic impact of acting or not acting on many environmental issues.

    I thing there is a need to make these arguments, but I’m not sure that’s what I would lead with if I were writing the climate equivalent of a Gettysburg Address. Instead, I would look for a more positive message, one that draws on American ingenuity and an ability to rise to exceptional challenges–more of a inspiring message than a critical one.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login