On a Monday morning in January, less than a week after his inauguration, President Barack Obama signed two memoranda designed to improve automobile fuel efficiency. “These are extraordinary times,” Obama told an audience gathered in the White House’s East Room, that call “for swift and extraordinary action. At a time of such great challenge for America, no single issue is as fundamental to our future as energy.

Although he acknowledged that his predecessors had “sounded the alarm about energy dependence for decades,” the new president undoubtedly recognized that he sits atop a rare confluence of political, industrial, and social will to dramatically alter the ways this country gets its juice. Despite that will, Americans remain reluctant to reduce their consumption of the cheap fossil fuels that were largely responsible for raising standards of living during the twentieth century. After several years of stories about the threats posed by melting ice caps and rising seas, global warming has lost some of its ability to inspire people to change their ways when it comes to energy consumption. Indeed, President Obama’s speech took place against the backdrop of a Pew Research Center poll, which found that “global warming” and “the environment” had plummeted to the bottom of a list of twenty public priorities. Energy, on the other hand, ranked sixth—below Social Security and above health care.


So it was no accident that Obama couched that January speech in terms of immediate threats to “national and economic security—compounded by the long-term threat of climate change.” His goal was to reframe the question of energy reform, downplaying the moralistic, save-the-planet appeal that some voters had grown weary of in favor of one that emphasized national security and economic growth.

Obama’s decision to recast the connection between climate change and energy reform had been hashed out in July 2008, while he was still chasing the Democratic nomination. Even then it had become clear that environmental stewardship and the mitigation of global warming were not the best selling points for a low-carbon economy. “This stuff needs to pop more,” he told his aides on the way out of a meeting with a group of energy and utilities executives and economic and scientific experts, according to a piece in The Washington Post in May by Steve Mufson and Juliet Eilperin. “The Chicago meeting marked a turning point in his thinking,” they wrote.

It was a turning point for the press, too. As the presidential campaign dragged on that summer, Obama and the other candidates replaced climate with energy references in their speeches and comments. The press did the same in its articles and broadcasts. With gas prices soaring to record highs, the war in Iraq marking its grim five-year anniversary, and the housing market in free fall, the country’s attention was once again trained on oil and the influence it exerts over both the economy and national security. Stories about “energy independence” and renewable energy plants creating employment in old manufacturing towns were on the rise.

The press had rediscovered the energy beat. And now journalists, too, must make the subject “pop.”

The emergence of the modern energy beat began in the 1970s in response to oil crises—and gas shortages—in which concern about dependence on foreign oil struck the American political and consumer consciousness. The Carter administration and Congress established the Department of Energy in 1977. Carter installed solar panels on the White House roof and pushed for development of alternative energy sources. But when the Reagan Revolution rolled into town, the solar panels came off the White House and the wheels came off the energy story.

“Energy went fallow after the Carter administration,” recalls John J. Fialka, a longtime energy reporter for the Wall Street Journal’s Washington bureau before becoming editor of ClimateWire, a specialty Web news service. “It was marginalized and almost disappeared” even if it was periodically resurrected over the years by the “ups and downs of gas prices.”

The Obama administration’s push to develop alternative energy sources echoes some of the Carter era promise (and lost opportunities), and the political, business, and environmental landscapes are once again awash with optimism about the future of clean energy. While the global financial crisis has dampened that enthusiasm, this time there is the added urgency of making up for lost time. The president and the Democrat-controlled Congress are making the issue “pop” by pouring money, via the economic stimulus plan, into the creation of “green jobs” and backing the American Clean Energy and Security Act, passed by the House in June. The bill cloaks a controversial cap-and-trade scheme to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions under the mantle of energy security.

Curtis Brainard and Cristine Russell are CJR contributors. Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, our online critique of science and environment reporting. Russell, a CJR contributing editor, is the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter.