Obama’s climate speech: the numbers

The moment Barack Obama stepped off the podium in Georgetown yesterday after delivering a landmark speech on climate change, environment news desks and blogs exploded into action as opinions and judgements surged around cyberspace. To some, it was a historic moment that gave the world long-sought hope. To others, the president’s eloquent oratory merely masked five years of relative inaction. Ultimately, Obama has to execute “The President’s Climate Action Plan” swiftly and in its entirety (and even beyond) in order for his emotive words to carry any meaning. We watch expectantly.

In the meantime, I won’t add any opinionated paragraphs to the ocean of comment already washing around. Instead, I’ve pulled out some intriguing – and sometimes revealing – figures linked to yesterday’s undoubtedly ground-breaking events.

The power of words

By looking quantitatively at the president’s choice of words (he spoke 5,981 in total), we gain an insight into the themes and topics to which he returned regularly. His top 20 words are displayed in the below graphic, along with their frequency (click for easier viewing).

Obama speech language

‘Carbon’, ‘energy’ and ‘pollution’ were president Obama’s most-used words by a distance, with ‘climate’, ‘power’ and ‘America’ the next most common. Cutting carbon emissions from power plants by establishing federal standards is the first step in the president’s plan, so it is not surprising ‘carbon’ featured highly. However, it also reflects how the president has placed ‘carbon’ at the centre of the debate. This perhaps provides a tighter focus for policy than the broader concept of greenhouse gases. ‘Energy’ comes next, which matches how expanding the renewable energy sector and taking the lead in that research  area are the next two points in his plan.

Among non-policy words, ‘future’, ‘children’ and ‘time’ cropped up frequently. Obama’s rhetorical strategy was to draw on the concept of this generation’s legacy to those that will follow. His all-important closing words underscored this message: “The laughter of children, a quiet sunset, all the hopes and dreams of posterity – that’s what’s at stake.”

The least-used terms are also revealing. As has been pointed out by many commentators, the president was ambiguous on the issue of the KeystoneXL pipeline.  This is reflected in the figures: ‘Keystone’ was used just twice while ‘pipeline’ was mentioned on just four occasions. For such a contentious issue, Obama was not keen to address it at length. In better news for climate campaigners, the president chose not to play on the fear of freak weather events as a spur to action: ‘wildfires’ and ‘hurricanes’ were mentioned just twice, while ‘storms’ was used three times. This might suggest the president both possesses and wants to communicate a scientifically sophisticated understanding of climate change.

Obama speech

POTUS pointing in the right direction both literally and figuratively

Social media

Live-streamed to an eagerly watching world, the president’s speech was an online event which echoed throughout the social networks. Some particularly large numbers reflect this.


views of the trailer on Youtube for Obama’s speech, released on 22 June 2013 (until the morning of 26 June)


times ‘Obama’ was mentioned on Twitter between 1200 and 1500 EST on the day of the speech (the speech began at 1255 EST)


uses of the dedicated hashtag ‘#ActOnClimate’ on Twitter between 1200 and 1500 EST

The top three tweets during the event all came from Barack Obama’s official Twitter account.

And one Hollywood superstar, who in his Twitter bio describes himself as an “Actor and Environmentalist”, provided the fourth most engaged with tweet of the afternoon.

Do any of those numbers particularly catch your eye? Or have you found any of your own? Please comment with your thoughts below.


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