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Climate Policy: Can Obama Pay it Forward?

Hope. It’s what some in the environmental community felt when President Obama predicted in a recent Rolling Stone interview that climate change would be an issue in the presidential campaign. Obama went on to say that he would be “very clear” that we have to deal with climate change “in a serious way.” For the briefest of moments, we were time-warped back to November 2008, when President-Elect Obama made a stirring plea for tackling perhaps the most fundamental environmental issue in human history. Fast forward to today. What lit up the Twitterverse with excitement following the publication of the Rolling Stone article was that the declaration arrived out of the blue – a jolt of optimism for many who believe dealing with climate change is this generation’s greatest challenge. The fact that “climate change” or “global warming” has been so conspicuously absent from the public stage for so long made even a passing mention by Obama seem like a Rose Garden ceremony. At first blush, the President’s foray back into the climate issue seems risky from both a policy and political perspective. As Eric Pooley documented in his excellent book The Climate War, the political forces arrayed against doing anything on climate are vast, highly motivated, well-funded and well-armed. After all, it wasn’t even two years ago that Joe Manchin, the sitting governor of West Virginia and a Democrat, trained his rifle on the House cap-and-trade bill and shot it in a now infamous campaign commercial for a Senate seat that he won handily. But while it may seem risky, at least from a political perspective, the President may be on to something. Recent polling suggests that Americans are coming around to the idea that climate change is real. In part, we can thank the wacky weather for that, which polls show Americans are increasingly linking to climate change. But we’re also more willing to take action. According to a survey just released by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, 75 percent of Americans support regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant, and 65 percent support an international treaty requiring the U.S. to significantly cut its C02 emissions. And younger people are traditionally more likely to support action on climate change – a key demographic for Obama in the upcoming election, as it was in ’08. Welcoming a debate on climate change also helps distinguish Obama from Republican challenger Mitt Romney. If Mr. Romney takes a hardline conservative position, the Obama camp can exploit that as an example of flip-flopping on the issue. We’ll no doubt hear repeats of Mr. Romney’s statement from June 2011, when he told a crowd at a town hall meeting, "I believe the world is getting warmer, and I believe that humans have contributed to that." Despite the stasis in the U.S., many around the world agree that action is needed, with major economies taking significant steps. From Australia to Mexico to the U.K., we’re seeing passage of aggressive measures to cut C02 emissions. Even California (whose GDP makes it the ninth largest economy in the world) has implemented a cap-and-trade program to reduce emissions. Of course, the President can take credit for some significant non-legislative steps to curb emissions, including raising car and truck fuel-efficiency standards, promoting clean energy stimulus projects and reducing power plant emissions. The real question now is whether either side will make political hay with the climate issue and where that will leave us in 2013. While it’s conceivable that the issue will play out well for the President politically (emphasis on the word conceivable), it is hardly a forgone conclusion that it would translate into anything resembling policy in the next four years. Should Mr. Obama win the election, will he use whatever traction the issue generated during the campaign to press Congress for meaningful measures to cut emissions? Will the makeup of Congress allow for even modest measures to emerge? Or will it be stalemate as usual? For anyone who has been in the middle of the fight to pass reasonable measures to address climate change, the tendency now is to shield ourselves in a cloak of cynicism, like jilted lovers wary of another broken heart. After all, we’ve seen this movie before, and it doesn’t end well. But there it is, that nagging sense that maybe, perhaps, we might just find some reasonable, bipartisan way of lowering our emissions, improving the quality of our air, and creating clean energy jobs while preventing what the vast majority of scientist know will be catastrophic harm from global warming. Ah, the audacity of hope.

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