After a long period of silence on the issue during the campaign, President Obama now says that climate change is one of the top priorities for his second term.
The President has been almost completely silent in his defense of the scientific community. If he wants to elevate the issue, he must defend the science. Period.
As part of his 2012 “person of the year” interview with Time magazine, Obama said that he would make environmental issues—particularly climate change—a major focus in the next four years.
“And so, on an issue like climate change, for example, I think for this country and the world to ask some very tough questions about what are we leaving behind,” he said.
Indeed, we do need to ask some very tough questions—of the President.
Although Obama says that he wants to elevate climate change in his second term, it’s not evident that the White House has a clear plan to address the problem.
His first-term Administration deserves a lot of credit for laying the foundation for an energy transition in the U.S. Since 2008, Obama and his team have strongly supported renewable energy, efficiency standards, automobile fuel standards, and power plant regulations for mercury, air toxics, and carbon dioxide. The importance of these actions should not be minimized—they collectively represent the broadest range of support for clean energy in American history.
But this does not add up to a coherent climate strategy.
Since the failure of the climate bill in 2010, the Obama Administration has backed away from framing any of its domestic environmental objectives in a climate context. At the same time, Administration officials claim on the international stage that these individual actions add up to a plan that shows the U.S. is committed to addressing climate. The White House can’t have it both ways.
If Obama is serious about making climate change a top issue in the coming years, he will need to clearly explain to the American people how and why he’s going to address it. That means using his position as arguably the most powerful leader in the world to defend the science, frame the immediacy of the problem, and make hard decisions about our energy choices.
Defending the science
Shortly after his reelection, President Obama indicated he wanted to have a “conversation” at the White House with top climate scientists. But he will have to go much further than simple conversation.
As scientists have become more outspoken about the urgency of the problem in recent years, industry-funded climate denial groups and nonsensical cable news pundits have stepped up their personal attacks. But the President has been almost completely silent in his defense of the scientific community. If he wants to elevate the issue, he must defend the science. Period.
Framing the urgency of the problem
Obama also needs to stop talking about climate change as a distant problem for future generations. Every time the President speaks about the issue, he frames it as a problem for his children—just as he did in his recent Time interview.
“You don’t want them dealing with stuff that’s the result of you making bad choices,” Obama said in his interview.
Fair enough. This is indeed a generational issue. But President Obama, climate change is happening right now, and in many cases faster than we ever thought possible. And if the President wants to convince Americans that climate is an issue worth tackling now, he needs to do a much better job of explaining why we’re already “dealing with stuff” as a result of our bad choices.
Consider this: Last summer, the Arctic lost an area of sea ice equivalent to Canada and Texas combined. In the last 30 years, summer sea ice has declined by 40 percent—with between 70 to 95 percent of that due to human activity.
In 2012, the U.S. experienced the hottest and most extreme year for weather on record—a year marked by destructive wildfires, a devastating (and still ongoing) drought, a powerful derecho that knocked out power for tens of millions of people, and a freak superstorm that wreaked havoc on the East Coast.
"You look out the window and you see climate change in action," said Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research this summer.
This is not just a problem for future generations; it’s a problem today. And elevating climate as a national priority means connecting the dots for Americans.
Making hard decisions
Along with promoting cleaner sources of energy, the President has also overseen a dramatic expansion of oil and gas production. Driven by new hydraulic fracturing techniques that allow access to unconventional oil and gas reserves, America is on track to become the world’s largest liquid fuels producer by 2020. It would be wrong to say that Obama is the reason for this boom. But he has clearly supported the expansion of fossil fuels—even encouraging new oil drilling in Arctic waters.
Obama is truly an “all of the above” president. This makes for good politics. But it makes for terrible climate policy.
According to the International Energy Agency, we need to keep roughly two-thirds of proven fossil fuels in the ground by 2030 to avoid disastrous climate change. That means making difficult choices about limiting expansion of fossil fuels and avoiding the build-out of a massive new range of infrastructure that will be in place for decades. Without a doubt, this is the hardest—and most politically toxic—piece to consider. The Obama Administration has made no indication it would be willing to seriously limit the amount of fossil fuels we are digging out of the ground. But it must be willing to take on the issue if climate is going to become a serious priority.
Obama’s second term will most likely be marked by severe gridlock. This will prevent any piece of comprehensive climate legislation from getting passed. But that doesn’t mean other key elements—a carbon tax, carbon pollution standards for new coal plants, or insurance reforms for disaster-prone areas—are off the table.
In order to get measures like these passed, President Obama must be willing to stand up, discuss the urgency of the problem, and once again make climate a central part of the policy conversation in Washington. That will be the proof that it’s a priority for him.
If you were President Obama, what would your highest priority be for your second term: lowering the debt, passing comprehensive immigration legislation, or signing a climate change bill, like cap and trade? Tell us in the COMMENTS below.