Obama and Climate Change

| Fri Jul. 23, 2010 10:18 AM EDT

Tim Dickinson has a long piece in Rolling Stone that largely blames the Obama administration for the collapse of climate legislation. The basic story is that the House passed a bill last year, but Obama decided to put his energy into healthcare reform instead, lost his 60-vote Senate majority a few months later, and then screwed the pooch by playing an insider game and blowing it:

Once again, however, the administration applied the same backroom approach it took to health care reform. Instead of waging a public debate to pit the American people against the corporate polluters, Obama gave the polluters a seat at the negotiating table....At first, climate advocates were resigned to the backroom deals, figuring they were necessary to achieve a greater good. "It looked like the only way to pass a bill," says a Senate staffer familiar with the negotiations, "was to make all of these horrendous compromises." But then the strategy backfired. "What that bill did was essentially write nuclear and coal into U.S. energy production for the next 10 to 20 years, instead of phasing them out," says Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth. "And it didn't pick up any Republicans whatsoever."

....The disaster in the Gulf should have been a critical turning point for global warming....But the Obama administration let the opportunity slip away. On June 15th, the president — a communicator whom even top Republican operatives rank above Reagan — sat at his desk to deliver his first address to the nation from the Oval Office. It was a terrible, teachable moment, one in which he could have connected the dots between the oil spewing into the Gulf and the planet-killing CO2 we spew every day into the atmosphere. But Obama never even mentioned the words "carbon" or "emissions" or "greenhouse" — not even the word "pollution."

In a technical sense, I just don't buy this. I thought Obama's Gulf speech was lousy too, but there's no way it was ever going to be some kind of "turning point" in the fight for climate legislation. This has been a pure vote whipping exercise from the start, and the votes were never there. Aside from common sense, there are two big pieces of evidence for this. First, the House climate bill, even after massive compromises, passed by only 219-212. That is, it won by one vote in a chamber where Democrats hold a 35-vote majority. Second, when Lisa Murkowski's bill to prohibit the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases came before the Senate, the vote against it was only 53-47. As Dickinson notes, six Democrats voted for it: Evan Bayh, Mary Landrieu, Blanche Lincoln, Mark Pryor, Ben Nelson, and Jay Rockefeller.

Aside from Lindsey Graham, there were never going to be any Republican votes for a climate bill. If we in the liberal community still haven't figured that out, we have rocks in our skulls. And it's almost certain that three or four of those six Democrats were simply unpersuadable too. Even a watered-down climate bill never had more than about 55 votes in the Senate, and even that's probably optimistic.

Still, Dickinson is right that Obama should have done more. Even if the bill lost anyway, he should have done more. It's his job, after all, to rally public opinion. But his unwillingness to do this is a mistake that goes back more than two years, not just a few months. Here's me back in 2008:

Make no mistake. Barack Obama's cap-and-trade plan to reduce carbon emissions may be technically one of the best we've ever seen, but it will raise energy prices. That's the whole point. So once the public understands that there's more to Obama's plan than green-collar jobs and serried ranks of windmills on the Great Plains, they're going to have second thoughts. And those congressional majorities, who face election in another couple of years, are going to have second thoughts too.

The right way to address this won't be found in any of Obama's white papers. There's a story there, if you dig deep enough, but it's long and complicated and relies on things like increased efficiency, consumer rebates, and R&D funding that pays off in another decade or so. In the short term someone is going to have to tell the public that, yes, there's some sacrifice required here, but it's worth it. Someone needs to come up with a garden-hose analogy to convince a financially stressed public that doing something for the common good is worth a small price.

That someone, of course, is Barack Obama, but it's not clear yet if he gets this. His speeches soar, but they rarely seem designed to move the nation in a specific direction. Is he pushing the public to support cap and trade even though it might cost them a few dollars? Or merely to vote for "change"? It's sometimes hard to tell.

The bully pulpit may be overrated, but even if it's not, it's a long game. FDR built up support for American intervention in Europe over years and years, and even at that it took the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor to finally rally the country behind him. Obama's in the same situation. His problem isn't that he worked an inside game on Capitol Hill or gave a weak speech after the Gulf spill, the problem is that he's barely talked about climate change for years. Even if he had, the spark that it takes to get something done might still not have come. But without it, it will never come.

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