What Will Obama Do on Climate Change?
I've been trying pretty hard to wrap my head around the politics of the climate change debate. No one, for instance, seems to think Waxman-Markey is, at this point, a particularly good bill, even as everyone agrees it's the best we're likely to get. No one has a particularly strong explanation of how it gets better as it winds its way through the legislative process. No one has a particularly compelling theory on how it gets strengthened over time. And even though Obama made the bill part of his opening remarks, the press corps didn't even ask about it at yesterday's Q&A. It hasn't, in other words, really even come into its own as a partisan football.
That's not to say there's zero optimism on these issues. David Roberts, for instance, sees a bright side. But it is, in the aggregate, a grim take. Certainly grimmer than things seemed during the campaign.
But President Obama remains the wild card. He has followed, thus far, a pretty similar strategy to his approach to health reform: Sit back, let Congress hash it out, save capital for the final push. But this isn't like health care. Health care is, in wonk parlance, a "mature issue." People understand health care, or think they do. They're familiar with much of the debate. They're worried about the issue. Obama's role is more about persuasion than education.
Climate change, conversely, exhibits an uncommonly large gap between the urgency felt by experts and ordinary voters. Same goes for knowledge. If the health reform debate is like the decision between a Mac and a PC, the climate change debate is more a comparison of microprocessors. No less -- indeed, maybe much more -- important, but not the sort of thing that most people have detailed opinions on.
So I'd imagine that Obama is going to have to get much more centrally involved from much earlier in the process. He's going to have to sell the issue of climate change, not just the bill responding to it. That's a much bigger, and much harder, job. On the other hand, Obama is a pretty persuasive guy. And his performance during the campaign suggested that he's actually better suited to talking about grand moral challenges than wonkish technical debates. And climate change, for all its complexity, is actually, at base, a moral question: It's a choice between letting untold thousands die in the developing world and potentially triggering an unpredictable climate catastrophe a few generations down the road or ... paying slightly more for activities that are reliant on dirty energy.
Photo credit: AP Photo/Ron Edmonds.
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