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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.

By Ezra Klein  |  June 24, 2009; 5:21 PM ET
Categories:  Climate Change  
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My perspective from far outside the beltway is simply that Obama's first priority at this point is healthcare reform, and all other domestic initiatives (at last now that stimulus is water under the bridge) will have to get in line. I don't know what the time line is on Waxman-Markey, and when the people who determine these things feel they could get it to Obama's desk, but my guess is he'll start to expend substantive political capital on climate change AFTER he signs a healthcare bill, and not before.

Posted by: Jasper99 | June 24, 2009 6:11 PM | Report abuse

The current climate change legislation working it's way through Congress mandates an over 80% cut in US emissions by 2050:

"By the year 2050, the Census Bureau projects that our population will be around 420 million. This means per capita emissions will have to fall to about 2.5 tons in order to meet the goal of 80% reduction. It is likely that U.S. per capita emissions were never that low – even back in colonial days when the only fuel we burned was wood. The only nations in the world today that emit at this low level are all poor developing nations, such as Belize, Mauritius, Jordan, Haiti and Somalia." --"The Real Cost of Tackling Climate Change," WSJ, 28 Apr. '08

Any conceivable cuts the US makes will be dwarfed by emission growth in developing countries:

"The world's emissions of the main planet-warming gas carbon dioxide will rise over 50 percent to more than 42 billion tonnes per year from 2005 to 2030 as China leads a rise in burning coal, the U.S. government forecast on Wednesday. China's coal demand will rise 3.2 percent annually from 2005 to 2030, the Energy Information Administration said in its International Energy Outlook 2008." --Reuters, 26 June 2008

"The alternative (to geoengineering) is the acceptance of a massive natural cull of humanity and a return to an Earth that freely regulates itself but in the hot state." --Dr James Lovelock, August 2008

Posted by: dobermantmacleod | June 25, 2009 3:58 AM | Report abuse

"So I'd imagine that Obama is going to have to get much more centrally involved from much earlier in the process."

I'm not sure how he does that without a time machine. The House is scheduled to vote TOMORROW on Waxman-Markey, and that extremely watered-down, gutted bill is as good as it gets in this Congress: the Senate will come up with something even worse, and the ultimate bill will be somewhere in between the two.

I'm getting a lot of flak for this over at Yglesias' blog and other places (where I post as low-tech cyclist), but I really think Obama should hold off until 2011 on climate change - and in the meantime, (a) educate the citizenry about the urgency of dealing with climate change, and (b) hope for a few more Dem votes in Congress, especially in the Senate, to reduce the extent to which every last Blue Dog can extract his/her pound of flesh from the bill.

Posted by: rt42 | June 25, 2009 8:42 AM | Report abuse

Waxman-Markey is worse than useless because it prioritizes political horse trading and payments to important constituencies ahead of actual improvement of the environment. Clean coal? Yeah, right.

Posted by: tl_houston | June 25, 2009 9:10 AM | Report abuse

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