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Why isn't Obama talking about climate change?

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I've been thinking a lot about David Roberts's argument that the administration's response to the Deepwater oil spill shows it's not committed to pushing energy legislation this year. "If he was looking for an opportunity to drive home the clean energy message, this was it," Roberts writes. "The Katrina of fossil fuels. Yet all he's done is blandly reaffirm his support for offshore drilling. I haven't heard a word about clean energy alternatives or, God forbid, efficiency, which if pursued seriously could save more oil than offshore rigs could produce, at a net savings rather than a cost, and with the added bonus feature of not occasionally leaking out and destroying entire American ecosystems and industries."

You can see this two ways. The first is that the Deepwater spill is best understood as a national tragedy, and until the crisis phase is over, it would be both political suicide and simply indecent to subsume it into a larger argument about clean energy, oil dependence and climate change.

On the other hand, a five-degree centigrade rise in global temperatures will be an unbelievable global catastrophe. It will dwarf the devastation caused by the spill. And the responsible thing for Obama to do is to explain that: Dependence on fossil fuels ensures oil spills, and it also ensure a warming climate, and we need to understand the Deepwater spill as not just a tragedy, but a predictable outcome, and a harbinger of much worse. That is not politicizing a tragedy. That is being honest about what caused it, and what it means.

That said, this doesn't need to happen on Day 3. The larger argument about the need to wean ourselves off of oil can be made in a week. Allowing time for grieving and emergency response does not mean a call to action can't follow. But if one doesn't follow, then Roberts is right, and it's a sign that the White House doesn't want a discussion over oil dependence this year.

By Ezra Klein  |  May 4, 2010; 11:16 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change  
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Comments

The administration has made it perfectly clear it won't touch climate change or immigration reform this year. Alas for them, climate change and immigration reform will touch them whether they like it or not, so they better have strong policy plans in place, and a compelling political strategy to sell those plans.

Alas, the passivity and incompetence that were on display through the healthcare reform debate are starting to show up again. I suspect the President will have to lose Congress before he changes his approach.

Posted by: scarlota | May 4, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

Roberts complains that Obama is ignoring efficiency, but significant increases in automobile efficiency standards were recently announced, which is one of the most effective steps we can take to reduce oil consumption.

Posted by: kluhman | May 4, 2010 11:28 AM | Report abuse

The first is that the Deepwater spill is best understood as a national tragedy,


whatever major energy issues need to be addressed, and whatever the appropriate timing may be, this catastrophe is not being properly addressed.
we need to hear from the president and the cabinet members directly on this spill, and what the environmental and economic implications are looking like, and what the containment progress is, and how much is continuing to spill.
this is not being handled well, in my opinion.

Posted by: jkaren | May 4, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

There's more to mitigating climate change than blocking offshore drilling. The offshore oil will just be replaced by imports at no additional cost to consumers anyway (wink, wink).

What about coal? What about agriculture and land-use changes? What about substituting natural gas for coal, at about half the CO2 per BTU?

Posted by: tl_houston | May 4, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

It's always going to look tacky. There's no classy way to say "I told you so" -- certainly not from the White House.

Of course, that level of tackiness might be ok if there was an actual bill with any realistic chance to pass this year. But if not, why take the hit with nothing to show for it? Who does flogging BP win over? Graham? Brown? Snowe?

Posted by: NS12345 | May 4, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

"significant increases in automobile efficiency standards were recently announced"

Kluhman's right. Also, my parents just got a big tax break installing new energy efficient windows, and I'm about to get a rebate on my new washer/dryer. Just because it's not splashed in the headlines doesn't mean the administration hasn't pushed for efficiency.

Posted by: jeirvine | May 4, 2010 11:58 AM | Report abuse

The administration needs to, for once, address the problems at hand and not use them as a springboard, or an excuse, for it's pre-set agenda. Those unaddressed problems like loss of jobs and the oil spill. Even the NY TImes admits Obama did not take action in the critical early days. Hurling blame at BP is not a constructive act.

Posted by: truck1 | May 4, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

I've always thought that one reason more people don't appreciate the impending climate crisis is the belief that if it were really that bad, the government would be doing more. That was a major factor during the Bush Admin, I think.

But it is still carrying into the Obama Admin. Contrary to the urgency he expressed during the election, he isn't sufficiently taking the opportunity to link clean fuels with jobs and techniological advancement. Also with the need to scale back our empire in light of the cumulative national debt. I know the last is death in the eyes of the GOP, and it is great that VoteVets is running ads linking oil dependence to the war in Iraq and our problems with Iran, but this is kind of turning into Obama's 9/11, and it would be really, really terrible not to take this as an additional oppoprtunity to turn this ship around toward a cleaner, more efficient and non-carbon-based energy future. China is going to eat our lunch on green tech if we don't put some muscle behind this shift. That is the way to sell it to the right and neocons, if it can be sold.

Posted by: Mimikatz | May 4, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Odds that Ezra will circle back to this issue "in a week" to point out that Obama hasn't made the argument about oil-dependence? Zero. This post is similar to a depressingly long list of posts where Ezra provides excuses for O's inaction or counterproductive action on climate change, health care, civil liberties, DADT, Afghanistan, etc. Rinse, spin, repeat.

Posted by: redscott | May 4, 2010 12:12 PM | Report abuse

Also, this argument that it would be "indecent" for Obama to use this incident to talk about climate change, and that this may be the reason why he isn't doing it, is deeply disingenuous. He ain't doing it because this incident is a huge embarassment. He endorsed off-shore drilling and dismissed safety arguments in doing it, and a few weeks later we have a catastrophic accident with major economic costs. Oopsie!

Posted by: redscott | May 4, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse

@Mimikatz: "it would be really, really terrible not to take this as an additional oppoprtunity to turn this ship around toward a cleaner, more efficient and non-carbon-based energy future."

Based on the opportunities Obama's passed on already, I don't hold out much hope for this tragedy becoming a catalyst for change. He just doesn't seem to be interesting in making that kind of grand commitments that we'd like to see. If ever there was a time to address the failing "report card" that our country has earned on infrastructure, it was during the stimulus debate. If ever there was a time to address financial reform, it was in the months after the collapse, not over a year later. I don't know if it's failed messaging or a failure of imagination, but I don't see any Apollo-like announcements emerging from this presidency.

Posted by: BigTunaTim | May 4, 2010 12:25 PM | Report abuse

@redscott: "Oopsie!"

Indeed! Their desire to be seen as centrist/bipartisan is counterproductive and the results repeatedly show it. What exactly have Democrats gotten in exchange for their endless capitulation and "compromise"? How many on the right respect Obama even .01% percent more for saying things that they want to hear?

Hey, I'm all for being bipartisan when the other side is interested in actual negotiation and compromise. But in this environment it's a suckers' bet, and Democrats can't stop anteing up.

Posted by: BigTunaTim | May 4, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

"and until the crisis phase is over, it would be both political suicide and simply indecent to subsume it into a larger argument about clean energy, oil dependence and climate change."

Isn't it our job as citizens to take up this argument? And the president's job to eventually address the argument that we, as citizens, have taken up?

Just trying to remind myself how this whole democratic republic thing is supposed to work.

Posted by: slag | May 4, 2010 12:35 PM | Report abuse

I agree with the suspicion that Obama Admin is not serious about rebooting our energy policy.

But the benefit of doubt which Obama Admin gets is about timing. For FinReg they waited until the recovery got underway. Here also to wait until this whole BP mess is behind, makes sense.

Posted by: umesh409 | May 4, 2010 1:00 PM | Report abuse

The most important thing I think Obama can do is to admit that some portion of the change in how we get our energy has to be on the demand side. Why not a simple tax increase on gas and coal-generated electricity, with the revenues generated put into:
a) Creating clean energy infrastructure and mass transit,
and
b) Paying down the federal debt?

Posted by: jacobh | May 4, 2010 1:13 PM | Report abuse

Ezra- isn't the problem that a 5C rise in global temps can't be really sensed in as spectacular a way as an epic oil slick? People will always find different reasons for the effects of a 5C rise. But you can't deny that our dependence on fossil fuels is the ultimate cause of the mine tragedy and now this oil well disaster.

Obama's really not that green- you can see it in his charitable contributions:
http://bucks.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/15/all-about-the-obamas-charitable-giving/

And giving even lip service to "clean coal?"

Posted by: Lonepine | May 4, 2010 1:49 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, The reason why Obama is not talking about climate change is that it is dawning upon him that if he punts on immigration reform, he will be a one-term president. The Dems will not be able to focus on both immigration reform and climate change before the Nov elections, and rather than sealing the fate of his re-election bid, Obama prefers to work on immigration reform now. I read an article in La Opinion today (America's largest Spanish language newspaper)saying that the Hispanics are furious with Obama for ignoring his campaign promise to do immigration reform. They blame the Dems and Obama personally, because they say that as opposed to the Dems, the Republicans never actually promised to enact immigration reform.
PS. I am not Hispanic, but I have a working knowledge of Spanish.

Posted by: mehuwss | May 4, 2010 5:41 PM | Report abuse

Another view of Toles' enigmatic cartoon
Hasn't helped this viewer understand
What Mr. Toles had in mind when he composed it--
A problem whose solution is beyond his command.

But it's easy to see why Obama
Wants to avoid climate change legislation.
It would set up a clearly warranted clamor
And become a certifiable political aggravation.

True as well for any effort to "amnesty-tize"
Millions of folks illegally here--
For those advocating such "amnesty-tization"
The outlook appears to be increasing austere.

Obama is counting on the validity of Pope's admonition re: vice
As applying equally to the issue of illegal immigration:
Seen too often, becoming familiar with its face,
We learn to tolerate, then pity and finally embrace its presence (and that of illegal residents in our nation).

Posted by: Gonzage1 | May 4, 2010 6:14 PM | Report abuse

Ezra, what should the President say when the next oil rig explodes and begins leaking a million barrels of oil? (Yes, I said million, we're talking 6-9 months to end a leak.)

For certainly it will happen.

This problem is systemic, a result of profit-seeking underinvestment on the part of the oil companies. (And why not, they don't carry the load of the cleanup, the American people do.) Even if the rigs all survive another day, a dam could collapse or there will be another coal-mining disaster. Heaven forbid, there could be a nuclear melt-down.

To follow your argument, Obama can never talk about energy substitution and conservation without appearing, in your words, opportunistic and indecent. In effect, each disaster will precipitate the next so that energy/climate policy can never be reformed.

Come to think of it, this is the case in each domain in which the government must act: health, defense, foreign policy, education, infrastructure -- they each contain the seeds of disaster in one way or another.

No wonder your advice is always the same: wait until the time's right. Ezra, the time will never be right. Until there is not time left.

Posted by: bluefire1 | May 4, 2010 11:53 PM | Report abuse

Wow!
"On the other hand, a five-degree centigrade rise in global temperatures will be an unbelievable global catastrophe."
This is the case he presents to support his assertion that we need to talk about getting off of fossil fuels this week!!! THERE IS NOT A SINGLE SHRED OF CREDIBLE REAL WORLD EVIDENCE SUPPORTING A 5C RISE IN GLOBAL TEMPERATURE EVER. EVER!!!! This is an insult to the intelligence of anyone capable of reading. Furthermore it is proof that the environmental movement is failing so badly that they are just recklessly swinging for the fences at this point. There is not a verifiable fact supporting the whole of the "issue" presented here.
Want the real facts?
Obama is silent on the issue because there IS NO issue. He knows that FACTUALLY there will be no 5C rise. And as the Chief Executive it is his job to steer the ship in the right direction no matter what course the kooks in the galley are suggesting. We are a third world country without fossil fuels. We are a third world country without our corporations. Villifying these things with nothing but completely made up doom scenarios is pathetic childish fantasy.
If you took inventory of everything in Ezra Klein's house I would guarantee you that 90+% of what is there is fossil fuel derived, came from a big corporation, and was transported to his house by fossil energy. THAT is a FACT and I defy him to prove otherwise. Beware the false prophets.

Posted by: shesgruesome | May 5, 2010 4:47 PM | Report abuse

And for the record, by "kooks in the galley" I mean every person here and their ridiculous factless straw-man arguments. I have never seen greater proof of the failure of our education system than the comments on this board.

I defy a one of you to show me real science that predicts this 5C increase, and the proof that burning fossil fuels are the result. But links to activist junkscience articles won't cut it.

We are headed into an ice age. No credible scientist refutes this. The tilt of our planet is directly related to the relationship between our orbit and Jupiter's. In 100,000 year cycles this relationship causes Earth's maximum seasonal tilt to vary from 22-24 degrees. During the 20-80,000 years centered around the 22deg solstice minima, we have ice ages. This is a fact verifiable by millions of years of geologic records and precisely predictible using known and observable facts, math and physics. If you believe the vapors coming out of your tailpipe have a greater influence on this planet than the heat and gravity of the sun AND the gravitational mass of Jupiter, you are collectively the dumbest living humans ever. Get a freaking clue...

Posted by: shesgruesome | May 5, 2010 5:07 PM | Report abuse

Barrak Obama doesn't care about green people.

Posted by: ecocampaigner | May 6, 2010 6:18 PM | Report abuse

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