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President Obama's False Choice: Global Warming or the Economy?

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In his first news conference since winning a second term, President Obama answered a question about global warming, an issue many hoped to see addressed during the presidential debates -- and that represented the basis for Mayor Bloomberg's campaign endorsement. His message? A disappointing "let the band play on."

Mr. Obama's remarks no doubt disappointed those who had hoped for stronger leadership to reduce the carbon pollution causing global warming. While he acknowledged that he is a firm believer in climate change (emphasis mine) and admitted that "we have not done as much as we need to," he also gave voice to the obvious: Neither Republicans nor Democrats are prepared to make hay with the issue of climate change, because any solution will no doubt involve tough political choices.

After a glimmer of hope, it now seems that a price on carbon is rather unlikely in the near term, and investments in energy technology bold enough to be transformative, smart strengthening of coastlines and sequestration of carbon at scale more uncertain. (Though, as he pointed out, he did manage to double fuel efficiency standards on motor vehicles.)

The president is understandably concerned that the American public elected him with a mandate to focus on jobs, growth and the economy, and any deviation from this is, as he says, not something "I would stand for."

However, the very jobs he hopes to create and the economic engine he hopes to stoke will be influenced by the impacts of climate change.

According to a report in Time, the damages caused by Hurricane Sandy will cost from $30 billion to $60 billion. Clearly, the world cannot afford too many super-charged storms.

Meanwhile, record heat plagued most states during the summer of 2012, leading to a drought that might be the most costly natural disaster in history. There are brand-new jobs to be had in new green energy technologies. Plus, according to the respectable Stern Review, spending just 1 to 2 percent of GDP today (about $900 per person per year, or the price of a cell phone plan) will take care of current emissions. Waiting a few decades means the cost goes up to a far more painful 20 percent.

In simple terms, if we don't deal with the issue of climate change it will hurt jobs, growth and the economy, saddling not just our generation, but our children's generation as well, with debt and consequences.

If, on the other hand, we act prudently and proactively, our leadership can create jobs, provide certainty to industry and livelihoods and blunt the worst impacts of a changing climate on our urban centers and rural landscapes. Do nothing and it's going to bite us hard. Act swiftly and we could reap the benefits of being the leader of the pack.

The president is right, of course -- there is clearly no widespread appetite by leaders on either side of the aisle to tackle this issue during their tenure. But that doesn't mean nothing can be done. Far from it:

  • Grassroots movements are crucial in making the voice of citizens heard -- and never more so than around climate change. When people lead, politicians have no choice but to follow, a lesson we failed to learn during the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2010. Yes, we are worried about the economy -- but economy vs. the environment is a false choice.
  • Engage corporate leaders, often beholden to data, in making the case for clarity and leadership on climate change. Unilever has joined 200 other companies in getting deforestation -- a major source of carbon pollution -- out of their supply chain by 2020. Walmart has invested heavily in energy efficiency. Insurance companies are fully aware of the risks posed by rising sea levels and back investing in natural infrastructure like reefs and marshes to protect coastlines.
  • Make a payment toward the deficit or reduce payroll tax by putting a price on carbon pollution, which will take a serious bite out of the worst polluters contributing to the 90 million tons of global warming gases going into the atmosphere every year.
  • Continue to invest in research and technological development that improves efficiency, develops new sources of clean fuel and helps keep American know-how relevant to a global marketplace.
  • Use the bully pulpit of Office of the President to educate the American public on the risk of climate change and the rewards of investments in mitigation. In other words, lead.

Waiting for the right time to make a tough decision usually results in a long wait. On the issue of global warming, we certainly don't have that luxury. What we do have, however, is an opportunity to move our economy forward and create new jobs by addressing the largest threat to our long-term prosperity.

[Image caption: A long wait to enter a job fair. Credit: Flickr user paulswansen via Creative Commons.]

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