President Obama is in the midst of a speaking tour on energy, prodded in large measure by spiking gas prices and dropping approval ratings as many assume the President can do more, but isn't for some reason. The President is trying to convince folks that while he can't really do anything about short-term gas prices -- which is true -- he's got a good handle on the long term. This includes policies to increase fuel economy, thereby saving folks money at the pump, and pursuing an "all-of-the-above," "American-made" energy production strategy. An important part of this "all-of-the-above" approach is alternative or clean energy sources like wind, solar and biomass.
Funny thing is, increasing fuel economy and clean energy is great for climate change, but the President doesn't mention it. You'd think talking about such policies would lead right into the President saying what he's doing about the greatest moral challenge of our time. But it doesn't.
Obama and Oprah in 2008
Just the other day on Mar. 16 the President was giving a talk in Atlanta with Oprah Winfrey in attendance. Here's the official transcript:
The President: I was back home in Chicago; came down to Atlanta. It's warm every place. It gets you a little nervous about what's happening to global temperatures, but when it's 75 degrees in Chicago in the beginning of March, you start thinking --
Audience Member [Oprah]: Something is wrong.
The President: Yes. On the other hand, really have enjoyed the nice weather. (Laughter.)
So at this campaign event the most admired woman in America provides the President with the perfect opportunity to say what his administration is doing about climate change, to say that it's going to be a top priority in his next administration. Instead, he makes a joke and moves on.
Gallows humor? Hey, I take a stab at gallows humor myself from time to time. It can provide a good release.
But when it's used to duck the greatest moral challenge of our time? Not good.
I'm sure there are short-term political arguments for why the President is avoiding talking about climate change.
Right now Republicans like Karl Rove are running ads attacking him on gas prices, and coal is vital to the economies of key presidential battleground states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Any one of these states could end up determining who inhabits the White House in the next Presidential term.
But for the good of the country and the world the President must not remain silent. Here are a couple of reasons why.
First, according to the International Energy Agency, which advises the G8 on climate and energy matters, global emissions must peak during the next Presidential term to avoid what all nations, including the U.S., have agreed is a temperature threshold that should not be crossed.
Second, to achieve this we can't just have a gradual transition away from harmful climate practices, we can't just concentrate on reducing global warming pollution from a couple of sectors. We need to have a society-wide revolution kick-started by comprehensive climate legislation that puts a price on carbon.
Third, the country won't pass such legislation unless whoever is President leads the way.
Here's what I'd like to see. Three weeks after taking office the newly elected (if it's the Republican) or re-elected President addresses a joint session of Congress and say the following: "The time for study alone has passed, and the time for action is now." He'd do so after having campaigned on a pledge to make climate change a top priority. Five months after addressing Congress his administration would have introduced major legislation. The President himself would put the full weight and prestige of his office behind it, and would work hard for its passage. When pushed the President would choose the strongest emission reduction option. And before the end of his first year in office he would sign it into law.
A fantasy you say? Not really. It's history, actually, the history of the 1990 Clean Air Act championed by the elder President Bush (as recounted in a recent Forbes article). And it wouldn't have happened without strong Presidential leadership from someone who ran on making it a top priority.
Social scientist Robert Brulle and his colleagues show that public concern for climate change goes up when senior political leaders talk about the need for action. It goes down when they don't, or when they speak against action. In addition, their study found that the level of public concern also tracked with the amount of media coverage there was, which itself was driven to a large extent by what political leaders were saying.
In an interview Brulle got right to the point: "The fact that Obama isn't talking about the issue or even using the word matters very much."
Here's the bottom line. The nature of this challenge, both the threat itself and the public support for action, demands Presidential leadership. He can't be the Facilitator-in-Chief on this one. He has to be the Leader-in-Chief. He can't lay back and wait for support to materialize. He must help create it.
Politics is indeed the art of the possible. But in the case of overcoming global warming we need the President to help make it possible. No joke.