Obama State of the Union evasive and inadequate on climate change and climate science


In his State of the Union address President Obama failed once again to give the American people some straight talk about global climate disruption. If Obama had been willing to devote even one minute to talking about climate change and its profound implications, he could have done much to lay the groundwork for a better public understanding of the problem and for meaningful policymaking – but he didn’t. He repeated his usual “clean energy clean energy clean energy” mantra (with “clean nuclear” and “clean coal” and offshore drilling also in the mix), but failed to explain to the American people why he supports comprehensive climate change legislation and why they should, too. And on climate science, if he had been willing to devote even a few sentences to holding his ground he could have done much to support a science community that is besieged by an aggressive political disinformation campaign, and could have struck a blow for scientific integrity in policymaking – but he didn’t. In the face of a nihilistic reaction from some in his Congressional audience, he quit and ran for the hills after a single sentence.

Earlier post: State of the Union a key opportunity for Obama to raise profile of climate change impacts

The full text of the State of the Union address is here.

Let’s examine the passage that deals with climate change:

Next, we need to encourage American innovation. … And no area is more ripe for such innovation than energy. You can see the results of last year’s investment in clean energy – in the North Carolina company that will create 1200 jobs nationwide helping to make advanced batteries; or in the California business that will put 1,000 people to work making solar panels.

So far, so good. An essential point, linking immediate job creation to a longer-term perspective.

But to create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. That means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country. It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development. It means continued investment in advanced biofuels and clean coal technologies. And yes, it means passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America.

I am grateful to the House for passing such a bill last year. This year, I am eager to help advance the bipartisan effort in the Senate.

It’s good, and essential, that the President continued to support the idea of “comprehensive” legislation.  BUT: With climate and energy legislation stalled in the Senate, there appears to be slippage in the direction of an energy-only bill, without any clear path to getting the support needed to pass a bill that includes a meaningful climate policy mechanism (such as an emissions cap). “Cap and trade” as explained thus far has failed to resonate with the American public, and we need political leadership that can effectively communicate the meaning behind the mechanism. Obama should have explained the critical importance of paying the true price for carbon pollution today in terms that can appeal to protecting the future health, safety, and prosperity of Americans.

He talks here about clean energy, clean energy, clean energy, plus “clean nuclear” and “clean coal,” and stepped up offshore oil and gas drilling. The term “renewable energy” isn’t used. Obama said nothing about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, about observed or projected disruptive climate change impacts, about the need for domestic adaptive preparedness to deal with impacts, nor about the U.S. obligation under the Copenhagen Accord to help less developed countries curb their emissions and to adapt. This could have been done in a few sentences, but clearly was deliberately excluded.

By not talking about the elements of a “comprehensive” climate policy, he did nothing to buttress support for anything other than an energy-only bill. He could have said “I will veto any climate and energy bill that comes to my desk without a framework for ensuring a reduction in heat-trapping pollution that will do our part to prevent dangerous climate disruption.” But he didn’t.

Where is the political leadership in calling for “comprehensive” climate legislation, then IMMEDIATELY changing the subject without so much as a nod to what climate legislation must entail in addition to clean energy? The term “comprehensive” can be seen as an indirect reference to an emissions cap, but there was no specific reference to it, much less a veto threat. “Pretty weak tea,” as David Roberts at Grist noted.  “He gave the Senate basically no direction and no bottom lines.”

ENERGY policy and legislation and CLIMATE policy and legislation are NOT equivalent. Climate is about more than energy policy and cannot legitimately be folded into it, despite the messaging strategy that many in the environmental and sustainable energy communities have been going along with.

The President continued – and here we come to a pivotal moment in which the President’s gravitas on climate science was immediately tested:

I know there have been questions about whether we can afford such changes in a tough economy; and I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change.

A good first sentence in support of the scientific evidence on climate change – though leading off with “I know that there are those who disagree” with overwhelming evidence was not good. Political compromise is one thing, but it shouldn’t be done at the expense of seeming almost to legitimize the contrarians and denialists, a fair number of whom serve in Congress. This was an opportunity for the President to show his support for the climate science community, which is currently being subjected to a politically orchestrated assault on its legitimacy and on the legitimacy of the scientific assessments that are the bedrock for understanding the effects of human activity on the Earth system.

At that point in the speech – when he referred to climate science – there was an audible current of vocal reaction in the audience. How to characterize it? It was mockery of what the President had just said. Republicans laughed. Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, “stood up, clapped and waved at the president,” Juliet Eilperin at the Washington Post noted. Barton has been one of the Congressional ringleaders of the attack on climate science.

And the President did not hold his ground. He got a strange, awkward, smiley look on his face. You can view it on YouTube here. Then he punted. Instead of sticking with the science and the science community for even ONE MORE SENTENCE, he said:

But even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future—because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy. And America must be that nation.

That is a cop-out – at least under the circumstances of open mockery, and especially given the current effort to undermine support for climate legislation by seeking to discredit the science.

If you don’t accept the evidence on human-driven climate change and its likely harmful consequences, there is no need to support “comprehensive” legislation that would put a price on carbon through some framework to drive reductions in emissions.  Yes, you might support an energy bill – with the usual energy-bill package of something for renewables, nuclear, coal, offshore drilling, and efficiency.  But a “no regrets,” let’s support energy efficiency regardless of whether there is global warming or not, is about where we were during the first Bush Administration 20 years ago. This is 2010.

If Obama takes the position that legislation can be negotiated without regard to whether its supporters believe in the scientific evidence or not, if he brings to the bully pulpit no serious vocabulary on climate change, no gravitas on climate science, then how likely is it that he will lead government and society to deal with the problem in a “comprehensive” way?

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