Obama’s approach to climate change is both part of the solution and part of the problem


It’s greenhouse gas regulation without mention of the climate change problem. The Obama administration is developing new rules that will significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles. But the President continues what appears to be an evasive cop-out in failing to speak forthrightly about climate science and the threat of global climate disruption.

Credit where credit is due

The Obama administration is developing new regulations that will reduce emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) from motor vehicles. One rule will apply to passenger vehicles and light trucks. Current regulation applies to new light-duty vehicles in the 2012 through 2016 model years. The new rules will deal with later models. The administration says it is considering requiring that cars average 56 miles per gallon by 2025.

Another rule is focused on heavier trucks and buses. This month, the government will finalize the first-ever GHG emissions regulation of new medium- and heavy-duty trucks between the 2014 and 2018 model years.

This combination of new vehicle fuel economy standards has the potential to drive substantial reductions in emissions during the next 15-20 years.

Give credit where credit is due. These regulations will be a step forward in U.S. climate change mitigation action.

A shrewd evasiveness?

But, as Juliet Eilperin noted in a page one article in the July 4 Washington Post – “The climate change issues takes a back seat” (online version posted here on July 3) – the President and administration officials have largely avoided discussion, or even mention, of climate change in describing or building support for the new fuel economy standards.

They make the case that the new rules will save energy, purportedly promote energy independence, save consumers money, strengthen U.S. economic competitiveness, strengthen the domestic auto industry, promote technological innovation, and, by the way, reduce air pollution.

Thus, the President, who after winning election in 2008 called climate change “a matter of urgency and of national security,” continues what has become a standard practice of maintaining a discreet silence about this urgent problem of national security when talking to the American people.

Some people consider this to be politically shrewd. Climate change is politically sensitive, climate change is controversial, climate change is complex. What’s wrong with deftly sidestepping this potential headache, while instead touting the prospective benefits of clean energy and enhanced U.S. economic competitiveness? Throw in an added dose of rhetoric about energy independence — which, of course, is a mythical goal, at least as long as oil retains its stranglehold on the transportation system.

Isn’t that a message that will go down easier with a public for which the climate change problem is of limited salience and limited immediate concern? The article in the Post quotes former moderate Republican congressman Sherwood Boehlert to this effect:

Ex-congressman Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.), who led a group of former GOP politicians in calling last week for stricter fuel-efficiency standards, supports the administration’s efforts in that arena. “Talk of global warming doesn’t resonate with voters the way that the price of driving to work does,” he said.

“All of us who are involved in this issue have to talk about it in ways that are relevant to the American family,” Boehlert said in an interview. “We have to talk about it in the way they talk about it at the kitchen table.”

On the other hand, as we have said on  numerous occasions, there are serious problems with this approach. Obama’s failure to address climate change forthrightly in his public communications leaves a void where presidential leadership could play a valuable role – an indispensable role, it can be argued. The Post article has this:

Jonathan Lash, president of the World Resources Institute, said the administration runs a risk when it minimizes global warming’s public profile.

“I don’t blame the president for the failure of climate legislation, but I do hold him accountable for allowing opponents to fill the void with misinformation and outright lies about climate change,” he said. “By excising ‘climate change’ from his vocabulary, the president has surrendered the power that only he has to explain challenging issues and advance complex solutions for our country.”

This failure will only make more difficult the challenge, down the road, of creating the necessary public understanding and building and maintaining the necessary public support for the kinds of policies that will be necessary to deal with the threat of global climatic disruption.

What the President’s evasiveness leaves out

What is left out in the President’s opportunistic evasiveness about finding a way to communicate forthrightly about global warming and climate change? Let me count the ways.

First, of course, it betokens a failure of integrity and accountability in openly acknowledging the best advice that he is getting from the leadership of the scientific community. The community has diagnosed and is characterizing a problem of critical significance and potentially disastrous consequences if left unchecked. Bush didn’t talk about it, and neither does Obama. In this they are similar.

And of course there is the problem of coal. The transportation system is hostage to oil. That stranglehold must be broken for multiple reasons, including the geopolitics of imported oil, the limits of conventional oil reserves, the environmental hazards of deepwater drilling and tar sands production — and, I would argue, of paramout importance, the need to phase out the use of fossil fuels in transportation to reduce the rate and magnitude of climate change. Oil is the number two fossil fuel problem in global climate change. The number one bad actor is coal. By his evasiveness on climate change, Obama gives himself a pass on having to confront the problem of coal.

He can look like a good guy in supporting the strengthening of vehicle fuel economy standards to reduce oil consumption, without acknowledging that, in terms of the most fundamental socio-environmental problem we face, steps to reduce GHG emissions from the use of oil are meaningful only in the context of a larger strategy that also breaks the role of coal in the electric power system.

And if we move beyond oil in motor vehicle transportation to alternative hybrid and electric vehicles – probably our best strategic alternative – then it makes a big difference what we’re using to produce the electricity that drives transportation. If we don’t confront the problem of coal, we don’t deal with the climate change problem. If Obama doesn’t discuss climate change, he manages to avoid discussing the problem of coal. This is politically convenient in the short-run if one’s approach is opportunistic.

If one doesn’t discuss climate change, one can tout incremental steps in the direction of cleaner energy, energy efficiency, alternative fuels, and endorse the EPA fuel economy rules, while not dealing with the problems of tar sands pipelines, deepwater drilling for oil, mountaintop removal coal mining, and other environmentally damaging components of the current energy system that are driving climate change.

So, partial credit to Obama, for standing up – so far, we’ll see if this lasts as the right-wing political pressure continues – for EPA’s forward movement on fuel economy standards.

But, at best, an ‘incomplete’ on the climate change problem. And no credit on that until we hear him unequivocally, and in a high-profile context, lay out the case on climate change to the American people and make that part of his ongoing public discourse.

The denial machine

Further, with the global warming denial machine in full attack mode in Congress and in the corporate-funded and ideologically driven policy advocacy world, and with climate scientists taking a beating from people whose political agendas are all too apparent, Obama has been pretty much AWOL in supporting the science community. Not someone they can depend on to have their back in a fight. He has other priorities. The climate scientists are on their own.


Apart from the whole question of mitigation – the reduction of GHG emissions from fossil fuels and the need to go up against the coal and oil interests and get the U.S. and the rest of the planet off those fuels – there is the matter of global climatic disruption already underway. The U.S. faces a wide range of adverse and potentially disastrous impacts, arguably already beginning to manifest in disrupted water resources, extreme precipitation, severe drought, flooding, extraordinary wildfires, accelerated Arctic melting, record heat.

How does the country begin to address this reality if the President has decided that it is politically inconvenient to discuss climate change as such? How does the public get the message it needs to hear from government leaders at the highest level about the need for a national and international strategy for adaptive preparedness to deal with climate change consequences already underway and yet to come – if the President finds it acceptable to maintain virtual silence on this subject that he once referred to as “a matter of urgency and national security”?

Where to draw the line?

Not a politically encouraging situation. But it looks like we’ll be getting new, improved fuel economy standards. The glass is part full, part empty. In terms of the saying, ‘you’re either part of the solution or you’re part of the problem,’ on climate change it appears that Obama is managing to be both. This leaves serious climate policy advocates with the question of what they’re willing to settle for in exchange for their support.

Earlier posts:

When Obama says climate change is “a matter of urgency and of national security” he needs to say why (December 28, 2008)

“[T]he time for delay is over, the time for denial is over.  We … believe what the scientists have been telling us for years now, that this is a matter of urgency and of national security, and it has to be dealt with in a serious way.  That is what I intend my administration to do.” 

Hansen: Obama must defend climate scientists and “facing the difficult truth of climate science” (April 5, 2010)

James Hansen: “The predominant moral issue of the 21st century, almost surely, will be climate change. So far Congress has been steamrolled by special interests….The president must get involved. He must explain the situation to the public and use his bully pulpit to persuade Congress to do what is right for the nation and future generations. …

“The president should unequivocally support the climate science community, which is under politically orchestrated assault on the legitimacy of its scientific assessments.…Why face the difficult truth presented by the climate science? Why not use the president’s tack: just talk about the need for clean energy and energy independence? Because that approach leads to wrong policies…”

Martin Hoffert: “No. No. No to decoupling the issues of human energy systems from climate change.” (September 20, 2010)

Hoffert: “Without the possibility of catastrophic climate change radically changing Earth’s environment in decades to a hundred years or so, creating a new global energy system would be a problem for the 22nd Century plausibly tackled in a leisurely way without failure posing an existential threat.

“Plenty of coal to run high tech civilization at least another hundred years even with substantial economic growth by burning it in conventional coal-fired electric plants and making liquid hydrocarbon automotive fuels from it. It is planet-transforming climate change — from coal-burning plants now on track to be built by China, India and the U.S. that, de facto, will become the energy infrastructure of the middle and late 21st century — that makes a push to urgently transform our energy system away from fossil fuels the challenge of the century. …”

James McCarthy and Tim Wirth: Time for Obama to Set the Record Straight on Climate Change (April 21, 2010)

“The president can, and should, say much more [about] the strong scientific evidence on human-induced climate change and its impacts on the United States, and the rapidly closing window for action. … [In countering the global warming denial machine] “Scientists do not have a bully pulpit. President Obama does – and the public desperately needs him to use it.”

U.S. federal task force calls for domestic and international climate change adaptation strategy (October 28, 2010)

“Preparing for Climate Change” – Steve Schneider continues to confront us with inconvenient truths (October 17, 2010)

Holdren at Adaptation Summit: We’re not serious until we put a price on greenhouse gas emissions (May 28, 2010)

Obama State of the Union evasive and inadequate on climate change and climate science (January 28, 2010)

A New Year’s resolution for Obama: Figure out how to talk to the public about climate change (December 31, 2009)

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1 Response to Obama’s approach to climate change is both part of the solution and part of the problem

  1. Dorothy Stewart says:

    Bill Cosby once asked his father ‘is the glass half full or half empty’ to which his father replied- ‘it depends on whether you’re pouring it or drinking it son’. on this occasion Barack Obama is being very strategic indeed to ensure he will be drinking from the glass of success in the next presidetial race

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