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Obama's Climate Change Silence
The new report on the effects of global warming makes it clear we need to act. But a bill won't pass without a push from Obama
The top scientific advisers in the Obama administration on Tuesday unveiled a startling new report on what the latest climate science tells us is both already happening and likely to happen in the near future if planet-warming emissions continue unhindered. The report is astounding – in the foreseeable future, the United States could witness the submersion of the Florida Keys, up to 100 days of more-than-100-degree heat in places like Texas and the end of a domestic maple syrup industry.
For those who were paying attention, these were shocking findings. But it's not quite clear who, if anyone, is actually paying attention. Obama himself has been notably absent from the conversation, when his attention is likely the only voice that could move this issue forward.
The report was delivered not-so-coincidentally just one week before the House is expected to take up floor debate on the American Clean Energy and Security Act, the comprehensive climate and energy bill put forward by Democratic representatives Henry Waxman and Ed Markey. The bill's authors have been struggling to make a deal with representatives from agricultural states and moderates who have threatened to torpedo the bill if changes are not made.
Enter the White House – or at least Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmostpheric Administration, and John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology. The two hosted a big roll out of the report on Tuesday in the Eisenhower Executive Office building, bringing the authors together to discuss their findings. It's clear that they hope this report will make a splash in Congress. The authors have held briefings on the Hill throughout the week.
"This report is a game-changer," said Lubchenco. "I think that much of the foot-dragging in addressing climate change is a reflection of the perception that climate change is way down the road, it's in the future and it only affects certain parts of the country. This report demonstrates in concrete scientific information that climate change happening now, and it's happening in our backyards."
They were clear though that the report isn't a policy prescription. "This report is not about a particular policy or a particular piece of legislation," said Holdren. "It is about the science telling us with ever greater clarity and persuasiveness why we need to act sooner rather than later." This is probably the right stance for Holdren and Lubchenco, who are tasked with guarding scientific integrity in the administration, and who are not in practice or by trade politicians.
The problem with this, though, is that the key political figure who should be out front on this has been absent. Obama, the single greatest spokesperson one could hope to have behind an issue, has been checked out when it comes to climate and energy policy, despite listing it as one of his top three concerns.
Instead, as Obama's science team was unveiling this major report, his fans received an e-mail dispatch via BarackObama.com rallying supporters on healthcare. And at that day's White House press briefing, climate change and energy did not come up a single time. There has been not a peep from Obama or other high-level officials to date on these findings. And while he hosted a meeting with swing Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee last month, it's been clear all along that he wants to let Congress hash out a deal on its own, rather than laying out his framework for action – entirely unlike healthcare, where the team has drawn clear bright lines on what Congress needs to do.
Meanwhile, what Congress has come up with on climate is a far cry from what Obama called for on the campaign trail. The target for 2020 emissions reductions in the bill currently under debate in the House is lower than what Obama called for on the campaign trail. His call for 100% auction of pollution permits has been almost completely disregarded, with the vast majority to be distributed free of charge under the House bill. He has also called for a doubling in the use of renewable energy – and the House bill includes a renewable electricity standard that industry representatives say won't get them anywhere near that goal.
And when Obama does talk about climate change, it's often in terms of a vague threat to the planet – with little discussion of the potential domestic consequences that the new report highlights so vividly. Most often, though, it's climate and energy policy is discussed simply as a way to grow a green economy, create new jobs and lessen dependence on foreign oil. There's little discussion of the actual environmental calamity that could occur in the absence of action, which at the heart of it is what these policies are supposed to address.
At the big unveiling of the climate report, I talked to Rick Piltz, who was a senior associate with the US Global Change Research Program for 10 years before leaving in March 2005 amid Bush-era censorship of climate reports. He raised exactly this point.
"So far the White House has adopted a messaging strategy on climate that very heavily emphasises green jobs and clean energy, which is crucial, but that doesn't have much of a vocabulary for impacts," said Piltz, who now runs Climate Science Watch. "It seems to me that you're really taking one of your weapons off the table if you never talk about why it's so important to do something [about climate change]. What are the consequences of not doing something?"
The reality is that the House bill is not as strong as the science says is needed to avert real crisis, though it's probably the best bill that they can come up with through the legislative process. Obama, however, could make use of his bully pulpit to affirm the need not just for action, but action that meets the crisis his science team has laid out. Without explicit discussion of these needs from the president himself, few are paying attention at all.
The White House is rumoured to be planning a week of events next week focused on the need for energy legislation, though there are no details on that yet. Let's hope that the week involves both participation from Obama himself, and some real discussion of climate change – for the sake of the Keys, Texas and maple syrup, not to mention all of us.