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."

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.

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.

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.

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