Should Obama be talking more about climate change?
In his new book The Climate War, Eric Pooley describes how the message of climate campaigners has evolved from one focused on, well, climate (“polar bears”) to one dominated by national security, green jobs, and competitiveness. He calls this latter version the “Trojan Horse” message, one that tries to smuggle climate action inside economic development arguments. He’s not a big fan. Nor is Joe Romm, who’s been arguing for over years that climate has to be an overt part of the pitch.
Recently, in part prompted by Obama’s Oval Office speech — which omitted any mention of climate change, except as an adjective to describe the House bill — a debate on this subject has broken out in the progressive blogosphere. Well, not “debate,” exactly, as everyone seems to agree: dropping climate change from the message is ill-advised.
It began with Matt Yglesias, in an essay on “How We Talk About Energy,” which decried the misleading focus on foreign oil as opposed to fossil fuels period. “They say that desperate times call for desperate measures,” he said, “so maybe it’s time to try the truth: America desperately needs to start consuming less coal and oil — the place of origin is completely irrelevant.” Then, following Obama’s speech, Ezra Klein asked in a similar spirit, “Can you solve global warming without talking about global warming?” Brad Plumer answered: “To Tackle Climate Change, You Have To Actually Tackle Climate Change.” Then a few days ago, Ryan Avent put some punctuation on the discussion:
Humanity has an enormous problem on its hands. The president should have the good sense to acknowledge that and to speak that honest truth — that Americans are going to have to make some serious changes if they hope to avert an environmental, economic, and humanitarian catastrophe. Not talking about climate change isn’t making the issue go away, it isn’t making the issue easier to solve, and it sure isn’t doing anything for the administration politically. They might as well do the appropriate thing and speak openly, frequently, and forcefully about the challenge of global warming.
Since everybody’s bashing the Trojan Horse, let me say a few (qualified) words in its (limited) defense.
The need for speed
First, though, to quote Obama, let’s be clear: climate is the thing. It is true, as John McCain and Lindsey Graham are fond of arguing, that most of the things we need to do to tackle climate change will produce social and economic benefits aside from avoided climate change. Clean energy and efficiency are worth pursuing, climate or no climate.
But climate adds crucial temporal pressure. It gets harder and harder to tackle climate change with each passing day, and we are approaching thresholds beyond which changes will be irreversible and catastrophic. We don’t know the size and timing of the approaching dangers with much precision, but any sane risk analysis indicates the need to act, and quickly.
The imperative for speed: that’s what climate change adds. Because of climate change, we’re going to have to tolerate a social and technological transformation with more economic dislocation, higher costs, greater inefficiency, and less certainty than we might otherwise prefer. We just don’t have the century-plus it might take to manage a smooth, painless transformation of the global energy system.
Climate isn’t the only time pressure, of course — there’s peak oil, population, freshwater scarcity, biodiversity loss, and other planetary boundaries — but it’s the main one. It’s the ur-challenge, the one that demands scope, scale, and speed all at once.
What speed needs
So yeah, it’s going to be difficult to convince the American people to do what needs to be done without talking about climate change. But here’s the thing: Obama doesn’t have to convince the American people to do what needs to be done. “What needs to be done,” if you step back and take in the full vista, is overwhelming in its size and urgency. It’s radicalizing. It takes a certain kind of intellect and fortitude to face it squarely; very few people have. (For a glimpse of the big picture, watch Saul Griffith’s mind-blowing presentation.)
No president can talk the American people into that far of a leap all at once. All Obama can hope to do is convince the American people, in particular 60 senators, to accept a series of moderate reforms that accelerate the energy transition. He just needs to change the trajectory. If green jobs happy talk can do that, and climate talk makes it more difficult, then happy talk it is.
Remember, the argument here is not about setting climate aside completely and forever. It’s about setting it aside for the moment. The argument for the Trojan Horse message is based on a few premises:
- Climate skepticism (or mere indifference) is less about reasoned assessment than a) cultural associations of the issue with liberalism and, more deeply, b) the cognitive phenomenon whereby human beings are loathe to accept problems for which they see no solution. People generally acknowledge that climate change is real and we’re at the end of the fossil fuel era, but that propositional assent will have no depth or motivational force as long as people fear (or simply don’t know) what comes next.
- The argument on behalf of transforming society in the face of climate change can’t be won with scientific papers, op-ed columns, or even words from Barack Obama. It will be won slowly, as that transformation touches more lives on a personal level. Only experience will make the case for more speed and ambition. (See Sara Robinson’s fantastic essay on this.)
- Two things will happen in coming years. First, more communities will reap the benefits of clean energy and efficiency. Those industries will interact with more people, as employers, vendors, or just local businesses. People will begin to see that shifting to a clean economy is less costly and more desirable than predicted. And second, climate change itself will start to bite in extreme and inescapable ways. Sooner or later, people will start to panic. Both trends mean that the climate argument will get easier over time.
Or to put that all more succinctly: the case on climate will make itself eventually, but we don’t have time to wait. The overwhelming priority in the short term is to get started, via whatever means of persuasion are most effective.
I’ve gone back and forth on the Trojan Horse thing over the years. Certainly the course recommended by Matt, Ezra, and Ryan suits my proclivities. I’m a reasonably well-educated and logical guy with no particular aversion to active government. I personally would hate trying to pretend, like Lindsey Graham, that I want to cut CO2 because I don’t like breathing car exhaust. Climate change is an objective fact, a real danger, so … duh. Talk about it.
But most people aren’t like me. In particular, midwestern Democratic senators aren’t like me. If Obama thinks moving them is easier with climate set to one side, then he should set it aside. Of course he could be wrong about that, and it’s perfectly legitimate to criticize him if he is, but ruthless pragmatism, not any abstract obligation to Level With the American People, is the name of the game here.