Barack Obama
The White House

President Obama explained his thinking about climate change during a sit-down interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman; it will air Monday night during the final episode of Showtime’s climate series “Years of Living Dangerously.” Friedman also shared lots of the good bits in his Times column on Sunday. Here are some highlights:

Obama would love to make polluters pay for their CO2 emissions:

“[I]f there’s one thing I would like to see, it’d be for us to be able to price the cost of carbon emissions. … We’ve obviously seen resistance from the Republican side of the aisle on that. And out of fairness, there’s some Democrats who’ve been concerned about it as well, because regionally they’re very reliant on heavy industry and old-power plants. … I still believe, though, that the more we can show the price of inaction — that billions and potentially trillions of dollars are going to be lost because we do not do something about it — ultimately leads us to be able to say, ‘Let’s go ahead and help the marketplace discourage this kind of activity.’”

He knows we can’t burn all proven reserves of oil, gas, and coal and still keep warming below 2 degrees C, an internationally agreed-upon target:

“[T]here is no doubt that if we burned all the fossil fuel that’s in the ground right now that the planet’s going to get too hot and the consequences could be dire. … [W]e’re not going to suddenly turn off a switch and suddenly we’re no longer using fossil fuels, but we have to use this time wisely, so that you have a tapering off of fossil fuels replaced by clean energy sources that are not releasing carbon. … But I very much believe in keeping that 2 [degree] Celsius target as a goal.”

Obama recognizes that methane leakage from natural-gas systems is a problem, but he is not necessarily inclined to address it at the national level:

Natural gas, the president said, “is a useful bridge” to span “where we are right now and where we hope to be — where we’ve got entirely clean energy economies based around the world.” Environmentalists, he added, “are right, though, to be concerned if it’s done badly, then you end up having methane gas emitted. And we know how to do it properly. But right now what we’ve got to do is make sure that there are industry standards that everybody is observing.” That doesn’t “necessarily mean that it has to be a national law,” he said. “You could have a series of states working together — and, hopefully, industry working together — to make sure that the extraction of natural gas is done safely.”

He says it’s hard to get our political system to tackle a long-term problem like climate change:

“I don’t always lead with the climate change issue because if you right now are worried about whether you’ve got a job or if you can pay the bills, the first thing you want to hear is how do I meet the immediate problem? One of the hardest things in politics is getting a democracy to deal with something now where the payoff is long term or the price of inaction is decades away.”

He wants to shift public opinion on the issue:

“The person who I consider to be the greatest president of all time, Abraham Lincoln, was pretty consistent in saying, ‘With public opinion there’s nothing I cannot do, and without public opinion there’s nothing I can get done,’ and so part of my job over these next two and a half years and beyond is trying to shift public opinion. And the way to shift public opinion is to really focus in on the fact that if we do nothing our kids are going to be worse off.”

Lastly, Obama warns against cynicism:

“I want to make sure that everybody who’s been watching this program or listening to this interview doesn’t start concluding that, well, we’re all doomed, there’s nothing we can do about it. There’s a lot we can do about it. It’s not going to happen as fast or as smoothly or as elegantly as we like, but, if we are persistent, we will make progress.”

Ezra Klein, are you listening?