In his 2009 State of the Union-esque speech, Obama spoke of “saving our planet from the ravages of climate change.” In his 2010 SOTU, he affirmed the “overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change.” In 2011, fresh off the hottest year on record, Obama said … nothing about climate change. It didn’t come up.
This is a failure on Obama’s part. A moral failure, a failure of leadership, but also, I would argue, a political failure.
Andy Revkin and Bryan Walsh both note the obvious reason for the omission: climate change has become a “partisan issue.” It’s “divisive.” As Revkin says, Obama is trying to “build a new American energy conversation on points of agreement rather than clear ideological flash points like global warming.” I understand that. But I think capitulating to that logic is myopic and counterproductive.
First of all, consider the larger analogy at the heart of Obama’s speech: America is at a “Sputnik moment.” Well, why was Sputnik a Sputnik moment? Not because Americans said, “Wow, the USSR is getting really good at technology! We’re getting outcompeted!” No, what the public said was, “Holy sh*t! Our mortal enemy is putting stuff in space! They’re going to rain rockets down on us and we’re all going to die!” In other words, Sputnik was not some friendly challenge to see who can win the race to the future (or whatever). It was a threat. That’s what lit a fire under America’s ass and that’s why America rose to the challenge.
Obama wants to launch a clean energy race. And good for him. But what are the stakes? What is the threat? Where is the urgency? If it’s just about international competition, why not focus on good macroeconomic policy — why go to such lengths to build up this economic sector, these technologies? Why not just leave it to the market?
Here’s why: The U.S. needs to get at or close to zero carbon emissions by the middle of this century or there will be severe and possibly irreversible changes in the climate, leading to massive, widespread human suffering. That’s why we don’t have time to wait for the invisible hand of the market. That’s why we need massive investments, tighter regulations, and a price on climate pollution. That’s the threat. Without it, a push for clean energy is a nice slogan that can easily be shunted aside when, oh, gas prices are rising, or there’s a recession, or Joe Manchin need to get reelected.
The threat of climate change is what justifies and animates the clean energy race. That’s the substantive need.
But telling the truth about climate change is also good politics. Avoiding the issue because it’s an “ideological flash point” is just to allow Republicans to succeed in making it an ideological flash point! It is to affirm that it’s partisan and divisive, which is exactly what conservatives have been trying to make it for years. If they can do it to climate, why won’t they go right on to do it to clean energy, or innovation, or investment? (Hint: They already are.) It gives them control over public dialogue.
In fact, the best American scientists, along with scientists all over the world, say climate change is a pressing threat to our nation’s health and security. One does not tiptoe around such threats because a core group of ideologues in the other party doesn’t like hearing about them. That’s not leadership.
I think what I said last year about why climate change is ultimately a political winner holds up. Pardon the self-quoting:
Why? The answer is simple, and you can find it in the next window over. No, not the browser window, the glass one, on the wall. Out there in the non-virtual world of trees and clouds and stuff, outside the self-contained, win-the-morning circle jerk that is American politics, climate change is happening. It is an extant phenomenon. It cannot be banished by refusal to acknowledge it.
No matter what derangements currently hold sway over American politics, eventually, reality will out. The crazy weather will get worse, ice fields will melt, agriculture will suffer, food shortages will get more severe. Sooner or later, American politics will have to deal with climate change — that is a certainty.
When that day comes, the party that has spoken honestly about climate change throughout the waxing and waning of public opinion will a) look prescient and morally courageous, and b) be trusted by the American people to develop solutions. Alternatively, if both parties have been mushmouthing about energy independence and “all of the above,” neither will benefit.
This is a lesson Democrats seem incapable of learning: Voters respond to strength and conviction. Even if they don’t agree or share the same priorities, they respect people who stick to their guns. Forever chasing polls and changing messages sends a meta-message to voters: We don’t believe it ourselves, not really. We’ll say whatever you want to hear. The reason voters view Dems as weak and Republicans as tough is that Republicans don’t go running for the hills every time a news cycle doesn’t go their way. They are relentlessly on message and in pursuit of their agenda.
Democrats know climate change is a serious problem. They know eventually voters will come to see it that way. So why not tell the truth, without equivocation or apology, right now? Aside from being the right thing to do, there’s every reason to believe it’s in the party’s best interests. It’s hard to see in these fevered political times, but in the long run, truth is good politics.