Will Obama Heed his Own Call for Climate Action?

By Keith Kloor | February 13, 2013 7:04 am

In his State of the Union Address last night, President Obama spoke forcefully about global warming. He said that, “for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change.” Notably, the President framed his case this way:

Now, it’s true that no single event makes a trend.  But the fact is the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15.  Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods — all are now more frequent and more intense.  We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence.  Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science — and act before it’s too late.

As Chris Cillizza at the Washington Post observed:

That’s about as direct a call for action by Congress on climate change as you will hear from a president.

Since no one expects Congress to act, President Obama promised:

I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.

He also cleverly reminded Americans that once upon a time–in the not distant past–top Republicans believed global warming was worth addressing, too.

The President’s strong play for action on climate change stands in remarkable contrast to what many were lamenting as his “climate silence” during the 2012 presidential campaign, and his failure to “connect the dots.” Those days are gone. Climate change activists must have been pinching themselves during the President’s 2013 State of the Union Address. To them, his extended remarks on climate change undoubtedly hit all the right notes. Indeed, as Bill McKibben noted on Twitter:

But will that change lead to meaningful action? An early test of the President’s commitment looms, with his decision on the Keystone pipeline, which has become a symbolic touchstone for the climate movement.

In his speech last night, Obama invoked the expertise of climate scientists. Let’s recall that 18 of them sent an open letter to the President last month:

We hope, as scientists, that you will demonstrate the seriousness of your climate convictions by refusing to permit Keystone XL; to do otherwise would be to undermine your legacy.

The President’s strong remarks on climate change in his State of the Union Address has now raised the stakes and expectations for his climate legacy. At the Atlantic, Adam Werbach wrote:

Obama’s speech will be looked back upon as the clearest call for climate-change action by any president in American history.

Today, many greens and climate activists are applauding, but in their own minds they are also surely wondering: Will President Obama heed his own call?

UPDATE: Does it matter if the President is expediently embracing the New Normal frame? Roger Pielke Jr. has argued yes, and not for the better. In a recent post, Roger bemoaned the means-justify-the-end rationale that drives climate rhetoric:

Dick Cheney used similar logic when linking 9/11 to Saddam Hussein. What did it matter, the argument went, if people wrongly associated 9/11 with Saddam? He was a bad guy, and if people supported getting rid of him for the wrong reasons, so what?

Climate campaigners often adopt a similar logic. What does it matter if people wrongly associate recent extreme events and disaster costs with climate change? Responding to it is a good thing, and if people support mitigation action for the wrong reasons, so what?

Roger goes on to lay out his objections to this logic. Playing off a recent British food scandal, he’s taken to calling it the “horsemeat” in the climate debate. Perhaps, but surely he knows the horse has already left the barn. History will be the final judge.

  • http://dystopianpresent.wordpress.com Chris Oestereich

    Even if the pipeline is denied (I’m hopeful, but doubtful.), I’m afraid it may be a pyrrhic victory. So much attention has been paid to it, while virtually all else has been ignored. If it’s approved, it has been positioned as an all is lost scenario. If it’s denied, at what cost?

    • harrywr2

      pipeline….If it’s denied, at what cost?

      The oil will be transported by diesel powered trains. It will cost about $3/barrel more in direct costs compared to if the oil was transported by pipeline,

      • jh

        Not to mention the added risk of spill and much lower fuel efficiency (building one pipeline vs transporting by train for decades).

      • http://dystopianpresent.wordpress.com Chris Oestereich

        Not the set of costs I was referring to.

        • harrywr2

          Yes

          All Presidents have a limited amount of Political Capital.

          They can choose to spend it on ‘symbolic’ gestures or ‘meaningful’ policy.

          Both is generally not an option.

  • JeffN

    McKibben: “Strongest thing the pres did tonite was talk about the weather, and link it to climate change”

    precious. “Look out the window at the warming!” while the northeast is digging out of a snowstorm followed with a costly demand for a pointless symbolic gesture on Keystone.

    I recall the president also called for growth in domestic oil and gas drilling last night. No comment from McKibben on that? He also promised economic growth- especially in manufacturing which is sensitive to energy costs. He also promised not to add “a dime” to the deficit and to focus tax increases on the wealthy. So no regressive tax like a carbon tax, no new spending, nothing to hurt manufacturing (like high energy costs) and an increase in fossil fuel production = happy climate activists? All because he stated that weather = climate?

    • Buddy199

      We are told ad nauseum that weather does NOT equal climate… That the flat lining of global temperature since 1997 does NOT indicate a trend in climate since “climate” refers to periods of 30 years or more.
      Except when the strongest thing the pres. can do is link weather to climate change.

  • thingsbreak

    I would bet the pipeline will be approved. I don’t think it will be much of a surprise if/when it is. Nor do I think it’s incompatible with what Obama is holding up as *his own* position, though obviously there are some who think it’s incompatible with taking climate seriously.

  • jh

    It’s interesting that the president’s proposed action is supposedly coming as evidence is building that climate won’t be the Great Catastrophe that’s been advertised.

    This is consistent with a general principle that, by the time the people at the top “get” the news, the news they get is no longer relevant.

    Another key aspect of this debate is the scientists ignorance of economic factors. The outspoken climate scientists view the future as a scientific outcome, entirely predictable with natural science, rather than an economic outcome, which is virtually unpredictable. This situation demonstrates how woefully out of touch with society the Ivory Tower has come to be.

    It’s also interesting that the President made several claims that are demonstrably false regarding extreme weather events. One must wonder where he gets his information.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Skip-Nordenholz/100003613616195 Skip Nordenholz

      So if ‘economic outcome, which is virtually unpredictable’ how can we use it to make future discussion and take it into account when dealing with climate change.

      • jh

        The path of the economic outcome isn’t predictable. The general course of that outcome, however, is predictable. When left to it’s own devices (with, of course, modest and sensible regulation), the market will generate unexpected technological solutions – in other words, without interference, the market will create an unexpected benefit.

        So what does that mean? One thing It means is that all the scenarios used by the IPCC are likely to produce lower than expected emissions, regardless of the various assumptions used in generating those scenarios.

  • Buddy199

    Quinnipiac University Poll. Jan. 30-Feb. 4, 2013

    “As President Obama prepares to deliver his State of the Union address, please tell me which one of the following issues you are most interested in hearing him address: the economy, the federal budget deficit, health care, gun policy, foreign policy, immigration, or the environment?”

    The economy 35%

    The federal budget deficit 20%

    Gun policy 15%

    Health care 12%

    Foreign policy 5%

    Immigration 4%

    The environment 3%

    Unsure 6%

    —————————
    Glad his priorities are straight.

  • Tom Scharf

    I’m eagerly awaiting the climate quick reaction task force to take on Obama’s smoke and mirrors connection of Sandy to global warming. Oh, wait….everyone’s applauding it. It’s almost like the facts have already left the barn.

    At least we can depend on Keith to dig into the actual data and set the record straight like he does with such vigor on GMO. Oh, wait….he’s applauding.

    • Buddy199

      Please, be scientific. Climate is not the same as weather. Except when it suits your purposes.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Skip-Nordenholz/100003613616195 Skip Nordenholz

        Weather isn’t climate but weather treads is climate, get your science right.

  • Buddy199

    Playing off a recent British food scandal, he’s taken to calling it the “horsemeat” in the climate debate. Perhaps, but surely he knows the horse has already left the barn. History will be the final judge.

    ——–

    History is written by the people who win the argument in the end. If scientifically literate people let others dominate the debate with falsehoods the truth doesn’t win. The people of science who know better have the obligation to speak up, loudly and clearly,

  • kdk33

    The president may want clean energy, but Marco Rubio needs clean water.

    (sorry)

  • kdk33

    Obama’s climate argument fails the sciency test, but he doesn’t even use the language of science. He wants us to “choose to believe”.

    Climate change is part of the liberal belief system. It has little, if anything, to do with climate or weather or temperature. Rather, it is driven by an underlying notion that government is good and private enterprise evil. We need to replace evil oil companies and unforgiving energy markets with the benevolent hand of government. And that’s why the president promised relief if energy companies raise prices (absurd on it’s face, given a push for a climate tax).

    The US is poised for a manufacturing Renaissance. Oil company technological advances have brought us energy so cheap not one would have believed it even 5 years ago. Raw materials so cheap that major petrochemical investments are being considered again for the first time in almost a generation. The markets are in the US. The technical wherewithal is in the US. And we’ve a president willing to piss it all away for a windmill.

    You can’t make this stuff up.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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