Making the Case for Climate Change

“Energy and Climate” versus “Energy Only.” The debate in Washington over a legislative response to the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico hinges on a choice between a broad, long-term view and short, near-term view of the nation’s energy future.

The more responsible, but politically difficult, path is to convert the outrage over the BP disaster into support for a transformation of America’s energy economy. This means launching a decade-long effort to end our addiction to fossil fuels and fight global warming.

President Barack Obama has called for a “comprehensive energy and climate bill” like the House passed last year, but the Senate has failed to adopt. That legislation aimed to aggressively limit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions and let market forces determine the cheapest way to do so.

But many Republicans, anticipating mid-term wins, are pushing an “energy-only” bill, which avoids cutting emissions. Their approach does feature an attempt to make oil drilling safer. In a nod to environmental concerns, It would provide modest economic incentives for non-fossil power sources, like solar panels, wind turbines and nuclear reactors. But it stops short of a comprehensive limit or price on carbon dioxide.

If Obama really wants to address climate change, he needs to do two things simultaneously: be more explicit about the dangers of global warming and manage anxiety that the necessary measures won’t impede economic recovery and growth. The president has yet to use the bully pulpit to raise awareness of global warming and the urgency of aggressive action to slow it down.

Virtually all respectable climate scientists now agree that the planet has warmed almost 2 degrees F in the last century, and that human activity — especially carbon dioxide emissions — are largely to blame. This warming has already dramatically reshaped regions around the world. The Alaska ice pack is diminishing. Rocky Mountain glaciers are receding. Water tables are falling in the American Southwest and Southeast, and heavier storms and floods afflict the Midwest. If unabated, these and other consequences of warming could be catastrophic in future.

But the administration and its congressional allies have focused on reducing their vulnerability to the tax-and-spend charge. They have been playing down the need for a price on carbon. Instead, they are playing up the themes of achieving energy independence, generating green jobs and making the U.S. economy more competitive with China and Germany, which are way ahead in exporting low-carbon technology.

These selling points for a climate and energy bill are legitimate and compelling. They are also necessary, given public fear of the costs involved in a transition to a low-carbon economy — especially while the United States is still struggling to recover from the greatest economic shock since the Great Depression. Fear combined with anger of the sort that many people now harbor against the federal government—and against the Democrats as the party in control of both the White House and Congress—can be toxic for a sitting president.

Obama might look to his predecessor Franklin D. Roosevelt, who faced a similar danger and rhetorically ju-jitsued it when he and his party swept into office during the depths of the Depression. The most memorable, and effective, line in his 1933 inaugural address was, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” While it took FDR years to turn the nation’s fortunes around, with this speech he managed to inspire and sustain confidence that he could do so. He persuaded the American people that he identified with them, knew what was best for them—that he, and they, were not helpless in the face of some ugly, fearful facts.

During the Great Depression, the principal cause of fear was the state of the national and global economy. So it is again today. But while continuing to make the case that a climate and energy bill will save endangered jobs and create new ones, Obama must also persuade the American people that there is more at stake than just the prosperity of those who live—and vote—today.

The world’s leaders, and the citizens to whom they are accountable, bear a unique responsibility for the well-being of future generations. Scientists believe that the world has roughly a decade to bend the curve of carbon emissions, and thus bend the curve of rising temperatures. Obama will be president for at least two and a half of those years, and perhaps six and a half. Therefore, his obligation to lead boldly is unprecedented — and so is that of his partners in government in both parties and both houses of Congress. 

Antholis and Talbott are co-authors of Fast Forward: Ethics and Politics in the Age of Global Warming.