Will Obama talk about climate change?
January 18, 2013By Dick Polman
There once was a time when people invoked the weather just to make conversation. But now the weather is deadly serious business, which is why President Obama should give it a substantive mention in his Monday Inaugural address - and substantive attention in his State of the Union policy address.
But will he? I'm not holding my breath.
Climate change - the more accurate term is climate disruption - deserves to be on Obama's front burner because the factual evidence compels it. The ferocity of Hurricane Sandy was merely the worst recent manifestation of the new reality that confronts us. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported last week that 2012 was the hottest year on record in the continental United States (the tabulations began in 1895). Nationwide last year, 356 high-temperature records were tied or broken. But climate disruption isn't just about heat; it's about all kinds of extremes. Nationwide, 2012 shattered more than 3,500 monthly records for heat, rain, and snow.
Meanwhile, the National Climate Assessment and Developmental Advisory Committee, mandated by Congress to report on the climate every four years, is currently drafting a new report (vetted by 240 scientists). It warns: "Climate change is already affecting human health, infrastructure, water resources, agriculture, energy, the natural environment and other factors - locally, nationally, internationally....The climate change of the past 50 years is due primarily to human activities."
No doubt, the loons and trolls and deniers will continue to scoff, but the fact is, even the business sector is finally sounding the alarm. Munich Re, a giant corporate reinsurance firm in Germany, concluded in a report last autumn that human-caused climate change "particularly affects formation of heat waves, droughts, intense precipitation events, and in the long run, most probably, tropical cyclone activity." And care to guess where the most havoc is being wreaked? "Nowhere in the world is the rising number of natural catastrophes more evident than in North America." That report was released two weeks before Sandy flooded North America's financial and media headquarters. Indeed, Sandy prompted Bloomberg Businessweek to run a cover story titled "It's Global Warming, Stupid," and to rightly warn that the economic costs of inaction are demonstrably greater than the costs of taking action.
Some environmentalists believe that a tipping point has finally occurred, and that Obama will accordingly take the lead. Ken Allen, writing recently on The Huffington Post, confidently declared that Sandy "marks the beginning of the end of climate change denial as a potent political force," and that Obama - freed from the worries of getting re-elected - will seize the political advantage.
Yeah, we'll see about that. His track record does not inspire much confidence.
Obama rarely challenged the fossil fuel industry during his first term, rarely highlighted climate change in any of his speeches, and largely went mum after cap-and-trade died in the Senate back in 2010. He didn't raise the issue in any of the presidential debates (nor was he asked about it), and he gave it only a passing mention in his triumphant speech on election night (our kids should inherit a world "that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet").
He is indeed freed from the worries of re-election, but now he has to worry about over-spending whatever political capital he has accrued from winning re-election. Climate change might be one political expense too far.
Like any second-term president, Obama has an 18-month window to get anything done before the congressional midterms capture lawmakers' limited attention spans. The fiscal fight - which is really a proxy fight about the proper role of government - will suck up a lot of oxygen, especially if (as expected) we continue to lurch from crisis to crisis. Plus, Obama now has the gun fight. He didn't seek it out, but the slaughter of 20 schoolchildren has forced his hand. If not for Newtown, he'd arguably be freer to stump nationwide about climate change, and make the compelling case that extreme weather - aided and abetted by human activity - is palpably affecting millions of lives.
And Americans (reality-deniers aside) are now prepared to listen. According to an autumn report from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, 83 percent say that climate change is happening, 65 percent say it's caused by human activity, and 61 percent of swing-voting independents say that Obama and Congress should do more to combat it. Clearly, most people are receptive on this issue, if only Obama is willing to lead on it.
The big question, however, is whether he has sufficient political capital to fight House Republicans on yet another front, with little chance of success and with great risk to the rest of his agenda. Climate change clearly warrants his full attention, as evidenced by the wild fluctuations in 2012 - but we may soon discover, yet again, that a policy imperative has been trumped by the art of the possible.
On the topic of the NRA's repulsive web ad featuring Obama's kids, let's get a second opinion from Susan Eisenhower:
"For the eight years that my grandfather, Dwight Eisenhower, was president of the United States, I had Secret Service protection. Known as the 'Diaper Detail,' these armed agents protected my sisters, brother and me from potential kidnappings or other targeted attacks. Such threats might be aimed at hurting us, but they would also strike a devastating blow to the president and possibly our national security. I repeat: We had Secret Service protection because we were seen as potential targets.
"That’s why any thinking person has to be disgusted by the (NRA ad) suggesting that the president is an 'elitist hypocrite' because his children have the benefit of armed protection at school and the nation's children as a whole do not. This is absurd. The nation’s children are not individually at risk the way the Obama children are....
"The NRA's attack ad...is emblematic of a new trend in public policy and communications strategy. Instead of arguing the merits of an issue, broader public questions are spun into personal attacks. In this case, the NRA has tried to assure the public that the argument is not about guns anymore but about some negative personal image it has concocted for the president....This (ad) hurts more than the president and his family. It hurts our democracy by twisting the nature of the public debate.
"Even a longtime Washingtonian such as I thought these ads couldn’t get worse. So I have a question for the NRA and others who use such tactics: Have you no sense of decency, sirs?"
Uh, no. They don't.
I'll post on Monday in midafternoon, a few hours after Obama's Inaugural speech.
Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1