Obama must Make Fighting Climate Change National Project, or Die the death of a thousand Scandals

President Obama, like George H. W. Bush, has a problem with the ‘vision thing.’ And that is the reason for which he is being dogged by critics and ‘scandals.’ He presides over a huge bureaucracy and things will go wrong in it, for which he will be blamed if he allows others to control the narrative. Moreover, it is always possible to depict perfectly ordinary decisions by bureaucrats as somehow outrageous.

Thus, there was no cover-up in Benghazi, but all governments would want to be careful about how talking points were shaped in the aftermath of a crisis (if anything the one most responsible for the insistence that crowd reaction against an Islamophobic film was part of the Benghazi story was Republican David Petraeus, then head of the CIA).

The IRS scrutiny of Tea Party groups applying for tax exempt charitable status derived from a legitimate concern at the more than doubling of such requests after the Citizens United ruling, and a suspicion that the groups were backed by Republican billionaires intending to use them for politics, not charity. It may be that the scrutiny was sometimes invidious, but it is not obvious on the surface as to whether the bureaucrats actually did anything out of the ordinary (left wing requests for tax exempt status were flat; if they had suddenly doubled presumably they would have attracted attention, too.)

But these minor bureaucratic issues only crowd in to dominate the headlines because politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Obama should be making the headlines, should be setting a coherent national agenda. He offered to drive the USA Bus for another four years. But where is he taking us? Not clear.

The president needs a national project, like John F. Kennedy’s moon landing. It needs to be something that doesn’t depend primarily on Congressional legislation or funding. The Tea Party will give him bupkes. It needs to be something that the Executive Branch can push successfully.

Obama seems to me in some ways never to have overcome his background as a community organizer and then a senator, never to have gotten beyond thinking of himself as a facilitator and consensus-builder. The great tragedy of Barack Obama is that he does not rule in times of consensus but of intense polarization.

There is no obvious external enemy posing a credible threat to the security of the United States. It is better not to have such an enemy, but when there was one, as in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, it fostered more national willingness to compromise. There are always deep fissures in American society, but sometimes it is easier to deal with them than others. It is not clear to me that the Civil Rights movement could have succeeded if WASP elites had not been afraid of pushing African-Americans into the arms of the Communists. Certainly, the US accepted decolonization in Algeria and elsewhere out of fear that if the old European empires did not let go, you would have dozens of Vietnams.

Of course, it would be even better if the world as a whole faced a threat that would foster international cooperation as well as more willingness to compromise at home. Ronald Reagan, whom Obama admires, sometimes whimsically wished for an alien invasion from outer space, to bring unity between the capitalist and communist worlds by creating a common threat.

Oh, wait, the world does confront such a menace. Some 97% of refereed papers on climate in the past 20 years accept that human beings are contributing to climate change. Since the study covers 1991 to 2011, likely the consensus would be even more overwhelming if it were just 2000 to 2011, by which time the science had clarified some anomalies. In 2011, the consensus was at 98% even by the very conservative criteria of the studies. In short, we’re causing global warming and scientists are not in any doubt about it.

Obama has sometimes struck grace notes in his speeches about the climate change threat. But since his style is apparently to try to make everyone happy, he has also gone on about clean coal and the desirability of exporting US natural gas, and he hasn’t taken a stand on hydraulic fracturing. He has behind the scenes thrown money at green energy research, and wants to throw more, but only in ways that don’t risk deeply upsetting Big Oil and Big Gas. He has had the EPA start actually applying the law against dirty coal plants, though because of toxic emissions, not C02 poisoning. It is not clear whether he will follow through on this initiative, which does threaten some dirty coal plants with closure.

Obama could do himself a lot of good by announcing an ambitious national goal on carbon emissions, and then using the EPA, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Energy, and other bodies of the Executive branch to press for it. The US is emitting 5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. That is a crime against humanity, more dangerous than all terrorism, all the atrocities, all the wars, all the epidemics in the world. Obama could simply say that by 2020 our goal is to cut that amount in half, to 2.5 billion metric tons, and to work with China, India and other nations to achieve the same halving in their countries.

Having such a goal would be useful, even if it is unrealistic, because the goal would then tell you what the policy should be in each case. Obviously, the EPA should strictly apply the Clean Air Act so as to close as many coal plants as possible as quickly as possible.

Obviously, building new solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric and other clean energy installations to replace the coal plants will be an expense. But a national effort of that sort could well be what we need to recover from the 2008 crash, instead of moping along in the economic doldrums for two decades the way Japan has. It could be for the teens of the 21st century what World War II was to the Great Depression.

Obama couldn’t just announce the goal without getting people on his side. He’d have to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to convince people of the reality of the threat. He needs to campaign on the coast in Alabama and Mississippi and let people know that the Gulf will rise and the weather will become more extreme if we don’t do this. He needs to tell fishermen all around the vast US coast that an acid ocean produced by absorbing CO2 could kill off half of fish species over the next century or two. He needs to warn the Southwest of a dust bowl, and New York of a whole string of storm surges.

The business community is for the most part in no doubt about the dangers of climate change. But the 2000 large US corporations interlock on many levels and everyone is afraid to admit that suddenly, overnight, trillions of dollars in petroleum, gas and coal reserves are worthless. What would that do to the stock market? To businesses like automobiles, construction and others that are intertwined with hydrocarbons? Obama would have to go to them and promise to work for a smooth transition. Getting his GOP enemies to offer corporate welfare to get everyone over the hump and actually turn Exxon Mobil into a green energy company should be child’s play once he insists that the great Hydrocarbon bubble has already burst.

The science is not in doubt. The direness of the consequences is not in doubt. The danger to the Republic is palpable. The solutions are obvious and available. Here is the one area where public policy undoubtedly could do enormous good for people’s lives.

Barack Obama was given an opportunity to be the most powerful man in the world at a time of the most perilous global threat to human life in 200,000 years. He needs to lead on this issue. By taking a strong stance, by campaigning in the hustings, by serving as the Great Educator, he can bring the pain and the pressure to the Hill that will make them cooperative. He can find common ground with threatened groups at home and with other Powers abroad. God knows Europe needs a reason to spend government money and jump start the Mediterranean economies, and this program, pushed via NATO and the EU, could finally put a stake through the heart of austerity. The end result would be rapidly falling energy prices over the next two decades via research support, a boon to European and world economic growth and prosperity. The consensus Obama seeks cannot come about from seeking consensus, but rather from setting forth a powerful, game-changing agenda that will force his enemies to risk public opprobrium or join in his struggle.

Frankly, I do not know if Obama has it in him to be this bold, this confrontational, this innovative. But if he does not take this step, historians will look back on his presidency as eight years of treading water, of fiddling while Rome burned, of a fruitless quest for a chimerical consensus. And his presidency, without a mooring, will suffer the death of a thousand cuts, as screw-ups in the lower bureaucracy are blamed on him and a crescendo built that takes away the Senate in 2014, leaving him with a lonely veto as his only, miserable, tool of government as he declines into lame duck irrelevance.

27 Responses

  1. Obama is too invested in being the nice guy on stage and making deals with the big players off stage to actually disrupt the status quo and create change at a fundamental level.

    The only real way to create change is to support the emergence of a third front in US politics by voting for the Green party.

    • I would have to disagree that another political party is the answer. If anything, it’s time to listen to George Washington and free ourselves of their influence. But at the very least, the two-party system must go. To start, primaries should be completely open, where party lines are not awarded, giving inordinate power to the incumbent. Depoliticize the process. The elections should be about issues and solutions, not party affiliation. independentvoting.org

      President Obama came to Washington, D.C. with big hopes and plans. I think he was stunned by the amount of opposition he received, on every issue, every idea, every thought. He believed, and reasonably so, that he would be able to peel some Republican support on key issues (like Affordable Care Act, since so much of it came from their own plan) but that didn’t happen. The result was Republicans commanded a misinformation campaign and the 2010 election results. (Done during census year and voting districts realignment.) The president also realized that Washington can’t be changed from within.

      Because of the lock-step Republican opposition to anything he attempts, he has to chose his battles very carefully; spend his political capital frugally. He may not be able to peel off Republicans, but as the background check revealed, he can lose Democrats. At the same time, if he reveals his plan of attack too soon, the right’s misinformation can swing into gear with billionaires ready willing and able to spread the wildest claims they can fabricate. It’s a hard machine to fight.

      A vision always helps, but President Obama’s was burned to the ground in the first two years. However, he still needs one to combat the endless negativity of the Republican narrative. Pushing education, research and development, investment in the future and the changed realities of the world ties in nicely with the needs created by climate change.

      • There is no left and right in American politics.

        The Republicans are the far right and the Democrats are the right with the occasional swing to the left.

        The only way to fix this dysfunctional political system is to have a third political party that actually is on the center-left.

  2. I love the essay, but I’m not optimistic about the prospects of such a push, if the president cared to make it. The effects are simply too long-term, and we are not properly conditioned to care about incremental threats that far away. From a strictly political standpoint, it would probably be cast as a diversion, and an unsuccessful one at that. I’m all for urgent action, but I suspect the best and most effective things he can do at this point are going to be quiet and behind the scenes uses of executive power.

    • I think it’s a tragedy squared. One, we are heading for 4 deg C future (5 times current increases), which is quite likely runaway climate change, a permanent desert in the Midwest, 100 year storms every few years, ocean level rise beyond 100 feet, etc. And squared, because Obama had the political winds at his back to turn it around with the power he has.

  3. In my view, one of the more significant constraints on “big picture” national action is our dysfunctional financial system. Until that is fixed all other efforts, which, given we are a capitalist nation, require finance, will operate against a severe headwind.

    Sen. Warren needs help in her quest. If and when she succeeds in dismantling the Too Big To Fail banks, America will find it easier to turn vision into reality.

    Whether our seers will pick the right vision is another issue entirely.

  4. This is a very interesting essay. I agree with much of what Professor Cole says about Obama’s personality and approach, but like the poster above, we should not underestimate the amount and extent of the implacable opposition to the President which is unmatched in my lifetime experience. While i agree that climate change is so important that the Obama should make it a goal of his leadership, I think it is highly unlikely that, if he does so, much will change. The elites just have too much control over the political system. To change that, we must strictly limit the role of money in politics. While that will be very difficult to accomplish and will delay change needed in other issues, no meaningful change can come about until this basic reform is completed.

    Finally, I think that Obama has not gotten enough credit for the improvements he has made. He has accomplished more in his first 4 years than any other president in history when it comes to slowing carbon emissions and promoting alternative energy. The doubling of CAFE standards, restrictions on new coal plants, and preparation of EPA regulation of carbon emission is really unparallelled.

    • I agree and perhaps regret my earlier comments. It’s easy to overlook progress he has made when so much more needs to be done. And, no one could deny that Congress is not in his corner, and he has to fight not only the inertia of a dirty energy culture but almost half the bloody country, which is, in a word,”nuts”.

  5. The Prez no longer has the credibility with the American people needed to pull something huge like that off.
    The public is led around by a ring through their collective nose by the press, and the press has become disillusioned.

    I’m no fan of our do-nothing President, but I will reveal how he could regain influence, because like it or not he is still the President, and his failure is our failure:
    do something. Kick some Congressional butt.

    He needs to go after some low-hanging fruit to restore the shine to his image. And releasing the 86 innocent men at Gitmo is the lowest hanging fruit around.

    • The Prez no longer has the credibility with the American people

      And Pauline Kael didn’t know a single person who voted for Nixon in 1972.

      The danger of projecting one’s own preferences onto the larger body politic is something observers of politics should work to avoid.

    • “I’m no fan of our do-nothing President, but I will reveal how he could regain influence…. He needs to go after some low-hanging fruit to restore the shine to his image. And releasing the 86 innocent men at Gitmo is the lowest hanging fruit around.”

      The internees at Guantanamo are way below the radar and of little importance for the vast majority of the American people. There are probably twenty issues, from immigration reform to climate change and more, that are of far more importance. The internees at Guantanamo are small beer compared to the important issues America faces. Were Obama to waste the political capital necessary to push for what no doubt would be a losing battle anyway, would be to demonstrate even greater political naivete than he has to date. And such a failure certainly would not “restore the shine to his image.”

  6. President Obama’s progress on climate change policy has mostly been behind the scenes because he and his political team have determined that a big, public political push for greenhouse gas reductions would be a political loser.

    “The objectively smartest political strategy for the Democrats just happens to line up with my own policy preferences” is the most overdone subject on the internet, and is almost always wrong.

    • What progress is that?

      Is it allowing drilling in the Arctic ocean?
      or is it permitting record amount of oil to be extracted and produced in the USA?
      or is it opening up public lands for massive coal extraction and sale?
      or is it prosecuting and jailing the person Tim DeChristopher who stopped an admittedly illegal oil lease auction?
      or allowing BP to have complete control over the months long oil “spill” in the Gulf?
      or is it stacking fracking investigation groups with pro tracking industry insiders?
      or is it going golfing with an oil exec, when 350.org gathers in Washington begging you to cancel Keystone XL?
      or saying that you’re “inclined to approve Keystone XL?
      or having the EPA not issue regulations on coal fired power plant emissions?

      By the way, did you see that the G20 has reason to believe that the wholesale price of oil is fixed and manipulated?

      and they are investigating.

      I haven’t heard of any such investigations here in North America.

      He not only has failed to do anything useful, he’s promoting the worst possible alternatives. you know “all the above” energy program.

      And the “he’s a nice guy” bit, is tissue paper thin these days.

      • What’s growing thin, sir, is the habit of turning policy discussions into episodes of sharing your feelings about the man personally.

        What progress? How about doubling fuel economy standards, shutting coal plants left and right, seeding alternative energy industries with the largest investments of any country in the world, and…

        ….wait for it…

        achieving the largest greenhouse gas reductions of any country on the planet.

        Oh, yeah, that progress.

        or having the EPA not issue regulations on coal fired power plant emissions?

        This is just a profoundly ignorant statement. The Obama/Jackson EPA has issued the most extensive, most stringent set of regulations about coal fired power plant emissions in history. From the coal ash regs to the mercury/toxics rules to the first ghg limits in history to the fine particulate regs, this administration has hammered the coal-fired power plant industry.

        Why don’t you do a little googling on the subject, because there seems to be a lot that has escaped your notice.

  7. He’d have to use the bully pulpit of the presidency to convince people of the reality of the threat.

    The bully pulpit is a myth.

    Life is not an Aaron Sorkin movie.

    In an era of intense polarization like this one, President Obama making a big public push for a cause would turn as many people away from that cause as win people over to it.

  8. Contrary to the posters ahead of me, I am not at all sanguine about this president’s ability or interest in anything bold. He has done virtually nothing to challenge the power of the vested interests. I voted for him in 2008, with some reservations, but wised up long before 2012. I’m done with voting for the “lesser evil.” So far the signature “progressive” action is a program to expand research on the brain. Meantime, the future of his daughters and any children they may have is uncertain – unless we rapidly evolve to prosper in conditions not seen for hundreds of millions of years. His failure to act cannot be blamed on the “implacable opposition.” He has been far too anxious to have their approval, while he shows no interest whatsover in the approval of those who voted him into office twice, even making fun of them from time to time. And there is no electoral punishment available…one issue with term limits. Regardless of what he wanted to do, he’s a lame duck from day one of the second term.

    The US has become a dysfunctional political system, thanks to the power of the moneyed interests that really control it. And Obama seems content with that. His Dept of Justice will happily turn three elderly anti-nuclear activists, including an 82-year-old nun, into “dangerous terrorists,” but cannot see any way to prosecute a single person in the HSBC for massive and sustained money-laundering. The chances of his pursuing the kind of climate change initiative discussed by Prof. Cole are less than the proverbial snowflake in hell, the direction in which the whole earth is going.

    Sometimes it’s ok to be old. Not good, but ok.

  9. Another very excellent and timely essay, Thank you again Juan Cole.

    There is a bit of a political-culture conundrum facing Obama, in that whatever forward-looking policy he may wish to favor, the very act of his speaking out for X policy will increase the irrational hatred of that policy, on the part of both the ignorant conservative American population base, and the cynical, over-powerful financial, media and (exploitative/polluting) industrial interests that enjoy and nurture the irrationalities of the base. (Remember, global warming and all types of pollution do hurt Republicans and conservatives too.)

    The American political and financial systems are in great need of fundamental reform (and our psychological and philosophical systems most likely need great transformations as well). As a 15-year veteran of the Green Party, my thoughts on that are mixed, we need intelligent and influential new parties and movements and I don’t want to disdain anyone’s effort. However as we saw especially with the Occupy movement, the tendency of we, American radicals, towards overly-idealistic radical democracy in our own efforts does not help our effectiveness. I have a nice long article from 2010 which is still valid in looking for ways out of these problems that we would-be progressive reformers create for ourselves.

    Yet again, a very excellent contribution again from Juan and far more realistic and evidence-based than 99% of our mainstream political commentary.

    • Good point about how the Noise Machine will trash anything Obama supports – except that they’re already trashing anything remotely Green. I’d rather have Obama & the Democrats gird their loins & push some positive projects, rather than cowering in fear of what Limburger & his ilk MIGHT say.

      -elkern (Green since 1986)

  10. Human caused climate change is environmentally the equivalent of the “big one” meteor strikes that helped write “paid” to the dinosaurs.

  11. With all due respect for the climate change effort, I can’t imagine how it can resolve the problems of GDP stagnation and unemployment, not to mention the security quagmire.

    Unlike with industrialization, we are not likely to see millions busy producing climate preservation products!

    And how it is going to prevent the coming big wars in Korea and in the Middle East which are the natural consequences of Obama’s policies?

    • “And how it is going to prevent the coming big wars in Korea and in the Middle East which are the natural consequences of Obama’s policies?”

      I would be interested to know why you think Obama’s policy regarding Korea will result in a “coming big war.” Are you referring to Obama’s sabre-rattling a couple of months ago? Obama threatening South Korea with a “sea of fire”? Obama scrapping the Armistice Agreement that ended the fighting in 1953? Obama stating publicly that the Korean Peninsula is now in a “state of war”?

      Oh, wait, that wasn’t Obama. That was North Korean leader Kim Jong Un issuing the above-cited threats. So please tell me, how is it that you conclude it is Obama’s policy that will result in a “coming big war” on the Korean Peninsula. Are you suggesting that Obama has not responded to Kim Jong Un’s above-cited peace overtures?

      • Fine, Bush policies had nothing to do with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it was all about Taliban and Hussein. Now the world is a much better place without them. Oops, Taliban is still here, but who cares. Does it help?

    • HJ – Massive governmental investment in Clean Energy Infrastructure would be a great way to “resolve the problems of GDP stagnation and unemployment”.

      Keynsian Economics works: when Gov’t spends (much) more than it gets in taxes, it heats up hte economy; the reverse cools it down. The GOP knows this, but they apply it according to their own objectives: crank up the economy when they own the Presidency, and cool it down when they don’t.

      (Almost) Any kind of Keynsian stimulus (borrow & spend) will improve the general economy. The best/right way to do it is to invest in building an infrastructure which will allow the country to function better for decades to come.

      FDR spent money on a zillion different things, but the ones which really made a difference in the long run were the things which they built: roads & bridges which we’re still driving on, and hydro-power dams out West (which provided a huge portion of the power to build the 100,000 airplanes with which we won WWII).

      Now would be (would have been?) a great time to build a post-carbon infrastructure. Money is cheap: we could borrow a zillion bucks at pretty much 0% interest, so why not? I don’t care if the Gov’t backs some bad projects (Solyndra); the value of the successes can be hundreds of times their cost.

      But the GOP is so determined to undermine Obama that they’ll hamstring the US for another decade (or the rest of Time) to do it.

  12. This comment thread in which everyone decides that Obama can’t do anything because it will alienate his political enemies says a lot more about why Democrats fail to achieve things these days than the fact of that opposition. Man up people! Fight the good fight for the sake of principle and you’ll be surprised who comes with you.

  13. I think we can agree that the Republican Party, which prevents the nation from assuming the leadership role on climate change, is a tragedy for the entire planet.

  14. My sliver of hope is that John Kerry finds his Vietnam Veterans Against the War legs and takes on this fight. In the early 1970’s. – after joining that genocidal war – he spoke truth to power.

    It may be just my imagination getting away from me…. However, I imagine Kerry standing up for a nuclear free Middle East and then working to expand the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to also address global warming.

    Imagine – you may say I am the only one…

  15. There is a very potent idea in forums like this one that politics is about one’s own goodness and the other guy’s refusal to submit to it. Politics isn’t therapy, however. It’s not how good you are. It’s not a morality play. Least of all is it about a fairy tale where goodness prevails at the end of each episode. That’s not reality. So telling ourselves that Obama must do this or that ignores the institutional inertia and paralysis that are now hallmarks of our system. The president may be primus inter pares but he’s not a particularly powerful one. What matters is power and its various vectors, particularly applied wealth. If you want to do good in this world, get out of your fairy tale and do what you can to reform this monster. It’s utterly corrupt and corrupting. You won’t win this battle but if enough of you struggle, your grandkids might.

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