It's one of those seeming paradoxes of modern politics: President Obama's record on addressing climate change has been dangerously inadequate and yet climate change is one of the fundamental reasons why it is necessary that President Obama be re-elected. When leading activists on the politics of climate change such as Joe Romm
and Bill McKibben
—and even the New York Times
editorial board—have been sharply critical of the president's approach, you know we have a serious problem. And a serious problem on the politics of the most important issue humanity has ever faced
is dangerous and potentially catastrophic.
This is no time to gloss over the realities. This is no time for political niceties. This is a time to tell the truth. Al Gore just did:
On Friday afternoon, as brave and committed activists continued their non-violent civil disobedience outside the White House in protest of the tar sands pipeline that would lead to a massive increase in global warming pollution, President Obama ordered the EPA to abandon its pursuit of new curbs on emissions that worsens disease-causing smog in US cities. Earlier this year, the EPA's administrator, Lisa Jackson, wrote that the levels of pollution now permitted – put in place by the Bush-Cheney administration – are "not legally defensible." Those very same rules have now been embraced by the Obama White House.
Instead of relying on science, President Obama appears to have bowed to pressure from polluters who did not want to bear the cost of implementing new restrictions on their harmful pollution – even though economists have shown that the US economy would benefit from the job creating investments associated with implementing the new technology. The result of the White House's action will be increased medical bills for seniors with lung disease, more children developing asthma, and the continued degradation of our air quality.
NASA's legendary climatologist James Hansen also just did, recently stating that if the tar sands are tapped it is essentially game over (pdf). So from a political perspective what could be worse? The Republicans are worse. They are significantly worse. They are paradigmatically worse.
One of the key critiques of President Obama's approach to economics has been his failures of framing. The excuse that he couldn't get anything better done might be plausible if he had fought for anything better, and we all must hope he now fights for what he outlined in his jobs speech, but the sad fact is that he hasn't fought for anything better on the economy. He has compromised before negotiations even began, but most destructive has been his rhetoric. Paul Krugman keeps pointing out that the president keeps framing economic issues in right wing terms. It would be one thing if he declared each political resolution the best he could get in the face of Republican obstructionism, but too often he instead praises an outcome as good policy borne of bipartisanship. He talked tax cuts as stimulus. He uses the Republican boilerplate rhetoric about tax reform without explaining that it should be about unfairness and economic justice. He talks the Republican boilerplate rhetoric about Social Security reform and Medicare reform without explaining that they are solvent, and that talk of "reforming" them is stealth Republican boilerplate for destroying them. And of course he changed the entire economic conversation to focus on deficits when what the country really needed was more Keynesian stimulus, which usually involves deficit spending. And the result has been terrible for the economy and terrible for Democratic political fortunes.
President Obama has played the Republican economic game and that has enabled Republicans to criticize him on the economy, when the reality is that they wouldn't be doing better than him, they'd be enacting even more of what he has been doing wrong. Hopefully, the jobs bill signals a significant change in approach to both policy and politics. We shall see. But from a political perspective it's all about framing. The president too often hasn't defended traditional Democratic values and traditional Democratic politics. And that's where we get back to climate change. Because even though his policies have been dangerously inadequate, President Obama at least is framing the issue with a basic sense of sanity that the Republicans are not. That might not sound like much but it is. Just as his failures on economic framing have been in many ways even worse than his compromised economic policies, President Obama's more realistic framing on climate change has been much better than his compromised climate policies. And that does really matter.
The Republicans are climate deniers. In scientific terms they are as the biblical literalists who forced Galileo to deny the realities revealed by his telescope. They might as well be denying that the Earth is round or that the sun revolves around it and not vice versa. The Republicans are that divorced from reality. Rick Perry denies anthropogenic climate change altogether. Despite a wide scientific consensus, he claims the science is not conclusive. Mitt Romney has at times accepted the reality of anthropogenic climate change, while not wanting to do much about it, but lately he has paid obeisance to his party's delusional base by backtracking into typically muddled claims that that he doesn't know how much human activity actually does contribute to climate change. Himself a human weather vane, you can be certain that if elected president he will do only what his party's base and his wealthiest campaign donors want him to do. And that will be to deny that anything needs to be done. He already is on board with the idea of drill baby drill. It's about framing. And while President Obama isn't doing nearly enough, and in some cases is doing exactly what shouldn't be done, he at least discusses anthropogenic climate change as an existing reality. The Republicans do not. And that is no small matter.
We don't have time to keep arguing the scientific reality. We don't have time to move backward into confusing the public about what's really happening. The politics will improve only if the public demands it improve, and the public will only make such a demand if there is a widespread understanding of the extent of the danger. We won't get there if we are enabling or empowering climate deniers. Our only chance of getting there is if we keep moving forward. It's one thing to be fighting for better policies on climate change and another to be fighting just to make people understand that we need policies on climate change. We can remind President Obama that he's right and therefore needs to do right. With a Perry or a Romney or any of the second tier Republican candidates we would be back to the square one of having to correct one of the most fundamental wrongs. Climate change is about the science, and the Republicans don't accept the science. The politics of climate change begins with framing. And with President Obama we are in a paradigm where science exists, is valued, and is understood. With Republicans we are in a paradigm where science doesn't exist.