Obama Makes It Clear He Isn't Willing To Fight for Action on Climate Change

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Nov. 14 2012 3:34 PM

Obama Makes It Clear He Isn't Willing To Fight for Action on Climate Change

Obama leaves the East Room after his press conference and shuts the door on a carbon tax.
Obama leaves the East Room after his press conference and shuts the door on a carbon tax.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Climate change has never been at the top of President Obama's priority list, and on Wednesday he made it plain that isn't about to change in his second term. In his first press conference since his re-election, Obama laid out his stance more clearly than he ever has before. It amounts to this:

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

  1. Climate change is real.
  2. We have an obligation to future generations to do something about it.
  3. Doing something about it will require tough political choices.
  4. I'm not willing to push for those tough political choices.
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Statements 1), 2), and 3) are almost verbatim. A few people might quibble over exactly how 4) should be worded. Here's Obama's exact phrasing, courtesy of the New York Times' transcript (italics mine):

There’s no doubt that for us to take on climate change in a serious way would involve making some tough political choices, and you know, understandably, I think the American people right now have been so focused and will continue to be focused on our economy and jobs and growth that, you know, if the message is somehow we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody’s going to go for that.
I won’t go for that.
If, on the other hand, we can shape an agenda that says we can create jobs, advance growth and make a serious dent in climate change and be an international leader, I think that’s something that the American people would support.

My colleague Jeremy Stahl tweeted that he would recast sentence 4) of my summary above as "Making those tough political choices is hard and probably impossible in this current environment." I'd argue that reduces to the same thing. You don't hear that kind of defeatism from Obama on issues at the top of his agenda, like health-care reform was in his first term. (Granted, as Stahl points out, Democrats held a majority in the House in his first two years.)

Regardless, what's obvious is that no one should expect a serious push for a comprehensive climate policy from the White House anytime soon. And it means that dreams of a carbon tax, which policy experts from the left and center have been touting for years—and which had just this week re-entered the mainstream political discourse thanks to Hurricane Sandy and the fiscal cliff—have been extinguished once again. This follow-up question was partly inaudible, but must have been about a carbon tax:

Q: It sounds like you’re saying, though — (off mic) — probably still short of a consensus on some kind of — (off mic).
OBAMA: I — that I’m pretty certain of. And look, we’re — we’re still trying to debate whether we can just make sure that middle-class families don’t get a tax hike. Let’s see if we can resolve that. That should be easy. This one’s hard.

To be fair, that doesn't mean Obama won't do anything to address climate change. As Time's Mike Grunwald put it: "The good spin is that Obama intends to keep working on climate in ways that his enemies can't accuse him of working on climate." To me that means more green pork, more industrial policy, more tax breaks, and incremental progress on things like fuel-efficiency and green-building standards. All of which are important in the absence of a real climate policy, don't get me wrong. But all of which might just as well have happened under a Romney administration.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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