Obama’s Global-Warming Talk Is Beside the Point

The president is discussing climate science this week, but he’s not waiting for anyone’s acceptance to act.

The smoke stacks at American Electric Power's (AEP) Mountaineer coal power plant in New Haven, West Virginia, October 30, 2009. In cooperation with AEP, the French company Alstom unveiled the world's largest carbon capture facility at a coal plant, so called 'clean coal,' which will store around 100,000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide a year 2,1 kilometers (7,200 feet) underground.
National Journal
Clare Foran
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Clare Foran
May 6, 2014, 6:23 a.m.

Pres­id­ent Obama is put­ting glob­al warm­ing in the spot­light this week, us­ing his power to high­light a fed­er­al re­port warn­ing that cli­mate change is already hit­ting home and hit­ting hard.

The move draws cheers from the left, jeers from the right, and re­starts a pub­lic de­bate over the valid­ity of cli­mate sci­ence — des­pite the fact that the con­nec­tion between green­house gases and glob­al warm­ing is settled sci­ence for the vast ma­jor­ity of cli­ma­to­lo­gists and peer-re­viewed cli­mate stud­ies.

But loud as the ar­gu­ment rages, it’s long past the point of rel­ev­ance.

Obama isn’t wait­ing for an an­swer. His ad­min­is­tra­tion is at­tack­ing green­house-gas emis­sions us­ing the Clean Air Act, has pushed new fuel-eco­nomy stand­ards for vehicles, and is us­ing a bat­tery of tools to pro­mote re­new­able en­ergy.

And so when Obama talks about cli­mate, he’s no longer seek­ing per­mis­sion, as he did early in his first term when he asked Con­gress for com­pre­hens­ive en­ergy and cli­mate le­gis­la­tion. He is telling the pub­lic why he is do­ing what he is do­ing, wheth­er they like it or not.

On Tues­day, Obama will talk cli­mate change in a series of in­ter­views with met­eor­o­lo­gists-turned-tele­vi­sion per­son­al­it­ies, in­clud­ing The Today Show‘s Al Roker, to tout the Na­tion­al Cli­mate As­sess­ment. John Podesta, a seni­or ad­viser to the pres­id­ent on cli­mate, is also set to pro­mote the re­port at an event later in the day — and seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials will travel around the coun­try to talk en­ergy and cli­mate throughout the week.

The me­dia blitz comes at a time when pub­lic opin­ion on cli­mate is di­vided. Ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter, the num­ber of Amer­ic­ans who say there is con­crete evid­ence the plan­et is heat­ing up de­clined from 77 per­cent in 2006 to 67 per­cent in 2013. Mean­while, the per­cent­age of Amer­ic­ans who say there is no sol­id evid­ence for glob­al warm­ing in­creased from 17 per­cent to 26 per­cent. There is even less con­sensus on the need to take ac­tion. In 2014, less than a third of Amer­ic­ans said deal­ing with glob­al warm­ing should be a top pri­or­ity for the pres­id­ent, ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey con­duc­ted by Pew.

Whatever polit­ic­al unity there was around cli­mate sci­ence has also shattered. It was just over six years ago that former House Speak­er Newt Gin­grich proudly pro­claimed: “Our coun­try must take ac­tion to ad­dress cli­mate change.” Today, four years after the cap-and-trade bill died in the Sen­ate, cli­mate deni­al is a near pre­requis­ite for a Re­pub­lic­an primary.

As a res­ult, en­vir­on­ment­al­ists are en­joy­ing the pres­id­en­tial spot­light. “Us­ing the power of the pres­id­ency to ad­vance a na­tion­al con­ver­sa­tion about cli­mate change is ex­tremely im­port­ant. It’s one of the most im­port­ant things the pres­id­ent can do on cli­mate change right now,” said Eric Pooley, seni­or vice pres­id­ent for com­mu­nic­a­tions and strategy for the En­vir­on­ment­al De­fense Fund.

But they wouldn’t trade any of it for what he’s ac­tu­ally do­ing: us­ing En­vir­on­ment­al Pro­tec­tion Agency reg­u­la­tions to curb car­bon emis­sions from power plants. Obama’s talk­a­thon ar­rives just a month be­fore the ex­pec­ted de­but of the draft rule for ex­ist­ing power plants. The reg­u­la­tion takes aim at the coun­try’s largest un­reg­u­lated source of air pol­lu­tion.

“The biggest step the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion can take is to set the strongest pos­sible lim­its next month when they un­veil the first-ever lim­its on car­bon pol­lu­tion from ex­ist­ing power plants,” said Car­ol Brown­er, a dis­tin­guished seni­or fel­low at the left-lean­ing Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress and a former EPA ad­min­is­trat­or dur­ing the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion.

En­vir­on­ment­al­ists would love it if this were Obama’s le­gis­lat­ive vic­tory lap, where he touted his im­ple­ment­a­tion of a cli­mate bill to a pub­lic that was more in­clined to be­lieve in cli­mate sci­ence. But those hopes died a half dec­ade ago, and they’ll read­ily ac­cept uni­lat­er­al ac­tion as a sol­id second choice.

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