Obama on Climate Policy: Not Just Now, Thanks

Source: By JOHN M. BRODER, New York Times • Posted: Monday, November 19, 2012

Environmental advocates have expressed frustration with the lack of discussion of climate change in the presidential race this year, a reticence that persisted even after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. On Wednesday, in his first post-election news conference, President Obama offered his most extensive remarks on climate change in months. They did not particularly thrill environmentalists.

The president said that it was impossible to attribute a specific weather event to global warming, but noted there have been an extraordinary number of severe weather events in North America and around the globe.

“And I am a firm believer that climate change is real, that it is impacted by human behavior and carbon emissions,” he said. “And as a consequence, I think we’ve got an obligation to future generations to do something about it.”

He said that in his first term he had ratcheted up fuel economy standards for vehicles and doubled the production of renewable energy. “But we haven’t done as much as we need to,” he said.

Mr. Obama then said that the issue sharply divides Democrats and Republicans, and also different regions of the country, depending on their production and consumption of energy.

But rather than propose a way to bridge those divides, the president seemed to punt. He said he would be listening to experts over the next several months and then conducting an “education process” about long-term steps to address the warming planet.

“There’s no doubt that for us to take on climate change in a serious way would involve making some tough political choices,” the president said. “And 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 if the message is somehow we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody is going to go for that. I won’t go for that.”

This assertion – that the nation cannot address its climate and environmental challenges while also dealing with jobs and the economy – is at odds with the approach that Mr. Obama has taken since early in his presidency. He often touted the benefits of “green jobs” as an antidote to a stalled economy, and devoted some $90 billion of his 2009 stimulus package to a variety of measures that he said would save energy, clean up the atmosphere and create jobs.

Earlier this year, Mr. Obama accused Republican critics of wrongly pitting the economy and the environment against each other.

“There will always be people in this country who say that we’ve got to choose between clean air, clean water and growing the economy, between doing right by the environment and putting people back to work,” Mr. Obama declared in March at a conference that included environmentalists, outdoorsmen and small business owners.

“I’m here to tell you this is a false choice,” he said.

In his press conference this week, Mr,. Obama also said he would not pursue a tax on carbon dioxide emissions as part of a deal to address the so-called fiscal cliff of impending tax increases and budget cuts, saying there was no political consensus for imposing such an energy tax

“That I’m pretty certain of,” the president said. “And, look, 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 is hard.”

He added nonetheless that it was important to address climate-altering emissions because it would have an impact and a cost “down the road.”

Joseph Romm, a former Energy Department official who runs the influential Climate Progress blog at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning research and advocacy group with close White House ties, pronounced the president’s climate comments “lame.”

“I think it’s hard to know what’s going on inside his head, because he certainly understands the issue,” Mr. Romm said in a telephone interview. “I think he thinks a tax deal is going to be very hard and he doesn’t want to make it harder by injecting a carbon tax into the mix.”

“It was a very wishy-washy statement,” he added. “I just think his advisers are telling him to deflect the issue entirely.”