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Obama’s Silence on Climate Change

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A weekly collection of thought-provoking articles on tech, innovation, and long-term investing from Nightview Capital’s Eric Markowitz.

Last night, President Obama addressed the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in an Oval Office speech. Estimates now suggest that as much as 60,000 barrels of oil may be flowing into the Gulf of Mexico every day—which is more than the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill every week. Obama promised to dramatically reduce the flow of oil in the next few weeks and stop it completely over the summer. But the truth is that—since the government has no special expertise in capping oil wells—there’s not much Obama can do besides put pressure on the those who may be able to stop the spill. Nevertheless, Obama chose to give his first Oval Office speech to convince us that he is doing everything he can.

Conservatives have said that Obama’s inability to staunch the flow of oil shows how ineffective government action is. But the free market—largely in the form of BP—has hardly given us any reason to think it would do any better. It has become abundantly clear that oil companies like BP were woefully unprepared for a deep-water spill like this one. Their contingency plans haven’t been updated in so long that they involve calling on an expert who is dead and outline ways of protecting walruses, which are not, of course, native to the Gulf of Mexico.

Obama argued that in fact the spill could have been prevented if those same conservatives had not gutted those drilling safety standards under President Bush. Obama, of course, deserves plenty of blame for not reforming the Minerals Management Service during the year he has been in office. But Obama also made the case that the larger problem is that our need for oil makes us dependent on risky ventures like deepwater drilling, as well as on the foreign countries that control most of the world’s oil reserves. Since in any case we can’t continue to consume as much oil as we do indefinitely, he called on us to invest in clean energy technologies and begin a transition away from fossil fuels.

Some Republicans complained that President Obama is using the crisis to push a cap-and-trade bill on the public. Sen Lamar Alexander (R-TN) told reporters that “The president should spend more time focusing on cleaning up and containing the oil spill and less time trying to pass a national energy tax that will drive jobs overseas looking for cheap energy.” And Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) said, “the President’s number one priority needs to be keeping the jobs in the energy sector from going overseas and restoring the Gulf of Mexico.”

In fact, President Obama never actually called for any kind of limit on the emissions of greenhouse gases, much to the disappointment of environmentalists. As Ezra Klein says, Obama never uttered the words “climate change” or “global warming.” Nor, as Josh Green points out, did Obama ever say “It’s time to put a price on carbon.” Taegan Goddard said that by not calling for any specific policies, Obama showed he is “just another president that has refused to ask Americans for the necessary sacrifice to finally achieve this greater national goal.”

But Obama may have been right to tiptoe around the issue of climate change in his speech. As Greg Sargent said, “the intended audience of this speech was a general public wondering what the heck is going on with the spill and what the broader game plan is. This audience didn’t need to hear the level of commitment to specific policy prescriptions that we all might have wanted.” In spite of a very broad scientific consensus that the earth is rapidly warming as a result of human activity—and in spite of the fact that this is so far the warmest year on record—climate change is a divisive political issue in a way that the oil spill is not.

And while the spill certainly does demonstrate that our hunger for oil can have devastating environmental consequences, the question of whether drilling can be made safe is separate from the question of whether human activity is changing the climate. Talking about climate change before the oil spill is even under control might have seemed like a politically opportunistic way of dodging the issue. In any case, as Ezra Klein pointed out, Obama’s language in his speech closely echoed the language he used pushing for health-care reform. It is, as Klein says, “the language and approach Obama uses when he really means to legislate.” Obama’s strategy of staying out of the policy details may work with clean energy legislation as well.

Obama is right, in any case, that something must be done about our appetite for oil, and that the Deepwater Horizon spill should be a wake up call for us. Weaning ourselves from fossil fuels will be difficult and painful. And it’s going to take a lot more than just keeping our tires properly inflated.


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