Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

What's Lacking in the Climate Debate Isn't Presidential Leadership

Rusty Pritchard


July 8, 2011
by Rusty Pritchard

It’s possible that people have overreacted to the collapse of comprehensive climate legislation. Anti-environmental forces, emboldened by the seeming victory and energized by the libertarianism of the Tea Party movement, went into an all-out attempt to roll back environmental safeguards that were passed with bipartisan consensus, despite the economically-valuable benefits they have conferred on American society. Many on the right have decided that the climate is primarily a weapon for bashing the President and his party.

Meanwhile the progressive environmental lobby is busy changing the subject. Climate change is taking a backseat to other measures that contribute to the same ends. The President himself appears to subscribe to the strategy, talking very little about climate in recent months, but relentlessly promoting green industry, green jobs, and energy efficiency.

Has he provided the right kind of leadership on climate issues? Former Vice-President Al Gore says no. In a long Rolling Stone article, Gore takes President Obama to task for failing to use the bully pulpit to make the case for comprehensive climate legislation. In reality climate legislation failed to move because there weren’t the votes to pass it. Obama had no magic spell to pronounce over the issue that could have changed that. He has taken some helpful administrative actions, notably on automotive and power plant efficiency standards, which should make sense to both climate advocates and skeptics, and the stimulus package included much in the way of useful funding.

My environmentalist friends might hate me for saying it, but we may discover that the failure of climate legislation to pass in the last Congress was a blessing in disguise. In the end, the only way to pass a bill would have been to burn almost every bipartisan bridge (if any were left after the grueling fights over health care and finance reform), and to force moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans into difficult reelection battles. Obama started to move to the middle, recognizing that even mentioning global warming got a rapid rebuke from the right. Harping on it would have only deepened the rifts opened by other debates.  We have some breathing space now for creating a more inclusive conversation.

What the country needs in its climate and energy policy is stability, predictability, and above all, broad public and political support. Climate policy is so central to the economy that it must not be subject to the reversals that would come from passing something on razor-thin margins with deep polarization. Whatever happens next in climate and energy must be policy that builds consensus, repairs bridges, and draws on the best thinking of both progressives and conservatives. That’s not something that will happen simply with President Obama preaching the sermons Al Gore thinks we need to hear.

On the other hand, Republicans need to start to think more substantively and less politically about a problem that might turn out to be more of an economic problem than an environmental problem. It’s a terrible decision to risk the credibility of the conservative movement by betting on conspiracy theories, and to disregard the problems this might create for a future generation of Republicans. Of the current crop of Republican presidential candidates, only Mitt Romney and John Huntsman have understood that admitting the reality of human-caused climate change does not mean conceding the policy discussion to the left.

Meanwhile some of the most promising common-ground ideas are coming from conservatives. The Bipartisan Policy Institute’s deficit-cutting plan, co-chaired by former Republican Senator Pete Domenici, posits that a carbon tax might help push the economy in a competitive direction while providing revenue for shrinking the debt. Alternatively, a carbon tax might be part of a tax shift, providing a way to pay for reductions in the corporate income tax that Republicans recommend, as suggested by the American Enterprise Institute’s Kevin Hassett and Ken Green. Moving the climate conversation forward requires not bully-pulpiteering from a progressive President, but thoughtful engagement by conservatives who can begin to find their own credible voices on climate.

—Lowell (Rusty) Pritchard is the CEO of Flourish.



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