Climate change in Washington

14 February 2013

The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald

By Tom Switzer

The climate is changing in Washington. That's the message of the President's first State of the Union address since his re-election.

During the first four years of the Barack Obama presidency, the financial crisis had demoted the environment to a third-order issue. Healthcare dominated the congressional agenda while the issue of troop increases in Afghanistan preoccupied the White House.

But on Tuesday Obama set out a renewed effort to combat climate change. He wants Congress to legislate a carbon price via an emissions trading scheme. Failing that, he will use presidential authority to curb emissions from existing coal-fired plants.

Why is carbon regulation a major priority in the next four years?

After all, polls show that climate change remains a peripheral issue among Americans. The economy remains sluggish nearly four years after the end of the recession. And the prospects for a binding global deal to cut greenhouse gases remain virtually zero.

Obama says, ''We can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science - and act before it's too late.'' But there are two other explanations for his new interest in tackling climate change.

One is that although he is not beholden to a small band of congressional swing voters who support carbon regulation in the way that the Prime Minister Julia Gillard heeded the Greens, Obama is in a box of a different sort. Unlike the Prime Minister in 2010, candidate Obama actually did campaign in support of carbon regulation in 2008, declaring his nomination to lead the Democratic presidential ticket as ''the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal''.

True, he sometimes sounded browner than his Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, last year. But his earlier campaign, and the fanfare that accompanied his re-election, suggests that among his left-liberal base, and among his supporters in Congress, is a small but potentially important minority who want him to follow through on the promise implied by that grandiose claim.

Obama is highly unlikely to implement a carbon price. To pass the Congress, the President would need to win over not only Republicans, but even several ''blue dog'' Democrats from the South as well as ''brown dog'' Democrats from the Midwest and Great Plains. 

Even when Democrats dominated Congress in 2010, the Senate could not agree to hold a debate on even the most loophole-ridden version of cap-and-trade. In Washington, climate politics is just as much about geography as partisanship.

But Obama does have the luxury of going about reducing carbon emissions in a stealthier way. US law gives his Environmental Protection Agency just enough of a fig leaf to try to push forward with carbon regulation despite congressional opposition, though even by most accounts he will push existing laws to their limits or even beyond. 

The other explanation for Obama's renewed interest in climate change is that his plan to decarbonise the economy reflects his broad transformational vision.

Such an agenda was evident during his first term when he pushed the largest spending bill in US history, a national healthcare program, automobile bailout and sweeping financial reforms. More recently, he enacted the first income tax increase in nearly two decades.

Now, his second-term agenda is on the table and the philosophy and the arguments on behalf of specific policies have become sharply defined. On gay rights, immigration, infrastructure, minimum wage increases, taxes, spending and especially gun control, Obama is proposing significant reforms and changes that threaten to undo the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s.

So, what are Obama's prospects? Congress is divided, the nation is polarised, the debt mountain is of Himalayan proportions and unemployment still hovers below 8 per cent. The history of second-term presidents, moreover, is sobering. Some, such as George W. Bush, are lame ducks; others, such as Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, are prone to scandal.

But Obama is that rarity among politicians, a man who knows what he thinks and exactly what he wants. He will compromise on little things but not on the big thing he wants to accomplish, especially given his opponents are leaderless and divided.

It also happens that his liberalism fits the mood of the public. Polls shows Americans are becoming more liberal on issues as varied as guns, taxes, amnesty for illegal immigrants and gay marriage. Obama, as he himself once said about Reagan, is tapping into what people are increasingly feeling. When you combine those two things - a president who knows what he wants and a public in tune with what he wants - you have a powerful transformational force.

Analysis does not amount to endorsement. One can disagree with Obama's agenda and still recognise that he is trying to transform the political landscape. Tuesday's address is further proof that he intends to move America in a more liberal direction.

This article originally appeared in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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Tags: Barack Obama, Climate Change, State Of The Union 2013, Tom Switzer


Katherine O'Regan

3:39 PM on Thu 14 February 2013

It does appear that President Obama is seeking to transform the landscape - and transform it well beyond the next four years to shape the Obama legacy. Climate change is unfinished Presidential business and one that, according to Gallup, is increasing in its importance to almost pre financial crisis levels.

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