President Obama held a press conference earlier today. Perhaps due to coming from a city still reeling from a climate disruption fed disaster, Hurricane Sandy, the New York Times White House reporter asked a strong question on climate change. Here is Mark Landler‘s interaction with President Obama:
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Just going to knock through a couple of others. Mark Landler? Where’s Mark? There he is, right in front of me.
Q: Thank you, Mr. President. In his endorsement of you a few weeks ago, Mayor Bloomberg said he was motivated by the belief that you would do more to confront the threat of climate change than your opponent. Tomorrow you’re going up to New York City, where you’re going to, I assume, see people who are still suffering the effects of Hurricane Sandy, which many people say is further evidence of how a warming globe is changing our weather. What specifically do you plan to do in a second term to tackle the issue of climate change? And do you think the political will exists in Washington to pass legislation that could include some kind of a tax on carbon?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, as you know, Mark, we can’t attribute any particular weather event to climate change. What we do know is the temperature around the globe is increasing faster than was predicted even 10 years ago. We do know that the Arctic ice cap is melting faster than was predicted even five years ago. We do know that there have been extraordinarily — there have been an extraordinarily large number of severe weather events here in North America, but also around the globe.
And I am a firm believer that climate change is real, that it is impacted by human behavior and carbon emissions. And as a consequence, I think we’ve got an obligation to future generations to do something about it.
Now, there are many things to note about this exchange.
- Landler’s question is thoughtful and pointed on a climate change issue. Such questioning of the President has been all too rare from the WH press corps. It will be interesting to see whether other reporters seek to raise C3 (‘climate catastrophe cliff’) even as the punditry builds tension over the created ‘fiscal cliff’ crisis.
- The President made what he, almost certainly, see as a strong statement affirming climate science.
- While ‘factual’, there is much discussion and analysis of how weak-worded statements like “we can’t attribute any particular weather event to climate change” weaken public understanding of climate change and fail to inform people in a truly ethical manner. A more accurate — in terms of informing the public — is that we have essentially placed the planetary climate on steroids and we cannot, now, judge extreme weather events outside the context of humanity’s impact on the climate. “Did climate change cause Hurricane Sandy?” is the wrong question as it might just be nigh impossible to answer, with confidence, on the basis of accurate and rich scientific work. A better question: “Did climate change make Hurricane Sandy’s worse and heighten the impact ashore and the damage?” When it comes this, the answer is quite clear and strongly supported: yes. To start with, Sandy’s storm surge occurred from an ocean that is higher due to global warming.
When climate scientists like me explain to people what we do for a living we are increasingly asked whether we “believe in climate change”. Quite simply it is not a matter of belief. Our concerns about climate change arise from the scientific evidence that humanity’s activities are leading to changes in our climate. The scientific evidence is overwhelming.The President continued to respond to Landler with the following:
Now, in my first term, we doubled fuel efficiency standards on cars and trucks. That will have an impact. That will take a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere.
Need to take a moment for an editorial comment.
First, the Obama Administration deserves serious credit for the fuel efficiency standard work. This was a major achievement that will have significant impact.
Second, this is simply false: “That will take a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere.” There is an important differentiation between the work “take” and “keep”. While the fuel standards mean that drivers will pollute less, they still will be burning fuel while driving — they will be polluting, still, with each mile driven even if polluting less. E.g., the fuel efficiency standards “will keep a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere” would have been a correct statement. This seemingly pedantic point has meaning — a 50 percent reduction in polluting, per mile driven, helps move us forward by reducing our polluting impact — it does not, however, solve our problems and it does nothing to “take carbon out of the atmosphere”.
We doubled the production of clean energy, which promises to reduce the utilization of fossil fuels for power generation. And we continue to invest in potential breakthrough technologies that could further remove carbon from our atmosphere.
But we haven’t done as much as we need to. So what I’m going to be doing over the next several weeks, next several months, is having a conversation, a wide-ranging conversation with scientists, engineers and elected officials to find out what can — what more can we do to make short-term progress in reducing carbons, and then working through an education process that I think is necessary, a discussion, the conversation across the country about, you know, what realistically can we do long term to make sure that this is not something we’re passing on to future generations that’s going to be very expensive and very painful to deal with.
This is an important commentary — that the President is going to spark a national “education process” to build support for the policies and actions determined as necessary to deal with climate change. One might reasonably be scratching one’s head right now: we just finished a multi-year election campaign which should have been about laying out the differences between the two parties and outlining policies that each is proposing. And, in fact, the President’s comments about the coming months and education are eerily echoing comments he has made in the past (here and here and …). If the President and the Obama-Biden campaign had, as many had advocated, laid out climate change clearly over the past two years, that education process would be well underway and the President’s resounding electoral victory would have been a clear mandate for taking these actions.
I don’t know what — what either Democrats or Republicans are prepared to do at this point, because, you know, this is one of those issues that’s not just a partisan issue. I also think there’s — there are regional differences. There’s no doubt that for us to take on climate change in a serious way would involve making some tough political choices, and you know, 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, you know, if the message is somehow we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody’s going to go for that.
Huh … Why is the President going out of his way to assert “that’s not just a partisan issue” when, at the core, climate change is one of the most partisan of all issues when it comes to the science (even as there a few ‘coal’ Democratic politicians who strive to ignore or reject the science).
And, why is the President using language that fosters the false economy versus environment framing so beloved by polluting industries? It is well past time to connect, strongly, the Obama Administration’s clean energy and green jobs efforts with their implications for climate science.
I won’t go for that.
Who – in terms of serious players in the US political discussion — “would go for that” tackling climate change with zero regard for employment implications. Bill McKibben and the 350.org crowd, far from anyone’s concept of a pansy and weak-willed group when it comes to climate issues, certainly are aware of jobs issues and don’t advocate action in ignorance of economic performance implications.
If, on the other hand, we can shape an agenda that says we can create jobs, advance growth and make a serious dent in climate change and be an international leader, I think that’s something that the American people would support.
And, that “agenda” has been laid out multiple times over. See here …
So you know, you can expect that you’ll hear more from me in the coming months and years about how we can shape an agenda that garners bipartisan support and helps move this — moves this agenda forward.
Q: It sounds like you’re saying, though — (off mic) — probably still short of a consensus on some kind of — (off mic).
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I — that I’m pretty certain of. And look, we’re — 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’s hard. But it’s important because, you know, one of the things that we don’t always factor in are the costs involved in these natural disasters. We’d — we just put them off as — as something that’s unconnected to our behavior right now, and I think what, based on the evidence, we’re seeing is — is that what we do now is going to have an impact and a cost down the road if — if — if we don’t do something about it.
The President is partially right. We are already facing these costs, seriously, and it will be far worse than “a cost down the road if we don’t do something about” climate change.
One might question as to whether the President did, in fact, answer the question. Landler asked quite directly about the President’s intent during the second term for climate-related legislation and other Federal action. And, Landler asked for the President’s perspective on the political environment for action on climate change. Both of these quite significant issues were left, at best, partially addressed.
For several months now, Forecast the Facts has led a campaign called “climate silence“, which chastised President Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney for their failure to address climate change seriously in the Presidential campaign (and elsewhere). In essence, they have sought to have serious discussion of climate change from two angles:
- Discussing climate change as a real and serious issue meriting action.
- Laying out what they planned to do, in light of the above, to address climate change.
In considering that campaign, one might see Landler’s question as providing a prompt for the President to ‘end’ that climate silence. The President’s response, however, responded to just the first element (acknowledging climate change as serious) and did not provide a solid response to the second in terms of specific actions. One might suggest that something like this would deserve description as ending the climate silence:
“Most of all, we cannot afford more of the same timid politics when the future of our planet is at stake. Global warming is not a someday problem, it is now.In a state like New Hampshire, the ski industry is facing shorter seasons and losing jobs. We are already breaking records with the intensity of our storms, the number of forest fires, the periods of drought. By 2050 famine could force more than 250 million from their homes — famine that will increase the chances of war and strife in many of the world’s weakest states. The polar ice caps are now melting faster than science had ever predicted. And if we do nothing, sea levels will rise high enough to swallow large portions of every coastal city and town.This is not the future I want for my daughters. It’s not the future any of us want for our children. And if we act now and we act boldly, it doesn’t have to be.But if we wait; if we let campaign promises and State of the Union pledges go unanswered for yet another year; if we let the same broken politics that’s held us back for decades win one more time, we will lose another chance to save our planet. And we might not get many more.I reject that future. I would not be running for President if I didn’t believe that this time could be different.” “The first step in doing this is to phase out a carbon-based economy that’s causing our changing climate. As President, I will set a hard cap on all carbon emissions at a level that scientists say is necessary to curb global warming — an 80% reduction by 2050. To ensure this isn’t just talk, I will also commit to interim targets toward this goal in 2020, 2030, and 2040. These reductions will start immediately, and we’ll continue to follow the recommendations of top scientists to ensure that our targets are strong enough to meet the challenge we face.”
That, for the record, was Senator Obama back in 2007.
Yet, the President’s comments today certainly imply (if not directly state) an intent to end climate silence.
The President’s commitment to speak on climate issues and spark a real national discussion to help foster support for necessary actions is welcomed and something could lead to substantive change in the months and years moving forward.
As to the post’s title, an interesting tidbit on the President’s press conference: the New York Times Washington Bureau evidently didn’t consider their own reporter’s question to be newsworthy as the Times’ report on the press conference is silent on climate issues.