President Obama’s Speech and the Politicization of Global Warming

President Obama’s speech on climate change yesterday has given rise to the predictable euphoria and hand-wringing this polarized debate inevitably causes. While most Americans – and especially younger Americans – agree that care for the environment should be a top government priority, they also view human flourishing through economic growth as non-negotiable. Unfortunately, so many of the organizations and individual activists that drive the debate reject this tension by embracing one of these concerns and playing it off against the other. Environmentalists call for protection of precious resources, regulation of industry, or curbs on pollution regardless of economic cost or even a basic awareness of how the free market works and why it matters. Conservatives vilify the Environmental Protection Agency and mock climate science, insisting that growth and jobs must always trump care for the environment.

Most Americans reject these extremes, but we’ve seen them played out again during the past two days. Indeed, the very nature of the president’s strategy makes this nearly inevitable. Even when Democrats held both houses of Congress, the president failed to win sufficient support for the cap-and-trade legislation designed to curb greenhouse emissions, due to its feared deleterious economic effects. Now, with Republicans firmly in control of the House of Representatives, Obama has chosen to follow the undemocratic path of the executive order. In 2009 at the Copenhagen Conference he made a commitment to the international community that by 2020 America would reduce its carbon emissions by 17% (from 2005 levels). Now he intends to reach that goal regardless of the lack of popular or congressional support, regardless of the cost to the democratic process.

In his speech the president offered no hint that he recognizes the legitimacy of those Republicans and Democrats who opposed his cap-and-trade legislation due to economic concerns. He gave no indication of his awareness that free market forces enabled the United States to become the first western nation to meet the emissions reduction goals of the 1999 Kyoto Treaty, a treaty that the United States Senate unanimously rejected because it was too top-down and placed unnecessary constraints on the U.S. economy. He does not seem to be aware that without following the regulation and state driven approach to carbon emissions followed by the European Union, the United States already has become the global leader in reducing carbon emissions. This is in no small part due to the U.S. embrace of mining shale natural gas through fracking, over the opposition of environmentalists who long opposed such methods on environmental grounds.

Instead of recognizing these points of potential common ground in order to bring the country together, the president implied that his opponents are mere climate change deniers, somewhat akin to the “flat earth” societies of an age long past. He proposed policies that even his supporters agree are legally controversial, stretching the Clean Air Act to its limits by calling for new emissions restrictions on already existing power plants, a strategy that one White House adviser agreed amounted to a “war on coal,” though the White House is obviously unwilling to describe it that way. He indicated once again his opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to Texas despite the pipeline’s very widespread support and obvious benefits. And all of this, of course, rests on the power of executive order and bureaucratic federal regulation. Congress is not part of the discussion.

Republicans and conservatives have responded predictably, offering little hint that they recognize climate change to be at all a legitimate concern and dismissing Obama’s proposals as mere job-killers, as if economic concerns are the only considerations to be taken into account. National Review offers perhaps the most thoughtful criticism from the right of Obama’s program:

Global warming, contrary to the predictions of the best climate models, is not accelerating. It is slowing, and some estimates show it having been reversed. The warmest year on record was 1998, and there has been significantly less warming in the last 15 years than there was in the 20 years before that. The Economist, which supports measures to control greenhouse-gas emissions and has been a reliable hotbed of warming alarmism, conceded: “There’s no way around the fact that this reprieve for the planet is bad news for proponents of policies, such as carbon taxes and emissions treaties, meant to slow warming by moderating the release of greenhouse gases. . . . They will become harder, if not impossible, to sell to the public, which will feel, not unreasonably, that the scientific and media establishment has cried wolf.”

This is a little misleading, though it’s not entirely off-target. There is no substantive evidence that global warming has been reversed. There is widespread consensus that global warming has slowed in the past 10-15 years, but temperatures have not reverted to their prior levels. 1998 was by far the warmest year on record, but there have been many years just like it in the 15 years since. It would be fair to say that global temperatures have plateaued, and that climate scientists entirely failed to predict this development. The fact that they have discovered new factors (such as the ocean heat-containing effect) to explain this “temporary” let-up in global warming, and that many have revised downwards their prediction as to the extreme rise of temperatures we are likely to see during the 21st Century, is significant, but it does not render climate change science null and void, nor does it undercut the evidence that human beings and industry are a key factor in the process.

What it does show is that climate change science, and its conclusions about the predictability of temperature, the effect that global warming is likely to have, and the role that various mitigating factors might play in restraining expected warming, is a lot less fixed than the alarmists (and in many cases, the scientists themselves) would have you believe. Add on top of that the fact that free market forces have proven far more effective in curbing carbon emissions than have the top-down measures pursued by the European Union, and we have a highly complex political issue on our hands. Surely it is the type of issue that warrants the full deliberation of the democratic process, the attention of Congress as well as of the president and the EPA.

For this to happen, both sides need to stop demonizing their opponents and exaggerating the certainty of their own arguments. Conservatives need to stop insisting that the only legitimate perspective on the issue is economic, and conservative legislators need to stop acting as if the only criteria by which any initiative should be judged is whether not it kills jobs. The president and his environmentalist allies, for their part, need to stop dismissing their opponents as if they are mere deniers, opposed to science. Rather than wasting their efforts on the sort of alarmism and wolf-crying that merely makes their arguments – and the science that really matters – less credible, they need to let democracy, culture, and education do its work.

Liberal democracy has been highly effective in turning the United States into the safest, most prosperous nation in the history of the world in part because it prevents the powerful – whether on the right or on the left – from dictating policy according to their own interests. It forces these powers instead to allow ideas and policy to undergo the necessary refinement of testing, deliberation, and democratic debate, ensuring that the full range and balance of concerns is addressed. This does not usually work out perfectly, but it has worked better than any other system known to humanity. We should give it a chance to do its work on the global warming problem as well.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on June 26, 2013, in Barack Obama, Environment, Jobs and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on President Obama’s Speech and the Politicization of Global Warming.

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