Why Obama can’t care about climate change

President Obama’s State of the Union was unsurprisingly thin on support for cleantech and alternative energy, instead opting to focus on U.S. oil production, his ‘all of the above energy’ strategy, and the prospects of natural gas exploration.
Environmentalists and really anyone concerned about climate change were dismayed. Sierra Club Executive Director said, “Last night’s speech clearly showed that the administration has not yet reconciled the discrepancy between its energy and climate policy.”
Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, an organization devoted to ending climate change, has been more critical of Obama. “The problem is that this all-of-the-above energy policy is, in practice, an all-of-the-below policy. It’s a policy that promotes digging up every form of hydrocarbon we can find on this planet. If one were serious about dealing with climate change, one would not have an all-of-the-above policy.”
So why is Obama so hesitant to really tackle climate change head on? The National Journal points out that Obama “went small on energy and climate change” to avoid conflict. While that’s true at an inside the beltway level, I’d make another argument.
Americans don’t think climate change is a priority.
Poll after poll shows that Americans are unconcerned about climate change, marginally more concerned about rising temperatures and primarily concerned about the economy. Typically when asked whether addressing climate change is a priority for the U.S., climate change polls in the high 20s. Not blockbuster numbers when economic issues like unemployment, social security and terrorism poll in the 70s.
The annual Pew Research Center survey conducted the week prior to the State of the Union confirmed this problem. Of 20 possible priorities, dealing with global warming came 19 out of 20. Dealing with global trade issues came last. Strengthening the nation’s economy came first.
Which would explain why Obama mostly addressed the promise of natural gas, which will slow carbon emissions but do nothing to help address climate. Natural gas is viewed as an economic and job driver. Obama also emphasized the growing reality that the U.S. is becoming an oil and gas leader and is heading toward energy independence on the back of increasing fossil fuel production. He trumpeted the fact that the U.S. is now producing more oil at home than it imports.
Obama is facing some of the worst polling figures of his career, with a 43 percent approval rating, down 9 points from a year ago. This is a major concern for Democrats as they head toward midterm elections. (I was interested to see how one of the first things Obama did during the State of the Union was recognize the work of the first lady. She continues to poll incredibly well, with favorability ratings close to a whopping 70 percent. Americans love her. Almost makes me wonder if she could run office.)
So where does all this leave us? In the abstract Americans believe that climate change is occurring and are beginning to make causal connections between extreme weather and human behavior. But they just don’t rate climate change as a priority.
This is a vexing problem because environmentalists can only ask politicians to expend so much political capital advocating policies that could make getting re-elected more difficult. Initiatives like the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication are actively trying to address the question of how to address Americans’ awareness and thinking surrounding climate change and I applaud their efforts.
But I’d love to see this become an even bigger issue for the renewable energy sector, with perhaps the formation of a larger lobbying organization whose primary function is public education surrounding climate change. This organization would need to be well financed by the private sector as an acknowledgement that the overall renewable energy sector would greatly benefit from an educated public. Whether you’re Nest, SolarCity, Tesla, or Silver Spring Networks, it’s in your interest to have a public that wants to address climate change.
Because with a public more concerned about climate change, you might get a president whose a bit less gung ho on carbon emitting natural gas and bit more willing to use the State of the Union to endorse the promise of clean energy.