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Obama and Climate Change

Do you think Obama will address climate change?

Janet Martin: I don’t think that climate change will necessarily be a top item on President Obama’s agenda. Obama would have been too young to have been a part of the Earth Day celebrations, and environmental movement of the early 1970s, and, although he now claims Chicago as his hometown, his early life experiences were not a part of the civil rights, anti-war, and environmental movements of the 1960s and 1970s. He has yet to announce a replacement for the departing head of the EPA.

Environmental issues have found their way on to the agenda through a piecemeal approach in setting and retaining tax expenditures, with credits for energy efficient home improvements, or solar or wind power, and other alternative energy endeavors, or energy efficient expenditures.

But it might be that the beautiful Hawaiian setting of the President’s youth may make the President more interested in climate change and move it up on the agenda. The recent waves of debris from the Japanese tsunami washing up on the beaches of the west coast, and Hawaii, may bring home to the President the global impact of climate change, and the interconnectedness of actions in one part of the world with other parts of the world. Both the BP oil spill and impact of the tsunami are illustrating the global reaches of environmental policy, and the importance of climate change as a truly global issue. Climate change is truly an issue that can’t be ignored any longer.

Andrew Rudelavige: I don’t expect to see him take much action there, because I don’t see there being much prospect for success. There’s a lot of stuff at the margins he can do, through the regulatory process and through the contracting process: not exciting, but less salient in setting off those who are hugely against any active climate policy. The House put itself on the line in 2009, passing a cap and trade bill, and the Senate never even took it up. So I honestly don’t see it happening.

Why does he not care about climate change?

AR: I’m not sure he doesn’t care. I think at the edges of that policy arena, there are things he’s done — with regards to fuel economy, supporting alternative energy manufacturing and use, trying to manipulate the tax code to make it more feasible to use wind power or water power, what have you. The EPA has been much more active than it was during the Bush administration in thinking about ways it can regulate carbon dioxide and so forth, but a lot of that is going to be in courts, a lot of it is a bureaucratic process. I don’t think you’re going to have a dramatic law that’s going to say, ‘Emissions are done; the climate is going to be saved.’ I don’t think Obama sees it as a plausible goal of his administration or one that can be done legislatively. Indeed, the facts on the ground – or I guess in the air! – are that China and India are going to have a lot more to do with this than we are in some ways. So some of it moves into the foreign policy realm.

The case he hasn’t made — he’s said it, but I don’t know if he’s ever convinced as many people as he needs to — is that economic development and energy efficiency go together. That is the idea behind green jobs, green energy, etc.. The easier argument is, ‘Yeah, it would be nice if we could be greener, but let’s face it, 20% of the people in my district are out of work.’

Do you think in 2016 people will care more about the climate?

AR: Ironically, people agreed about it more in the 1990s than they do now. But even with the storms we’ve had, the environment will remain a tough issue to move past rhetoric to action. Everyone agrees that it would be nice to have cleaner air and water, but what are they willing to trade off for it? Like all public goods, issues of pollution control is hard to address because it invites “free riders” instead of individual action — and I’m not sure that will change by 2016.