New York Times Slams Obama For ‘Lame’ Flip-Flop On Economic Benefit Of Climate Action

What a difference a few years — or even a few months — makes on the President’s clarity about the false choice between jobs and environment:

Obama (4/09): “The choice we face is not between saving our environment and saving our economy. The choice we face is between prosperity and decline.”

Obama (10/09): “There are those who will suggest that moving toward clean energy will destroy our economy — when it’s the system we currently have that endangers our prosperity and prevents us from creating millions of new jobs.”

Obama (3/12): “There will always be people in this country who say we’ve got to choose between clean air and clean water and a growing economy, between doing right by our environment and putting people back to work.  And I’m here to tell you that is a false choice. That is a false choice.   With smart, sustainable policies, we can grow our economy today and protect our environment for ourselves and our children.

Obama (11/12):  “There’s no doubt that for us to take on climate change in a serious way would involve making some tough political choices. And 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 if the message is somehow we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody is going to go for that. I won’t go for that.”

Uhh, Mr. President, that isn’t “the message” — and it isn’t even “your message.” Heck, it isn’t even true!

It’s inaction that is costly (see IEA’s Bombshell Warning: We’re Headed Toward 11°F Global Warming and “Delaying Action Is a False Economy”).

John Broder at The New York Times has a good piece taking the president to task for his flip flop. Broder cites Obama’s remarks on climate from his recent press conference (fourth quote above) and writes:

This assertion – that the nation cannot address its climate and environmental challenges while also dealing with jobs and the economy – is at odds with the approach that Mr. Obama has taken since early in his presidency. He often touted the benefits of “green jobs” as an antidote to a stalled economy, and devoted some $90 billion of his 2009 stimulus package to a variety of measures that he said would save energy, clean up the atmosphere and create jobs.

Earlier this year, Mr. Obama accused Republican critics of wrongly pitting the economy and the environment against each other….

Broder then cites the third quote above from March of this year. How soon they forget?

But does the NY Times literally call this lame flip-flip by Obama “lame”? Well, they managed to find some center-left climate blogger to do that for them:

Joseph Romm, a former Energy Department official who runs the influential Climate Progress blog at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning research and advocacy group with close White House ties, pronounced the president’s climate comments “lame.”

“I think it’s hard to know what’s going on inside his head, because he certainly understands the issue,” Mr. Romm said in a telephone interview. “I think he thinks a tax deal is going to be very hard and he doesn’t want to make it harder by injecting a carbon tax into the mix.”

“It was a very wishy-washy statement,” he added. “I just think his advisers are telling him to deflect the issue entirely.”

The public also doesn’t believe in this false choice (see “Poll: 75 Percent of Americans Support Regulating CO2 As A Pollutant, 60 Percent Support Revenue-Neutral Carbon Tax“).

But the worst thing is that that president has articulated the absurd nature of this false choice better than almost any other leading political figure of our time. Go to the White House website and read the article from April 2009 with the banner headline:

“A Choice Between Prosperity and Decline”

You can read the President’s entire speech on the subject, which explains:

Now, the choice we face is not between saving our environment and saving our economy.  The choice we face is between prosperity and decline.  We can remain the world’s leading importer of oil, or we can become the world’s leading exporter of clean energy.  We can allow climate change to wreak unnatural havoc across the landscape, or we can create jobs working to prevent its worst effects. We can hand over the jobs of the 21st century to our competitors, or we can confront what countries in Europe and Asia have already recognized as both a challenge and an opportunity:  The nation that leads the world in creating new energy sources will be the nation that leads the 21st-century global economy.
America can be that nation.  America must be that nation.
Where’s that guy?

42 Responses to New York Times Slams Obama For ‘Lame’ Flip-Flop On Economic Benefit Of Climate Action

  1. BillD says:

    I vote for the 2009 comment at the bottom. Maybe we need to give Obama a break while the fiscal cliff is being negociated. Why doesn’t the admistration just say, “let’s talk about climate change in a month or two?” On the other hand, we can’t wait and year and should put the pressure on this winter.

  2. MarkF says:

    It’s amazing to me that President Obama is unable to do two things at once.

    Last time we were told he was working away on his healthcare project, so, no time for climate change.

    Now it’s the financial situation.

    so, once again, no time for climate change.

    Funny, it seems to me, most people are able to work on more than one thing at one time.

  3. Nell says:

    “We are laying an ambush for ourselves”
    -Al Gore

  4. Mark Haag says:

    Time to hit the streets?. Obama needs to be able to say the people want this. And he needs to know there is a price for being lame. Some large demonstrations for a comprehensive policy soon after the Hurricane in the east and drought in the west-the media ties the two together, along with interviews with politicians like Mayor Bloomberg threatening to outflank him.

  5. Joe —

    I think the issue is this:

    1. Republicans floated the canard of using the carbon tax as a way to prevent tax increases for the wealthy.

    2. Obama is 100% against any such manipulation so he’s hiding behind this language of jobs growth.

    3. Clarity will be needed in any carbon tax fight. So I’m thinking, possibly optimistically, that Obama is holding off on the carbon tax until after the budget deal is managed.

    A masterful negotiator, however, would seize on the opportunity to present a carbon tax and transfer plan ala Hansen that is budget neutral and still requires a removal of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

    The backing off the carbon tax, however, was a bit disconcerting. And so is the rhetoric.

  6. Mike Roddy says:

    Obama needs to know that he has spooked a lot of people by disavowing a carbon tax and, as Mark F says above, claiming he is too preoccupied with jobs to deal with global warming.

    The message we are getting is that there is a reason Obama never talked about climate during the campaign. He figured he had us anyway, and has no intention of taking any actions that inconvenience the oil, gas, and coal industries.

    This has happened before in the last four years, and every time a defender talks about Obama’s “long game” or stealth strategy, he ends up looking like a battered wife a few months later.

    This time we won’t be satisfied with more rhetoric. Deciding to “talk about climate change with engineers, scientists, and other folks from around the country” could be circumvented by a two hour meeting with Joe Romm or John Holdren. That way, his Administration could learn what is going on, and start to do something about it.

  7. Ken Barrows says:

    What’s the goal: 5% annual reduction on CO2 global emissions indefinitely? What makes anyone here think that Congress is going to present a bill for signature that even puts a dent in emissions?

  8. Mike Roddy says:

    Yeah, it will be tough. But what are the alternatives?

  9. A master negotiator Obama ain’t. Half the time, he throws out the baby AND the bathwater long before negotiations begin.

  10. The President’s first responsibility is, in his own words, to keep American’s safe.

    Dear Mr. President,

    In 2012 climate change has harmed and killed more Americans that all other foreign and domestic threats combined. If you are sincere about keeping us safe, you must stop all the mealy-mouthed rhetoric and take action on climate change now.


    The American Public

  11. No, not indefinitely, just until we reduce greenhouse gas emissions to nearly zero! You are confusing two things: (1) What we need to do and (2) the practical political problem of getting politicians to do the right thing. And the solution is action. By this I mean big demonstrations and other political pressure to make it clear that people are really worried about this. Time is short, and the status quo interests are powerful. The only way to make progress is to make the politicians fear for their jobs, and that means political pressure from all sides, including getting responsible business leaders to apply pressure in ways that only they know how to do.

  12. Jonathan wrote “The only way to make progress is to make the politicians fear for their jobs,…” And yet we continued to vote for them anyway.

    We heard about the super pac’s and how they failed. Still, it is time for an EcoPAC to make sure that our positions are getting the air time as well. And, if it is to be effective, it needs to back environmental friendly Republicans in primary races and not be afraid to back a Green against Petro Democrats.

  13. prokaryotes says:

    The uniqueness about our situation is that it is unprecedented and threats grow slowly. Because humans are used to act on short time frames, the classic political approach will likely fail.

  14. Mark Haag says:

    What Jonathan said. President Obama needs demonstrations as a support and a goad. And, if we aren’t ready to do that-we may be in as much denial as denialists.

  15. Roger says:

    Pro, You are SO right!

    It’s sad that the human brain’s ‘wiring’ doesn’t properly factor in the threat from anything that’s slow. This is exactly why successful societies have leaders who will be alert to unusual threats, then sound the alarm when they are uncovered. Speak up, Obama!

    Please help spread the word by liking: Thanks!

  16. support Democrats says:

    Our President eviscerated Romney’s sham platform beginning in the second debate.

  17. Paul Magnus says:

    The path forward is clear…. go for a carbon tax an if the GOP dont support it call their bluff.

    Because the correct response is a controlled depression.

    There is no two ways around this. We need a ww2 effort and people are going to have to be prepared for sacrifice.

    There is no way that we can tackle the carbon problem with out a massive curtailing of consumption.

  18. Artful Dodger says:

    Mike, you make good points.

    Joe, you’re ‘folks’. Has the Whitehouse contacted you yet for your chat?

    BTW, I think we’ll a lot will be revealed by what happens to the wind tax credit before December 31.

  19. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    If we do not oppose the wrongness of our governments then we are agreeing to that wrongness. Make your voices heard.

    To choose life or to choose death, the hour of decision is near. I beg you not to make that decision by default.

  20. BillD says:

    One key issue is that America and Obama need to show leadership first at home so that we can talk with other countries and work on international agreements. My view is that China and India are waiting for us. Of course, China is also investing in renewable energy so that they can be the world’s supplier as that sector becomes increasingly important. No climate denial in China.

  21. John McCormick says:

    Mark, I agree with your conclusion but I am not certain what we’re denying. I say it is the mind-bending enormity of what it will mean to families as America starts its move to zero carbon. Yes, on the graph it looks doable…each year we use less carbon fuels. They are replaced by non-fossil energy producers. What, where and how are the details yet to be worked out. Meanwhile, nearly half of Americans have to get to work on Monday at their part-time, minimum wage jobs and pay the higher living costs of transportation, food, heating and cooling.

    CP commenters are mostly comfortable with the what and where of alternatives to fossil fuels but have not any consensus on the how. We know massive renewable installation will require massive and expensive retrofit of America’s electric grid. That’s one how we haven’t come to terms with. Paying for ‘stranded assets’ in our electric bill as nearly 80% of electric generating capacity is shut down and its replacement cost is folded into the customer’s bill is another how.

    This is not an argument against taking action immediately. Instead, it is an appeal to the wonks and the blogs that we communicate with the American people just what will be expected of them and how their sacrifices are the only way we get to zero carbon.

  22. John McCormick says:

    Further note: According to the Federal Energy Information Agency, as a result of decades of under-investment, renovating and expanding the grid to meet demand alone will cost $1.5 trillion by 2030.

  23. Dennis Tomlinson says:

    PS. And Mr. President, do not forget about the starvation in Africa; The flooding in South Asia; The killer heat waves worldwide; The droughts, the storms, the suffering, and the climate refugees. And please Mr. President, don’t forget that it only gets worse from here. And remember that CO2 from tailpipes in LA; coal burning power plants in China and India; Fires in the rain forest of Brazil, and airliners flying from here to there and back – all add to our worsening climate catastrophe. Mr. President, you/we have no other choice and no more time. Get on with it… begin the fix here, then go talk to others about the same.

  24. lizardo says:

    Joe, I think you are making a dangerous assumption that Obama actually understands the threat of climate change and even the science. I have been yelling at my (NPR) radio lately because he referred to it as a threat to “future generations”–excuse me, it’s happening now and will make things unlivable for current generations.

    Secondly, he has recently said at least twice, that cleaner technologies, renewable energy (whatever) will remove carbon from the atmosphere. I don’t think he would mis-speak so dreadfully if he actually understood.

  25. Brooks Bridges says:

    Dr. Romm: I’m totally in agreement we need to light a fire under Obama.

    But I strongly object to what is basically a significant omission in your Obama (11/12) quote: You left out what immediately followed:

    “I won’t go for that.

    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.”

  26. Mike Roddy says:

    You are correct, Bill. Our inaction is providing cover for Chinese and Indian coal and political oligarchies. If we got serious, they would be forced to, since their natives are more restless than our own.

  27. Joe Romm says:

    Your point would have merit IF he were a first time candidate for office, IF he were someone who didn’t know the answer to his conditional statement, IF he weren’t someone who had already clearly — and strongly — come down on one side of this issue.

    This “on the one hand, and on the other hand” namby-pamby BS might have been fine a decade ago, but after the failure to even push seriously for a climate bill in his first term, we are past the point where anyone should be making excuses for a President who uses lame rhetoric to cover his tracks.

    If you want to know how I feel about Obama’s statement, click here.

  28. Joe Romm says:

    Well, he hired people who definitely understand the threat to advise him. Of course, he — or rather Axelrod — muzzled them….

  29. SecularAnimist says:

    As far as I can tell, Obama fully intends to make America the world’s largest producer and exporter of coal and oil.

    The Obama administration’s limited and low-key support for renewable energy and efficiency is all well and good, but they are investing a lot more into expanding fossil fuel extraction.

    Even at the rhetorical “bully pulpit” level, Obama has spent a lot more time boasting about the massive expansion in coal and oil extraction that his administration’s “Drill Baby Drill” policies have enabled, than talking about the growth of the renewable energy industries.

  30. Bob Maginnis says:

    My USA squanders about $1 trillion per year on ‘defense,’ including the Patriot act, TSA, Veterans care and interest on that debt, but only 1 or 2 percent of that combatting global warming. If we spent 10% of our military budget on energy efficiency, we would save $100 billion every year after 6 or 8 years, and maybe $200 billion per year after 15 years, even more, considering that the non renewable fossil fuel will cost more as it becomes harder to drill and mine after the easy oil and coal is gone.

    We are squandering our ‘natural capital,’ like the ‘prodigal son’ who inherits a fortune and spends it, rather than investing in something productive and living off the annual earnings.

    Investing in energy efficiency could put a million people to work, and we can enjoy the ‘earnings’ of efficiency for decades to come.

  31. Brooks Bridges says:

    I feel the same way, unimpressed.

    However; Where does the blame for his inaction truly belong?

    On me, your readers and others supposedly serious about climate change.

    Just not serious enough for a million of us to get off our rears and march on the White House – or fund people able to march.

    Much easier to blame Obama.

    What about blaming us for a change? I don’t think I’ve seen a single post on this.

  32. Joe Romm says:

    Future generations will indeed blame us all. Some, like Obama, do have more power and more ability to change the conversation.

  33. Mark E says:

    One day march on WH….. Baahhhh

    How about each of those Sat afternoon marchers make a pledge to fast from fossil fuel transportation, whatever the reason, for 1 full year? I did a few years back and it was AWESOME! And I got to talk about why and model my choices for a LOT of people, each day. The worse the weather, the better the message. Try it, you will LOVE it, and you will be amazed what you can do without the gas tank IV hooked up to the oil tanker.

  34. Jim Baird says:

    Bob, theenergycollective bills itself as a forum of the world’s best thinkers on energy & climate.

    The most agreed upon recent comment on the site may be of interest to you.

    “Hurricanes and OTEC would compete for the same source of energy; the surface heat of the oceans. To the extent OTEC would draw off this heat it would no longer be available to power hurricanes.”

  35. Brooks Bridges says:

    I agree.

    But right now he’s up to his ass in alligators and I think it’s up to us to unite all climate hawks so we become the biggest, baddest alligator of the bunch.

    Here’s an excellent article, “How to Push Obama” which discusses his political journey and gives specific examples of what other constituencies are doing “to make Obama do the left thing”.

    Thank you for all you do Dr. Romm; It’s crucial.

  36. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Waiting? They have been quietly tearing their collective hair out at American intransigence. Why do you think the BRICS block has been strengthening? The rest of the world does not need your leadership, it needs your cooperation, ME

  37. David Lewis says:

    Although Joe says Obama “certainly understands the issue”, I wonder. Obama keeps on talking about it as if he doesn’t have a clue.

    Eg, from his acceptance speech delivered to the Democratic National Convention: “And yes, my plan will continue to reduce the carbon pollution that is heating our planet”.

    His plan, whatever it is, isn’t reducing the carbon pollution. The CO2 concentration in the atmosphere continues to increase. Anyone who says otherwise says so out of ignorance, or for a reason.

    Obama repeated this performance in his recent press conference: “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…. And we continue to invest in potential breakthrough technologies that could further remove carbon from our atmosphere.”

    The issue just isn’t important enough to him or his advisors for them to bother to come up with a sentence or two that is consistent with the facts.

  38. Bob Maginnis says:

    Jim, you wrote:
    “OTEC is a thermodynamic method for moving sea surface heat to the depths to produce energy in a heat engine”

    Actually, OTEC brings cold water up from the depths to provide the ‘cold end’ of the heat engine, not that you couldn’t send the gas phase of the working fluid down to the depths to be condensed and pumped back up as a liquid, but there would be energy losses pumping the working fluid back up 1,000 feet.

    Regrettably, both OTEC and wave energy systems require massive investment of money and materials to survive in an Ocean environment.

    Energy efficiency is the cheapest source of energy, aka negawatts.

  39. Lyn Harrison says:

    An excellent and useful debate, but a couple of facts to straighten out and a couple to add from the other side of the Atlantic.

    The American grid needs a massive retrofit, whether pursuing a renewables-based electricity future or one based on thermal generation. The cost, however, is not “massive” but a relatively small proportion of the total electricity bill.

    That bill will be smaller if America does its sums, as Europe has done, and shifts to a renewable energy future. The price of not doing so will be a national economy struggling in rising debt for ever more.

    The “energy payback” on fossil fuels is a negative sum game. It will take increasing volumes of energy to create energy from fossil fuels. Several leading economists have studied this paradigm and their conclusions are sobering.

    The cost of renewables is a known quantity today and will be no higher in 20, 30 or 50 years. Energy payback is very good. The cost of renewables is falling, fast. That is not the case for fossil fuels.

    Grounds for economic hope:

    About 30% of the world’s 250 GW of installed wind capacity is located in places where it is generating electricity cheaper or as cheap as any other technology. Through constant innovation, the wind industry is pushing that 30% proportion ever higher as it adds to the global generation base. The scope for cost cutting in the young industry remains enormous.

    Wind on land is the the most advanced renewable. Its capital cost is higher because it takes more people to build, operate and maintain a wind power station than a thermal plant. In other words, it creates more jobs. Even so, in many places today the cost of electricity from wind energy is highly competitive with that from fossil fuel.

    It does not take an economic genius to fathom that shifting to wind power is already better for a national economy than pursuing fossil fuel business as usual.

    Americans are kept in the dark about these energy economic fundamentals by the plethora of market distortions that decide energy prices today, including those of gas. Cost and price are very different beasts. Support for renewables is a pragmatic way of redressing the balance for a less costly future.

    President Barack Obama apparently knows this. But in his promised effort to reach across the political divide, he is choosing not to wave a red flag at the Republican bull (pun intended). Does he have the backbone, the courage and the negotiating skills for the great leadership needed of an American president in difficult times; a president that can sign citizens up up for limited short term sacrifice in the name of long term gain?

    Not sure. Go light that fire.

  40. Richard L says:

    Philip and Dennis,

    I really like what you wrote. I think of what I can do to try and be effective to gain attention to this issue.

    I live too far from DC to protest regularly. I think a protest or two a year is important, but easily ignored by the media.

    I send in email petitions to Obama and others, but I wonder if they are easily ignored as they are electronic and do not require human attention.

    I am thinking of sending a printed letter every day to the White House with the same note in it each time. A letter is something that has to be handled, opened, and I assume catalogued in a issue checklist by the staffers. I can do this every day with minimal effort, and the White House will see a sustained concern about the issue. I am wondering if 10,000 people across the Country did this every day, if it would be noticed.

    Anyone with experience in protesting tried this before? Ideas/reactions?

  41. Jim Baird says:

    Actually, OTEC brings cold water up from the depths to provide the ‘cold end’ of the heat engine.

    Not if you use a heat pipe instead of a cold water pipe. You reduce the size of the pipe from 14.5 meters for a 100MW plant to about 1/10th of that and reduce the cost accordingly.

    Melvin Prueitt, Los Alamos, has a patent application 20070289303 using a heat pipe that calculates the parasitic losses for such a system are only 7.6% using ammonia as the working fluid. The calculation was made on a program OTEC.exe, which from what I understand is proprietary to the DOE.

  42. lizardo says:

    Thank you David Lewis for those quotes. That’s what I was saying. It seemed clear to me and it made clearer by these quotes that Obama does NOT understand the science, period.

    I would theorize at to why: that he didn’t before and he simply doesn’t have the time now to go back to square one to learn it the way the rest of us non-scientists have, but in the meantime gets these various solutions thrown at him, that is in the 0.01% or less of his time not spent on kill lists and wrangling with the GOP house and oh, that two year election we just endured. And yes, was up to his neck in alligators before much got done.

    And yes, Axelrod. What is with that guy?