By Bill Becker
With the exception of Alfred E. Newman and those who are taking advantage of legalized pot, we Americans are very good worriers. We are even able to worry about several things at once. It’s a kind of emotional multi-tasking and we do it all the time.
Nevertheless, it’s a skill that President Obama consistently underestimates when he talks about the politics of global climate change. The most recent example came in his meeting earlier this month with high-net-worth supporters in San Francisco. As the New York Times reported it, the President lamented that the politics of the environment are “tough.”
“You may be concerned about the temperature of the planet, but it’s probably not your No. 1 concern,” the Times quoted him as saying. “And if people think, well, that’s shortsighted, that’s what happens when you’re struggling to get by.”
He made a similar statement last Nov. 14 in his first post-election news conference:
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. I won’t go for that.
The idea that we live in a one-worry-at-a-time political environment is encouraged by public opinion polls that ask citizens to identify their top issues — in other words, what worries them most. Climate change routinely falls well down the list behind all things economic.
The polls corner their respondents into false choices, however, because most of the issues people are asked to rank are interrelated. Oil prices have a big impact on the economy and jobs. The extreme weather attributed to climate change, which in turn is attributed to our use of fossil fuels, results in more federal spending, which deepens the budget deficit and pressure on taxes. Climate impacts around the world already are undermining international security. Some of the money American consumers spend on gasoline ends up in the Middle East supporting terrorism. And as study after study has concluded, using energy more efficiently and making the transition to renewable energy not only slows climate change; it also stimulates the economy and creates jobs. Breaking these issues apart, stuffing them into stovepipes and asking people to rank them is not nearly as informative as pollsters and politicians make it out to be.
As intelligent as he obviously is, President Obama should have no trouble stitching these issues back together to help the American people see the interconnections that exist in the real world between energy, climate, economy, jobs, national security, government spending, and other issues on the pollsters’ lists.
During his November news conference, President Obama continued:
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. 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.
So let’s hear from you, Mr. President. Since it’s so hard to put carbon back in the smokestack or to put the pieces back after our super-storms, let’s have a national conversation about climate change in the coming months rather than the coming years. Don’t worry about us. We’re world-class worriers. It’s a skill that’s been passed down from generation to generation. We, like you, are able to handle more than one important issue at a time.
– Bill Becker is Executive Director of the Presidential Climate Action Project (PCAP), an initiative of Natural Capitalism Solutions to help the President of the United States take decisive action on global warming and energy security.