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Some pundits challenge my statement, “Future generations are likely to view Obamas choice of health care over energy and climate legislation as a blunder of historic proportions.”

Here’s why they are wrong

Last week, I blogged on David Brooks’ counterfactual in which Obama tackled energy before health care.

I broke a cardinal rule of blogging — well, it would be a cardinal rule if blogging had any — in that I made a sweeping statement, but sent folks to my earlier post, “The failed presidency of Barack Obama, Part 1,” for the defense of that statement. Few people click on links. That is life on the blogosphere.

That said, I’ve been making the same essential point for a long time now — see my May Salon piece, “Will eco-disasters destroy Obama’s legacy?” and my January 2007 CAP piece, History Won’t Warm to “W”.

I think it’s obvious that failure to tackle climate legislation is a blunder of historic proportions — at least obvious to anyone who has read the recent climate science literature or talked to any significant number of leading climate scientists (see “An illustrated guide to the latest climate science” and “Real adaptation is as politically tough as real mitigation, but much more expensive and not as effective in reducing future misery”). Sadly, that is not a large fraction of the pundit class or intelligentsia.

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Anyone who writes on politics and policy for a general audience, especially someone who opines on global warming, must take the time to educate themselves seriously on this most important of issues beyond “I read an article in the New York Times….” or “This guy I trust on scientific matters tells me….”Even so, I didn’t expect that my post and its final throw-away line would get read by the likes of Andrew Sullivan and Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias and Kevin Drum at Mother Jones and E. D. Kain (well, okay, I had no clue who Kain is).

In particular Kain and Sullivan demonstrate that they just don’t get it in their replies. Sullivan simply excerpts Kain:

While certainly there is work to be done on the climate change front, the potential side effects of global warming are still a ways down the road, while the side effects of being uninsured are immediate. Similarly, the costs of future global warming are hard to predict, while the costs of not reforming our healthcare system are relatively easy to predict. In other words, climate change is something we are still on some levels unsure about — we know it’s happening, we know we’re contributing to it, but we don’t know exactly what will happen in the end and for most Americans, it’s still a fairly vague, abstract fear in any case. If you get really sick and don’t have insurance — that’s immediate. If you can’t get health insurance because you have health problems or you’re too old (but not old enough for Medicare), that’s a problem for the here and now. That’s a problem you can sink your teeth into. If you have a large carbon footprint, well, you’re probably not doing too bad.

Yeow! Hard to believe Sullivan would repost such silliness without any commentary at all. Where to begin?

First and most narrowly, of course, I never said Obama shouldn’t do health care. Health care reform is important, and getting more people insured is vital. The blunder isn’t so much that he chose to do health care before energy, it’s that, the way he pursued things, he ended up choosing health care over energy, which is what I said. Klein notes that in the second Presidential debate, Tom Brokaw said that some choices must be made between health and energy and other policies and asked “Which of those will be your highest priority your first year in office and which will follow in sequence?” Obama said “Energy we have to deal with today…. we’ve got to deal with that right away…. Health care is priority number two.”

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Anyone who talked to the White House last year when they flipped the order were reassured that “success breeds success” — passing health care would help an energy bill. But given Obama’s catastrophically bad messaging along with his flawed strategy for getting a health care bill passed, which dragged on and on and on, it is obvious now in retrospect that only one of the two could be done. Obama ultimately never seriously thought for climate legislation in 2010, and he never seriously tried to take the (second) greatest fossil fuel disaster in US history and use it to launch a major push for the bill. And there is certainly little likelihood of comprehensive climate legislation for the next several years and possibly much longer — see “What are the prospects for comprehensive climate and clean energy legislation in the coming years “¦” — which just so happens to be the crucial time period for achieving a global deal or having any reasonable chance of averting catastrophic warming.

Second, we’re seeing the “side effects” of global warming now, but more importantly, pretty much the entire discussion in the scientific literature (and the informed policy debate) is about the fact that there are so many lags in the climate system that if you don’t take action now or very soon, the likelihood you can avoid catastrophic impacts diminishes rapidly and costs shoot through the roof. Here are two recent examples from the science literature:

As for the informed policy debate, last year, in releasing its World Energy Outlook, International Energy Agency Executive Director Nobuo Tanaka explained:

The message is simple and stark: if the world continues on the basis of today’s energy and climate policies, the consequences of climate change will be severe….

The IEA 450 scenario is the energy pathway to Green Growth. Yet we need to act urgently and now. Every year of delay adds an extra USD 500 billion to the investment needed between 2010 and 2030 in the energy sector.

One might add, since neither Kain nor Sullivan actually specifies what they would do or when, substantial delay risks simply waiting so long that credible action to avoid multiple catastrophes simply becomes impractical.

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Third, relatedly, the assertion that “the costs of future global warming are hard to predict…. climate change is something we are still on some levels unsure about — we know it’s happening, we know we’re contributing to it, but we don’t know exactly what will happen in the end” is misleading to the point of obfuscation. As I’ve discussed countless times on ClimateProgress, continuing to do nothing for the foreseeable future eliminates most of the major uncertainty. The costs of doing nothing are staggering — see Scientists find “net present value of climate change impacts” of $1240 TRILLION on current emissions path, making mitigation to under 450 ppm a must, and even that is a lowball estimate.

True, we don’t know exactly what will happen — we don’t know if continuing to do nothing will bring about multiple catastrophes (plausible best case on our current emissions path) or utterly destroy a livable climate with unimaginable consequences for human civilization and life on this planet (plausible worst case) — but we know what the science says. At the risk of repeating myself for the umpteenth time in the small hope that one of the bloggers above might actually read this post, here is what we now understand we may very well face on our current emissions path:

And that isn’t the worst case:

Fourth, Kain asserts, and Sullivan reposts without comment, “and for most Americans, it’s still a fairly vague, abstract fear in any case.” Even if that were true, that’s exactly why the so-called intelligentsia is supposed to take the time to educate themselves on matters of such grave importance so they can help inform the public. If you never spell out precisely what will happen if we stay anywhere near our current path of unrestricted emissions, then obviously for many people, what will happen will remain vague and abstract — at least until you get smacked in the head like the citizens of Russia or Australia.

Fifth, and most absurd, Sullivan reposts Kain’s lines, “If you have a large carbon footprint, well, you’re probably not doing too bad.” I do hope that you were wearing your head vise for that. That is pretty much pre-French revolution, “Apr¨s moi, le d©luge” stuff. It is precisely because we are the richest country in the world with the greatest cumulative contribution to global warming that we have an ethical duty to act now. As Tom Friedman wrote last year in “The Inflection Is Near?

“We created a way of raising standards of living that we can’t possibly pass on to our children,” said Joe Romm, a physicist and climate expert who writes the indispensable blog climateprogress.org. We have been getting rich by depleting all our natural stocks “” water, hydrocarbons, forests, rivers, fish and arable land “” and not by generating renewable flows.

“You can get this burst of wealth that we have created from this rapacious behavior,” added Romm. “But it has to collapse, unless adults stand up and say, ‘This is a Ponzi scheme. We have not generated real wealth, and we are destroying a livable climate “¦’ Real wealth is something you can pass on in a way that others can enjoy.”

I elaborated on that here: “Is the global economy a Ponzi scheme?

The Ponzi scheme is going to crash unless we act now, which, apparently we’re not going to unless the anti-science, pro-pollution conservatives, and team Obama, and the status quo media wake up soon. The painful reality of what unrestricted greenhouse gas emissions mean is slowly dawning on countries like Australia and Russia, and in a few decades, every major country will be slammed with what used to be once-in-a-1,000-year droughts and floods and heat waves on a regular basis — and everybody will understand that we should have acted long ago when it was infinitely cheaper to do so and might have averted multiple catastrophes.

Again, Obama’s legacy “” and indeed the legacy of all 21st century presidents, starting with George W. Bush “” will be determined primarily by whether we avert catastrophic climate change. If not, then Obama “” and all of us “” will be seen as a failure, and rightfully so.

There would be no other way to judge all of us if we (and the rest of the world) stay on our current greenhouse gas emissions path, which risks warming most of the inland United States by nine degrees or more by century’s end and which could lead to sea levels 3 to 6 feet higher (rising perhaps a foot or more a decade after that), cause the Southwest “” from Kansas to California “” to become a permanent dust bowl, and transform much of the ocean into a hot, acidic dead zone (see “An introduction to global warming impacts: Hell and High Water “).

By the end of the third decade of this century, all of American life “” politics, international relations, our homes, our jobs, our industries, the kind of cars we drive “” will be forever transformed by the climate and energy challenge.

It’s the job of pundits to explain that to policymakers and the public. Otherwise they are part of the problem and in the wrong line of work — see How the status quo media failed on climate change.