Perhaps the most interesting thing about Obama’s big climate change rollout speech — which just concluded — is how aggressive and unapologetic a pitch he made for the virtues of government regulation. He did so by putting the need for government action to combat carbon emissions right now in a larger context — one that includes the Clean Air Act of 1970, the battle against acid rain, and other now-popular environmental initiatives.
The goal was to recast the call for climate action as the centrist, common-sense solution, at a time when Republicans are already gearing up to caricature it as a resurgence of job-killing limousine liberalism.
Obama rolled out all the proposals he was expected to announce, and in a surprise, also announced that he would not approve the Keystone XL pipeline if it is found to increase carbon emissions. Here’s the key bit from the speech:
What you’ll hear from the special interests and their allies in Congress is that this will kill jobs and crush the economy, and basically end free enterprise as we know it. And the reason I know you’ll hear those things is because that’s what they said every time America sets clear rules and better standards for our air and our water and our children’s health. And every time, they’ve been wrong.
For example, in 1970, when we decided through the Clean Air Act to do something about the smog that was choking our cities…some of the sme doomsayers were saying, `new pollution standards will descimate the auto industry. Guess what? Didn’t happen. Our air got cleaner. In 1990 when we decided to do something about acid rain, they said our electricity bills would go up, the lights would go off, the country would suffer a `quiet death.’ None of it happened. Except we cut acid rain dramatically.
The problem with all these tired excuses for inaction is that it suggests a fundamental lack of faith in American business and American ingenuity. These critics seem to think that when we ask our businesses to innovate, and reduce pollution, and lead, they can’t or they won’t do it. They’ll just give up and quit. But in America, we know that’s not true. Look at our history. When we restricted cancer causing chemicals in plastics, and leaded fuel in our cars, it didn’t end the plastics industry or the oil industry. American chemists came up with better substitutes.
Obama named a string of other examples, noting that when we restricted ozone-depleting gases and instituted recent tough fuel standards, the targeted industries adapted just fine. It is heartening to hear such an expansive effort to beat back the idea that government regulation necessarily hurts the economy.
Right now, Republicans are making that argument — that Obama’s climate push will kill jobs — and are vowing to make it central to the 2014 elections. And some of the coverage of this seems to suggest reporters are accepting at face value the notion that Dems will have to run away from these proposals.
But polling on these matters is far from clear cut. Gallup has found that people prioritize the economy when asked to choose between it and the environment. But when people are asked directly about regulating carbon emissions, the picture changes. A recent Pew poll found 62 percent support stricter emissions limits to combat climate change, and a Post poll from last year found that 74 percent of Americans think government should act to reduce greenhouse emissions from power plants, cars, and factories.
Republicans appear to be banking on the fact that climate change is not a priority issue for Americans. But as Nate Cohn notes in a good piece, recent history suggests notions of negative political consequences for Dems from Obama’s climate push — perhaps outside coal country — are likely overstated. What’s more, tying the push to combat carbon emissions to previous battles to secure clean air and water could resonate among key constituencies, such as suburban voters and college educated whites, particularly women.
“He made a really powerful case that what he’s doing is necessary to protect public health and people who disagree with that are the ones who are extreme, out of touch with science and not looking out for the public interest,” Tiernan Sittenfeld, a senior vice president at the League of Conservation Voters, tells me.
As Jonathan Chait noted recently, the untold story of the Obama era is his vision of achieving liberal goals as a means for also achieving long-term economic growth:
Fashioning a long-term growth strategy is, and has always been, Obama’s deepest passion. He’s been caught up in an economic crisis and a culture war over the role of government that he wants badly to escape.
With that in mind, this might have been the most important part of the speech:
Don’t tell folks we have to choose between the health of our children and the health of our economy. The old rules may say we can’t protect our environment and promote economic growth at the same time. But in America we’ve always used new technologies — we’ve used science, research, and development — to make the old rules obsolete…
A low carbon, clean energy economy can be an engine of growth for decades to come. I want America to build that engine. I want America to build that future.
It’s good to see the president try to seize the center for a position that will be relentlessly caricatured by Republicans as pointy headed liberal micro-management of the economy run amok.