“Compared to the other guys, they look great,” Stephen Smith of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy said at a gathering of clean-energy activists and businesspeople on Monday night.
Attendees at the packed event remarked on how few Republicans showed up to a similar party in Tampa before last week’s Republican National Convention. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) got a few cheers when he called for Obama’s reelection.
But arguing that Obama is merely better than Republicans on climate change is a nasty sort of compliment. The president’s is a record of dashed hopes. The man who promised in 2008 to stop the rise of the oceans put health-care and financial reform before capping carbon dioxide emissions. By 2010, a Senate climate bill died as much by presidential neglect as anything else. Environmentalists were "shell-shocked," said Smith.
But if Obama were reelected, he would have another opportunity for some big policymaking — and it is possible that good energy policy could figure into it, if he cared to press for it. By early 2013, the near-simultaneous expiration of the Bush tax rates and the activation of automatic spending cuts will force Congress to rewrite tax and spending policy, one way or another, and some green-technology advocates are looking forward to it.
The best climate policy is a carbon tax, and it’s not as politically impossible as it sounds. A grand bargain would require both parties to compromise, and pricing carbon could provide lawmakers with a new stream of revenue to fund energy research, pay down the debt, or even cut other taxes, all things Republicans like, while discouraging the use of dirty energy, which Democrats favor. At least, Whitehouse argued Monday, conservative opposition will not be as focused on energy with the whole budget on the table for discussion.
Whitehouse predicted that compromise would have to come in the Senate. There, he said, green-minded lawmakers need to assemble a “blocking minority” to demand clean-energy policy in any grand bargain.
A freshly reelected Obama could also make climate policy a priority in budget negotiations, instead of leaving it to Whitehouse and his blocking minority. Not only would that keep the issue on the table, it would give the president responsibility over the shape of the policy. Lawmakers could very easily give up on good ideas — such as carbon taxes or, barring that, energy research funding and subsidy reform — in favor of what they usually do — subsidies and other handouts to favored groups. In the past, Obama has admitted the latter is not the best path, but he has yet to really fight for the right policy.
The question, then, remains: Does Obama care enough? It’s a damning statement about his first term, and the campaign he’s running to gain a second, that we can only guess.