Where, exactly, is the Obama administration on climate change?

James Balog/Extreme Ice Survey (James Balog/Extreme Ice Survey)

State Department special envoy Todd Stern is the United States’s international point man on the issue, and at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi on Tuesday he gave a speech that could almost be interpreted as a criticism of some of things President Obama has said and done. He began by calling the effort to reduce greenhouse emissions a “war of necessity,” and he continued with this (h/t National Journal):

The fact that moving to clean energy may have a cost in the short run cannot be taken as an excuse not to act. Some actions can be taken at low or even no cost. Others will have some cost up front but will pay off over time, particularly when the full cost of fuel choices — in terms of pollution, health impacts, and energy security — is taken into account. . . . We all — whether the United States or China, the EU or Brazil, Japan or Mexico or India — must challenge ourselves. We won’t get where we need to go if countries see climate change as an afterthought.

Maybe this is a signal of more to come from the Obama administration?

Yet in his first term the president treated global warming as an afterthought, and as recently as last November left little reason to think that he will do much more in his second term, teeing up his next four years by indulging in the sort of free-lunch environmentalism that Stern just critiqued. At his post-election press conference, Obama said this:

If the message is somehow we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody’s gonna go for that. 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.

So which is it? President Obama’s flying unicorn policy in which fighting global warming apparently does not involve a costly diversion of resources? Or the straight talk from Todd Stern, who is willing to say that it is worth paying something now to reduce pollution and limit the risks of a rapidly changing climate later?

The answer matters because the best anti-carbon policies can only be justified with Stern’s position. A carbon tax or some more politically acceptable form of carbon pricing, for example, would impose direct, visible, up-front costs on energy consumption, but it is also actually among the least expensive tools available to reduce emissions. It’s difficult, in fact, to design any half-decent anti-carbon policy that does not raise energy prices somehow. And telling Americans that sacrifice isn’t necessary is a bad way of persuading them to accept higher energy prices.