Obama on Climate Change: Underwhelming

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My reaction to Obama’s State of the Union remarks on climate change last night: underwhelming. He uttered the phrase “climate change” precisely once. Worse, the president missed an opportunity to communicate the gravity of the crisis to the American people.

Instead, he mildly rebuked Republicans for denying the “overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change” and then turned around and endorsed a grab-bag of corporatist energy policies that will have a negligible effect on greenhouse gas emissions.

I can understand that in a rotten economy, people want to hear about job creation, but look at the “clean energy” policies Obama called for.

But to create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. That means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country. It means making tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development. It means continued investment in advanced biofuels and clean coal technologies.

Nuclear power, offshore drilling, “clean” coal? Incredibly, not a single mention of wind power. This could have been a Republican speaking.

Obama made a small effort at selling the climate bill by feebly tying greenhouse gas reductions to job growth.

And yes, it means passing a comprehensive energy and climate bill with incentives that will finally make clean energy the profitable kind of energy in America. I am grateful to the House for passing such a bill last year. This year, I am eager to help advance the bipartisan effort in the Senate.

I know there have been questions about whether we can afford such changes in a tough economy; and I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change. But even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy.

Senate bipartisanship was such a success with health care reform that we’re now going to make it a requirement for an energy/climate bill. Again, we see Obama’s weird habit of giving Republicans whatever they want without asking for anything in return. Awesome.

Some have read Obama’s use of the word “comprehensive” to mean that he’s still gonna push Congress to create an economy-wide cap on carbon. Besides the silliness of having to parse the president’s speech for his true intentions, I don’t think that’s what he was saying.

Conscpicious in its SOTU absence was a reference to cap-and-trade, the core of the climate bill that passed the House. Does Obama see the writing on the wall, that cap-and-trade is as good as dead? Probably. Although enormously flawed, cap and trade did constitute an economy-wide system for reducing greenhouse gasses. If it’s gone, what’s left?

In all likelihood, Congress will pass another mushy energy bill that’s little more than an amalgam of favors to various powerful industries. Or maybe I’m just being cynical. In any case, the window of opportunity to avoid catastrophic climate change continues to close.

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.