Tue, Aug 25, 2009 - Page 9 News List

A rough climate for change

Barack Obama might be the most powerful man in the world, but he faces tough opposition from all sides over climate-change legislation


Former US vice president Al Gore made a surprise appearance on the sketch comedy program Saturday Night Live in May 2006 to offer an alternative-universe United States, one in which he’d become president after the 2000 election fiasco. Global warming was so soundly defeated that glaciers stood poised to attack Michigan and Maine. All Americans enjoyed free health care. The rest of the world held the US in such high esteem that Americans were afraid to travel to Europe for fear of being hugged too much.

By January of this year, many believed that this liberal fantasy had become liberal promise. A slight and handsome man, with ears sensitive to 300 million disparate voices, had appeared. President-elect Barack Obama reminded Americans in his weekly address of the impossible hand history had dealt him, the two wars, the economic crisis, the health care crisis, the climate crisis.

Remarkably, things that Obama said in those pre-inaugural weekly addresses would have been — no, were! — sketch comedy just two years before. An alternative universe had set upon us, vividly evidenced by the 200,000 Germans prepared to embrace a US presidential candidate in Berlin last summer. Climate change and health care might not have been licked just yet, but they’d better watch out.

Eight months into Obama’s presidency, foreign observers might be forgiven for asking why haven’t all those winged words lifted US climate policy from its rut? The man who admonished Americans: “We can’t fall into the old Washington habit of throwing money at the problem” has run into old Washington habits.

Here’s the story to date. Obama and his team built a compelling narrative in the campaign. There was so much bad news last year and so many intractable problems that everything was beginning to dovetail. A big story was coming together: All of our crises — Wall Street, “Main Street,” climate, health care — were entwined. The solutions must be, too. Climate change requires a new kind of economy, powered by the sun, wind and emissions-free coal-burning. A new economy requires a rationalized healthcare system, free of waste and poor judgment.

A campaign is monologic. The problem, once you live in the White House, is the other people who were elected to Washington and enjoy the standing they’ve earned. They would like to keep their jobs but might not be able to if they rubber-stamped all a president’s solutions.

The Democrats have already achieved an impressive and perhaps unlikely victory. It’s easy to forget in the noise. Climate change emerged as a national story this spring, when a powerful House of Representatives committee produced a “cap and trade” bill. The White House played a quieter role than many supporters envisioned, given the hoopla surrounding Obama’s advisory “dream team,” which includes former Environmental Protection Agency chief Carol Browner as climate tsar, Nobel laureate Steven Chu at the Department of Energy and Harvard global change expert John Holdren as chief science adviser.

One school argued that the White House so thoroughly trusted veteran Democrat Henry Waxman to lead the charge that they outsourced all the work to him. Another school sensed equivocation in a White House that didn’t want to waste precious political capital on a doomed climate bill. After all, climate change is easy to construe as a lose-lose proposition.

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