President Obama is the only person capable of speaking directly to the American people in a way that will correct the course of climate change legislation in Congress before it is too late. Congress has never been closer to enacting a price on pollution related to global warming than it is today but proposed legislation is in serious jeopardy of being torpedoed by misinformation and most importantly, a lack of leadership. Congress risks the viability of climate change law further by the method in which it passes related legislation; climate change is a long-term fight and the public must perceive it to be like other continuing programs like Medicare and Social Security.
Propaganda about the effects of cap-and-trade on the economy is one of the primary factors that could bring it down in the Senate. The opposition framed cap-and-trade as a threat to economic growth and a national energy tax; in response supporters of legislation have described it as a jobs bill. Neither are entirely true but the opposition’s argument is easier to believe, despite evidence to the contrary. Last week, the head of the EPA told the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee that cap-and-trade would not raise your taxes in hopes of quelling fears of the program’s impact on the economy. By leading her argument for cap-and-trade with job benefits and low cost instead of only on protecting the environment, Lisa Jackson stokes memories of the previous agency head, Stephen Johnson. He stated that potential harm to the economy prevents the EPA from acting on greenhouse gas emissions using the Clean Air Act. The fact is the cost to consumers could be around what the Congressional Budget Office estimates, a paltry $0.50 per day for the average American in 2020, or it could be even lower than predicted like the last time the U.S. undertook a massive cap-and-trade system, the acid rain program in the 1990s. Cap-and-trade could also considerably increase energy costs at some detriment to economic growth in many sectors. Framing the argument around jobs or economic benefit is challenging and not likely to lead to overwhelming success, which this legislation needs.
Climate change has become too divisive an issue for Senator Boxer or Congressman Waxman to drive. Instead, President Obama must step up to the plate similarly to his efforts on healthcare. The two pillars of his first term should be healthcare and energy, not the recession and traditional Washington politics. A national speech laying out the importance of climate change could create the political will to deal with the issue effectively without resorting to backroom deals. After all, political feasibility is another name for poor leadership. The speech should focus on the risks to humanity of inaction, the need for the U.S. to lead on this issue, the national security concerns related to traditional sources of energy, and the imperative for action to come now. Such an address should occur before the climate conference in Copenhagen to avoid detractors defining the effort as another attempt by the President to pander to the rest of the world. President Obama still has time to explain why Americans should pay more for energy – he has a gift for convincing people to follow him and he should use it in this case because the road ahead for energy policy will not be easy to navigate. Gaining massive public acceptance now is necessary to prevent future administrations from rescinding the program.