Obama and the New Climate Centrism

In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama tacitly acknowledged how politically toxic climate change had become by not mentioning it once. His move angered many environmentalists who insisted there could be no significant action without a full-throated defense of the climate science against skeptics.

Obama Energy Centrism.jpg

But one year later, President Obama's shift can be understood as part of a new climate centrism, one focused less on climate science and carbon pricing and more on energy innovation and the regulation of conventional pollutants like mercury. In his 2012 address, Obama briefly mentioned the divisiveness of climate change as a segue to touting his energy policies.

Polls show that Obama's call for continued energy innovation funding was one of the most popular elements of his speech. Meanwhile, the EPA's new mercury regulations—which will result in the shuttering of some of America's dirtiest coal plants—have long been more popular with Independents and Republicans than carbon regulations.

These policies have a growing number of supporters on the right. Last week, John Tierney of the New York Times pointed to a new study in Science that touted the climate benefits of dealing with non-carbon pollutants:

After looking at hundreds of ways to control these pollutants, the researchers determined the 14 most effective measures for reducing climate change, like encouraging a switch to cleaner diesel engines and cookstoves, building more efficient kilns and coke ovens, capturing methane at landfills and oil wells, and reducing methane emissions from rice paddies by draining them more often.

If these strategies became widespread, the researchers calculate, the amount of global warming in 2050 would be reduced by about one degree Fahrenheit, roughly a third of the warming projected if nothing is done.

The approach is aligned with the bipartisan policy proposal, Climate Pragmatism, co-authored by the Breakthrough Institute, which noted that Sen. Inhofe on the right and Sen. Boxer on the left could agree on the value of reducing soot from wood and dung fires in India—a major source of respiratory disease and a driver of glacial melting—even when they couldn't agree on carbon regulations.

Obama's explicit embrace of nuclear and natural gas broadens the political appeal of his energy policies. Sen. Lamar Alexander last year advocated a nuclear renewal and the electrification of America's cars and trucks. Sen. Lisa Murkowski gave a speech calling for a stronger innovation push on all of America's energy sources.

Energy innovation policies modeled after the military procurement policies that resulted in jet turbines and microchips may have more appeal than those policies modeled after agricultural price subsidies. "I'm proud to announce," said Obama, "that the Department of Defense, the world's largest consumer of energy, will make one of the largest commitments to clean energy in history—with the Navy purchasing enough capacity to power a quarter of a million homes a year."

Other conservatives are talking back to both the skepticism of the right and the apocalypse talk of the left. "A theory about the role of carbon dioxide in climate patterns has joined abortion and gay marriage as a culture war controversy," wrote former George W. Bush speech writer and Washington Post columnist, Michael Gerson, last week. "Climate scientists are attacked as greenshirts and watermelons (green on the outside, red on the inside). Skeptics are derided as flat-earthers. Reputations are assaulted and the e-mails of scientists hacked."

Gerson drew on our 2011 speech, "Why Climate Science Divides Us But Energy Technology Unites Us," to argue:

Many political liberals have seized on climate disruption as an excuse for policies they supported long before climate science became compelling—greater federal regulation and mandated lifestyle changes. Conservatives have also tended to equate climate science with liberal policies and therefore reject both.

Gerson and Tierney are not alone. Last August, Jonathan Adler, a professor at Case Western and a contributor to The National Review and the Wall Street Journal, defended New Jersey's Republican Governor Chris Christie against skeptics for accepting the reality of climate change but rejecting regional emissions trading. "Conservatives embrace an anti-scientific know-nothingism whereby scientific claims are to be evaluated not by scientific evidence but their political implications," wrote Adler.

To be sure, there will always be climate skeptics who attempt to shout down Republican leaders who acknowledge the reality of global warming, and hardcore conservatives who oppose any public investment beyond basic research -- just as there will always be greens who insist that anything other than economy-wide pollution caps will, literally, be the end of the world.

But it now appears that the influence of the extremes over their parties is giving way to a new pragmatism, one that holds the possibility of becoming a lasting consensus in favor of policies that a majority of Americans might support, even if for somewhat different reasons.