Obama Vows to Take Personal Charge of Climate Change in Second Term
Barack Obama claimed climate change as a personal mission of his second term on Wednesday, offering for the first time to take charge of the effort to find a bipartisan solution to the existential crisis.
Obama, speaking in the first White House press conference since his re-election, acknowledged his first term had made only limited progress on climate change. But he promised to remain personally engaged in getting Republicans and Democrats to agree on a course of action.
"So what I am going to be doing over the next several weeks, the next several months, is having a conversation – a wide-ranging conversation – with scientists, engineers and elected officials to find out what more we can do to make short term progress," he said. "You can expect that you will hear more from me in the coming months and years about how we can shape an agenda that garners bipartisan support and help moves this agenda forward."
The comments were Obama's most expansive in years on the dangers of climate change and his strategy for addressing the problem.
It was also the first time Obama said he would take personal charge of climate change.
The approach offers a marked difference from Obama's largely hands-off policy during his first term, when he left Democrats in Congress in charge of crafting a climate change bill. That effort ultimately collapsed in the Senate.
It was seen by some environmental campaigners as further evidence of how superstorm Sandy put climate change back on the political agenda. Obama is due to tour devastated areas of New York on Thursday.
However, the president also made clear that it would be hard to find areas of compromise, and that he would not be pushed by environmental allies into policies that did not have broad support.
"If the message is somehow that we are going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change I don't think anyone is going to go for that. I won't go for that," Obama warned.
"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 is something the American people would support."
The president also seemed, obliquely, to discount any possibility of pushing for a carbon tax, as Al Gore and others have suggested, in negotiations over the "fiscal cliff".
Even with those limitations, however, Obama's comments on climate change represent a break with past efforts by the White House to limit his exposure to what is viewed as one of the most bitterly divisive issues of the day.
Obama, like his challenger Mitt Romney, rarely mentioned climate change on the campaign trail, and the White House, early in his first term, decided to focus its messaging on green jobs and clean energyinstead of global warming.
But his remarks on Wednesday suggest Obama now intends to stake his own reputation on the search for climate solutions – claiming a leadership role that many have urged.
At a dinner last week for leaders in the renewable energy industry, hosted by the National Journal, the retired general Wesley Clark argued that a climate change agenda could not advance without Obama's personal intervention.
Obama, he told the dinner, needed a strategy. "There is no substitute for White House leadership. The president can't simply throw this to Congress," he said. "He has to deal with the deficit. But he also has to deal with a long-term strategy for energy and climate. He has got to talk about it first and call for a strategy and hear from hundreds of voices on it."
Clark went on: "He's got not only to have a megaphone at the top, but he's got to have local amplifiers out there."
The process of consultations described by Obama on Wednesday would appear to fit that bill.
The exercise would also help build a coalition for climate action, said Kert Davies, research director for Greenpeace in the US. "It sounds like he is actually getting backup for his mission. He is forming a phalanx of people who are saying: 'Yes, this is urgent,'" he said.
But he said it would be important, in the wake of Sandy, that Obama not shy away from speaking out about the dangers of climate change. "Owning the risk to the country is the main thing. If he understands the risk to the country and is broadcasting that and telling that story to the people of this country, he will have tremendous support for any action he takes," Davies said. "That was what was missing in 2009. They never said why there was a need for a climate bill."