Obama has kicked off a new conversation -- but where it's going is still unclear

President Obama and Democrats in Congress are talking about climate change again -- and environmentalists are delighted.

Greens on and off Capitol Hill have rushed to interpret Obama's inaugural pledge to "respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations" as a harbinger of action -- starting with tough new greenhouse gas rules for power plants and a rejection of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring Canadian oil sands crude to the Gulf Coast.

But Obama has given few hints about his climate agenda, preferring to focus instead on what he did in his first term, including curbs on auto tailpipe emissions and the first-ever U.S. greenhouse gas rules for power plants. And there's a growing expectation that one of Obama's first climate-related actions this year will be approval of TransCanada Corp.'s Keystone XL permit.

Obama may connect more of the policy dots during next week's State of the Union address, but until then, one of the only concrete new commitments he has made since his re-election in November was to initiate "a conversation across the country" on the risks of climate change and ways to address them.

Lawmakers, environmentalists and other experts all have their own views of what that conversation should look like and what it is likely to accomplish.


"I don't think the president is saying that all he'll do is talk about it," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) at an event with reporters late last month. Boxer, who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said she expected the Obama administration to busy itself in the second term with developing policies to rein in emissions, while Democrats on Capitol Hill protect those efforts from Republican attacks (Greenwire, Jan. 22).

When it comes to boosting public awareness of climate change, however, Boxer said she expected Obama to lead and then get out of the way.

"When he says he's going to have a conversation, it doesn't mean he's going to go into every town in America and have a conversation," she said. "What he's talking about is using his organization: utilizing members of Congress who care about these issues; utilizing the radio, computer, everything else; communicating with people."

Boxer said the public would be more receptive to a message about climate change if it came from their neighbors rather than politicians.

"The president is not talking about him having a conversation; he's talking about the American people conversing about these issues that are starting to come up," she said.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) also said at a recent press availability with Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) that the conversation would be a grass-roots effort.

"I see the conversation as a way -- as the president spoke so eloquently about in his inaugural address -- of bringing that spirit of citizenship that is out there in the country to breach those barricades of special-interest influence and get Congress to do what needs to be done and what the American people want to be done," he said.

Like Boxer, Whitehouse and Waxman are hoping Obama moves aggressively in his second term to address climate change, because there is little prospect of a carbon dioxide bill moving through Congress (Greenwire, Jan. 24). Just as Boxer has set up a climate working group in the Senate, Whitehouse and Waxman are putting together a bicameral task force on climate change to discuss legislative strategies and ways to prod the administration.

Waxman said the president means to follow his words with actions. After the inaugural address, Waxman said, he thanked Obama for mentioning climate change at such great length.

"'I didn't just mention it,'" was the president's reply, Waxman recounted. "'I talked about it.' And we both agreed we had to more than just talk about it. We have to start taking action."

Freedom flows from having no bill?

Some policy experts say that it is precisely because no bill is on the immediate horizon that the president is free to start talking about climate change again.

Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the White House and its Capitol Hill allies chose to focus their message on "clean energy jobs" and "energy security" when pushing cap and trade in 2009 and 2010 because Democratic majorities in both chambers gave them a brief window in which to enact a bill. Those issues polled well with voters at the time, he said.

"If you're thinking you're in a one-year legislative campaign, where you've sort of got to go with what's the more powerful resonant message right now rather than having the luxury and the time to do a broad-based public education campaign to change opinions, that kind of strategy could make sense," said Meyer.

"But if you really want to do something big, I think one of the lessons learned was that by itself, the clean energy and the jobs arguments weren't enough to get a bill over the finish line against the all-out opposition of the oil companies, the coal companies and others," he added. "You really have to have deeper public understanding of the reality and the costs of climate impacts if you're going to overcome that kind of opposition."

"Something big" in this case, Meyer said, could be anything from eventual climate change legislation to the aggressive Clean Air Act rule for existing power plants that environmentalists crave to U.S. participation in a global deal on climate change to take effect after 2020.

Manik Roy, vice president for strategic outreach at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, said supporters of climate action were wrong to abandon the global warming message after cap and trade failed and 2009's Copenhagen, Denmark, round of U.N. climate talks ended without a comprehensive agreement.

"I personally thought that that was an enormous mistake," he said.

The public, Roy said, saw thought leaders in Washington talk about the urgency of climate change until their bill failed. Then they fell silent for years, as though the threat had passed. But rising public awareness of changing weather patterns in the last few years might create an opening to allow the climate conversation to resume.

"In the last couple of years, we've seen some really terrible impacts from extreme weather events of the kind that the science tells us to expect more of," Roy said.

"I think we have a chance to have a conversation with the public that will be at a higher level than it would have been a couple of years ago," he added.

Ideas are already circulating for how Obama can kick-start his conversation. Meyer of UCS is part of a group that has asked the White House Council on Environmental Quality to consider hosting a climate change summit at the White House that would bring together top voices from science and policy.

The Clinton White House hosted a similar gathering, but Meyer said it failed to have its full effect because the administration didn't follow it up with a sustained push.

"They need to look at this as a long-term public engagement strategy," he said.

Obama can also deputize his Cabinet members to talk about the effects climate change can have on the constituencies they work with, like agriculture or the urban poor, he said.

Obama or surrogates could go on listening tours or visit talk shows, said Roy. But he said he hoped the administration wouldn't be afraid to give nuanced answers that reflect the complexity of climate science.

"It's worth investing in the public's understanding of this issue," he said.

With U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Energy Secretary Steven Chu all departing, Obama must assemble a new energy and environment team -- and the members will no doubt be asked to push his climate and clean energy agenda with the public and with Congress.

Frank Maisano of Bracewell & Giuliani said the president might be coming out early and strong on climate in his second term because he has some plans in the offing that might not please his environmental allies, especially on Keystone XL.

The inaugural speech was "part of an approach to inoculate himself against some decisions that he's going to have to make that environmentalists are not going to like," Maisano said.

Maisano predicted that greens would pressure Obama to make good on his inaugural comments by granting their full wish list for the second term. Obama, in turn, is likely to provide more climate change messaging than he gave in his first term and to allow EPA to move forward with a host of Clean Air Act rules for carbon, ozone and other emissions that were postponed until after the election. Some of those efforts could be short-lived.

"The question is, how much of it will be taken at face value, and how much of it will end up mired in litigation?" Maisano said.

The environmental community won't get everything it wants, he said.

"They're going to 'harrumph' every time that he gives 300 words in a speech to climate change," he said. "And of course, their answer is going to be, 'OK, we're going to hold his feet to the fire on that.'

"But what's holding his feet to the fire? Sue him? An international treaty that will never be approved here?"

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