Yesterday the Dems were obliged to use a procedural rule to push the climate bill through the Environment and Public Works panel. Republicans were happy enough to ridicule the process by abstaining from any involvement, and there’s enough Democratic ambivalence about the Kerry-Boxer climate bill to make this standoff a big deal.
On the international front, especially with the UNFCCC meetings in Barcelona underway, the sense is that Obama can’t deliver Congress and therefore, whatever his views about the importance of climate change, the US is not in any position to put offers on the table in Copenhagen. It was a telling sign and also (in my opinion) a step in the right direction that the African delegates walked out this week. Sparks need to fly at this point.
But frankly I think there is room to push Obama a lot harder on this. I was on a conference call this week with a policy think tank dedicated to issues of concern for African-Americans with a long-standing commitment to environmental justice as well as a new climate policy commission. They released a poll last month demonstrating that 58% of African-Americans feel that global warming is a major problem – at a time when concern among the general population is waning dramatically. The general sense was that an effort should be put forward for prominent black officials to indicate publicly the disconnect between Obama’s efforts and African-American constituencies.
Maybe it’s worth pointing out that no one can expect the general population to care about climate change in the same way that it might advocate for, say, health care. Global warming was identified as a threat by elite scientists, many holding political and cultural views that divorced them from the concerns of that broad swath of Americans trapped in the middling modern suburban landscapes of the 1980s and 90s. The battleground positions were laid around skepticism of the science, suspicion of environmentalism as a cultural project, and a struggle over growth and jobs – at a time of falling real wages, highly aggressive corporate strategies, the wholesale erosion of many Americans’ financial security, and collapse of civic involvement, education and public investment. Americans got screwed, and no one’s really managed to put that on the table very well. No wonder people aren’t too eager about now having to cope with the fact that US elite, with the collusion of a very thin segment of foreign elite, have been systematically impoverishing the rest of the world too.
For that matter, it’s worth pointing out that a lot of American industries and businesses have also been screwed, especially by big finance. A recent letter from the Commodity Markets Oversight Coalition, a trade lobbying group, expresses a profound sense of unease at the prospect of a volatile, unregulated carbon market. Combine that with recent speculation in energy markets and you get the picture. Indeed, many people are increasingly frustrated at the very tight connections between the administration and some of the most pernicious financial brokers operating today. Frank Rich is not the only one to express relief that states are now able to prosecute financial institutions for predatory loan practices. The ‘regulators’ in Obama’s administration are the people who engineered the financial crisis.
The finance issues aside, my sense is that climate change is a perfect opportunity for Obama the politician, the orator. Someone is going to have to make a convincing case to Americans that climate change is and will be the defining issue of international politics for the next 50 years. The task of the rhetorician is not now to ‘convince’ Americans to go along with a political move that merely floats on top of a deeply fractured public basically unaware of the contradictions it faces. Americans aren’t that dumb, and Republicans won’t let the politicians get away with it. Eventually Democrats are going to have to confront that populist anger. But, as with his speech on race during the campaign, President Obama has a phenomenal capacity to say what needs to be said at the right time – especially when the issues revolve around profound historical injustices. It’s time for an emancipation proclamation that diagnoses the ugliness of the American century in such a way that Americans can see with the rest of the world a realistic program for a near-term global future.