One of the biggest things President Barack Obama can do to fight global warming is to talk about it.
That’s the conclusion of at least seven former U.S. presidential aides and advisers serving in three administrations. Their comments came as envoys from more than 190 countries at a United Nations conference in Doha took steps toward completing a treaty by 2015 that would limit fossil fuel emissions starting in 2020.
While Obama is succeeding in shaping the international response to the issue, he hasn’t said enough about it at home, said the officials, led by John Podesta, who oversaw Obama’s transition into office four years ago. Obama’s reticence may make it more difficult to persuade Congress and the public to favor an international deal toward the end of his second term.
“The president really has to start talking about climate change again,” Podesta said in an interview in Washington. “He has to engage a national conversation, not just one White House meeting, but a big conversation.”
Obama’s re-election and what it means for global-warming policy was the biggest question at the UN talks, which concluded in Doha on Dec. 8. Ministers agreed to streamline their negotiations, focusing on the 2015 goal and reviving the push for a treaty that failed in 2009 in Copenhagen. They also renewed pollution limits under the Kyoto Protocol.
The U.S. joined in backing the consensus at the meeting, signaling its willingness to work toward a treaty that would bind all nations into mandatory cuts for fossil fuel emissions. Obama can’t win Senate support for a treaty without making a public argument for it now, said Christine Todd Whitman, who was head of the Environmental Protection Agency from 2001 to 2003 under former President George W. Bush.
“That’s the only way it’s going to move forward, if Obama takes the lead and lays out to the American people the economic liability of not preparing for climate change,” Whitman said in an interview.
Representative Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who co-authored economywide “cap-and-trade” legislation passed by the House in 2009, agrees.
“President Obama needs to talk about climate change and help the American public connect the dots between extreme weather, climate change, our energy policy and the progress we are already making on reducing emissions,” Markey said in an e-mailed response to questions. “The public will be more accepting of an international climate deal if they understand what we are already doing” to fight global warming.
Obama hasn’t yet said how strongly he’ll take on the environment in his second term. In the first, he pushed for new law aimed at limiting carbon emissions until the Senate abandoned it in 2010.
Companies, Republicans and some Democrats opposed the cap-and-trade measure, arguing it would drive up electricity costs and harm the economy. Further, polls at the time showed declining U.S. concern about global warming and a new influx of elected Republicans questioned the science.
In lieu of climate legislation, Obama moved ahead with EPA rules limiting carbon pollution from new power plants. Markey and other Democrats are now calling on the administration to also issue regulations for existing fossil fuel-burning utilities, the biggest source of U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions.
“Ultimately, what President Obama can achieve internationally all hinges on the progress we continue to make domestically,” Markey said.
No leaders from any major economy including Obama attended the Doha talks. The most heads of states to attend any UN-sponsored climate talks in recent years was for the Copenhagen summit in 2009.
Obama, speaking at a news conference last month, said he seeks a “wide-ranging conversation” with experts and elected officials on climate change. He also said there’s not enough political consensus to push for a carbon tax and stressed that he wouldn’t take any action on climate change that doesn’t also help the economy.
“I won’t go for that,” he said. “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’s something the American people would support.”
Claudia McMurray, a climate negotiator under President George W. Bush, said the president “needs to go out in the country and explain what the problem is and what the steps are to go from the current energy economy to the next, and that it might involve some pain.”
“He never really has gone out there and laid out a plan,” she said.
Any effort to draw up a treaty is “going to be very challenging,” Todd Stern, who is Obama’s senior climate envoy, said at the talks in Doha last week.
“The president is completely committed to climate action,” Stern said at a briefing when asked whether Obama would speak more on climate in his second term. “It’s too early to say what the specifics of policy are going to be. We are still in the transition period.”
The negotiations envision wider restrictions on emissions from industrial nations, which are covered under Kyoto. The next treaty would include emerging economies such as China, which surpassed the U.S. as the world’s biggest polluter since Kyoto was sealed in 1997.
Obama’s ability to persuade China to join in cutbacks on fossil fuels depends on his ability to deliver the $100 billion a year in aid for climate projects that industrial nations promised to developing ones by 2020, said Trevor Houser, a U.S. negotiator during the Copenhagen negotiations.
“Climate change is still a politically toxic issue,” Houser said in an e-mailed response to questions. “Public opinion needs to change and needs to start changing now. That process starts at the top.”
It requires getting support for foreign aid in Congress, which is currently considering tax increases and spending cuts along with a $60.4 billion request from the administration to cover damage from superstorm Sandy in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Focusing on climate now might hurt Obama in his budget discussions, Whitman said.
“It’s got to be seen in the context of the fiscal cliff, which is really all he cares about right now,” Whitman said. “If he said too much about climate, it would give the naysayers and the hard-line Republicans that don’t want to have any negotiations on the fiscal cliff some ammunition.”
There’s skepticism Obama could pin down a treaty that’s palatable in the U.S., said Eileen Claussen, a climate negotiator under President Bill Clinton during the Kyoto talks.
“It’s not clear to me what we will end up with in 2015 if we end up with anything at all,” Claussen said.
The American public is “nowhere near” alarmed enough about global warming to back dramatic action, said Robert Stavins, director of the Economics Program at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
“Public demand is typically stimulated by some observable catastrophe,” like inch-thick oil slicks catching fire on Ohio’s Cuyahoga River in 1969, he said. That spurred clean water legislation and the creation of the EPA.
“Daily and monthly and yearly fluctuations in weather are vastly greater than the changes are in climate, so it’s a signal to noise ratio problem in terms of public perception,” Stavins said. “So even though people are reacting strongly to this, they will also react strongly to the fact there is a lot of snow in Washington, D.C.”
Tim Wirth, a former Democratic senator from Colorado who served Clinton as a climate negotiator, doesn’t have faith that Obama will make headway without a groundswell from the public.
“He doesn’t get it,” Wirth said in an interview. “It’s not in his gut.”
He said Obama needs to help create a “grassroots explosion” by sending his cabinet out to hold meetings in town halls and on campuses across the country.
Podesta said the security threat of rising seas and melting icecaps should be “keeping people awake at night.” He has proposed a national energy council modeled on panels such the National Security Council and the Council of Economic Advisers.
As for what Obama must do domestically to be ready for a 2015 international climate deal, Podesta said a national campaign should raise awareness while officials ensure that the economy can cope with tighter curbs on pollution.
“From a policy perspective, the administration gets a lot of credit,” Podesta said. “From a communications perspective, I think they got to the point where they rarely uttered the words climate change, and that led to the public confusion about what was really happening. That needs to change.”
The Obama administration has said it’s currently on course to meet its pledge of cutting greenhouse gases by about 17 percent from 2005 levels in 2020, thanks partly to low natural gas prices and stricter efficiency rules for cars.
It’s also crucial to keep China and India “in the game,” Podesta said. “No deal is going to be successful unless we move to that framework where all emitters are in,” he said.
Claussen and Whitman both say they are skeptical that China and India, the biggest developing economies, will agree on curbing their own emissions.
Jeff Holmstead, a partner at the law firm Bracewell & Giuliani LLP in Washington, who served as a top EPA official in the second Bush administration, said China and India have too many people living in poverty to make a climate deal politically possible.
“This administration and this president really care about the issue and would like to do something, but no one has yet presented them with anything that makes sense or is politically sellable back in the U.S.,” Holmstead said.