For two weeks, world leaders congregated in Paris for a meeting about how to save the planet from climate change. Cloaked with moral rectitude and scientific certainty, President Obama claimed he holds the key to preventing global catastrophe. It's a binary choice, of course. You are either on his side, fighting against coal and other fossil fuels, or aligned with the backward forces promoting pollution and planetary death. It's just that simple.
Or is it? Of course, President Obama paints a stark and dreary picture of a future without dramatic carbon emission controls. Extreme weather, melting ice caps, deforestation, flooding, hunger and widespread death are just around the corner. Longer term, planet earth will become just another uninhabited dark star and slip into a black hole of eternity.
"We can't wait," the president sternly warns. The future of the human race is like a fragile crystal in the hands of our generation; delay means letting it slip through our fingers and crash on the hard, dirty floor of a coal mine.
The president has a loud and confident amen corner. Scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned in their Fifth Assessment Report that continued emission of greenhouse gases will increase "the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems."
Climatologist Michael Mann wrote in Scientific American that "most scientists concur that two degrees of warming above the temperature during pre-industrial time would harm all sectors of civilization- - food, water, health, land, national security, energy and economic prosperity" and the Sierra Club's website warns that "climate change will destroy, damage, or permanently change every single ecosystem."
But do they believe their own rhetoric? Based on their legislative strategies the answer is no. Their refusal to engage and seek out every meaningful opportunity to actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions undercuts the gravity of their message. For them, the war on fossil fuel is the only bomb in the battle plan.
If they actually believed their own bombast, that climate change was threatening the future of civilization, they would look for common ground with Republicans. They would put aside their desire to ban the internal combustion engine, declare a cease-fire in the war on coal, and stop the spin that renewable energy can supply affordable and reliable base load power. Instead, they would look for ways to avoid incessant litigation that results from rulemakings that pick energy winners and losers. They would set aside their partisan thinking and try to form broader political coalitions to advance any and all policies to reduce emissions. After all, the president has pledged to stop the rise of the oceans.
We know that 25 percent of U.S. electricity is generated from hydroelectric and nuclear energy sources. (In contrast, solar supplies 0.4 percent of U.S. electricity and wind 4.4 percent). Nuclear and Hydropower provide this portion of our electricity needs with zero greenhouse gas emissions. Both sources of power enjoy wide support among Republican members of Congress. Yet instead of the environmental community or the Obama administration embracing these clean sources of electricity and working with the House and Senate Republican majorities to expand deployment, these industries are vilified. The administration has watched a series of nuclear plants being decommissioned, actively opposes forward progress on a nuclear waste repository, and kept existing nuclear power plants outside of their "Clean Power Plan." As for new hydropower, don't dare to whisper even the possibility to the climate crowd.
Why aren't the environmental community and the administration actively seeking allies in the current political climate? If these groups truly believed their own hype, they'd be desperate for partners. They'd be desperate for progress. They'd be desperate for even small, incremental wins. The possibilities are abundant -- expedited approvals for renewable energy siting on public lands, promote liquefied natural gas exports to displace fuels with a higher CO2 content, work with the coal state members on carbon capture technology, focus on the reliability of our outdated electric grid, or even borrow an idea from the McCain for President campaign -- a huge cash prize for the development of a revolutionary battery that improves upon available storage technology.
How are reasonable people to square the severe climate rhetoric of the administration and their activist allies with what is, at best, partial regulatory actions that even they admit will not avoid impending disaster?
The cynical answer is that in climate change the environmental community has found a golden goose for fundraising. The White House has also found a policy issue on which it can "go alone," look presidential during the looming lame duck period, and use as a wedge to bash "extremist, backward looking Republicans."
Ultimately, it means these groups and the administration aren't serious about the threats they describe. If they were, they'd be looking for partners to address the problems one at a time -- even if it means working with Republicans.