A conversation, Mr. Worthing?

Obama kicks the climate breakdown can down the road. Lady Bracknell had the put-down.

In the tones of Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell (4m.20s in):

President Obama, at his first press conference after his reelection on November 14 – my emphases:

But we haven’t done as much as we need to. So what I’m going to be doing over the next several weeks, next several months, is having a conversation, a wide-ranging conversation with scientists, engineers and elected officials to find out what can — what more can we do to make short-term progress in reducing carbons, and then working through an education process that I think is necessary, a discussion, the conversation across the country about, you know, what realistically can we do long term to make sure that this is not something we’re passing on to future generations that’s going to be very expensive and very painful to deal with.

Some of us – strike that, a lot of us – have been having this conversation for a while now. We´ve even tried to engage with Mad Old Tom in the corner, who erupts from time to time with incoherent ravings about Climategate, the Hockey Stick, Agenda 17 and the like, before we can get him to take his meds and calm down. This one smallish general-interest blog, run part-time by half-a-dozen people, has published 37 posts with the climate change tag in the last 12 months, and many more posts have mentioned the subject.
These posts regularly attract plenty of informed comments – even when the blogger is a non-expert foreigner like yours truly. In this we are entirely representative, a small part of something much larger. There is a massive amount of concern in your country as in mine, matched by a massive supply of information and discussion at every level of professionalism on climatology, renewable energy, and public policy blogs.

Polls regularly show that the concern extends beyond the blogosphere into the regular American electorate. Renewable energy won Candidate Obama a lot of votes and activist labour in Iowa, Colorado and Nevada, and even Virginia and Ohio.

The person missing from the conversation, Mr. President, has been you. We hoped for leadership, and you just kicked the can down the road. Next time, do us a favour. Buy a ticket.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

15 thoughts on “A conversation, Mr. Worthing?”

  1. You do understand that the readership here is entirely unrepresentative of the US, don’t you? And that maybe having the POTUS start a national conversation with the 80% of the country that isn’t currently engaged is a good thing? And you do also understand that he had to be reelected in order to start the conversation, lest he labelled radical and therefore unelectable, don’t you?

    Yeah, reality based, all right. Pragmatic, too.

    1. What conversation has Obama started? Apart from the one that progressives like us have been having for years? If he were serious, he´d 1. appoint a political figure as Energy Secretary to replace the competent, uncharismatic technocrat Steven Chu – somebody who would enjoy a media firestorm, 2. issue a white or green paper with actual proposals.

      I did write that concern on climate change (70%) and support for clean energy extend far beyond the liberal or conservative blogosphere. My job is to write for my readers, and I´m doing it to the best of my ability. Obama´s – incommensurably larger – is to offer leadership to the American people. On this specific but very large issue, he´s made a poor start to his second term.

      1. That 70%? I think that you have confused poll results with reality. Many of my friends say that climate change is important to them. Then they get back in their SUVs and drive 3 blocks to the store. Good people, all of them. Voted for Obama, mostly, they volunteer, they donate, they care. But they don’t actually want to give up what they want. and if Obama had been labelled radical by the GOP, he would not be readying his 2nd inauguration speech now. Instead, we got some financing through the back door and now a beginning to a conversation that will undoubtedly go for 15-20 years.
        I learned to drive in the early 70’s. At that time there was uncontrovertible evidence both of greenhouse gasses and that seatbelts saved lives. It took another 20 years, and endless lobbying before seatbelt laws changed. There are still a large percentage of the population who simply won’t wear them. And that was without a dedicated lobby against them.

  2. James, we don’t *have* green or white papers. (Or maybe we do, but if so I’ve never heard of them, and I’m a political junkie.) Such things assume an executive with the capacity to propose policies in the expectation that they will be adopted by the legislature. We don’t have one of those. The President can, and has, sent proposals on climate change to Congress. But if Congress decides to shelve them–as is very likely when it comes to a policy such as climate change, which involves both hysterical, propaganda-induced ideological opposition and more down-to-earth opposition from powerful industrial and local interests–there’s a limit to what he can do.

    I don’t deny that Obama can and should do more in the way of “mounting the pulpit” (Richard Neustadt’s phrase, riffing on Teddy Roosevelt’s description of the presidency as a bully pulpit) on this issue. But appealing over Congress’ head is always a difficult project and one that usually fails. I can see why Obama didn’t do much of this on climate change in his first term, when he had a Depression to avoid and a universal health care bill to pass. In the second term, I don’t see what much he has to lose. So I’m with you on the conclusion–but not on the reasoning; attempting to start this conversation by main force in 2010 would have wasted time and legislative goodwill to no good end.

    1. James, I have the same reaction as Andrew, this is a parliamentary analysis that is not particularly relevant to the U.S. governance structure. At the start of the Administration, there was a major push for climate legislation by the Administration but it could not get a purchase even with the President’s party controlling both Houses of Congress.

      1. Why are the equivalent of green papers (options for discussion) and white papers (firm policy proposals) infeasible in a mixed presidential system like the USA and France? The third route for major reforms in Britain – the bipartisan and allegedly non-political Royal Commission – is feasible, as the Bowles-Simpson exercise showed.

        1. …white papers (firm policy proposals) infeasible…

          The Clinton health care reform effort used this model. The problem is that the legislative branch is a separate co-equal branch of government that guards its prerogatives to design policy jealously. Laying out a finished product can backfire, as it did for Clinton, even among members of Congress who were in his own political party (Obama of course took the reverse approach to health care reform and got a historic law passed).

          Commissions in contrast CAN work and have in the past on some but not all issues. But they still take a bipartisan commitment up front, else one party can sink it before it starts by appointing poison pills (in this case, climate change deniers).

          1. It wasn’t the fact of laying out a finished product that sank Clinton’s health plan, as much as the amount of time it took to create that plan, coupled with constant, knowingly false, attacks on it by Republicans (in some cases urged on and promoted by the likes of TNR under Andrew Sullivan).

        2. Ah yes, feasible… as the bi-partisan Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction Act of 2010 clearly showed. Thank God we avoided the fiscal cliff back then.

          1. Ah yes, feasible… as the bi-partisan Simpson-Bowles Deficit Reduction Act of 2010 clearly showed. Thank God we avoided the fiscal cliff back then.

            BRAC was a success as have been other commissions, if one failure means a mechanism doesn’t work at all then of course nothing works and we should all go home.

          2. “The person missing from the conversation, Mr. President, has been you. We hoped for leadership, and you just kicked the can down the road.”

            My point being that you’re fuming at the wrong end of the aisle. Have all the commissions you want, nothing will happen politically until the Republicans start believing in science again, or they are brought to heel by the electorate for their denialism.

            In my view, this is something the so-called “professional left” doesn’t understand/tends to ignore, where someone like Bernie Sanders is willing to deal with the Congress he has, not the Congress he would like to have.

  3. Wimberley criticizes Obama for lack of leadership on this issue during the first term. With a Congress that was not going to pass climate change or environmental legislation under any circumstances, where exactly would he expect Obama to have led us? Unfortunately, with the House remaining firmly in Republican hands, and the House Republican leadership running in fear of the Tea Party faction, I don’t see any possibility of passing such legislation during the next term either, unless the Democrats gain control of the House in the 2014 off-year election.

    1. No, I’m criticising him for not showing leadership now. His hand is much stronger than in the last two years: he doesn’t have to worry about reelection, his party did well in Congress – the House Republican majority can’t claim a popular vote -, Obamacare and Dodd-Frank are done deals, and the GOP will have to cave on the tax cuts thanks to GW Bush.

      Will it really be acceptable for Obama’a Second Inaugural to repeat the guff about a “conversation” on climate breakdown? His supporters should be shouting “hell, no!”, which I am doing by hopefully upmarket snark.

      Climate is a four-year issue. Politically, Obama has to set up the “conversation” in his first two years so as to give House Democrats a winning plank for the mid-terms. He can combine executive action by EPA regulation with coat-trailing legislation designed to secure an unpopular GOP nay vote in the House, as on DREAM. he can sign a treaty with China on cutting back coal, dropping the solar anti-dumping case, etc., provoking an unpopular GOP Senate filibuster.

      1. This doesn’t really reflect the facts about US politics. Almost everyone doesn’t know, and the Republicans don’t care, that the House Republicans didn’t get a majority of the popular vote. The Republicans may be forced to allow the country to be governed (as they didn’t for the past two years), but I don’t see them yielding on a big issue like cap and trade.

        Executive action by EPA regulation: Yes. Coat-trailing legislation that secures a GOP vote in the House that’s so unpopular that it pulls the Democrats to a majority in 2014: I’ll believe it when I see it. DREAM didn’t move enough votes to get the Democrats a majority, and DREAM is viscerally more important to more people than climate change.

        Unpopular filibuster: The voters don’t even know that the GOP filibustered everything Obama proposed in the first two years — including, for instance, a climate change bill. (I find it astonishing that we continue to have this discussion without ever mentioning Waxman-Markey.) It doesn’t seem to have cost them a thing politically. In any case, filibusters don’t apply to treaties; there’s a two-thirds vote threshold in the Senate, which unlike the filibuster is enshrined in the constitution. I’m not sure exactly what treaty is going to peel off twelve GOP votes (and keep the senators from West Virginia on board), but coat-trailing with a treaty strikes me as a very bad idea. Sign one treaty with China and have it shot down in the Senate, I’m not sure you’re going to get another treaty even after you have majorities in Congress.

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