As with many other policy areas, the Obama administration has recently significantly drawn down its promises on climate change and energy policy, at least in part due to domestic political realities. After eight years of a President who seemed unwilling even to admit that the climate was changing as a result of human activity, Obama’s taking office in January seemed a welcome relief. And shortly after that, the first serious global warming bill appeared in Congress. But with the economy and health care taking center stage, and with the failure of the Copenhagen negotiations, climate change now seems on the back burner.
In part because most Americans don't feel this to be a pressing issue, and in part because Republicans have successfully made the issue a subject for mockery (remember Cheney’s saying conservation was at best a personal virtue, not a substitute for energy policy? or John McCain’s making fun of Obama’s extremely reasonable suggestion that motorists keep their tires properly inflated to maximize fuel efficiency?), Obama has rebranded this bill as fundamentally about energy security rather than global warming per se. By “energy security,” politicians mean ensuring that we are able to maintain our current high-consumption lifestyle indefinitely.
And Obama’s 2010 state of the union address was nothing so much as a white flag. There were gestures towards developing more clean and renewable energy sources. There was little to about creating more walkable communities or investing in public transportation, certainly nothing about the connection between the type of food we eat and the health of our environment. There are proposals for improving high-speed rail, which is a step in the right direction (although it is part of a one-time stimulus bill, rather than representing sustained infrastructure investment). But when it came to proposing concrete steps towards “energy independence,” clean energy barely got a message. Instead we got proposals for massive offshore drilling, biofuels, “clean coal” (an egregious misnomer), and above all, doubling nuclear power plants. Obama has chosen to position himself as the most aggressively pro-nuclear president in American history.
Nuclear energy’s negative effects on human and environmental health, as well as its vulnerability to catastrophic accidents and terrorist attacks, seem to make it an odd choice for a president attempting to cast himself as an environmentalist. But a monolithic fixation on climate change, to the detriment of overall environmental health, has long been used by the nuclear industry as a key selling point. As long as nuclear plants aren’t producing carbon, the logic goes, everything is all right.
The exact dimensions of whatever bill Congress passes and Obama signs aren’t yet known, but it’s likely that, despite some criticism from the green community, a bill will pass that throws some modest subsidies towards renewables, rail, and mass transit, a good bit towards “clean coal” and oil and gas exploration, and massive subsidies (and probably less regulation) for the nuclear industry. In other words, as with so many other issues, the President and the Congressional leadership are prioritizing short-term political expediency over addressing the pressing concerns they were elected to fix. And it’s hard to blame them, because judging by the muted public reaction and opinion polls, that seems to be exactly what the American people want. And in the end, we get the government we deserve.
On a happier note if you’re in Urbana-Champaign, let me offer a brief plug for a panel that I’m co-organizing on climate change, sponsored by the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory. It will be on March 15, in the Levis Center music room at 8:00. The title of the panel is “Climate Change Across the Disciplines,” and the goal is to show off what graduate students at Illinois are working on relating to climate change. I don’t think there’s any campus with more resources devoted to interdisciplinary climate change studies than Illinois, so I hope you can come to check out what our grad students are up to.