Environment Or Economy? Obama's Balancing Act

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President Obama tours the DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center in Arcadia, Fla. i

President Obama tours the DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center in Arcadia, Fla., last month. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
President Obama tours the DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center in Arcadia, Fla.

President Obama tours the DeSoto Next Generation Solar Energy Center in Arcadia, Fla., last month.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama's China visit touched on the issue of climate change and cooperation on green energy research. But his weeklong trip to Asia has also brought an acknowledgment that next month's big climate change conference in Copenhagen will not result in a new treaty.

In the U.S., Obama still has to sell the idea of taking bold steps to curb global warming to Congress. In doing so, he makes his arguments in economic terms. But many environmental activists say they wish he would do more.

Starting with his campaign, Obama's message has been consistent as he makes the case for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, for higher-mileage automobiles and for reducing America's dependency on foreign oil. Whenever he talks environment, he also talks about jobs.

For instance, his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in the summer of 2008 made reference to "wind power and solar power and the next generation of biofuels; an investment that will lead to new industries and 5 million new jobs that pay well and can't ever be outsourced."

And in a weekly radio address this year, he had this to say:

"It's a plan that will trigger the creation of millions of new jobs for Americans, who will produce the wind turbines and solar panels, and develop the alternative fuels to power the future."

This past week in Tokyo, the president looked ahead to the U.N. Climate Change Conference set for December in Copenhagen. He spoke of the urgency to address the problem. He said he has no illusions that it will be easy. Then came the jobs pitch:

"The good news is that if we put the right rules and incentives in place, it will unleash the creative power of our best scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs," Obama said. "It will lead to new jobs, new businesses and entire new industries."

In public, the president never makes the case for addressing global warming in environmental terms alone. That bothers Damon Moglen, who works on climate change for Greenpeace.

"You do not see the president doing what he has done on health care: going out into the public and explaining the problems of climate change, and demanding from the Congress a science-based policy commensurate with the risks we face," Moglen says. "So, we need to see much more leadership from Mr. Obama."

As for the decision to always link climate change to jobs, Moglen has this observation:

"Of course, there are green jobs in this process. But the fact is, the president now gives speeches [about climate change] in which he doesn't even mention the phrases 'climate change' or 'global warming.' "

Another environmental activist, Jonathan Lash of the World Resources Institute, says the White House approach makes political sense — especially today. He says the president is being pragmatic.

"We're in the depths of the most serious recession that the United States has faced since the Great Depression," Lash says. "We're at 10 percent unemployment, and that's what Americans are concerned about. They need to know that taking action now is not something that will prolong the recession but will help us out of the recession."

Meanwhile, in the U.S. Senate, Colorado Democrat Mark Udall disagrees that the White House is moving too cautiously on the issue. He says the change from the Bush administration is huge.

"It's interesting to consider that, I think, were the previous administration still in office, we would be debating the science of climate change, we would be debating whether even to send a delegation to Copenhagen," Udall says. "Under this administration, we're fully participating."

But Udall, who has longstanding ties to the environmental community, does say that he hears firsthand the frustration of those who insist that the president be more aggressive.

"I have to defend both the president and myself in town hall meetings from people who are impatient," he says. "And I appreciate that impatience. Time is moving along, and you have a number of other competitors around the world — China, Spain, the Germans, the Danes, India — are all moving very rapidly to invest in clean energy and technologies. And I feel that pressure as well."

Udall says he expects the White House to step up the pressure on climate change next year, once the fight over the health care overhaul is finished.



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