Last week the White House made two big announcements. Political observers are suggesting that both were issued with the fall elections in mind, but it is obvious that their simultaneous release was inadvertent rather than planned.
The first one was on climate change. Complete with a map comparing average temperatures at various points in the United States with those posted between 1901 and 1960, it said that greenhouse gasses put into the atmosphere by human activity in the last 50 years have produced serious and measurable negative consequences at home. It called for immediate action to reduce such gasses, which primarily means drastic cutbacks in the use of fossil fuels.
The second announcement hailed the progress America has made “in the last decade” — while Obama has been in office — toward achieving the goal of energy independence, bragging about the amount of oil and gas now being produced within our borders. We pump more oil than we import and the combination of new discoveries and new technologies has made us awash in natural gas.
Neither report said anything we didn’t already know. Why were they issued just now? Well, important segments of President Obama’s political base have been criticizing him for not being outspoken enough on climate change, so putting it front and center just as the campaign begins might get them back on board. At the same time, independent voters are telling the pollsters that they fault President Obama for not having done enough to help the economy,so suggesting that he is responsible for America’s energy boom might convince them otherwise. Viewed separately, each one of these statements makes good political sense.
Put them together, however, and they highlight the divisions we face on these issues. As noted, those truly concerned about climate change say it can only be done by cutting back, if not eliminating, the use of fossil fuels. Those truly concerned about economic stability and future prosperity say it can only be achieved through their continued use. Each group accuses the other of using bad data to prove its points.
While in the Senate, I looked for good data.
I talked to a lot of scientists. They all said that things are going on in the climate that are not good and that humans probably have something to do with it. However, when asked for even ballpark guesses on how large the human impact is and what the future holds, they said that no one could be sure because the overall climate system is devilishly complex. Nonetheless, they believe that the issue is real.
I also talked to a lot of economists. They all said that an immediate cessation of the use of fossil fuels would end civilization as we know it. European demands for drastic steps to prevent climate change diminished when its economy went into recession. Also, support for the use of fossil fuels is highest in countries that are the poorest, because lack of access to energy is one of the main reasons for their poverty. Again, the issue is real.
It is good public policy — and good politics — to avoid “stovepiping,” examining just one aspect of a proposal instead of seeking to understand its total impact on society. By trying to please both sides of a bitter controversy by issuing separate statements aimed at each one, the Obama Administration has embarrassed itself with both. It has also driven them farther apart, which is worse. These issues are inextricably linked, and any resolution that will benefit the human family is going to have to recognize and deal with that reality.
Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.