The crowds attending President Obama’s historic and pragmatic call to action on climate change on Tuesday were likely still filing out of the speech when the Republican response to the clear challenge issued by the president — if you don’t like my plan, come up with something better — landed in e-mail inboxes around the country.
It wasn’t hard to guess the contents of the Republican National Committee missive. Lots of tired, talk-radio rhetoric about “job killing regulations” and the “liberal agenda.” But no alternative solutions or vision were offered for combating climate change, even though there’s substantial support among conservatives (and many liberals) for a more comprehensive, efficient and market-based strategy that includes taxing carbon emissions but reducing other taxes and, potentially, other regulations.
The self-serving comments made after the speech by Democratic Rep. Joe Manchin from West Virginia were just as predictable. Manchin charged that Obama was launching a “war on coal” but offered no viable alternative to the harmful smokestack status quo reliant on his home state’s mining industry.
Obama’s speech made it clear that the nation is moving forward with serious, substantive measures to fight climate change. The speech should have marked a turning point for Republicans and stuck-in-place Democrats such as Manchin, too.
Rather than simply opposing action, it’s time for them to propose solutions — or they will cede the historic opportunity at hand to help shape the necessary sweeping changes to slow climate change before the Earth’s temperatures rise to dangerous levels. Catastrophic consequences potentially include more flooding of major coastal cities, damage to marine ecosystems that are a global food source, crop disruption, violent weather, loss of wildlife diversity and increased disease risks as, for example, mosquitoes that carry malaria expand their habitat.
The obstructionism-above-all approach didn’t serve the nation well with the Affordable Care Act, which would have benefited from more bipartisan, business-friendly touches. The same mistake must not be repeated with climate change.
Obama’s speech specifically invited this bipartisan engagement. His measured actions — the most significant of which are power plant emission standards — are one big piece of the puzzle needed to reduce carbon. Power plants are the leading sources of greenhouse gases in the United States. Obama’s regulatory initiatives to limit emissions are a worthwhile first step.
Obama’s course of action also builds upon the farsighted work done already in Minnesota, which put in place renewable energy standards in 2007 and augmented them this year with a new state solar energy standard.
Reaction both positive and negative to Obama’s initiative hopefully will spur Congress to act, if only to try to do better than the president’s regulatory-heavy approach. Bipartisan cooperation is still a long shot. But it’s critical in designing reforms to address other carbon pollution and to create the right economic incentives to transition the United States from fossil fuels to next-generation energy sources.
Thoughtful conservatives, such as former South Carolina Republican Rep. Bob Inglis, who heads a George Mason University energy policy think tank, have good ideas — especially the carbon tax — that merit serious consideration as future policy is crafted. Republicans’ traditional big-business constituency also has a huge stake in making sure their interests are represented at the table. Special-interest input will be beneficial as well in ensuring that the economy weathers the transition to cleaner energy.
The debate over climate change would also benefit from fresh perspectives. Advocates of climate action have legions of committed supporters but too often are preaching to the choir. More people must be convinced of the need to act. Inglis, who lost his seat in a 2010 primary fight after he became an advocate for a climate change response, should be enlisted in the cause.
In his soft Carolina drawl, Inglis makes a compelling case for conservative leadership on the issue, effortlessly explaining climate science while smoothly dropping “government-shrinking carbon tax” into the conversation and preaching a prosperity gospel of sorts about a future in which energy innovation leads to abundance in the developed and developing world.
“We have enough people on the left of the spectrum concerned and ready to act,’’ Inglis said. But to enact a more substantive national policy, “It’s essential we find people on the right.’’