President Obama is on a campaign to make climate change an economic issue, and to nail home the point he's embarrassing Republicans who deny or are skeptical of the contributions humans make to a warming planet.
"Folks will tell you climate change is a hoax or a fad or a plot. It’s a liberal plot," Obama said of congressional Republicans on Wednesday at a Washington event hosted by the League of Conservation Voters.
"And then most recently, because many who say that [they] actually know better and they’re just embarrassed, they duck the question," he continued. "They say, hey, I’m not a scientist, which really translates into, I accept that manmade climate change is real, but if I say so out loud, I will be run out of town by a bunch of fringe elements that thinks climate science is a liberal plot so I’m going to just pretend like, I don’t know, I can’t read."
Well, that escalated quickly.
The White House devoted events all week, the one-year anniversary of Obama's climate speech at Georgetown University that outlined his second-term climate agenda, to the economic side of climate change. White House officials also met Wednesday with billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer, whose political action committee has pledged to spend $100 million in races to support climate-friendly candidates.
It's a potentially savvy move to reframe climate change, which has polled low among voters' concerns. When asked about their level of worry about 15 national problems, a March Gallup poll said U.S. voters ranked climate change second-to-last. And despite the attention paid to the issue in the past year, another March Gallup poll found no increase since 2013 from the 57 percent of people who say humans contribute to climate change.
“From increased suffering from asthma to more frequent and devastating storms, the effects of climate change are real and are already being felt by Americans across the country. There is a growing, bipartisan consensus that inaction will have devastating consequences for both our economy and our public health and that the time to act is now," White House spokesman Matt Lehrich said in an email.
Warring ideas of economic impact
Republicans say the president's push to put a dollar figure on climate change is ill-fated when more people are concerned about rising gasoline prices and electricity rates that they attribute to his administration's environmental policies.
"There is an economic impact in a negative way by doing what the president wants to do," Rep. Gregg Harper, R-Miss., told the Washington Examiner. "Tell us the truth, whatever that is, and we'll deal with it. But we're getting data that's been skewed and manipulated."
Obama said he was cognizant of the economic effect of emissions-cutting policies on people's pocketbooks, saying, "We ignore those very real and legitimate concerns at our peril."
There's an inherent disconnect, of course, in GOP criticism — many do, at least in public comments, profess that climate change is a liberal plot, hoax or fad.
That's contrary to the overwhelming consensus of scientists that agree humans drive climate change, largely through burning greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels. Obama's Environmental Protection Agency earlier this month proposed its most aggressive action ever to address the issue in the form of a rule that aims to cut emissions from power plants 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.
The EPA estimates upwards of $90 billion of health- and extreme weather-related benefits when the rule is implemented, compared with an $8.8 billion cost. Rather than raise electricity bills, the EPA projects an eventual 9 percent decrease in the decade leading up to 2030 due to efficiency gains. The Right and industry groups, though, say the policy would raise electricity rates disproportionately in some regions while hurting U.S. economic competitiveness.
"Clearly there is an economic impact, there's an environmental impact," Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the top Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said of climate change. "What I'm hoping is that there will be not only scrutiny not only on the economic impact of failing to act, but when you do act, what that economic impact is."
Still, the administration has plenty of supporters. A Washington Post/ABC poll this month showed 70 percent of respondents backed federally regulating greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants, including 69 percent of respondents who live in states that get a majority of power from coal. The same percentage said states should be required to limit greenhouse gas emissions within their borders -- 57 percent of Republicans agreed, including 50 percent of Tea Party respondents (45 percent disagreed with state caps).
Notably, Republican lawmakers didn't utter a word questioning the reality of climate change right after the proposed power plant rule was released. Instead, legislators such as House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said they weren't scientists, so they weren't qualified to comment.
Obama said "the American people are wiser" than to accept such explanations.
"I mean, I’m not a scientist either, but I’ve got this guy, [science adviser] John Holdren, he’s a scientist," he said. "I’ve got a bunch of scientists at NASA and I’ve got a bunch of scientists at EPA. I’m not a doctor, either — but if a bunch of doctors tell me that tobacco can cause lung cancer, then I’ll say, OK. Right? I mean, it’s not that hard."
Obama's comments come as Steyer, former New Yorker City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and ex-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson released a report through their "Risky Business" group detailing the economic consequences of failing to act. The report didn't discuss solutions, but noted, among other things, that inaction on climate would result in up to $106 billion worth of coastal property being underwater by 2050, with more severe effects being felt in the Northeast, Gulf Coast and the Southeast.
Despite the warnings about extreme weather-related damage — even insurance companies and reinsurance agencies are growing wary of backing coastal homes due to rising sea levels and warmer waters that climate scientists say contribute to more intense, destructive storms — congressional Republicans say the economic cost of acting on climate is more significant than leaving it alone.
That's the argument Rep. John Fleming posed. The Louisiana Republican voted this year for a rollback of federal flood insurance changes that caused rates for some homeowners to skyrocket after the Federal Emergency Management Agency updated floodplain maps to reflect recent sea-level rise.
"Well, um, from everything I read on rising sea levels that the rise is so slow that that's probably a non-issue" economically, he told the Examiner. "Certainly the major thing to understand about floods is that it's more a factor of weather, not climate. If you look for instance at what happened in New Orleans with [Hurricane] Katrina, there was a lot of flooding, but it was because of the dynamics of the hurricane — where it hit, how it hit, the location it hit. It had nothing to do with the rising sea level."
Spreading the blame
Republicans have now leaned more heavily on arguments that the U.S. alone cannot solve climate change. It's a tried and true rationale from opponents of climate change regulations dating to the Kyoto Protocol negotiations in 1997, when the Clinton administration couldn't secure commitments from big polluters such as China and India. the Senate unanimously rejected the treaty.
"Right now, because of the fact the rest of the world is not going to participate, common sense to me is you don't go down this path of all pain and no gain," said Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., who sits on the Environment and Public Works Committee that oversees the EPA.
Added Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-Ky., chairman of the Energy and Power panel of the Energy and Commerce Committee: "Greenhouse gas is really about posturing the president to be perceived as a leader in the international community on climate change. But yet most polls, and you talk to people particularly from developing countries, climate change is not their number one issue."
It remains to be seen what China and India will do. China could address a major domestic policy issue by cleaning up its air if it takes on pollution from coal-fired power plants. India just elected a prime minister who fancies himself a climate crusader. But both nations are still adding coal-fired power plants and seeking to bring electricity to the rural poor.
Obama has tried to position his EPA's power plant rule proposals as a model heading into United Nations climate talks next year in Paris. Nations there will seek to strike deals to curb enough emissions by 2020 to avoid a 2 degree Celsius global temperature rise by 2100, a daunting and perhaps unrealistic task, according to many climate scientists.
"They’re waiting to see what America does," Obama said. "And I’m convinced when America proves what’s possible, other countries are going to come along."