Obama Needs to Be Brutally Honest About Climate Change in His State of the Union

President Obama surprised even his most ardent environmental backers with his impassioned inaugural pledge to fight climate change in his second term. In the State of the Union address Tuesday, he’ll need to tell Congress and the American people how—specifically—he plans to take on the challenge.

If he’s honest, it won’t be pretty.

In his first term, Obama rarely spoke about the urgent and fearful nature of the climate crisis, or how long and difficult—politically, economically, and diplomatically—it will be to solve. While the country languished in the depths of the Great Recession in 2009, the president’s advisers told him that talking about an environmental problem—especially one on the scale of global warming—was political poison. They cooked up a way to reframe the issue. Rather than describing the perils of rising sea levels, Obama promised the nation he’d jump-start the economy with a shiny-sounding clean-energy plan that would soon create millions of green jobs.

The speech that launched Obama’s second term signals that he intends to talk about a grimmer but more honest reality. “None can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms,” he said. Instead of promising a wealth of green jobs just around the corner, he said, “The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult.”

That’s a far less rosy, but more clear-eyed, view of what’s to come.

Those close to the president expect him to talk a lot less about the glories of green jobs in the second term, and a lot more about the long-term struggle ahead to overcome the challenge of climate change. That’s a much less pleasant message, but it may be necessary to prepare the public for what’s to come.

In a sense, Obama doesn’t have to sugarcoat things this time around. Unlike four years ago, when a cap-and-trade proposal to restrict carbon emissions was still on the table, the president has no reason to anticipate any cooperation from Congress in forging a climate plan. To take serious action, he is expected instead to use the Environmental Protection Agency to wield his executive authority to roll out aggressive, top-down regulations requiring coal-fired power plants, oil refiners, and other polluters to slash their carbon emissions—a move that will trigger intense pushback from Republicans and the fossil-fuel industry.

“He is not playing politics when he says the clean-energy transition will take time,” said Betsy Taylor, a Democratic strategist who works with many of Obama’s biggest donors. “He is preparing the public and his supporters for the ferocious battles we can expect over EPA regulations of coal plants, of hydrofracking, and of carbon. He is ready to fight these fights, but he is reminding all of us that he cannot do it alone.”

If he is candid, the president will detail how staggeringly difficult it will be to take on climate change in a meaningful way. Today, 95 percent of the nation’s cars are fueled by petroleum, while fewer than 5 percent are electric or hybrid vehicles. Fossil fuels generate 80 percent of our electricity, while only about 5 percent comes renewable sources such as wind and solar.

Tackling climate change means setting in motion a tectonic, disruptive shift to the 150-year-old energy economy that will eventually shift those ratios. This daunting challenge will take decades to achieve, and it will require technological breakthroughs not yet on the horizon. It will mean that fossil-fuel industries—particularly coal, and the people who work to produce it—will almost certainly take a big hit.

And no matter how much the United States does on its own to cut emissions, it won’t be enough to stave off the most devastating effects of climate change, unless other economies also agree to difficult cuts. That particularly means China, which is now the world’s largest emitter, and India, which is projected to triple its emissions in the coming decades. Changing the climate’s trajectory will involve brokering historically consequential economic treaties with those nations.

Along the way, yes, new jobs and economic opportunities will probably arise in some sectors of the economy. If the world’s largest economies do forge a binding climate treaty, it will spur a race to create those clean technologies, and the countries and companies that win the race will see great profits.

That’s an incredibly difficult message to sell to the American public. But if there’s any moment in which Obama might be able to do it, it’s now, particularly in the wake of superstorm Sandy and last year’s record drought, which devastated U.S. crops and contributed to deadly wildfires.

Polls show that a growing number of Americans accept that human activities are causing the planet’s atmosphere to warm and setting off harmful effects—and that they’re willing to pay. In a September 2012 poll by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, 88 percent of respondents said the United States should make an effort to reduce global warming, even if it has economic costs.

Still, selling the reality of those costs to the recession-weary public would be more than a rhetorical achievement. Some historians suggest that one way Obama could do it is by evoking the other circumstance in which Americans have sacrificed for a collective good.

“It’s the way that presidents used to talk about war,” said David Cohen, a scholar of the U.S. presidency who teaches at the University of Akron. “The American public—up until 9/11—was willing to sacrifice for war. They knew there would be sacrifices, whether it was prices they’d pay or goods they’d give up. He has to sell this as a threat to the country’s national security. If he can couch it in those terms, he should be able to bring other people from across the political spectrum.”

But Cohen added, “It’s going to be a very hard thing to do.”

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