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To Tackle Climate Change, You Have To Actually Tackle Climate Change

It's hard to disagree with Ezra Klein about this, in reaction to Obama's oil-spill address last night:

I'm just not sure how you do a response to climate change if you can't really say the words "climate change." And that's where we are right now: The actual problem we're trying to solve is politically, if not scientifically, controversial. And so politicians, rather than continuing to try to convince the American people that we need to do something about it, have started talking about more popular policies that are related to solving climate change.
You see this in Lindsey Graham's effort to argue for carbon-pricing from a place of purported climate-change skepticism. You see it in pollster Joel Benenson's memo that tries to persuade legislators to vote for a climate bill without ever using those words. And you saw it in Barack Obama's speech last night, which was all about clean energy and grand challenges.

Plenty of people were waiting to see whether Obama would say the words "carbon pricing" last night. He didn't. Maybe that's because he doesn't think a carbon cap can garner 60 votes in the Senate. Or maybe, as Dave Roberts suggests, he's subtly focused on ensuring that the energy-only bill the Senate might pass is as strong as possible—more efficiency provisions, more support for renewables, more clean-tech R&D. Who knows?

But, look, legislative tactics aside, climate change is a real problem. It's arguably the biggest, most severe problem the world faces. And it's going to be incredibly tough to avert. The only way you do it is by facing greenhouse-gas emissions head-on. Trying to address the problem indirectly doesn't work. You can focus on ending our dependency on oil imports, and there are plenty of shrewd policies to do that. But that still leaves our fleet of carbon-spewing coal plants untouched. Likewise, you can talk about walloping China in a mythical clean-energy race. But the main goal of building a clean-energy industry isn't to revive domestic manufacturing (we could just triple the defense budget if that's all we cared about)—it's to avoid a planetary meltdown.

Yesterday, the EPA released its modeling of the Kerry-Lieberman climate bill. A lot of the coverage focused on the agency's conclusion that the cap-and-trade program would be quite affordable—costing families less than a dollar a day. But I'd say the most salient part of the analysis was the section Brad Johnson highlighted: If the United States passes something like the Kerry-Lieberman climate bill and helps negotiate an international agreement on carbon emissions, we'll have a 75 percent chance of keeping temperature rises below the danger zone of 2°C. But if we do nothing, our chances of meeting that goal are roughly 1 percent.

That's the difference between barreling headlong toward catastrophe and staying safe. And half-measures won't cut it. If the president can't make that case in a major prime-time address in the midst of the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history, then who can? A speech, in itself, can't force the Senate to act, but Obama can at the very least lay out the situation plainly. Over at the main site today I have a piece arguing that the confused, tepid reaction to the oil spill doesn't bode well for our ability to fend off (or cope with) other major ecological crises. Obama's address last night gave little reason to think otherwise.