Over the course of President Obama’s State of the Union addresses, he has become rhetorically bolder and more expansive on the subject of climate.
In his first couple of speeches, climate was mentioned as part of the laundry list of bills he was trying to get through Congress. Once Republicans took the House, and prospects for legislation died, climate took a backseat in the SOTU. In 2011, the word was not used at all (though Obama continued to promote “clean energy”). In 2012, “climate” was only mentioned as an example of legislation Obama knew could not pass Congress.
But in the second term, Obama is not thinking about legislation, but regulation. He does not need to woo Republicans, though he does need enough public backing to avoid hostile legislation passing with a veto-proof majority, and to prevent an anti-green backlash that could jeopardize the White House in 2016.
Obama’s rhetorical strategy has not been to delve into the weeds of the EPA’s proposed set of rules, but to make it morally untenable for Republicans to deny the science.
In last year’s SOTU, Obama thundered: “…the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact. And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say, yes, we did.”
And this year, after declaring that “no challenge poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change,” he mocked recent Republican attempts to duck climate-related questions:
I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what, I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and at NOAA, and at our major universities. And the best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we don’t act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration and conflict and hunger around the globe.
The day after Obama’s skewering, in the course of considering a bill to approve the Keystone pipeline, the Senate was forced to take a series of votes on amendments declaring that climate change is real.
Democrats wanted to smoke out Republicans. And they did.
One that didn’t specify human causes passed almost unanimously. Another that said humans “significantly” contribute to climate change won five Republican votes but couldn’t reach the 60-vote threshold to overcome a filibuster. Finally a Republican-sponsored amendment that cited human causes but stripped out the word “significantly” (and also incorporated pro-Keystone language) attracted 15 Republicans, including likely presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul. But it fell just short of 60 after the sponsor, Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.), flipped his vote. (Sen. Barbara Boxer told reporters he sabotaged his own amendment out of fear it would sink the underlying bill.)
Still, the Senate is now on record. As the conservative Washington Examiner acknowledged in a headline, “Majority of Senate says climate change is real and human-driven.”
How much does this matter? It’s not like we are days away from a bipartisan carbon tax law.
But we are seeing Republicans being forced to accept – under the moral weight of Obama’s rhetoric – that climate change is a problem that requires a solution.
It is becoming increasingly unacceptable, even among Republicans, to defend the “hoax” line. We are moving toward a climate debate over how to solve the problem, not whether there is a problem.
And that makes it hard for Republicans to campaign in 2016 on scrubbing Obama’s upcoming climate regulations, much like how Republicans have struggled to campaign on Obamacare repeal without being able to offer an alternative solution. The regulations are coming. If Republicans don’t like them, they will either need to offer their own ideas, or swallow what Obama served.