Taking Climate Politics’s Temperature

by Patrick Appel

Chait acknowledges “where the politics of climate change stand at the outset of Obama’s new climate offensive”:

The scientific consensus is stronger and more urgent than ever, while the political consensus is weaker than ever. Republicans are not even considering the notion of asking Americans to spend money to mitigate climate change, and are increasingly uncertain about the notion of even saving money to mitigate climate change. And into this simmering pot of reflexive opposition and anti-empiricism Obama will plop a highly ambitious and not very cuddly scheme to clean up the power-plant sector. It has already drawn strong opposition from the major business lobbies. It is likely to become the major point of conflagration of Obama’s second term.

He compares the climate fight to Obamacare:

The grimmest contrast between power-plant regulation and health care is that regulating carbon emissions creates almost no winners. There will be no equivalent of the millions of people newly granted access to medical care, no heartwarming stories of long-suffering patients seeing a doctor for the first time in years. Climate regulation doesn’t create a benefit. It doesn’t even prevent a loss. Its only goal is to mitigate the extent of the damage.

And this is why, unlike carefully selected election-year issues like the minimum wage or equal pay, Obama is not picking this issue to help his party save Senate seats. He is doing this because, given the enormity of the stakes for centuries to come, there is no morally defensible alternative.

But Nate Cohn notes that El Niño could change the political calculus somewhat:

The return of El Niño is likely to increase global temperatures. [Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research] believes it is “reasonable” to expect that 2015 will be the warmest year on record if this fall’s El Niño event is strong and long enough.

That could make a difference in the battle for public opinion. One-third of Americans don’t trust climate scientists, according to Jon Krosnick of Stanford University, and they make their decisions about climate change “based on very recent trends in warming.” Belief in warming jumps when global temperatures hit record highs; it drops in cooler years.