Don't Blame Obama for Climate Change Failures

Why do we pretend to be surprised when climate reform fails?

Last year President Obama said delay on climate change "was not an option." This year, it's an option. So notes Jeffrey Goldberg, as world leaders say there will be no binding agreement to address global warming in Copenhagen. The Atlantic Wire's Mara Gay has an excellent round-up of other commentators using this perfectly predictable occasion to bash multilateralism or call Obama weak. This is crazy. It's like calling your friend frail because he can't lift a Ford F-150.

If you going to blame the White House, maybe you could argue that this is a case of bad political scheduling. To convince other countries that we're serious about combating climate change, we needed the Senate to pass a bill. But nobody expected the Senate to address climate change until after health care, which was predictably going to take most of the year.

But it's easy to see why passing climate change reform is a Herculean task. Making meaningful emission cuts to fight global warming requires a tax on carbon emissions, which would be difficult to force feed to Congress during boom times, but is especially tricky when a painful recession has tenderized your political capital. So Obama faces a familiar choice: kick climate change down the road, and you risk losing the support of political commentators for the afternoon. Kick carbon emissions in the tuchus, and you risks losing the support of real voters. Why? Because Climate change regulation requires taxing what economists call "negative externalities" and what Americans call "my electricity." Yes, Obama will have to make, and win, that pitch at home before he can make it with any integrity abroad. But the political opinion community continues to underestimate the enormous political challenge of climate change reform.