Three questions about climate change addressed by President Obama

In this year’s State of the Union address, President Obama made some very clear statements about climate change.  Much clearer and more direct than any other U.S. President we’ve had so far.  He even addressed “three questions about climate change” that usually get smashed up, tied in knots, and lead to a breakdown in a reasonable conversation on the subject.

The worst disagreements that I’ve had with other people about climate change are because we start talking about different things.  In our minds, we are trying to answer different questions.  Three different questions, really.

Here they are … along with how President Obama addressed each one … mostly:

1) Is our Earth’s climate changing?

Yes it is.  Perhaps this was a question that we could have reasonably spent time discussing during the 1980s and 1990s, but with more data and observations we need to put it to rest.  Obama brushes it away this way:

Now, it’s true that no single event makes a trend. But the fact is, the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15.

However you want to state the facts and observations that we have amassed at this point, getting bogged down in a discussion of whether the Earth’s climate is changing is just a distraction.

President Obama may have felt comfortable stating that climate change is a fact because public opinion is now more on his side than ever.  According to a recent poll by the Duke Nicholas Institute, 84% of US citizens believe that the Earth’s climate is changing (50% are convinced, 34% say it’s probable), and this continues an upward trend (see left panel below).

Duke climate change poll lg

2) Are humans the cause of climate change?

This particular question is at the heart of most climate change disagreements.

The Duke study found that 54% of US citizens believe that human activity is causing climate change (see right panel above).  That’s a slim majority, for sure, but the number has increased over the past several years.  We’re now in the territory of believing that we could actually have an impact on the climate system (and could actually do something to fix it).

In contrast, the scientific community agrees overwhelmingly that climate change cannot be explained without including greenhouse gases.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change address this in their 2007 report in the section “Can the Warming of the 20th Century be Explained by Natural Variability?”

President Obama didn’t address this question directly, but made statements that indicate that he believes humans are at least partly a cause.  For example:

And over the last four years, our emissions of the dangerous carbon pollution that threatens our planet have actually fallen. But for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change.

Stating that “carbon pollution” is linked with climate change acknowledges the consensus of scientists that greenhouse gases are the strongest forces that are heating up our Earth’s climate.  It also acknowledges the decision of the US Supreme Court in 2007 (Massachusetts v. EPA) that carbon dioxide should be considered a pollutant under the Clean Air Act by the EPA (or else they must make a clear statement of why it is not).

3) What should we do about climate change?

Finally, here’s the big question that we should be spending most of our time discussing.   What should we do?  Carbon taxes?  Cap and trade?  Geo-engineer? Ratify the Kyoto Protocol? Market-based legislation? Do nothing and figure out how our society should adapt to climate change?

Here is President Obama’s answer:

I urge this Congress to get together, pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change, like the one John McCain and Joe Lieberman worked on together a few years ago.

But if Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will.

I will direct my cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.

That’s about as clear as you can get.  Legislation that supports a market-based solution or else regulation (probably under the Clean Air Act).  Nothing about international cooperation, though.  That’s another can of worms.

And this seems to be in line with public opinion (again).  The Duke study found that a majority of US citizens would favor regulation of greenhouse gases directly.  There is very weak public support for a carbon tax or cap and trade, which would likely be a better approach if  you look at the track record of our environmental laws.

We’ll see if anything comes of it over the coming months, but at least there is something clearly on the table.

What a difference ten years makes.