Pacific Swell

Southern California environment news and trends

Obama talks climate change on MTV

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49697 full

Sway looks nervous, and he sounds like he has no idea what he is talking about. He doesn't ask a follow-up. The whole thing lasts 3 minutes. But heck, he did ask, and Candy Crowley didn't. Here’s the MTV interview in which President Obama talked about climate change:

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“There’s a huge contrast between me and Governor Romney,” says Mr. Obama, “I’m surprised it didn’t come up in one of the debates.”

Except, it sort of did. Or could have. A number of times. As consultant Darry Sragow says in a story I produced for Take Two today, even if bringing up climate change isn't a winner for either candidate, there are ways the candidates could sidle up to the subject while talking about energy independence.

In the Sway interview, Mr. Obama talked about it more directly than he generally has in the campaign, drawing a distinction between himself and Romney on climate policy:

Governor Romney says he believes in climate change. That's different than a lot of the members of his own party who just deny it completely. But he says he's not sure that man-made causes are the reason. I believe scientists, who say that we're putting too much carbon emissions into the atmostphere, and it's heating the planet, and it's going to have a severe effect."

Again, this is different from what he said in the debate. But then, MTV has a different audience.

If you watch the whole clip, you'll see that the president talks about what the U.S. has done to cut carbon emissions. He highlights limits on vehicle tailpipe emissions and clean energy investment. Then he says something a little odd. He says "the next step" is…energy efficiency. "If we had the same energy efficiency as Japan, we would cut our energy use by about 20 percent."

I say that's odd because we already have a whole energy efficiency office of the Department of Energy right now. A lot of environmentalists argue that the first priority is using less. 

So, first of all, we're already supposed to be doing it; most experts who recommend demand-side management make it first among equals where cutting carbon is concerned. Second, the president's rhetoric implies (most likely inadvertently) that somehow the U.S. has done everything else because it finally made some regulations about passenger cars, and threw some money in the direction of renewable energy. And third, energy efficiency savings are expected to be significant where there are a lot of people cutting use all at once. But they're also notoriously hard to quantify, as this briefing from the state of Massachusetts shows.

Suggesting that the U.S. should meet carbon reduction goals with more energy efficient buildings…well, that's fine, who doesn't like energy efficiency? But we've still got the world's heavy reliance on coal-fired power. We still have more cars per capita than any major country (I think we're neck and neck with Monaco). And even if its regulations are incomplete, the Clean Trucks program at the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles suggests there's more regulation of diesel soot possible.

The difference between a reform agenda and energy efficiency is powerful lobbying, and political opposition in a tough election season. So if talking about climate change is a risk, as several political consultants and experts told me for Take Two, Mr. Obama calculated ways to limit his risk. Telling MTV he cares about climate change isn't the same as telling the American people in a higher-profile debate. And we're not going to comply with Copenhagen targets by turning off the lights whenever we leave the room. 

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