Obama’s talking climate change, but is anyone listening?

Sean Cockerham | Tribune Media Services,Lesley Clark

President Barack Obama will seek to make the case Friday for the urgency of fighting climate change with a speech at a California Walmart, but he’s faced with apathy among the public and hostility from congressional Republicans.

Obama has launched a public relations campaign in the wake of Tuesday’s release of the National Climate Assessment, in which federal scientists focused on individual regions of the country as they warned of rising sea levels, extreme storms, heat waves, droughts and other impacts of a warming planet.

The White House expended considerable effort on the subject this week: Obama conducted interviews with local and national TV meteorologists from the White House Rose Garden to promote the report, and he’ll highlight the issue in the Friday speech in California about making buildings more energy efficient.

But the president’s efforts are landing with a thud in a Congress that has little interest in climate change legislation. The House of Representatives is controlled by Republicans, at least some of whom question the scientific consensus that human activities are primarily responsible for the warming of the planet.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Thursday that “I’m not going to get into a debate over the science.”

“It just strikes me that every proposal that Democrats have to deal with the issue of climate change would kill jobs in America,” Boehner said.

The president’s emphasis on climate change appeals to his liberal base, which has pressed him to be much more aggressive on environmental issues.

Obama needs those voters to turn out in November if Democrats are to hold onto control of the Senate. Obama warned a group of California Democrats at a fundraiser on Wednesday night that they need to show up and vote, citing climate change as a “fundamental difference” between Democrats and “this particular brand” of congressional Republicans.

“We think climate change is real,” Obama said. “Some of them say it’s a hoax, that we’re fabricating it.”

But his push poses a risk for Democrats running for re-election in conservative-leaning states, who have sought to distance themselves from Obama’s record, pushing him to approve the Keystone pipeline, for example.

Obama is also faced with an apathetic public. Just 29 percent of Americans said in a Pew Research poll earlier this year that dealing with global warming is a top priority, ranking it second to last among 20 issues polled.

The president is hoping that publicizing the findings of the National Climate Assessment will help to change the public debate. Obama’s push to highlight the issue comes just weeks away from the unveiling of the centerpiece of his climate change strategy, a draft of new rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

“The administration’s ability to increase the urgency of the need to act will help buoy their carbon pollution reduction proposal when it comes out,” said Daniel J. Weiss, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a think tank founded by Obama counselor John Podesta.

Those carbon rules do not require the approval of Congress, although Republican lawmakers would like to stop them.

The White House is aware Congress won’t pass Obama environmental bills. And Dan Utech, the president’s special assistant for climate change, didn’t mention any new initiatives during a Weather Channel online chat Thursday when the moderator suggested new legislation may be necessary.

“He’s willing to work with Congress and we’ve reached out, but we are moving ahead with the tools he has,” Utech said of the president.

Obama is expected to argue Friday that responding to climate change can create jobs through the manufacture of things such as solar panels and wind turbines.

“There is an opportunity that exists for American businesses right now to get ahead of the curve,” said Josh Earnest, Obama’s deputy press secretary. “We’re seeing other countries that are mobilizing their resources to try to get a toehold on all this.”

By Sean Cockerham and Lesley Clark
McClatchy Washington Bureau