Magazine article The New Yorker

Cooling on Warming

Magazine article The New Yorker

Cooling on Warming

Article excerpt

The day after President Obama delivered his second State of the Union address last week, dozens of Web sites turned it into a "word cloud," graphically showing the relative frequency with which particular words appeared. One such cloud-seeding Web site was none other than www.whitehouse.gov, where, as a chirpy White House blogger helpfully pointed out, "words like 'jobs,' 'people,' 'America' and 'new' show up often. It's not a scientific measurement, but the visualization gives a sense of the President's priorities." Among the words that do not show up in the clouds, or in the text, are "unemployment," "inequality," "gun," "environment," "Israel," "Palestine," and "Guantanamo." Their absence, which was more art than science, gives a sense of the President's problems. These were not the most conspicuous omissions, however. "Change" made the cut (five mentions), and so did "global" (one mention, in the phrase "global trade talks"). But "climate" was nowhere to be found. Neither was "warming."

It was not always thus. Writing in Foreign Affairs in 2007, Obama called climate change the "epochal, man-made threat to the planet." In his July, 2008, Berlin speech, he warned of "a world where the oceans rise and famine spreads and terrible storms devastate our lands." Just after the election, at a meeting on global warming convened by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, he said, "The science is beyond dispute and the facts are clear. Sea levels are rising. Coastlines are shrinking. We've seen record drought, spreading famine, and storms that are growing stronger with each passing hurricane season. . . . Denial is no longer an acceptable response. The stakes are too high, the consequences too serious." A few days after taking office, he said that leaving global warming unchecked invites "irreversible catastrophe." In his first address to a joint session of Congress, in February, 2009, he asked for a "cap on carbon pollution" to "save our planet from the ravages of climate change." In October of that year, accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, he said, "There is little scientific dispute that if we do nothing, we will face more drought, more famine, more mass displacement--all of which will fuel more conflict for decades." In the 2010 State of the Union, arguing that a shift away from fossil fuels merits the support even of "those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change," he praised the House of Representatives for having passed "a comprehensive energy and climate bill."

Strong words. But now they are not even whispered. The climate bill, like hundreds of others less consequential, met its fate on the legislative terminal ward that is the United States Senate, where bleeding is still the treatment of choice. The bill died of complete organ failure, you might say. The contributing causes included the economic crisis, which made it easy to stoke fear; the power, money, and regional clout of sectors that benefit from the greenhouse-gas-producing status quo, especially the coal and oil industries; the Republican congressional leadership's determination to forgo compromise in favor of a disciplined drive to block anything that might resemble a victory for Obama; the rise of the Tea Party right and the baleful influence of talk radio and Fox News; and, as always, the filibuster. But Obama and the White House cannot escape blame. They botched delicate negotiations in the Senate, were neglectful at key moments, and expended little of the courage, imagination, and resources they brought to health-care reform. …

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