Can Obama Walk the Line Between Economy and Environment?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

“People don’t like gas prices going up. They don’t like electricity prices going up. And we ignore those very real and legitimate concerns at our peril,” said President Barack Obama in a speech earlier this week addressing environmental policy. “If we’re blithe about saying, ‘This is the crisis of our time,’ but we don’t acknowledge these legitimate concerns — we’ve got to shape our strategies to address the very real and legitimate concerns of working families.”

This is exactly the struggle leadership is facing when considering environmental regulation and improvements, and a line that Obama needs to walk. It’s also a line that is far easier for a president in his last term to balance along than for a mixed Congress where some lawmakers are facing elections in energy industry states. Along with this advantage is the fact that environmental activity is one of the few areas he can work to change without Congress gridlock blocking his path — especially given Supreme Court rulings in favor of his coal policy.

The arguments surrounding clean energy as fiscally responsible or economically stressful are akin to a broken record these days — basically a long-term and short-term breakdown of expenses. There’s the argument that secondary health and infrastructure costs eventually rack up as much financial hardship as technology and changeover costs without any of the advantages. That said, the President has to balance an oft spoken desire to aid the middle class; the poverty stricken families and individuals who are still fighting to recover for the recession and with joblessness, while also supporting policy that opposition argues will have short term detriments to everyday affordability.

In his speech at the League of Conservation Voters Capital Dinner, he did point to one particularly vital international effect that America’s environmental policy would have. Specifically, that while foreign environmental abuses have “developing countries … [with] some of the fastest-rising levels of carbon pollution,” this will only grow worse without a more economically and technologically capable leader to pave the way for other options to become viable.

At present, China and India are two of the biggest international emission concerns — at least according to President Obama. A 2013 report from the European Union Joint Research Centre and the PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency pointed to increasing emissions in China, explaining that part of the reason environmental control is so complicated is that emission changes and needs are so different from country to country, showing that in 2012 China had the highest CO2 emission rate per country from fossil fuel and cement production. The report discussed the trends shown since 1990 as a concern as well, saying that, “Where, since 1990, in the EU … CO2 emissions decreased from 9.1 to 7.4 tonnes per capita, and in the United States from 19.6 to 16.4 tonnes per capita, they increased in China from 2.1 to 7.1.”

“But they’re also trying to deal with hundreds of millions of people in poverty,” said Obama of developing nations. “And so the tradeoffs for them are even tougher than for us sometimes unless we describe how development should leapfrog some of the old technologies, learn lessons from us, and go right to a clean energy future,” he said. “And I’m convinced when American proves what’s possible” — and pays to develop and perfect the technology — “other countries are going to come along.”

This ultimately leads to a time line conundrum. Time is a factor in that global warming/climate change scientists are concerned about a tipping point being reached where pollution has not been dealt with succinctly enough to avert many of the negative effects under discussion. It is also a factor in that — as America proves — once a certain infrastructure is installed and built around, it becomes expensive and bad investment to change around, and as developing nations continue to build and progress in energy demands this will become a risk. In some specific cases economics and international concerns both weigh in on the opposing side however, as as we see with some arguments for the Keystone XL pipeline. Not only are energy industry state lawmakers shouting the job market advantages, but Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) claims there are international environmental advantages as well.

If you’re a Birkenstock-wearing, tree-hugging Greenpeace activist, you should love the Keystone pipeline,” he said in February. “The Canadians are not going to leave the tar sands unmolested,” he said according to ABC. “If your concern is the environment, the last thing you want to do is send that oil to China to be refined there, which will be far more damage to the environment than refining it in the U.S., where it will generate good, high paying jobs.”

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