I’m a firm believer that actions speak louder than words. But when you’re dealing with politicians, sometimes words are a good start. In Tuesday’s State of the Union address, President Obama made history by boldly declaring that he would use executive power to tackle U.S. carbon pollution. “If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations” from the threat of climate change, he warned, “I will.”
Predictably, this statement launched Republican indignation to a new level. More than one of my conservative friends used this statement as another opportunity to compare our nation with Nazi Germany. “So basically if he doesn’t like what the voted legislature does or does not do, he will do it anyway. Here comes something called dictatorship…” a friend posted on Facebook.
Now, keeping the power of the President and his administration in check is a basic tenet of this thing we call American democracy. So I’m not saying it’s wrong to be startled by Obama’s statement. But this particular threat doesn’t worry me at all. In fact, I welcome it, and here’s why.
1. Congress isn’t really a voted legislature.
Since the passage of Citizens United, and even before, those charged with deciding the laws of this land have been firmly in the pocket of industry and special interest groups. In America, he who has the money makes the rules, and in case you haven’t noticed, there’s only about 1% of us with money. Throw in blatant gerrymandering, and “State Representative” has become an abstract concept. Sure, we vote, we may even help choose the winner. But money runs the campaigns, money determines the issues, and money buys those “Representatives” drinks once they’re in Washington. It’s time to wake up and realize that politicians have a vested interest in making sure the polluters get their way. It’s been a long time since “promotion of the general welfare” has been a priority in the country, and that includes action on climate pollution.
2. As of now, it’s a toothless threat.
Remember what I said about actions speaking louder than words? Well, when it comes to this particular threat, it’s a challenge we’ve heard from the President before. As the NRDC points out, the big change in Obama’s rhetoric on energy lies in his willingness to directly confront its relationship to climate change, now that he doesn’t need to run for anything ever again. What Obama’s SOTU declaration lacked was details. Exactly what kind of executive action would he take if Congress fails to enact a “market-based solution to climate change”? Well, that’s where the bold challenge begins to flounder in a sea of vague semantics.
“We’re not in a position to say, ‘These are the 15 things we’re going to do,’” said Heather Zichal, deputy assistant to the president for energy and climate, “but I think the point here is that we have demonstrated an ability to really use our existing authority — permitting-wise, what we can do through the budget — to make progress.” Zichal’s statement was made to a group of reporters wondering whether Obama would go beyond the EPA’s weak rules for new power plants to enact stiff regulations for existing ones…you know, the ones CURRENTLY belching poison into our air, water and soil. As per usual, the Obama administration continues its quest for bi-partisan, market-based solutions, despite the fact that this has been a useless approach in the past.
Which brings us back to the threat.
Let’s say Obama did do something unprecedented, like mandating the regulation of existing power plants or banning the construction of new coal-fired facilities. What’s the worst that could happen?
A cleaner environment, for starters. Fewer people dying from health complications caused by filthy air. Incredibly profitable energy companies finally being forced to stop dumping toxic wastes into our lakes, rivers and streams. More money to invest in wind and solar so that we have a tiny chance to catch up with the rest of the world’s renewable energy production. Sure, electricity might get more expensive for a while, since companies will definitely take their anger out on the customers they claim to serve, but it won’t stay that way forever. And I am willing to do my part to create a cleaner world for the next generation by taking a hit on my utility bills. It’s just more incentive to conserve, anyway.
And let’s all remember that it’s quite possible for a voting public to make bad decisions. What’s right is right, regardless of whether or not it matches public opinion. “The voted legislature” also enacted prohibition and prevented a Women’s Suffrage Amendment from passing in 1915. I’m not saying that Presidents should be going around creating laws at will, but sometimes, especially in cases of blatant obstruction, tough love is in order.
So let’s not get crazy, and declare ourselves a dictatorship just yet. This second-term climate saga has only just begun to begin. Who knows, the GOP might suddenly wake up and realize that it breathes the same air and drinks the same water as the 99%. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll remember who they actually work for. But I’m not holding my breath.
Thanks to the over 10,000 Care2 members who signed the petition asking President Obama to discuss climate change in his State of the Union!
Image via WhiteHouse.gov