Al Gore takes some shots at President Obama in a new Rolling Stone essay, grumbling that he has “thus far failed to use the bully pulpit to make the case for bold action on climate change.” Wait: Isn’t that Al Gore’s job? The president’s job is the action, not the case-making. And while I don’t plan to spend all my time defending him against unfair attacks from the left, his actions on climate have been a lot bolder than Gore suggests.
At some level, Gore seems to understand this. The thrust of his essay is about climate denialism and an entertainment-obsessed media that’s more interested in “building the audience” than telling the truth; the swipes at Obama are afterthoughts near the end. And Gore balances his criticism with enough caveats to plug the hole in the ozone layer.
He catalogues all the “incredible challenges” Obama faced: the Bush legacy of the Great Recession and the debt, Republican obstructionism, fossil-fuel industry control of most of the GOP and some Democrats, and a well-financed campaign of climate denial. “In spite of these obstacles,” Gore acknowledges,” “President Obama included significant climate-friendly initiatives in [his] economic stimulus package….He implemented historic improvements in fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles…He appointed many excellent men and women to key positions, and they, in turn, have made hundreds of changes in environmental and energy policy that have helped move the country forward slightly on the climate issue.”
Significant! Historic! Excellent! Those are pretty good blurbs.
So what did Obama do wrong? Other than failing to do Gore’s job for him?
Well, there’s this: “After successfully passing his green stimulus package, he did nothing to defend it when Congress decimated its funding.”
This is…how to put this gently?…a crock. Obama secured $90 billion worth of clean-energy funding in the stimulus, and Congress has not decimated it. I follow the stimulus with a stalkerish obsession–are there support groups for this kind of compulsion? –and I can only recall $3.5 billion in green funding getting eliminated. It was actually shifted out of a loan guarantee program for renewable projects that got off to a slow start; one chunk went to Cash for Clunkers, and a later chunk went to a bill to save teaching jobs. That loan program, by the way, has picked up speed; the Obama administration has announced eight deals worth nearly $5 billion in the last two weeks.
And yes, you read that right: The stimulus poured $90 billion into clean energy, an order of magnitude more than the federal government had ever spent before. It included record funding for efficiency; wind, solar and geothermal power; electric cars; advanced biofuels; and green manufacturing. That’s bold action. Gore ought to know. The former head of his climate non-profit, Cathy Zoi, helped oversee the stimulus as head of Obama’s office of efficiency and renewables.
Gore’s other substantive criticism of Obama is that “after the House passed cap-and-trade, he did little to make passage in the Senate a priority.” That’s true. He didn’t have the votes for passage in the Senate. If only there were an environmental group dedicated to climate action that could have rounded up the votes…
Nobody has done more than Gore to make the case that climate change is a global emergency, and it’s understandable that he’s frustrated with the pace of progress. It’s also legitimately irritating that Obama has stopped talking about climate change when he talks about clean energy. But the chronically disgruntled liberals who argue that cap-and-trade (or the public option, or immigration reform, or the Employee Free Choice Act) could have passed if only the president had used his bully pulpit and made the case are not dealing with reality. He is not a superhero. How exactly is Obama supposed to persuade Joe Manchin to vote for that cap-and-trade bill he gunned down in his campaign ads? On a related topic, how many senators did Vice President Gore persuade to vote for the Kyoto Protocol? (A hint: You can count them on no hands.)
One suspects that Gore was a bit uneasy about his cheap shots, which he wrapped in sheepish apologetics: “Even writing an article like this one carries risks; opponents of the president will excerpt the criticism and strip it of context.” Of course, an Al Gore essay about the dangers of climate change wouldn’t be particularly newsworthy without a few swipes at the president. But you know how the entertainment-obsessed news media is. Always “building an audience.”