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Published: Tuesday, 6/21/2011

The gathering storm

This year’s unusual weather events, globally, nationally, and locally — deadly tornadoes, devastating floods, record-high temperatures, crop-killing drought, the start of a hurricane season that is predicted to be “above normal” — may all just be coincidences or aberrations. Or they could be evidence of man-made climate change, and portents of even worse disasters to come.

How much are you prepared to risk betting on the first option? Do you agree with the politicians, most of them Republicans, who insist that environmental regulation aimed at combating the potential effects of man-made climate change — a phenomenon they say is unproven — will surely kill jobs right now?

Or do you agree with climate scientists who warn that rising global temperatures, caused by such things as ever-increasing emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, will make our weather even more violent and destructive? And if you agree, do you believe that the world’s governments, including America’s, must take meaningful steps now at least to mitigate that effect?

The false-choice political argument that climate-change regulation is incompatible with economic recovery, and thus must not only be ignored but defeated, has gained a regrettable degree of traction. In part it’s because ambitious Republicans who once took reasonable positions on the issue, such as presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty, have been intimidated into repudiating them.

Even more, though, it’s because President Obama has gone missing on climate change and related environmental issues, at a time when the fights will only get tougher.

Mr. Obama’s fellow Democrat, former Interior secretary Bruce Babbitt, this month accused the President of engaging in “appeasement” of Republicans’ “radical” efforts to gut environmental standards. Those are tough words, but there is ample evidence to support them.

Before the Republican takeover of Congress, Mr. Obama did little to help Democratic lawmakers win passage of credible climate legislation; the effort failed. More recently, he has announced his support for increased oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and off the Alaskan coast, despite the BP and Exxon Valdez disasters.

Even as the President plans to open more public lands to coal mining, Mr. Babbitt noted, he has acquiesced in an industry-friendly Republican initiative that would hamper the Interior Department’s ability to declare other public lands permanent wilderness.

The administration is pulling back on efforts to impose stricter controls on mountaintop mining and toxic coal ash.The President will have to fight harder for his proposals to curb emissions of mercury and greenhouse gases from power plants, including coal-fired ones.

It’s understandable that Mr. Obama is concentrating on such immediate issues as job creation and economic growth, as well as next year’s re-election campaign. But the need for action on climate change is equally immediate, even if its effects will play out over years and decades.

Delaying environmental goals in favor of economic ones merely strengthens the GOP straw man that clean air and water — and a temperate Earth — are irrelevant to a prosperous economy.

President Obama has acknowledged that failure to take effective action now to curb the risks of climate change will blight the lives of future generations. He might start acting as if he believed it, even if that means doing battle with slogan-spouting, science-denying adversaries. Doing nothing is the most destructive action of all. And as Mr. Babbitt noted, presidents who have stood up for conservation and environmental protection have won voters’ support.



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