How Green Became Obama's Albatross
The president is trapped by his own rhetoric amid America's energy boom
By Holman Jenkins, Jr., January 25, 2012; WSJ Opinion
Barack Obama may believe a lot of things, but he probably doesn't believe the Sierra Club is key to his re-election. His decision to nix the Keystone XL pipeline will cost him votes but he did it anyway.
We'll admit that Mr. Obama's global warming talk has often seemed to us perfunctory. Perhaps we mistook his lack of heat for a lack of conviction. He just released his first 2012 campaign ad and it's a paean to green energy. Maybe he's no less a believer than Al Gore, for all the problems this might seem to pose for what we thought we knew about our president.
Mr. Obama also seems enough of a free thinker to entertain the possibility at least that global warming theory may be wrong. In a telling exchange with interviewer Charlie Rose a few years ago, Al Gore was asked to describe the evidence of man's role in climate change. Each time Mr. Gore recurred to some version of a "consensus of scientists" or "the most respected scientists whose judgment I think is the best."
The truth is, the theory may be popular, but the evidence has thus far eluded the tens of billions spent on climate science. The temperature data are so noisy that they reveal no pattern connecting rising CO2 in the industrial age with temperature trends. Some say because CO2 is a "greenhouse" gas, shut up, case closed. But the known relationship between carbon and climate doesn't actually indicate a big reason to worry.
To produce worrisome scenarios, climate models must posit "feedbacks" that magnify the impact of CO2 by 300% to 500%. A cynic notices that these models became especially popular in the '90s, when measured warming exceeded what could be attributed to CO2, so new fudge was needed to preserve CO2 as the culprit.
Mr. Gore is not smart (no matter what the Nobel committee thinks) whereas Mr. Obama is smart and all these things have likely occurred to him. But he's also a political operator and an acolyte of radical theorist Saul Alinksy. He understands politics as a matter of power, and democratic politics as a matter of powerful coalitions cultivated and maintained with self-interest (aka money, money, money).
Oil, in Mr. Obama's world, is a "Republican" interest group; anything that's good for the oil industry is bad for the alternate power structure he's been trying to build with handouts and mandates for green energy.
Mr. Obama's relationship with global warming may indeed be perfunctory, but he understands the necessity of shibboleths to rationalize and justify the "investments" he's dishing out to manufacture a support base whose need for subsidies and regulatory favors jibes with the Democratic Party's need for donations. Oil sands are the "dirtiest" fossil energy, requiring great releases of CO2. To approve Keystone, then, not only would undermine his side's crucial shibboleths. It would compromise his own credibility as a leader who can be trusted to deny advantage to "Republican" industries and deliver it to "Democratic" ones.
Not for nothing did Canadian Resources Minister Joe Oliver, after Mr. Obama's Keystone decision, gripe about the influence of "billionaire socialists from the United States." Not for nothing did Mr. Obama's own supporters crow about Mr. Obama's ruling as a triumph over the industrialist Koch brothers, an allusion to whom even opens the new Obama campaign spot.
Presidents make traps for themselves: Signature initiatives cannot fail; they can only be doubled down on, as Mr. Obama was expected to do in Tuesday's State of the Union even as he also tried to make peace with the natural-gas fracking boom. Only fresh waves of rhetoric praising electric cars will suffice when taxpayers are figuring out that Obama policy has them subsidizing electric playthings for the affluent. Solyndra must be defended all the more fiercely now that solar is collapsing globally as countries repent of foolish subsidies. Green energy must be hugged to Mr. Obama's breast all the more tightly as the shale revolution renders hopeless any chance of wind and solar becoming cost-competitive with fossil fuels.
Mr. Obama is engaged in a "long game," says Andrew Sullivan, writing in Newsweek, making a point that no one doubted. But there's a difference between playing the long game and playing it well. The Obama long game is exactly how green energy metamorphosed from a policy notion into a political strategy and then into a dead weight his campaign must lug to November.
Still, let us admire the high-rolling political risk Mr. Obama takes in spurning affordable, strategically convenient energy from Canada. That risk includes, between now and Election Day, looking like a chump if oil prices surge because of the world's vulnerability to the narrowness of the Strait of Hormuz.