Future Tense

On Climate Change, Obama Is Finally Leading From the Front

President Obama just did something he hasn’t done in years: speak frankly and passionately about his views on climate change.

It happened when New York Times columnist Tom Friedman interviewed the president for tonight’s season finale of Years of Living Dangerously, the Showtime series about climate change. The episode airs Monday at 8 p.m. Eastern, but Friedman offered a preview of the president’s remarks in the Times on Saturday. It’s well worth reading.

From a policy standpoint, the takeaway is that the president explicitly called for a price on carbon. It’s something he has been reluctant to do ever since a bipartisan climate bill died in Congress in 2010. From the Times:

What is the one thing you would still like to see us do to address climate change? Said Obama: put a price on carbon.

The way we’ve solved previous problems, like acid rain, he noted, “was that we said: ‘We’re going to charge you if you’re releasing this stuff into the atmosphere, but we’re going to let you figure out—with the marketplace and with the technology’ ” how best to mitigate it. But “you can’t keep dumping it out in the atmosphere and making everybody else pay for it. So if there’s one thing I would like to see, it’d be for us to be able to price the cost of carbon emissions.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, when Friedman baited the president by asking whether he doesn’t sometimes just want to “go off like a Roman candle” on climate deniers in Congress, Obama snapped up the bait. “Uh, yeah,” he said, laughing, and then launched into a diatribe that included the classic line, “science is science.” See the video above for his full response. Now that is the answer environmentalists have been waiting forever to hear from a sitting president.

Granted, acknowledging the findings of climate science and calling for a price on carbon are hardly revolutionary. Mainstream economists, let alone environmentalists, have been doing just that for years, as have Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham. Hell, even Shell, Exxon, and BP have endorsed a carbon price.

It’s true that we won’t get a grip on global warming until rising economies like China and India get more serious about it. But that’s never going to happen until the United States puts its money where its mouth is. A nationwide cap-and-trade scheme, or better yet a straight-up carbon tax, is the step the world has been waiting for.

And yet Obama has been dancing around the issue for years, so much so that I’ve made something of a hobby out of trying to parse his statements on climate change. One day he’s delivering anodyne proposals to improve energy efficiency in buildings. The next he’s going toe-to-toe with Mitt Romney over who’s a stauncher defender of oil and coal. And the next he’s dragging God into the fight. Even after he won re-election, a reporter’s direct question about a carbon tax drew a mumbly response about an entirely different issue.

The clarity of Obama’s answers to Friedman contrast starkly to his recent half-measures, diversions, and bromides. Given his past timidity, it’s fair to ask how we know for sure that Obama’s strong words today reflect his real views. The answer is that they’re the same ones he espoused before he was president. It was only after Congress stymied him in 2010 that he went wobbly on the need to tackle climate-change head-on. He all but admits this in the Friedman interview:

“We have got to meet folks where they are,” said Obama. “We’ve gone through, obviously, in the last five years, a tough economic crisis. … I don’t always lead with the climate change issue because if you right now are worried about whether you’ve got a job or if you can pay the bills, the first thing you want to hear is how do I meet the immediate problem? One of the hardest things in politics is getting a democracy to deal with something now where the payoff is long term or the price of inaction is decades away.

To his credit, Obama has quietly done about as much as a president could do on climate change without Congress. Efficiency standards on their own don’t amount to much of a climate strategy, but couple them with support for renewable energy, a war on coal, and some Cleveland Browns-level punting on the Keystone Pipeline, and you’re starting to look at a real environmental legacy.

One other thing: About a year ago, the Obama administration snuck in a recalculation of the social cost of carbon, hiking it from $23.80 to $38 per metric ton. So if a carbon price ever does get through Congress, that price will have a significantly higher starting point in the negotiations.

Of course, Obama telling Tom Friedman he’d like to see a price on carbon does not make it so. All along there have been those who praised Obama’s shrewd maneuvering on climate change, arguing that deeds are more important than words. But in a country where a huge swath of the population somehow still believes that man-made climate change is a conspiracy, words matter, too. And Obama’s careful, conciliatory rhetoric made it hard to shake the feeling that he was leading from behind.

Today, he’s finally putting himself out front on the climate-change issue, calling it perhaps “the most significant long-term challenge that this country faces and that the planet faces.” And he’s calling on his fellow politicians to catch up.

Previously in Slate: