Why Are Pundits More Disappointed Than Environmentalists by Obama's Oil Speech?

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Comprehensive climate-change legislation has been dying a slow death this year. After the House of Representatives mustered the votes to pass the politically risky Waxman-Markey bill to cap carbon emissions and use the funds from selling pollution permits to invest in alternative forms of energy, the ball was in the Senate's court.

They have dropped it. Virtually every Republican refuses to even consider voting for any such legislation. The one exception, Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), backed off supporting a bill he helped write with John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), in a fit of pique. President Obama, meanwhile, has only just begun to put political muscle into pressuring the Senate to act.

Climate change and the related problems associated with energy exploration are the scariest environmental threats we face, and with Republicans expected to pick up seats this fall, the time for Congress to act is now or never. That's why, when Obama chose vagueness over specifics in his section on energy reform in his speech from the Oval Office Tuesday night, left-leaning journalists were vocally disappointed. "It fell short," wrote The Atlantic's James Fallows. "He didn't create any sense of urgency to break the political stalemate," noted Salon's Joan Walsh.

Curiously, leading environmentalists—whom you might expect to be rending their garments and tearing their hair out over this blown opportunity—are more sanguine. Their reasoning? That this must just be the beginning of a push that will grow more specific in the weeks ahead. Peter Lehner of the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote on nrdc.org:

"Some will be disappointed with the lack of specifics for comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation that we fervently hope the Senate will take up this summer. Some of the wonkier among us will be disappointed that the President didn't say with more specificity how he plans to deal with long-term policies that mask the true cost of oil ... But for the moment, I will choose to trust the President and believe that tonight's address will be the first of a long series of presidential speeches that will lead the nation forward to a clean energy future."

And the Sierra Club issued a statement that said "we are very pleased to hear President Obama reiterate his call for a fundamental change in the nation's energy policy. The President now needs to lay out the specifics."

Meanwhile, expert climate-change reporter David Roberts of Grist took comfort in the little things—in this case, Obama's move from environmentally suspect solutions such as nuclear power toward true renewables:

"Normally Obama's energy pitch includes ritual nods to 'clean coal,' nuclear power, and domestic drilling. None of those made an appearance last night; it was only energy efficiency and renewable energy. That strikes me as a deliberate (and welcome) message to the Senate about what Obama wants on the energy side of a bill."

In an interview with NEWSWEEK, Wesley Warren, director of programs for the NRDC, evaded the question of whether the NRDC would ultimately be apoplectic if this Congress fails to pass a limit on carbon emissions. But he reiterated the hopeful tone, noting that Obama had laid out more specific goals in his recent speech on energy policy in Pittsburgh.

"It would have been clearer for him to say exactly what the Senate should do at this time," Warren said. "But this wasn't his first speech on the subject and it won't be his last. It was intended to connect what he's called on the Senate to do with the American people. Politics is the art of the possible. The President is trying to create the public demand and set a time limit for the Senate to act or get out of the way."