Has Obama turned a corner on climate change?

In response to a reporter's question during his first press conference after reelection, President Obama says he aims to curb the effects of climate change while growing the economy.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
President Obama leaves the East Room of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, following his first news conference after his reelection. Mr. Obama addressed the subject of climate change at some length in response to a reporter's question.

In his first post-reelection press conference Wednesday, President Obama broached the topic of climate change head on.

"I am a firm believer that climate change is real, that it is impacted by human behavior and carbon emissions," Mr. Obama said in response to a reporter's question. "And as a consequence, I think we’ve got an obligation to future generations to do something about it."

It was a breath of fresh air for environmentalists frustrated with an election season largely devoid of substantial discussion of the topic – the notable exception being Obama's convention speech assertion that "climate change is not a hoax."

In Wednesday's press conference, the president touted his record so far, pointing to an increase in vehicle fuel-efficiency standards, clean-energy production, and carbon-reduction technology. 

But, Obama said, there's still work to be done. And that work could prove complicated.

Climate change is not only a partisan issue, the president said, it also varies regionally and will require "some tough political choices."

Central to those choices is the state of the economy, Obama emphasized. 

"If the message is somehow we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody’s going to go for that," Obama said. "I won’t go for that."

Obama dismissed the inverse relationship some ascribe to environmentalism and job growth. The president instead endorsed an agenda that both advances economic growth while making "a serious dent in climate change." 

In what is likely an allusion to hurricane Sandy, Obama emphasized the importance of long-term, proactive investments in infrastructure as a means of reducing the reconstruction costs incurred by extreme weather events.

"[O]ne of the things that we don’t always factor in are the costs involved in these natural disasters," Obama said. "We’d — we just put them off as — as something that’s unconnected to our behavior right now, and I think what, based on the evidence, we’re seeing is — is that what we do now is going to have an impact and a cost down the road...."

While few doubt Obama's stance on the subject, some wonder if the president will have the time or political capital to act upon it.

Writing in Slate, Will Oremus offered a pithy, pessimistic interpretation of Obama's statements Wednesday:

1. Climate change is real.
2. We have an obligation to future generations to do something about it.
3. Doing something about it will require tough political choices.
4. I'm not willing to push for those tough political choices.

But climate change, and the carbon tax some propose to help curb it, seem to be experiencing a back-to-the-future moment. This week think tanks from both ends of the political spectrum issued reports or hosted discussions on taxing companies for emitting heat-trapping carbon dioxide – an idea that echoes the failed cap and trade bill that stalled early in Obama's first term.

The Congressional Budget Office issued a report Tuesday on methods for making a carbon tax less burdensome on lower-income people. Environmentalists continue to advocate for the tax in newspapers and magazines.

"We should tax what we burn, not what we earn," former Vice President Al Gore told the Associated Press.

Though short on specifics, that Obama addressed climate change at some length is perhaps a relief to both Democrats and Republicans. Perhaps, with the election behind him, the president feels liberated to seriously discuss a topic that invokes extreme opinions from both sides of the aisle.

It's a discussion the president indicates is to be continued.

"[Y]ou can expect that you’ll hear more from me in the coming months and years about how we can shape an agenda that garners bipartisan support and helps move this – moves this agenda forward."

– Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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