The White House, as it prepares to announce new limits on carbon emissions, is working to transform the debate from distant threats to more immediate issues. President Barack Obama wants to shift the conversation from polar bears and melting glaciers to droughts in Iowa and more childhood asthma across the nation.
Opponents are also making the issue personal. They’re homing in on the rules’ potential kitchen-table impact, raising the prospect of higher utility bills and job losses. They expect those arguments to resonate with voters as the country is still recovering from the worst recession in seven decades.
The struggle to set the terms of the climate change discussion will largely determine the durability of a key part of Obama’s second-term legacy and whether the U.S. takes aggressive action to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.
“The issue at some level will be a definition battle,” said Democratic strategist Chris Lehane, an adviser to billionaire environmental advocate Tom Steyer, who has pledged $50 million and is seeking to raise another $50 million to try to raise climate change as an electoral issue this year.
If environmental advocates succeed in casting climate change as an issue of “kids and health,” Lehane said, “you’ll hear two sounds: the coal companies getting hit, and the coal companies hitting the ground.”
Opponents say the threat to jobs is real. Lower energy costs are “an extraordinary advantage” that American industry has over foreign competitors, said Ross Eisenberg, a vice president at the National Association of Manufacturers.
“Manufacturers are on the verge of a comeback here,” he said. “Don’t mess that up.”
The argument that inaction would imperil public health was one of the most effective messages in the successful campaign to defeat a 2010 California referendum that would have rolled back a state law limiting greenhouse-gas emissions, said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of Yale University’s Project on Climate Change Communications.
A television commercial, featuring the head of the state chapter of the American Lung Association making that case, was crucial to the campaign, he said.
“Many Americans still think of this as distant in time and space, that this is about polar bears and small island countries but not the United States or at least not my state or my community,” Leiserowitz said. “As Americans begin to connect the dots on climate change and health, we expect them to become much more concerned.”