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State of the Union shows Obama still needs movement pressure on climate

Listening to the State of the Union, it’s easy to cordon off its sections neatly. A transition statement, applause breaks or a change in tone can all signal a move onto a new topic. Looking over the transcript from last night’s speech, it isn’t hard to separate out the section about climate change, which President Obama describes as one of the nation’s “pillars of leadership.” After discussing trade partnerships, Obama talked about the truth behind the science, and how the 14 warmest years on record have been in the first 15 years of this century. There’s even a snappy diss on Republicans who evaded the question of climate change in the mid-term race by pleading that they simply are not scientists. The president quipped last night, “I’m not a scientist either … but I know a lot of really good scientists.” He talks about the strides his administration has made to preserve public lands and negotiate a historic climate deal with China, and how the United States should continue these trends to provide leadership on this issue globally.

All that, combined with a nod to solar power and a brief, pointed mention of “one oil pipeline,” might be summed up as the State of the Climate in the Union. It would have been better, admittedly, had it come at this time in 1992, when the United States signed onto the United Nations Framework on Climate Change. But, all in all — on climate issues — not bad. For those hoping to avoid the very worst of the climate crisis, though, there’s another big section that should be included in this State of the Climate brief: middle class economics.

This is something that Republicans, in all their obstructionism and climate denial, understand all too well. It’s what has, on Keystone XL, landed the Grand Old Party in an unlikely alliance with organized labor to rush its approval through the Senate. It’s also what has allowed conservatives to peddle their favorite “jobs vs. the environment” meme at length, pitting working families against the other working families most impacted by climate change and extraction. Does anyone find it more than a little ironic that climate is the only issue that puts congressional Republicans on the side of the American worker?

In one of five Republican rebuttals to the State of the Union, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, accused the president of pushing through “job killing EPA regulations.” He also pledged to introduce a bill that would “require the EPA to be held accountable for their rule-making.” All this sounds like standard fare for Republicans, until you remember that Inhofe — author of the 2012 book “The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future” — happens to be the Senate’s highest-ranking official on the environment. As chair of the Senate Committee on Public Works and the Environment, Inhofe — who said in 2003 that “increases in global temperatures may have a beneficial effect on how we live our lives” — exercises considerable power over the EPA, an agency he and fellow Republicans have pledged to all but gut.

So what, then, does middle class economics have to do with the climate crisis? If there’s any hope of averting the worst of it, the government will have to start providing Americans with more. More, even, than the paid sick leave, minimum wage hikes, affordable child care, free community college and public infrastructure investments that Obama pitched last night. Unlike health care, there is no Obamacare for the planet: Private industry will not innovate us out of the climate crisis or provide for all of our needs, no matter how heavily it’s incentivized. Corporations are legally bound to value profits over people, the planet and virtually anything else, which creates a not-insignificant problem when a big part of acting on climate change means inverting that metric. Confronting the climate crisis and the cold, flawed logic of endless growth that created it will mean creating jobs that pay family-sustaining wages, and making sure that people have basic needs met in a way that’s not dependent on whether or not a given company will profit off of it: child care, education, health care, housing and more. Unlike corporations, the government has an at least nominal mandate to provide for its citizens.

Unfortunately, “the shadow of crisis” has not passed, least of all when it comes to the climate. Given that House Speaker John Boehner and most Republicans couldn’t muster the energy to applaud equal pay for men and women, creating the political will to pass comprehensive climate legislation that includes job creation, public services and maybe even a few handouts (read: a social safety net) isn’t something Obama or congressional Democrats have proven capable of doing. As with most significant progressive reforms in American history, confronting both climate change and extraction will take the pressure of a popular movement that sees climate issues as part and parcel with economic ones.