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Support and criticism of Obama clean power plan sadly predictable

Aug 4, 2015

Years ago, a professor who had contempt for politics asked me if I knew what the difference was between Pavlov’s dogs and most politicians. His answer was: Sometimes when the great Russian behaviorist rang his bell, the dogs failed to salivate.

I thought of that yesterday, when President Obama announced his Clean Power Plan covering carbon emissions in all the states. Every Republican in sight immediately denounced the plan, most before they could have had a chance to read and study it.

Michigan State Senator Mike Nofs, who chairs the Energy and Technology Committee, was typical. He said,

“I think all that’s going to do is cost American businesses money and we won’t be able to compete globally because we’ll be paying so much for energy.”

He wants, “to stick with our plan for a Michigan solution to a Michigan problem,” he said. Evidently he isn’t aware that the air and winds and waterways don’t respect our state boundaries, but hey; who cares about logic?

Democrats, in an equally predictable fashion, leapt to the President’s defense. House Minority Leader Tim Greimel said, “The Clean Power Plan creates opportunities for Michigan to become a healthier, cleaner state powered by energy sources that do not harm our communities and natural resources,” et cetera.

Well, both men would have reacted in much the same way if Obama had announced a plan to trade with North Korea or cut business taxes. The bell rings, and they salivate.

So how do you decide what’s real? Well, as scholars will tell you, it often makes sense to consult the primary source: In this case, President Obama’s actual speech when he announced the Clean Power Plan yesterday afternoon. Here’s part of it:

The President noted that, “One year does not make a trend, but 14 of the last 15 warmest years on record have fallen within the first 15 years of our century.” He noted also that “over the last three decades nationwide asthma rates have more than doubled, and climate change puts those Americans at greater risk of landing in the hospital.”

When I read that, what popped into my head was folk singer Joni Mitchell’s famous line: “Don’t it always seem to go/that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”

If we screw up the environment beyond repair, nobody will proudly say that we gave American businesses a tax break instead. We are no longer at a point where we can afford to waste time on those who contend that the earth is flat, or that there’s any doubt about man-made climate change.

Yesterday, the head of the Natural Resources Defense Council noted that while Michigan has made strides in terms of clean and efficient renewable energy, “doing more of this as part of a national effort will also mean that our kids won’t inherit a planet that is beyond saving.”

Our parents’ generation understood this better than we do. That’s why they banned above-ground nuclear testing and established the Environmental Protection Agency.

President Obama gets it too. After listing a series of alarming environmental developments, he said, “It’s not as if there’s nothing we can do about it. We can take action.”

Not doing so would clearly be the most irresponsible course of all.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.