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(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)
(Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail)

Clifford Orwin

If climate change didn't exist, Obama would've had to invent it Add to ...

It's an unofficial "clean energy week" for Barack Obama's administration. The U.S. President and several of his team members are fanning out across the country, visiting clean-energy project sites. And the White House has tabled a major report to convince the public that the billions of federal dollars invested in clean-energy start-ups will pay big economic and job dividends down the road.

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This may prove to be a hard sell. This isn't Mr. Obama's fault, but it shouldn't be ascribed merely to the influence of Tea Party venom. Even the administration concedes that these industries won't create jobs in large numbers before 2015. And the jobless from this recession are already running out of unemployment benefits.

There's also no assurance that these industries will succeed. Fledgling industries dependent on public support may develop into struggling industries dependent on it. The subsidies currently required are enormous, and there's no guarantee that any of these alternative energy sources will ever become economical. Even David Axelrod, Mr. Obama's chief communicator, acknowledges that such investments are just bets, although he insists they are smart ones.

Finally, there is some question about how many new jobs these industries would create even if successful. They would create a new or expanded demand for many industrial products, but where would those products be manufactured? The enormous edge in basic manufacturing enjoyed by China, India, Brazil and other sophisticated lower-wage countries would continue to be an issue.

There's irony in this last problem, for there's a strong argument that Mr. Obama's "greenness," such as it is, depends less on his solicitude for wetlands than his concern for unemployed industrial workers. Mr. Obama is not and never has been another Al Gore. While the environment has figured among his issues, at least since his emergence on the national scene, it has never ranked foremost.

Consider, for example, The Audacity of Hope, the schematic presentation of his political program composed while he was in the Senate. Mr. Obama worked hard on the book (so hard his aides worried about him) and it remains the foremost exposition of his thought. It contains nine chapters, each devoted to a key theme. There is no chapter on the environment. Indeed, the very thorough index lists just seven references to "environmental issues," of which six prove to be mere mentions in passing. It surprised me, as I suspect it would most readers.

The seventh reference is to a discussion one paragraph in length, which, faute de mieux, enjoys the status of Mr. Obama's main treatment of the environment. It occurs in the chapter titled Opportunity, whose general theme is the problem of economic growth in an era of globalization. The book proposes a tripartite strategy. The first leg of the tripod is education, the second research and development, and the third investment in developing alternative energy sources. All have served as leitmotifs of his administration.

Mr. Obama the author makes three arguments for investment in alternative energy, the focus of this week's big push. These are the presumed increasing costliness of oil, the danger to national security of reliance on foreign energy, and the dangers of global warming. This last argument is the least developed, consisting entirely of that single paragraph. While it lists the perils of climate change with gusto, it remains just a paragraph, and these perils make no further appearance in the argument. If we can speak of a perfunctory treatment of an apocalyptic threat, this is it.

The emphasis, in Mr. Obama's book and now this week, is on the economic benefits of leadership in the development of alternative energies. As a former senator from a Rust Belt state, the President is only too familiar with deindustrialization. He has long viewed primacy in alternative energy as the only likely remedy. Just as the U.S. economy emerged from the Great Depression only because of the Second World War, so it can meet the challenge of globalization only by seizing the commanding heights of the war against climate change.

That the Axis was more than a phantom enemy, no one could doubt. Does Mr. Obama buy into global warming? There's no evidence to the contrary. Still, you can't avoid the reflection that, if it didn't exist, he would have had to invent it.

Clifford Orwin is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and distinguished visiting fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution.

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