Midway through his response to President Obama's State of the Union address last night, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) took a few moments to address the president's impassioned case for combating climate change – perhaps the greatest current threat to our nation's long-term health and prosperity. "Our government can't control the weather," he mocked.
This is hardly surprising from Rubio, a long-time denier of the scientific consensus around climate change. He used the moment to hit the familiar right-wing talking points that environmental regulations kill jobs and that the U.S. can't afford to limit emissions if other economies don't – theories whose empirical refutation hasn't slowed them down in the slightest.
But that smug, facile dismissal is still worth noticing. As New York's Jonathan Chait notes, it rests on handily eliding some crucial logical steps. It also rests on the notion that most listeners will gloss over the thinking behind it and just enjoy a good burn.
Most of all, it's a disingenuous way of making the very idea that government can make any substantive difference in the world seem ridiculous and hubristic. In that sense, it's a decent stand-in for the rest of the speech, which could be described as a long list of things that Marco Rubio believes the government can't do.
As with the climate dismissal, many of Rubio's points depend on refuted ideas, as when he responded to what he saw as the key message of Obama's speech: "This idea – that our problems were caused by a government that was too small – it's just not true," Rubio said. His main evidence: "In fact, a major cause of our recent downturn was a housing crisis created by reckless government policies." This is, as a number of people have written today, a notion that has long been thoroughly debunked; not only didn't government policies cause the housing crisis, but better government oversight could have made a big difference in preventing it. Rubio also contended that simple economic growth, unfettered by regulation or taxation, is the answer to the middle class's woes – even though the benefits of the economic recovery have so far completely missed the middle class, and economists have proposed lots of ways that the government could help create a fairer deal.
No, not every problem can be solved by government action. But some can be; some can at least get better. And some can't be adequately tackled any other way.
What's most troubling about Rubio's quip is that climate change is a pretty great example of why we need government. It's a complex problem that no number of individual actions, and no machinations of the free market, can effectively tackle. (Yes, the economics will eventually turn against our most polluting industries – but not until long after they've done irreparable damage.) It's dire, urgent, and just the kind of problem that needs a collective, strategic solution.
People are already changing the climate. Governments are how we act together; they, too, are already changing the climate. It's not this idea that's ridiculous – it's the notion that any serious, shared effort to the contrary is a big joke.