Stuck in the muddle with Obama

I look back with some embarrassment on my enthusiastic posts when Barack Obama was in the early days of his presidency.  I thought he was offering strong political leadership in addressing climate change.  His words seemed unequivocal. Here he is speaking at the UN in September 2009:

That so many of us are here today is a recognition that the threat from climate change is serious, it is urgent, and it is growing.  Our generation’s response to this challenge will be judged by history, for if we fail to meet it – boldly, swiftly, and together – we risk consigning future generations to an irreversible catastrophe.

And he was positive about facing that challenge:

As we meet here today, the good news is that after too many years of inaction and denial, there is finally widespread recognition of the urgency of the challenge before us.  We know what needs to be done.  We know that our planet’s future depends on a global commitment to permanently reduce greenhouse gas pollution.  We know that if we put the right rules and incentives in place, we will unleash the creative power of our best scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs to build a better world. And so many nations have already taken the first steps on the journey towards that goal.

The rhetoric has changed substantially since then. In this week’s state of the union address there was certainly no clarion call to confront climate change. The term was used, and the science acknowledged, but  only in passing in the context of his promotion of clean energy:

I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change. But here’s the thing — even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy-efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future — because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy. And America must be that nation.

One might think that’s OK. After all it will be clean energy that delivers us from the dangers of continued fossil fuel burning. But Obama makes room for fossil fuels; in fact he categorises natural gas as clean energy, along with the ever-elusive clean coal:

So tonight, I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal: by 2035, 80% of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources. Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal, and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all – and I urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to make it happen.

The administration are doing their bit on the fossil fuel front:

Over the last three years, we’ve opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration, and tonight, I’m directing my administration to open more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources.

He proclaims that the US has enough natural gas to last 100 years.  And look what it will mean:

The development of natural gas will create jobs and power trucks and factories that are cleaner and cheaper, proving that we don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy.

Its extraction from shale is no problem:

And by the way, it was public research dollars, over the course of 30 years, that helped develop the technologies to extract all this natural gas out of shale rock — reminding us that government support is critical in helping businesses get new energy ideas off the ground.

But renewables matter too. He speaks approvingly of developments in that area and talks of a change in direction for government subsidy:

We need to get behind this innovation. And to help pay for it, I’m asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but they’re doing just fine on their own. So instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s.

In his espousal of renewable energy Obama may be well ahead of many American politicians. And while he now studiously avoids talking about climate change he also leaves it clear that he is no denier of the science. Which in some ways makes all the more puzzling the apparent assumption that natural gas can be regarded as a clean energy. It is a fossil fuel. When it is burned it releases greenhouse gases. Less than coal, for sure, but that doesn’t make it safe for the climate.

The seemingly unequivocal statements on climate change of the early days of Obama’s presidency have become a confusing muddle. Maybe that’s understandable in the intractable conflicts of American politics these days, but it should still be rejected as a far from adequate response to the reality of global warming.

[See also: Greg Laden’s take on the SOTU address at ScienceBlogs. GR]

[Stealers Wheel]

10 thoughts on “Stuck in the muddle with Obama”

  1. I think Obama is just picking his battles. His ETS was killed by his own party when it was introduced, when democrats controlled both houses, even. Ending fossil fuel subsidies would be a big step forward. Developing more renewables will help. I know there are many progressives who argue quite convincingly that you can’t drum up political support for climate change without talking about climate change, but it does make some kind of sense. Did he mention the new EPA rules on mercury emissions that will result in closure of coal plants? I don’t think so—that was probably deliberate. In other speeches he’s talked up the benefits of renewables to the military. He’s appealing to moderates in an attempt to take both houses at the next election, and should they win I’d expect to see more progressive movement, perhaps the ETS bill being introduced—not immediately, but after support has been gathered and particularly with respect to the 2015 treaty.

    Now, the announcement of the criminal enquiry into Wall St and the financial crisis—that should be fun.

  2. And Kevin Rudd too, who observed that “global warming is the biggest moral challenge of our generation…”

    What on earth is going on ? How can this HUGE threat and moral challenge be accepted and then disregarded ? Do you really think our politicians are telling us the truth ? the whole truth ? and nothing but the truth ?

    Or are you green useful fools being taken for a giant sleigh ride ?

  3. Well spotted, Benny, we greenies are just pawns in the hands of the mighty wind power multinationals.

    If only they hadn’t forced the auto industry to abandon the internal combustion engine, we might still have a chance…

  4. I kind of agree with all the comments here, except Benny’s of course.

    I sent a message to Obama after his SOTUS, saying I am disappointed with him not taking CC seriously enough and that fossil fuels are not our future.

    After thinking about it some more, I realized that his SOTUS was an appeal to unity and ending divisiveness and gridlock in congress. So he probably didn’t want to dwell on climate change. I’m hoping he’ll speak more agressively on climate change in the run up to the election in November. And of course, that he’ll act more agressively on it, if re-elected.

    There is no alternative to Obama that isn’t far worse.

  5. As one who was born, raised, and educated in the good ol’ US of A (and the infamous Orange County to boot), I can assure everyone here that there will never be any significant movement toward reducing consumption of fossil fuels in the USA until there is a clear economic imperative to so. And no, this does not include attempts to add costs to the global environment – those are just perceived as taxes and their is nothing hated by Americans as much as taxes. You have to understand, Americans don’t give a shit about their own poor in the crime-dominated neighborhoods that lay in the shadow of the nation’s Capital, much less frogs in the Amazon. That’s just the way it is when it comes to democracy in the USA and the increasingly ignorant “average” American voter (fortunately less than 50% or so of the total population). Anyone who thinks otherwise is delusional.

    This is one of many reasons why the contrarian movement in New Zealand and elsewhere is quite clearly about lonely, grumpy old men desperately grasping to retain some aspect of their youth. Until the USA and China turn away from fossil fuels (their vast resources of coal in particular) everything else is irrelevant – including the tin-hat crowd.

    We better hope (pray?) that inexpensive solar becomes available over the next several decades or the collective human ass is grass.

  6. I’m a Canadian who moved to the US at about the same time Obama became President.

    Although I had observed US politics from Canada all my life, I found I didn’t understand how the system worked. In Canada an election victory such as what Obama and the Democratic Party won in 2008 would have produced a majority government that could pass almost whatever it wanted to in the way of legislation. This is just not so in the US. Even during the period when the Democratic Party ostensibly controlled the Senate, the House and the Presidency, because there isn’t anything like the “party discipline” you see in a Parliamentary democracy, it was all the Democratic Party congresspeople could do to come to a rough agreement about what they were going to pass in the way of healthcare. They used up all their time during the high tide of Democratic Party power in Washington on that, and even so, they barely passed something hardly any of them liked into law before they lost control of the Senate in a by-election. After that, they faced a block of 40 US Republican Senators standing together who could block any piece of legislation they felt like.

    In Canada, this situation would be like having a permanent minority government that couldn’t be defeated even if Parliament failed to pass a money bill. I.e., in Canada, if no one has a majority in the House, and necessary legislation cannot be passed because the parties do not want to cooperate with each other for whatever reason, the government falls and a new election is immediately held to change the situation.

    In the US, deadlock in Congress doesn’t force an election. The situation just festers, nothing gets done, the volume is turned up with everyone blaming the other people, and all eyes are on the next election. Its almost a perpetual election campaign here.

    The situation has devolved over the decades. There is no constitutional requirement that all legislation must pass the Senate with a super-majority of 60 votes, which allows 40 Senators to block anything they feel like. Its just a fact of life here. It is a tacit agreement by both parties each terrified of what the other party would do if they could actually do anything, i.e. the typical kind of thing a majority government would do for its entire term of office in a Parliamentary democracy, i.e. pass legislation it wanted to see enacted.

    Another factor not generally realized is that the US is a petro state. It is the largest producer of fossil fuels, i.e. gas, oil and coal added up, in the world. US total fossil fuel production, after decades of slow decline, is now growing again. The profits from this are immense. Corporations are recognized as having the free speech rights of human beings and are allowed to spend any amount of money in support of political candidates without even having to admit what they are doing publicly. A tiny bit of the enormous profits the fossil fuel companies are making is an incredible amount of money to influence the political process.

    Obama’s campaign this time looks like its going to be – think about what it means if the Republicans take the Presidency, the House, and the Senate. People who thought a US President has more power to do things than he actually has who are disillusioned about Obama now ought to consider that.

  7. “the apparent assumption that natural gas can be regarded as a clean energy. It is a fossil fuel. When it is burned it releases greenhouse gases. Less than coal, for sure, but that doesn’t make it safe for the climate.”
    If we’re talking about shale gas, which we increasingly are in the US context, then a full life-cycle analysis of its warming footprint puts it, if not actually worse than coal, then in the same ball park due to fugitive emissions and the extra warming potential of methane.

Leave a Reply