Too little, too late

07/03/2013

President Obama’s anemic speech on climate action was disappointing, but not surprising. He’s still backing economic growth by promoting biofuels, clean coal, fracked gas and nuclear power. Rather than the broad, ambitious plan he had promised, Obama put forth a modest series of responses couched in a climate primer—all to an inattentive audience. 

His joke about not having time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society felt akin to George Zimmerman’s attorney beginning the trial about Trayvon Martin’s death by shooting with a knock-knock joke. Both fell flat.

With a spiraling-out-of-control crisis of global warming, we need far tougher talk. We all witnessed livelihoods destroyed by the Gulf oil disaster; more of the same is hardly the path toward “energy security.” 

Real leadership would mean setting out an energy plan that would move the nation away from its dependence on fossil fuels and dangerous nuclear power and toward a rapid harnessing of so-called renewable energy sources.

Obama proposed using his presidential powers to force the Environmental Protection Agency to impose carbon emissions limits on existing and new power plants. But he also waffled, stating that the EPA must be “flexible” to states’ needs. 

The Clean Air Act of 2007 already empowered the EPA to regulate emissions for new facilities, yet little has been done to impact power plants, which account for approximately 40 percent of our carbon emissions. 

And there is no guarantee that our president will follow through; there are many industrial sources that could be regulated, and his administration has dragged its feet on all of them. 

Most activists were expecting Obama to embrace ambitious renewable energy projects, energy storage research and development investments and support for efficiency technologies.

For my part, understanding that there really are no silver bullets on energy—and no large-scale projects that are truly clean or renewable—I had hoped against hope that he would finally challenge us all to power down our energy demands. 

But such an approach does not square with his prevailing goal of continuing to stoke the economic “recovery” with jobs and political capital. He ended his speech with a theme of “divest and invest,” asserting that we can have both a growing economy and environmental protections.  That refrain is getting seriously stale. 

Catastrophic climate change poses an existential threat to humanity. We need nothing less than worldwide mobilization to transition rapidly from a fossil fuel-reliant past to a lower-energy future. We need to feel a sense of urgency, even of emergency. 

Missing from the president’s solution was a necessary reframing of our problems, tough and challenging emissions standards, binding rules on corporations and a significant tax on carbon. 

Regarding the Keystone XL pipeline, Obama declared that his administration would only move forward if it determines that the pipeline is “in our national interest”; he did not acknowledge the widespread demands that the project be halted. It seems he will ultimately approve that project at a point in time when he feels he has sufficient political cover to withstand the fury of environmentalists.

Obama declared that the U.S. must be a global leader and work with private industry to curb the carbon emissions of developing nations. This is in spite of the fact that the global north, with only 15 percent of the world’s population, accounts for 70 percent of greenhouse gases, and the U.S. is the second largest contributor to greenhouse gases in that group. 

He complimented private industry for curbing environmental disaster, praising multinationals like Walmart and General Motors for voluntarily decreasing their carbon emissions. And he had the gall to claim there had been progress at the U.N.’s Copenhagen climate talks.

Obama announced that he would stop providing federal dollars to build foreign coal-powered plants, so long as they are not clean coal plants, and so long as the host country has another viable energy option. Since everyone now knows that clean coal is a myth, this sounded like a sleight of hand. 

His stated intention to expand fracking and the use of natural gas as a bridge fuel reminded me of the infamous Alaskan bridge-to-nowhere that was more about Congressional pork than real commercial infrastructure. 

Regarding fossil fuel exports, Obama promoted liquefied natural gas, or L.G.N., and said nothing about curtailing coal exports. In support of L.N.G., the administration is moving full speed ahead on fracking, with no mention of how to control accidental spills and escaping gases, toxic contamination of ground water and other disastrous effects.

Our president’s plan is not big enough. Nor does it move fast enough to match the terrifying magnitude of the climate crisis and the even bigger picture of continuing ecological degradation. By keeping the global economy as his highest priority, Obama has demonstrated that he is not the change we were hoping for. 

 

Bernie Stephan, an Inverness resident, is the Radical Realtor at Eco Realty and co-host of KWMR’s Post Carbon Radio.