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Baked Alaska: Obama, Climate Change and the Arrogance of Power

By       Message Steve Breyman     Permalink
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The week of Obama's visit: 35,000 walruses haul out onto an Alaskan beach due to missing sea ice.
(image by

Rolling Stone reporter Jeff Goodell tagged along on President Obama's recent climate-change themed trip to Alaska. Goodell's report included an interview with the President. The interview provides a window into central features of Barack Obama's politics and policies.

Style Over Substance

The thin stuff of the trip was evident from the outset. Sum total of new initiatives announced during the visit: we now get to call Mt. McKinley Denali again (what the indigenous locals always called it, and already the name of the national park over which it towers); construction of a new icebreaker for the Coast Guard (aimed at narrowing the hysterical icebreaker gap with the Russians), and some Native Alaskan villages received the promise of a few million dollars in federal assistance to relocate away from the rising Arctic Ocean.

As Obama -- the first sitting president to visit the Arctic -- admitted, the trip was primarily about the symbolism of presidential witness to melting glaciers and warming permafrost. "Part of the reason why I wanted to take this trip was to start making it a little more visceral and to highlight for people that this is not a distant problem that we can keep putting off," he said. "This is something that we have to tackle right now."

"Climate change is no longer some far-off problem; it is happening here, it is happening now," Obama said on the trip's first day. In "perhaps the starkest language he has ever used in public," thinks Goodell, Obama warned that without urgent action, "we will condemn our children to a planet beyond their capacity to repair: submerged countries, abandoned cities, fields no longer growing." "We're not moving fast enough," was the president's mantra (cited four times in a 24-minute speech; an aide told Goodell the repetition was off script).

Who today doesn't get climate change in their guts, bones and sinews? Doesn't see it as mere real and present danger but as rapidly emerging catastrophe? Forest fires burning up vast expanses of the West and Alaska, simultaneous droughts and deluges from California to the Southeast, hurricanes and blizzards barreling up and down the Atlantic Seaboard, the strongest storm ever hitting the Mexican Pacific coast. Springs arriving ever earlier, summers growing ever hotter, winters swinging wildly back and forth between historically mild and record-breaking cold and snow. The most timid "I'm not a scientist" politicians, climate skeptics, even deniers understand this, regardless of their public statements. Twenty years ago it was fair to say there'd be no serious action on climate change until the threats moved from remote to people's doorsteps. Put out the welcome mat.

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Obama's crew pointed to an additional reason for the trip: to "build momentum for a meaningful deal at the international climate talks in Paris." "The president is entirely focused on this goal," one of his aides told Goodell. "If you think about who has been in the forefront of pushing global climate action forward, nobody is in Obama's league," declared John Podesta, former special adviser to the president now chair of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. Goodell quotes another informant as having heard Obama claim recently: "I'm dragging the world behind me to Paris."

Goodell left Podesta and Obama's claims unchallenged. There are literally millions of activists around the world far out in front of the president on climate change. While realizing that it's reckless to burn every last nugget of coal and barrel of oil, the president does not, for example, demand that the world leave 80% of the remaining fossil fuels in the ground. Not a fair comparison? What of prior presidents? It doesn't take much to best the energy and climate policies of Ronald Reagan, the two George Bushes or Bill Clinton, the other guys in charge during the Age of Climate Change. What of other heads of state? Most Western European executives are bolder than Obama (to say nothing of the leaders of small island states).

This is not to deny the president some climate credit. He intervened at Copenhagen (bursting into a meeting of BRICS leaders to which he had not been invited) to some (problematic) effect, used the bailout of the automakers to leverage an increase in fuel efficiency, and directed considerable sums -- by historical standards -- of Recovery Act monies toward clean energy investments. But following the modest start, as admitted by one of his aides, Obama put climate change on the back burner during the rest of his first term to focus on health care reform.

He came roaring back, we're told by the aide, in his 2013 inaugural address: "We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations." By June of that year, Obama introduced a decent if unremarkable Climate Action Plan. He took some modest steps on HFCs and methane. With the help of Podesta, the president (finally) launched a series of executive actions in 2014 designed to circumvent the climate deniers and Obama haters in Congress. There's last year's unprecedented (if underwhelming and uncertain) deal with China--which addressed the 'why take action if the Chinese won't' question and made progress at the global climate talks in Paris in December more likely. Then there's the Clean Power Plan -- challenged by Red State governors -- that relies on the EPA's authority under the Clean Air Act to reduce power plant C02 emissions thirty two percent by 2030 (essentially foreclosing construction of new coal-fired plants).

But dragging the world to Paris? Obama committed the US to 26-28% reductions in greenhouse gases from 2005 levels by 2025 -- with no consideration for how the cuts affect global mean temperature increases, the real measure of seriousness. Compare that to the European Union's promise for 40% cuts from 1990 levels by 2050 (also surely not enough to prevent further catastrophe).

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"The science keeps on telling us," admits Obama, "we're just not acting fast enough." A primary obstacle to acting faster is Obama's own "all of the above" energy policy. The president opened new areas of the Gulf of Mexico to drilling (after most of the anger and some of the hurt over BP's blowout disaster subsided). Obama subsidized the fraud that is "clean coal," leased vast expanses of the West for further coal mining at fire sale prices, and failed to ban mountain top removal mining. He kept the nuclear reactor industry on life support with approval of and massive financial support for a new plant, and left it to "the market" to shutter several old nukes.

His administration bolstered fracking for oil and gas in shale formations across the country, and in a stunning failure of responsibility overlooked the legal exemptions engineered by Bush and Cheney that make the practice possible. He finally killed the Keystone XL pipeline after TransCanada withdrew its permit application, and Hillary Clinton came out against it. Obama permitted Shell to drill in the frigid depths of the Chukchi Sea seventy-five miles off the Alaskan coast (a decision Al Gore called "insane;" Shell called it quits for now after failing to find much oil). To top it off, the president visited the oil patch when gasoline prices soared in 2012 to boast about the vast increases in fossil fuel production his policies stimulated (an eight year high to that point).

Ready for Action

Goodell's interview with the president lays bare what's fundamentally flawed about the Obama approach to politics, and to his climate change politics in particular. The president wisely does not toot his own horn: "we have made modest progress, but nowhere near what we need to do." He lamented his early failure to pass cap-and-trade, a system that turns pollution into a commodity, and that has been limited thus far in the US to slowly reducing carbon emissions in a couple of multi-state electricity-generating sectors. The president takes credit for reducing the carbon intensity of the economy (a measure of carbon emissions per unit of economic activity), and for "doubling the production of clean energy" (although in the race for green power, UN climate chief Christiana Figueres says the US "is actually playing catch-up to China").

"My attitude," Obama claims, "is that if we get the structure right, then we can turn the dials as there's additional public education, not just in the United States but across the world, and people feel a greater urgency about it and there's more political will to act." This ignores the twenty years of growing public concern in the US, based on increased understanding of the science and politics of climate change, reflected in public opinion polls and other data. See, for example, the work of political psychologist Jon Krosnick (Figure 1). Publics around the world were ready for action already in 2007, prior to Obama's presidency (see Figure 2). "Greater urgency" and "political will" are generated by social movements not by presidents on junkets hobbled by obstructionists and by lack of imagination and fortitude (about which more below).

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Steve Breyman teaches peace, environmental and media studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

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