Two years ago, on a gorgeous November day, 12,000 activists surrounded the White House to protest the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Signs we carried featured quotes from Barack Obama in 2008: "Time to end the tyranny of oil"; "In my administration, the rise of the oceans will begin to slow."
Our hope was that we could inspire him to keep those promises. Even then, there were plenty of cynics who said Obama and his insiders were too closely tied to the fossil-fuel industry to take climate change seriously. But in the two years since, it's looked more and more like they were right -- that in our hope for action we were willing ourselves to overlook the black-and-white proof of how he really feels.
If you want to understand how people will remember the Obama climate legacy, a few facts tell the tale: By the time Obama leaves office, the U.S. will pass Saudi Arabia as the planet's biggest oil producer and Russia as the world's biggest producer of oil and gas combined. In the same years, even as we've begun to burn less coal at home, our coal exports have climbed to record highs. We are, despite slight declines in our domestic emissions, a global-warming machine: At the moment when physics tell us we should be jamming on the carbon brakes, America is revving the engine.
You could argue that private industry, not the White House, has driven that boom, and in part you'd be right. But that's not what Obama himself would say. Here's Obama speaking in Cushing, Oklahoma, last year, in a speech that historians will quote many generations hence. It is to energy what Mitt Romney's secretly taped talk about the 47 percent was to inequality. Except that Obama was out in public, boasting for all the world to hear:
"Over the last three years, I've directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We're opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We've quad rupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We've added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth, and then some ... In fact, the problem ... is that we're actually producing so much oil and gas ... that we don't have enough pipeline capacity to transport all of it where it needs to go."
Actually, of course, "the problem" is that climate change is spiraling out of control. Under Obama we've had the warmest year in American history -- 2012 -- featuring a summer so hot that corn couldn't grow across much of the richest farmland on the planet. We've seen the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and the largest wind field ever measured, both from Hurricane Sandy. We've watched the Arctic melt, losing three quarters of its summer sea ice.
We've seen some of the largest fires ever recorded in the mountains of California, Colorado and New Mexico. And not just here, of course -- his term has seen unprecedented drought and flood around the world. The typhoon that just hit the Philippines, according to some meteorologists, had higher wind speeds at landfall than any we've ever seen. When the world looks back at the Obama years half a century from now, one doubts they'll remember the health care website; one imagines they'll study how the most powerful government on Earth reacted to the sudden, clear onset of climate change.
And what they'll see is a president who got some stuff done, emphasis on "some." In his first term, Obama used the stimulus money to promote green technology, and he won agreement from Detroit for higher automobile mileage standards; in his second term, he's fighting for EPA regulations on new coal-fired power plants. These steps are important -- and they also illustrate the kind of fights the Obama administration has been willing to take on: ones where the other side is weak. The increased mileage standards came at a moment when D.C. owned Detroit -- they were essentially a condition of the auto bailouts. And the battle against new coal-fired power plants was really fought and won by environmentalists. Over the past few years, the Sierra Club and a passel of local groups managed to beat back plans for more than 100 new power plants. The new EPA rules -- an architecture designed in part by the Natural Resources Defense Council -- will ratify the rout and drive a stake through the heart of new coal. But it's also a mopping-up action.
Obama loyalists argue that these are as much as you could expect from a president saddled with the worst Congress in living memory. But that didn't mean that the president had to make the problem worse, which he's done with stunning regularity. Consider:
...Just days before the BP explosion, the White House opened much of the offshore U.S. to new oil drilling. ("Oil rigs today generally don't cause spills," he said by way of explanation. "They are technologically very advanced.")
...In 2012, with the greatest Arctic melt on record under way, his administration gave Shell Oil the green light to drill in Alaska's Beaufort Sea. ("Our pioneering spirit is naturally drawn to this region, for the economic opportunities it presents," the president said.)
...This past August, as the largest forest fire in the history of the Sierra Nevadas was burning in Yosemite National Park, where John Muir invented modern environmentalism, the Bureau of Land Management decided to auction 316 million tons of taxpayer-owned coal in Wyoming's Powder River basin. According to the Center for American Progress, the emissions from that sale will equal the carbon produced from 109 million cars.
Even on questions you'd think would be open-and-shut, the administration has waffled. In November, for instance, the EPA allowed Kentucky to weaken a crucial regulation, making it easier for mountaintop-removal coal mining to continue. As the Sierra Club's Bruce Nilles said, "It's dismaying that the Obama administration approved something even worse than what the Bush administration proposed."
All these steps are particularly toxic because we've learned something else about global warming during the Obama years: Most of the coal and gas and oil that's underground has to stay there if we're going to slow climate change.
Though the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009 was unquestionably the great foreign-policy failure of Obama's first term, producing no targets or timetables or deals, the world's leaders all signed a letter pledging that they would keep the earth's temperature from rising more than two degrees Celsius. This is not an ambitious goal (the one degree we've raised the temperature already has melted the Arctic, so we're fools to find out what two will do), but at least it is something solid to which Obama and others are committed. To reach that two-degree goal, say organizations such as the Carbon Tracker Initiative, the World Bank, the International Energy Agency, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, HSBC and just about everyone else who's looked at the question, we'd need to leave undisturbed between two-thirds and four-fifths of the planet's reserves of coal, gas and oil.
The Powder River Basin would have been a great place to start, especially since activists, long before the administration did anything, have driven down domestic demand for coal by preventing new power plants. But as the "Truth Team" on barack obama.com puts it, "building a clean future for coal is an integral part of President Obama's plan to develop every available source of American energy."