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Obama and Climate Change: The Real Story

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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."

And where will the coal we don't need ourselves end up? Overseas, at record levels: the Netherlands, the U.K., China, South Korea. And when it gets there, it slows the move to cleaner forms of energy. All told, in 2012, U.S. coal exports were the equivalent of putting 55 million new cars on the road. If we don't burn our coal and instead sell it to someone else, the planet doesn't care; the atmosphere has no borders.

As the administration's backers consistently point out, America has cut its own carbon emissions by 12 percent in the past five years, and we may meet our announced national goal of a 17 percent reduction by decade's end. We've built lots of new solar panels and wind towers in the past five years (though way below the pace set by nations like Germany). In any event, building more renewable energy is not a useful task if you're also digging more carbon energy – it's like eating a pan of Weight Watchers brownies after you've already gobbled a quart of Ben and Jerry's.

Let's lay aside the fact that climate scientists have long since decided these targets are too timid and that we'd have to cut much more deeply to get ahead of global warming. All this new carbon drilling, digging and burning the White House has approved will add up to enough to negate the administration's actual achievements: The coal from the Powder River Basin alone, as the commentator Dave Roberts pointed out in Grist, would "undo all of Obama's other climate work."

The perfect example of this folly is the Keystone XL pipeline stretching south from the tar sands of Canada – the one we were protesting that November day. The tar sands are absurdly dirty: To even get oil to flow out of the muck you need to heat it up with huge quantities of natural gas, making it a double-dip climate dis­aster. More important, these millions of untouched acres just beneath the Arctic Circle make up one of the biggest pools of carbon on Earth. If those fields get fully developed, as NASA's recently retired senior climate scientist James Hansen pointed out, it will be "game over" for the climate.

Obama has all the authority he needs to block any pipelines that cross the border to the U.S. And were he to shut down Keystone XL, say analysts, it would dramatically slow tar-sands expansion plans in the region. But soon after taking office, he approved the first, small Keystone pipeline, apparently without any qualms. And no one doubts that if a major campaign hadn't appeared, he would have approved the much larger Keystone XL without a peep – even though the oil that will flow through that one pipe will produce almost as much carbon as he was theoretically saving with his new auto-mileage law.

But the fight to shut down the pipeline sparked a grassroots movement that has changed the culture of environmentalism – but not, so far, the culture of the White House. For me, the most telling moment came a month or two ago when it emerged that the president's former communications director, Anita Dunn, had taken a contract to flack for the pipeline.

The reason for fighting Keystone all along was not just to block further expansion of the tar sands – though that's required, given the amount of carbon contained in that expanse of Alberta. We also hoped that doing the right thing would jump-start Washington in the direction of real climate action. Instead, the effort necessary to hold off this one pipeline has kept environmentalists distracted as Obama has opened the Arctic and sold off the Powder River Basin, as he's fracked and drilled. It kept us quiet as both he and Mitt Romney spent the whole 2012 campaign studiously ignoring climate change.

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