We're supposed to be thrilled when Obama says something, anything, about global warming – he gave a fine speech this past June. "The question," he told a Georgetown University audience, is "whether we will have the courage to act before it's too late. And how we answer will have a profound impact on the world that we leave behind not just to you, but to your children and to your grandchildren. As a president, as a father and as an American, I'm here to say we need to act." Inspiring stuff, but then in October, when activists pressed him about Keystone at a Boston gathering, he said, "We had the climate-change rally back in the summer." Oh.
In fact, that unwillingness to talk regularly about climate change may be the greatest mistake the president has made. An account in Politico last month described his chief of staff dressing down Nobel laureate and then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu in 2009 for daring to tell an audience in Trinidad that island nations were in severe danger from rising seas. Rahm Emanuel called his deputy Jim Messina to say, "If you don't kill Chu, I'm going to." On the plane home, Messina told Chu, "How, exactly, was this fucking on message?" It's rarely been on message for Obama, despite the rising damage. His government spent about as much last year responding to Sandy and to the Midwest drought as it did on education, but you wouldn't know it from his actions.
Which doesn't mean anyone's given up – the president's inaction has actually helped to spur a real movement. Some of it is aimed at Washington, and involves backing the few good things the administration has done. At the moment, for instance, most green groups are rallying support for the new EPA coal regulations.
Mostly, though, people are working around the administration, and with increasing success. Obama's plan to auction Powder River Basin coal has so far failed – there aren't any bidders, in large part because citizens in Washington state and Oregon have fought the proposed ports that would make it cheap to ship all that coal to Asia. Obama has backed fracking to the hilt – but in state after state, voters have begun to limit and restrict the technology. Environmentalists are also taking the fight directly to Big Oil: In October, an Oxford University study said that the year-old fight for divestment from stock in fossil-fuel companies is the fastest-growing corporate campaign in history.
None of that cures the sting of Obama's policies nor takes away the need to push him hard. Should he do the right thing on Keystone XL, a decision expected sometime in the next six months, he'll at least be able to tell other world leaders, "See, I've stopped a big project on climate grounds." That could, if he used real diplomatic pressure, help restart the international talks he has let lapse. He's got a few chances left to show some leadership.
But even on this one highly contested pipeline, he's already given the oil industry half of what it wanted. That day in Oklahoma when he boasted about encircling the Earth with pipelines, he also announced his support for the southern leg of Keystone, from Oklahoma to the Gulf. Not just his support: He was directing his administration to "cut through the red tape, break through the bureaucratic hurdles and make this project a priority, to go ahead and get it done."
It has: Despite brave opposition from groups like Tar Sands Blockade, Keystone South is now 95 percent complete, and the administration is in court seeking to beat back the last challenges from landowners along the way. The president went ahead and got it done. If only he'd apply that kind of muscle to stopping climate change.
This story is from the December 19th, 2013 - January 2nd, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.
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