In Alaska, President Obama was in a very good mood. He visited the state in late summer to draw attention to the looming climate catastrophe the world faces, but with the exception of one big policy speech when he sounded as apocalyptic as any hemp-growing activist, he spent most of his three days up north beaming. “He’s happy to be out of his cage,” one aide joked. Others credited the buoyant U.S. economy or the fact that the president had just learned that he had secured enough votes to protect the hard-fought nuclear deal with Iran from being derailed by Senate Republicans.
Whatever the reason, you could see the cheerfulness in his face the moment he stepped out of his armored presidential limo at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, where the air was hazy with smoke from the wildfires that had burned millions of acres in Alaska. The president was all smiles, shaking hands with local pols and then bounding up the stairs into Air Force One. No suit and tie, no sir — today, on what was the third and final day of his trip, he was dressed for adventure in black outdoor pants, a gray pullover and a black Carhartt jacket.
He was heading north to Kotzebue, a village about 30 miles above the Arctic Circle, which is suffering from a climate-disaster trifecta of melting permafrost, rising seas and bigger storm surges. As White House press releases and video blogs pointed out, this was a historic trip — not only would Obama be the first sitting president to ever visit the Arctic, but he would also be the first president to use a selfie stick to take videos of himself talking about the end of human civilization.
The president’s upbeat mood was an odd and unexpected counterpoint to the seriousness and urgency of the message he was trying to deliver. “Climate change is no longer some far-off problem; it is happening here, it is happening now,” Obama said in his remarks to an international conference on the Arctic in Anchorage on the first day of his trip. In perhaps the starkest language he has ever used in public, Obama warned that unless more was done to reduce carbon pollution, “we will condemn our children to a planet beyond their capacity to repair: submerged countries, abandoned cities, fields no longer growing.” His impatience was obvious: “We’re not moving fast enough,” he repeated four times in a 24-minute speech (an aide later told me this repetition was ad-libbed).
Obama’s trip to Alaska marked the beginning of what may be the last big push of his presidency — to build momentum for a meaningful deal at the international climate talks in Paris later this year. “The president is entirely focused on this goal,” one of his aides told me in Alaska. For Obama, who has secured his legacy on his two top priorities, health care and the economy, as well as on important issues like gay marriage and immigration, a breakthrough in Paris would be a sweet final victory before his presidency drowns in the noise of the 2016 election. “If you think about who has been in the forefront of pushing global climate action forward, nobody is in Obama’s league,” says John Podesta, a former special adviser to Obama who is now chairing Hil-lary Clinton’s presidential campaign. (One recent visitor to the Oval Office recalled Obama saying, “I’m dragging the world behind me to Paris.”)
Policywise, the president didn’t have much to offer in Alaska. He restored the original Alaska Native name to the highest mountain in North America (Denali), accelerated the construction of a new U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, doled out a few million bucks to help Alaska Native villages move to higher ground — largely symbolic gestures that didn’t do much to help Alaskans deal with the fact that their state is melting like a popsicle on a summer sidewalk. In the end, the trip was mostly a calculated and well-crafted presidential publicity stunt. And it raised the question: If the American people see the president of the United States standing atop a melting glacier and telling them the world is in trouble, will they care?
“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,” the president told me. “This is something that we have to tackle right now.”
Obama could not have picked a better place to make his point than Alaska. Climatewise, it is the dark heart of the fossil-fuel beast. On one hand, temperatures in the state are rising twice as fast as the national average, and glaciers are retreating so quickly that even the pilot of my Delta flight into Anchorage told passengers to “look out the window at the glaciers on the left side of the aircraft — they won’t be there for long!” The very week of Obama’s visit, 35,000 walruses huddled on the beach in northern Alaska because the sea ice they used as resting spots while hunting had melted away; in the Gulf of Alaska, scientists were tracking the effects of a zone of anomalously warm water that stretches down to Baja California and which has been named, appropriately enough, “the blob.” On the other hand, the state is almost entirely dependent on revenues from fossil-fuel production, which, thanks to the low price of oil and exhausted oil and gas wells on the North Slope, are in free fall — the state is grappling with a $3.7 billion budget shortage this year. Alaska Gov. Bill Walker had flown from Washington, D.C., to Anchorage with the president at the beginning of his trip; according to one of the president’s aides, Walker asked the president to open more federal lands to oil and gas drilling to boost state revenues. “Alaska is a banana republic,” says Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook Inletkeeper, an environmental group in Alaska. “The state has to pump oil or die.”
When it comes to climate change, the rap on Obama has always been that he’s better at talk than action. He campaigned in 2008 on a promise to cut carbon pollution and push cap-and-trade legislation through Congress, but his commitment lacked urgency. (During the 2008 campaign, he went out of his way to support “clean coal,” which was the favorite buzzword of Big Coal and political shorthand for “Don’t worry, Midwestern voters, I’m not really serious about this climate-change stuff.”) The year he took office, he brokered a last-minute deal at the Copenhagen climate negotiations, but decided to make health care reform, not climate legislation, his top priority in the first term. With the economy faltering, he pushed through an $800 billion stimulus bill that jump-started the clean-tech revolution in America, financing investment in wind, solar and other forms of renewable energy. And he used the leverage he gained during the federal bailout of the auto industry to double fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles. But after the 2010 midterm elections, the president had to deal with a Republican Congress full of rabid climate deniers. Rather than confront them and use his bully pulpit to build political momentum for action on climate change, he essentially went dark on the issue for the rest of his first term.
That changed in the second term. “I think his 2013 inaugural address was a turning point,” says the president’s senior adviser Brian Deese. “He wrote it more or less himself, without policy people, and it really marks a change in his thinking.” In that address, Obama makes the case for immediate action: “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.”
And he made good on that. In June 2013, he unveiled a detailed 75-point Climate Action Plan, which essentially redirected the entire federal government to begin taking climate change seriously. With the help of Podesta, whom he brought in as a senior adviser in early 2014, Obama launched a series of executive actions that circumvented Congress but still allowed him to demonstrate that he was serious about cutting America’s carbon pollution. Just as important, he cut a deal with China to reduce carbon pollution in both countries, which broke the logjam on international politics and removed one of the major talking points against taking stronger action on climate change (“China isn’t doing anything, so why should we?”). Finally, earlier this year he introduced the Clean Power Plan, which will use the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory authority to cut power-plant CO2 emissions by 32 percent by 2030.
Nearly all of Obama’s policies have focused on reducing demand for fossil fuels; when it comes to shutting down supply, he has been far less ambitious. He has expanded drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, allowed fracking for natural gas, sold coal leases in Wyoming at flea-market prices and still has not officially killed the controversial Keystone pipeline. This reflects a seemingly deliberate philosophy that reducing demand is a more effective way to wean our economy off fossil fuels than shutting off supplies — which, in a global market, will just be provided elsewhere. Just a month before the trip began, the Department of the Interior approved a permit to allow Shell to perform exploratory drilling this summer about 75 miles off the coast of Alaska in the Chukchi Sea. White House officials argued that approving the dril-ling was hardly a sign that the president was unserious about climate change and pointed out, accurately, that the lease had been sold years earlier by the Bush administration, that there are already some 30 exploratory wells drilled in the Arctic, that the Department of the Interior had only approved this one after pushing hard for new safety regulations and environmental protections, and that, even if all went well, Shell wouldn’t begin pumping oil for at least a decade. Nevertheless, climate activists blasted the president for hypocrisy; Al Gore called Arctic drilling “insane.”
For the flight up to Kotzebue, the Air Force left the president’s 747 parked on the tarmac in Anchorage and switched to a smaller plane, a 757 (it was also dubbed Air Force One, which applies to any aircraft the president is flying in — his staff called it “mini-Air Force One”). Several members of Obama’s senior staff were along, including Deese and Susan Rice, his national-security adviser.
Rice’s presence on the trip was a reminder that a rapidly melting Arctic also has rapidly escalating national-security implications. As the ice vanishes, a whole new ocean is opening up — and one that contains 30 percent of the known natural-gas reserves and 13 percent of the oil. Unlike Russia, the U.S. is poorly equipped to operate up there, with only two icebreakers (the Russians have 40). And the Russians aren’t the only ones with eyes on the Arctic — as we were flying toward Kotzebue, five Chinese warships were cruising in international waters below. Coincidence or power play? And off to the east, the Canadian military had just wrapped up Operation Nanook, an annual large-scale military exercise, which, according to the Canadian government, was “to assert sovereignty over its northernmost regions.”
Before we crossed into the Arctic, we touched down in Dillingham, a small town on Bristol Bay that is the heart of the salmon fishery in Alaska. The presidential motorcade headed straight for the beach, where a couple of Alaska Native women had caught silver salmon in a net, which made another nice visual tableaux for the president’s social-media feed and gave him a chance to talk briefly about the importance of salmon in Alaska’s economy. (However, he managed to avoid addressing the Pebble mine, a massive and controversial gold and copper mine that is seeking permits in Alaska courts and that, if built, would destroy the headwaters of the salmon fishery.) The funniest moment of the entire trip occurred when the president, who was wearing orange rubber gloves, held up a two-foot-long silver salmon that a fisherwoman had given him. The salmon, apparently a male and still very much alive, ejaculated on his shoes. Obama laughed, and the fisherwoman said something privately to him. The president laughed again and repeated her remark loud enough for everyone to hear: “She says he’s happy to see me.”
Next stop, Kotzebue. On the way, the president decided to circle over the island of Kivalina to have a look at it. Kivalina is the poster child for the havoc that climate change is wreaking on Alaska Native villages along the coast, where the thawing permafrost is destabilizing the soil, causing houses to collapse and allowing the rising sea to wash the island away. About 400 people live on Kivalina, and their way of life is doomed — relocating the village to higher ground on the mainland will cost an estimated $100 million, which, so far, neither the state nor the federal government has been willing to pay for. And Kivalina is just one of a dozen or so communities that are at immediate risk on the Alaska coast.
We touched down in Kotzebue (population 3,200) at about 5 p.m. The president was greeted on the tarmac by Reggie Joule, the mayor of the Northwest Arctic Borough, then we climbed into our assigned vehicles in the motorcade for the short drive to the high school. We rolled by flimsy weather-beaten houses with American flags hanging in the windows and broken dog sleds in the front yards. You could sense the hardship of life in a place where it gets down to 100 degrees below zero (including wind chill) in the long, dark winters and where the nearest road to civilization is 450 miles away. About 170 miles to the west, across the Bering Strait, is Russia.
The motorcade pulled up at Kotzebue High School, a large metal building draped with banners welcoming the president and snipers pacing on the roof. A thousand people crowded into the gym, draped with the blue and gold colors of the Kotzebue Huskies. Obama gave a relaxed speech about climate change and the wonders of the far north, clearly enjoying the fact that history would remember him as the first sitting president to visit the Arctic. He said he was envious that Warren Harding spent two weeks in Alaska during a trip in 1923, but then explained that he had to get back quickly because “I can’t leave Congress alone that long.”
When it was over, a White House aide guided me into a nearly empty classroom with a large round table in the center and two blue plastic chairs. Ice crystals made from blue construction paper hung from the ceiling, and a Secret Service officer kept watch by the door. Then the president walked in. We shook hands, exchanged a few words about the flight, then Obama sat down in one of the plastic chairs and said, “Let’s do it.” We talked for more than an hour — the cheerfulness that had animated many of his public remarks on this trip dissipated. He spoke in measured tones, but with a seriousness that suggested that he believed — not unjustifiably — that the fate of human civilization was in his hands. Only near the end, when I asked if he felt any sadness about what we are losing in the world as a result of our rapidly changing climate, did he show any emotion — he averted his eyes for a moment and looked away, as if the knowledge of what’s coming in the next few decades was almost too much to bear.
So let’s start at the beginning. In 2008, on the day you received the nomination for president, you said, “I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children . . . this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” It’s been seven years now. How do you feel about the progress you’ve made?
Well, I’ll leave it to others to give a report card on myself. I’ll say that, collectively, we have made modest progress, but nowhere near what we need to do.
In the United States, we had an early defeat when we couldn’t get congressional passage of a cap-and-trade bill. And we saw Republicans who, in some cases, had previously supported cap-and-trade suddenly run the other way. And so we had to find another way to skin the cat.
And we started with the clean-energy investments that we made early on through the Recovery Act, the work that was done in conjunction with the automakers — in part, frankly, because we were helping them out a lot during that phase — to double fuel-efficiency standards and to look at what we could do administratively in terms of regulatory standards that would create greater efficiency.
And Copenhagen, although it was a disorganized mess — and I still remember flying in that last day, and nothing was happening, and I literally had to rescue the entire enterprise by crashing a meeting of the BRIC countries [Brazil, Russia, India and China] and strong-arming them into coming up with at least a document that could build some consensus going into the future.
What we were able to do was to establish the basic principle that it wasn’t going to be enough just for the advanced countries to act — that China, India, others, despite having much lower per-capita carbon footprints, given the sheer size of their populations and how rapidly they were developing, were going to have to put some skin in the game as well.
So where does that leave us now? We set a 17 percent target [for emissions reduction]; we are on track to meet that. We have doubled our production of clean energy — wind-energy production up threefold, solar up twentyfold. We’ve been able to grow the economy from the depths of the recession while emitting less carbon than we did. Our auto and truck regulations are on track. And the prospect of a real clean-energy economy is there on the horizon. It’s achievable. And as I’ve said, we’ve been able to do that while creating millions of jobs and dropping the unemployment rate down. And none of the disasters that were predicted from our regulatory steps have taken place.
With the clean-power-plant rule, we are now doubling down. And I think it’s fair to say that with the steps we’ve taken through the clean-power-plant rule to reduce carbon emissions from the single largest source by over 30 percent, we’ve been able to establish a very aggressive target of 26 to 28 percent carbon reduction. Probably as importantly, we’ve been able to lead by example in a way that allowed me to leverage China and President Xi to make their own commitments for the first time, to have a conversation with somebody like Prime Minister Modi of India or President Rousseff of Brazil, so that they put forward plans.
And I believe that when we get to Paris at the end of this year, we’re now in a position for the first time to have all countries recognize their responsibilities to tackle the problem, and to have a meaningful set of targets as well as the financing required to help poor countries adapt. And if we’re able to do that by the end of this year — and I’m cautiously optimistic — then we will at least have put together the framework, the architecture to move in concert over the next decade in a serious way.
But having said all that, the science keeps on telling us we’re just not acting fast enough. My attitude, though, 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.
Here in Alaska, you talked in almost apocalyptic terms about the future we face if we don’t cut carbon pollution quickly. But at the same time, you recently approved a new round of drilling in the Arctic here. How do you justify that decision?
This has been an ongoing conversation that I’ve had with the environmental community. One of the things about being president is you’re never starting from scratch, you’ve got all these legacies that you wrestle with. And obviously, the fossil-fuel economy is deeply entrenched in the structure of everybody’s lives around the world. And so from the start, I’ve always talked about a transition that is not going to happen overnight.
And regardless of how urgent I think the science is, if I howl at the moon without being able to build a political consensus behind me, it’s not going to get done. And in fact, we end up potentially marginalizing supporters or people who recognize there’s a need to act but also have some real interests at stake.
Alaska, I think, is a fascinating example of that. We’ve been having conversations with Alaska Natives who are seeing their way of life impacted adversely because of climate change, but also have a real interest in generating jobs and economic development in depressed areas. And so they’ll talk to me about climate change and in the same breath say, “By the way, we really are looking to use our natural resources in a way that can spur on economic development.” And that’s just a microcosm of what’s true across America and what’s true around the world.
So my strategy has been to use every lever that we have available to move the clean-energy agenda forward faster, which then reduces the costs of transition for everybody — in fact, in many cases, saves people money and saves businesses money — so that we’re reducing what is perceived as a contradiction between economic development and saving the planet.
And when it comes to our own fossil-fuel production, what I’ve said is there’re some things we’re just not going to do, not only because it’s bad for the climate, but it’s also bad for the environment or too risky — Bristol Bay, where we went to earlier today, being a prime example where we just took out the possibility of oil and gas drilling around the Aleutians in ways that would threaten Bristol Bay. Same thing up north.
But to say that, knowing there’s still going to be some energy production taking place, let’s find those areas that are going to be least likely to disturb precious ecosystems, and let’s raise the standards — meaning making them more costly — but not shut them off completely, and that allows me then to have a conversation not with folks who are climate deniers, and not with folks who are adamant about their right to drill, explore and extract anywhere, anytime, but with those folks who are of two minds about the issue.
And I think that process is something that we have to take into account even when something is really important. Even when something threatens us all, we have to bring everybody along. We had the same discussion around something like fracking. The science tells us that if done properly, fracking risks can be minimized. And natural gas is a fossil fuel, but the reason we’re not seeing coal-fired plants being built in the United States is not just because of the clean-power-plant rule — because we just put that in place. The reason is it wasn’t economical because natural gas was so cheap. And we have to make those choices.
Nuclear energy — we approved a nuclear plant down South. And there are some environmentalists who don’t like that either. But while acknowledging the risks that we saw in Fukushima, we also have to acknowledge that if we’re going to solve climate change, energy is going to have to come from somewhere for a lot of these countries.
So there’s always this balance. And I see this even in other issues. When I came into office, I was clear about wanting to end “don’t ask, don’t tell.” A lot of people said, “Well, why not just end it right away?” And I took two years to build a consensus within the Pentagon so that by the time we actually ended it, it was something that had the support of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and that made it a lot easier to get done.
The problem, of course, is that building consensus on climate change is different than other issues because you have physics to account for too, right? The warming of the planet is not waiting for consensus-building.
I understand. But if we’re going to get our arms around this problem, which I think we can, then we are going to have to take into account the fact that the average American right now, even if they’ve gotten past climate denial, is still much more concerned about gas prices, getting back and forth from work, than they are about the climate changing. And if we are not strategic about how we talk about the issue and work with all the various stakeholders on this issue, then what will happen is that this will be demagogued and we will find ourselves in a place where we actually have slower progress rather than faster progress.
So the science doesn’t change. The urgency doesn’t change. But part of my job is to figure out what’s my fastest way to get from point A to point B — what’s the best way for us to get to a point where we’ve got a clean-energy economy. And somebody who is not involved in politics may say, “Well, the shortest line between two points is just a straight line; let’s just go straight to it.” Well, unfortunately, in a democracy, I may have to zig and zag occasionally, and take into account very real concerns and interests.
I think one of the failures that we had in the cap-and-trade legislation that came up early in my first term was we were doing so many things at that time. People’s minds were overwhelmingly focused on economic recovery and getting people back to work — and rightly so — that for a member of Congress who might care about climate change, but was seeing massive job loss, and comes from an industrial state where the [cost of] transition is going to be really high to go from dirty energy to clean energy — casting a vote like that just didn’t seem to be a priority. And we hadn’t built enough of the consensus that was required to get that done.
Do you have any regrets about how you handled that cap-and-trade legislation in your first term? It passed the House, and many people think that with a little more muscle, you could have gotten it through the Senate.
Look, I think that our democratic process is painfully slow — even when you’ve got Democratic majorities. And this is an issue that, although overwhelmingly Democrats are on the right side of, it’s not easy for every Democrat, and it’s not uniform. And when you’ve got a filibuster in the Senate, you’ve got challenges.
I think the biggest problem we had was folks like John McCain, who had come out in favor of a cap-and-trade system, getting caught up in a feverish opposition to anything I proposed and reversing themselves — which meant that getting the numbers that we needed was going to be too difficult. And we probably should have moved faster to a nonlegislative strategy, but I don’t think that there was some magic recipe whereby we could have gotten cap-and-trade through the Senate without some Republican support. We needed 60 votes. That’s the way the filibuster operates there.
This is similar to the discussions I have with progressives sometimes when they say, “Why didn’t you have a trillion-dollar stimulus instead of an $800 billion stimulus?” And you try to explain, well, this was significantly larger than the New Deal; it was the largest stimulus ever, but I had to get the votes of a couple of Republicans in order to get it done. Or folks who want single-payer health care instead of Obamacare. We had political constraints.
Now, what this tells us, generally, is that those who, rightly, see this as the issue of our time have to take politics into account and have to be strategic in terms of how we frame the issues, and we have to make sure that we’re bringing the public along with us. There’s been good work done in terms of public education over the last several years. I think surveys show that the American people understand this is an urgent problem. But it isn’t yet at the point where they consider it the most important problem, and it’s not even close.
Al Gore once told me that he thinks that everyone who cares deeply about climate change has had what he called an “oh, shit” moment when they realized what’s at stake. What was your “oh, shit” moment?
Well, I did grow up in Hawaii. And the way that you grow up in Hawaii is probably surprisingly similar to the way some folks grew up here in the Arctic Circle. There are traditions that are very close to the land — in Hawaii, the water — and you have an intimate awareness of how fragile ecosystems can be. There are coral reefs in Hawaii that, when I was growing up, were lush and full of fish, that now, if you go back, are not.
And so I don’t think that there was a eureka moment. In my early speeches in 2007-2008, we were already talking about this and making it a prominent issue. What’s happened during my presidency is each time I get a scientific report, I’m made aware that we have less time than we thought, that this is happening faster than we thought. And what that does for me is to say that we have to ring the alarm louder, faster. But, as I said, the good news is that the kind of complete skepticism you had around the science that you saw even two or three years ago, I think, has been so overwhelmed — that we kind of cleared out that underbrush.
The next argument that was being made — and a lot of Republicans have continued to make — is the notion that, well, even if it is a problem, there’s no point in us doing something because China won’t do something about it. And my trip to China and the joint announcement, I think, was critical in puncturing that notion.
Every so often, John Holdren, the head of my science advisory group, sends out the latest data, and I make sure that not only me but my entire senior staff read it. And the last few reports have gotten everybody feeling like we’ve got to get moving on this, and to see what kinds of tools we can use to really have an impact.
So that brings us back to politics. Obviously one of the biggest sort of impediments to moving faster is the oil cartels — especially the Koch brothers. They’re oil billionaires who are doing everything they can to slow the transition to clean energy. You recently singled out Charles Koch for fighting subsidies for clean energy, saying, “That’s not the American way.” What did you mean by that?
Well, it wasn’t just that they were trying to eliminate solar subsidies — that’s the spin they put on it after I made those remarks down in Nevada — they are actually trying to influence state utilities to make it more expensive for homeowners to install solar panels. And my point was, that’s not how the market works. And by the way, they’re also happy to take continued massive subsidies that Congress has refused to eliminate, despite me calling for the elimination of those subsidies every single year.
Everybody is very selective when they start talking about free-market principles and innovation and entrepreneurship. And it seems as if — and I don’t necessarily need to single out the Koch brothers, I think that this is true for a lot of folks in the traditional energy industries — they’re fine with sweetheart deals and cushy subsidies for their mature, well-established industries, but somehow when it comes to developing clean energy, they’re not simply opposing subsidies, they’re actually actively trying to keep competitors out.
And what’s been fascinating is the coalition that you’re now seeing between the green movement and some members of the Tea Party in some states, saying, leave us alone. If we want to set up a solar panel or change how energy is distributed, and to reorganize the traditional power grid in a way that is more efficient, saves people money and is more environmentally sound, that’s something that government should support. That’s not something that government should be trying to impede.
Let’s talk about the Arctic. The Russian deputy prime minister recently called the Arctic “Russia’s Mecca.” And there’s a lot of talk about Russian operations here, military buildup and a new Cold War brewing. How do you read Russia’s intentions up here?
So far, Russia has been a constructive partner in the Arctic Council and has participated with the other Arctic nations in ways that are consistent with the rule of law and a sensible approach to the changes that are taking place in the Arctic. Given that much more of their country and their economy is up north, it’s not surprising that they see more opportunities and are more focused on a day-to-day basis on what’s taking place here than Washington has been.
But part of the reason that I wanted to come here is that needs to change. The icebreaker announcement was just a concrete example of the need for policymakers, starting from the president on down, to be mindful that this area is changing and is changing faster than policymakers thought it was going to 10 years ago, or five years ago, or last year.
So we’re going to have to have more resources up here. I think that we have to work with other countries, including Russia, to establish some clear rules of the road so we don’t start seeing some of the same kinds of problems that we’ve been seeing in the South China Sea around maritime rules and borders and boundaries. I think that’s achievable. Obviously we’ve got big differences with the Russians on other issues. But as we’ve seen in the discussions with Iran, there is the ability to compartmentalize some of these issues so that even as we have very fierce disagreements with Russia on Ukraine, there remain areas where we should be able to work constructively together.
One thing that I am concerned about is, as a major oil producer, Russia may not be as concerned about climate change as they need to be. And if we’ve got problems with public opinion in the United States, I think it’s fair to say that those problems are bigger in a country like Russia. And so constantly engaging with them around the science and making it clear that there is an upside for them in navigation and commerce, but there are massive downsides for them as well — as we’ve witnessed in the biggest fires that they’ve seen in years recently — that is a conversation that we’ve got to have on an ongoing basis.
You’ve talked increasingly about climate change as a national-security issue. How would you compare the challenges and the risk to America’s security regarding climate change to, say, ISIS or, for that matter, Iran?
Well, they’re different. And as president and commander in chief, I don’t have the luxury of selecting one issue versus the other. They’re all major problems. What we know about climate change, though, is that with increasing drought, increasing floods, increasing erosion of coastlines, that’s going to impact agriculture; it’s going to increase scarcity in parts of the world; it is going to result in displacement of large numbers of people.
The people who live on the island [Kivalina] that we flew over today can move. It’s painful for those residents, but it can be done. If the monsoon patterns in South Asia change, you can’t move tens of millions of people without the possibilities of refugees, conflict. And the messier the world gets, the more national-security problems we have. In fact, there have been arguments that, for example, what’s happening in Syria partly resulted from record drought that led huge numbers of folks off farms and the fields into the cities in Syria, and created a political climate that led to protests that Assad then responded to in the most vicious ways possible.
But that’s the kind of national-security challenge that we’re looking at with climate change. It will manifest itself in different ways, but what we know from human history is that when large populations are put under severe strain, then they react badly. And that can be expressed in terms of nationalism; it can be expressed in terms of war; it can be expressed in terms of xenophobia and nativism; it can be expressed in terms of terrorism. But the whole package is one that we should be wanting to avoid, if at all possible.
The Paris climate talks that are coming up in December are a big focus of your attention right now, and may be the last best chance for the world to come together and actually do something to slow climate change. How will you define success in Paris?
For us to be able to get the basic architecture in place with aggressive-enough targets from the major emitters that the smaller countries say, “This is serious” — that will be a success.
I’m less concerned about the precise number, because let’s stipulate right now, whatever various country targets are, it’s still going to fall short of what the science requires. So a percent here or a percent there coming from various countries is not going to be a deal-breaker. But making sure everybody is making serious efforts and that we are making a joint international commitment that is well-defined and can be measured will create the basis for us each year, then, to evaluate, “How are we doing?” and will allow us, five years from now, to say the science is new, we need to ratchet it up, and by the way, because of the research and development that we’ve put in, we can achieve more ambitious goals.
You think about when I started, we thought we were setting a really bold goal with our plans for solar-power production. And if you had told me in 2007-2008 that the costs for solar would have dropped as much as they have, even Steve Chu, my then-energy secretary, would have told you that’s a little crazy. But it has. And I think just last year, costs were down 10 to 20 percent, depending on the region. So human ingenuity, when focused and targeted, can achieve amazing things.
And the key for Paris is just to make sure that everybody is locked in, saying, “We’re going to do this.” Once we get to that point, then we can turn the dials. But there will be a momentum that is built, and I’m confident that we will then be in a position to listen more carefully to the science — partly because people, I think, will be not as fearful of the consequences or as cynical about what can be achieved. Hope builds on itself. Success breeds success.
When you talk about capitalism, that reminds me of the pope, who is speaking out about climate change and is trying to build momentum for the Paris talks.
I really like the pope.
Yes, he’s a good man. And he’s on the right side of a lot of stuff.
In the encyclical, the pope talks about what he calls the “myth of progress.” And he basically argues that greed and materialism are destroying the planet. How do you interpret that idea? Do you think that dealing with climate change is ultimately going to require rethinking the basic tenets of capitalism?
If you look at human history, it is indisputable that market-based systems have produced more wealth than any other system in human history by a factor of — you choose the number. And that has been, net, a force for good.
In our own lives, you think about the changes in the standard of living that have taken place here in the United States. Then you think about hundreds of millions of people who have been lifted out of poverty in China or in India — and you can’t scoff at that. If a child has enough food to eat, if they have medicine that prevents deadly diseases, if people have a roof over their heads and can afford to send their kids to school, that is part of justice and part of my ethics. And so I think a broadside against the entire market-based system would be a mistake.
What I do think is true is that mindless free-market ideologies that ignore the externalities that any capitalist system produces can cause massive problems. And it’s the job of governments and societies to round the edges and to address big system failures. That, by the way, is not controversial among market economists. There are a whole bunch of concepts involved in that that you can open up in any standard economic textbook in the United States or anywhere else in the world. And pollution has always been the classic market failure, where externalities are not captured and the system doesn’t deal with them, even though it’s having an impact on everybody.
So our goal here has to be to say that climate change is a major market failure, just like smog in Los Angeles was back in the Sixties and Seventies, just like the problems with polluted waters were in the Cuyahoga River. And just as we were able to use the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act to clean up those waters and to clean up that air, just as we were able to solve the acid-rain problem and the growing problem with ozone with some smart regulations, we can do that with climate change.
The difference is that those previous pollution problems were more or less localized, and you weren’t seeing the possibility of a global feedback loop that tips us over the edge. So there is a race against time here that we haven’t seen before, but the nature of the problem is not that different.
And I think that the way we solve any big market failure is to have a broad-based conversation and to come to a collective agreement that this is something we’re going to take into account in our day-to-day doing business. And when we do that, businesses will find ways to profit from it, jobs will be created. We’re already seeing that when it comes to the solar industry. We’re seeing that when it comes to the wind industry. And we’re seeing that consumers are interested in saving money and using less electricity.
So I am optimistic about us being able to solve this problem. But it is going to require that our politics catches up with the facts. And right now, in this country, our politics is going through a particularly broken period — Congress has trouble passing a transportation bill, much less solving big problems like this. That’s part of the reason why we’re having to do so much action, administratively. And that’s part of the reason why I took this trip.
Historically, politics catch up when the public cares deeply. And when people couldn’t breathe in L.A., the state of California starts saying, “You’ve got to get catalytic converters.” When the river catches fire in Cuyahoga, the people of Ohio and, eventually, the people nationally, say, “That’s getting kind of out of hand.”
You’re the leader of the world’s largest economy, as well as one of the world’s biggest polluters. How do you handle this responsibility of avoiding a potential catastrophe of unimaginable dimensions that will affect all of humanity — and within your daughters’ lifetimes?
I think about it a lot. I think about Malia and Sasha a lot. I think about their children a lot.
One of the great things about being president is you travel a lot and you get to see the world’s wonders from a vantage point that very few people get a chance to see. When we were out on the water yesterday, going around those fjords, and the sea otter was swimming on its back and feeding off its belly, and a porpoise jumps out of the water, and a whale sprays — I thought to myself, “I want to make sure my grandchildren see this.”
We go back to Hawaii every year, and I intend to, hopefully, spend a lot of time there when I’m out of office. I want to make sure my kids, when they go snorkeling, are seeing the same things that I saw when I went snorkeling when I was five years old, or eight years old. I spent a big chunk of my life in Indonesia when I was young, and I want them to be able to have some of the same experiences, walking through a forest and suddenly seeing an ancient temple. And I don’t want that gone.
And so it’s probably less of a function of being president, more a function of age [laughs] when you start thinking about what you’re leaving behind. One of the books I read during vacation was The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert. And it’s a wonderful book, and it makes very clear that big, abrupt changes can happen; they’re not outside the realm of possibility. They have happened before, they can happen again.
So all of this makes me feel that I have to tackle this every way that I can. But one of the things about being president is you’re also mindful that, despite the office, you don’t do things alone. So we’ve made big strides with the power-plant rule, but that’s not enough. We’ve doubled fuel-efficiency standards, but that’s not enough. We should triple our investment in energy R&D. I can’t do that without Congress.
So that’s why I continually go back to the notion that the American people have to feel the same urgency that I do. And it’s understandable that they don’t, because the science right now feels abstract to people. It will feel less abstract with each successive year. I suspect that the record wildfires that we’re seeing, the fact that half of the West is in extreme or severe drought right now, is making people understand this better. If you talk to people in Washington state right now, I suspect, after having tragically lost three firefighters, and seeing vast parts of their state aflame, that they understand it better. If you go down to Florida, and neighborhoods that are now flooding every time the tide rises, they’re understanding it better.
And part of what’s happening is a recognition that it is going to be cheaper to take action than not. That’s one of the hardest things in politics to convince people of: to make investments today that don’t pay off until many years from now.
But what’s now happening — and that’s part of what I’ve been trying to highlight — is that the costs are starting to accrue right now. We’re spending about a billion dollars a year on firefighting, and the fire season extends now about two and a half months longer than it did just a few decades ago. And that’s money that could be spent on schools. That’s money that could be spent on fixing roads. That’s money that people could spend in their own households.
When you look at the changes people are having to make in California in their own lives, and farmers now suddenly realize we’re going to have to entirely change how we think about irrigation, well, that’s an investment that they’re going to have to make.
So we’re getting to the point now where we can start attaching dollars and cents to climate change in a way that might not have been true a decade ago – or at least the link might have not been as clear. And that’s an opportunity.
You wish that the political system could process an issue like this just based on obscure data and science, but, unfortunately, our system doesn’t process things that way. People have to see it and feel it and breathe it. And that makes things a little scarier, because it indicates that we’re already losing a lot of time. But, potentially, it gives us the chance to build the kind of political consensus, not just in America but internationally, that’s going to be necessary to solve this enormous problem.
But I want to end on an optimistic note. The technologies are there. We’ll need more to close the gap entirely, but using what we know right now and what we have right now, we can make huge strides just in the next 20 years. And that 20 years, if we’re investing enough in R&D, allows us then to make the next leap forward. And there’s a way of doing it that will be compatible with growth, jobs, economic development.
I think it’s important for us not to pretend that there are no difficult trade-offs at all. The transition will require some tough choices to be made. There are going to be localized impacts for folks who have more of a legacy system of dirty energy. We can accommodate helping those communities transition, but it requires us to feel like we’re all in this together.
It’s not enough for environmentalists who are distantly removed from an aging coal town in West Virginia to just say, “Stop it.” And it’s not enough to say to a state like Alaska, “Cut it out because we think your state is beautiful.” We’ve got to be in there talking to folks about how do we solve some of the technical problems involved; how do we make sure that everybody is benefiting from this transition; and if there are costs involved in this transition, how do we all pull together to make sure that it’s not just being borne by one group of people.
And that’s true internationally as well. I can’t have a conversation with the prime minister of India and ignore the fact that they still have hundreds of millions of people in poverty and not enough electricity. So if I’m going to get him to have an aggressive plan to keep emissions down, then I’ve got to be willing to pony up strategies for power that aren’t polluting. And some of that may require technology transfers or help to modernize their systems to make them more efficient.
When we were hiking at the glacier in Seward the other day, one of the rangers who works for the park said that more and more people are making pilgrimages to see the glacier before it vanishes. Some people even kiss it goodbye. And she said there’s a sadness in a lot of the people who go there because they know the world is changing so quickly as a result of climate change. Do you ever feel sadness about what we, as human beings, for better or for worse, knowingly and unknowingly, are doing to the planet?
There are some amazing, beautiful things in this world that aren’t coming back. And that should give us all pause. But I don’t wallow in sadness, because we’ve got too much work to do. The world is always changing, and there are going to be changes in our lifetime that I wish hadn’t happened. There are also changes that have eradicated polio, and changes that have reduced infant mortality. And those we celebrate.
So there are some things that I’ve experienced and seen that I suspect my grandchildren won’t, and that’s a sad thing. But the world is full of wonders, and I figure that we still have time to save most of them. And our kids will probably discover some new ones.
After the formal interview ended, the president and I walked along the sea wall across the street from the high school, which was built to hold back the rising waters of Kotzebue Bay (and which was, ironically, constructed in part with federal dollars from Obama’s stimulus plan). The bay was gray and flat, and even though it was only early September, you could already feel winter approaching. The two biggest take-aways from my time with the president were these: First, he is laser-focused on the Paris climate talks and is playing a multidimensional chess game with other nations to build alliances and cut deals to reach a meaningful agreement later this year. Second, whatever deals he cuts, it won’t be enough. On this trip, I witnessed all the trappings of presidential power — the jets, the helicopters, the Secret Service agents, the obsequiousness of local politicians. But given the scale of this problem, given the fact that what we need to do is nothing less than reinvent the infrastructure of modern life, even a president as committed and shrewd as Obama can only move us a few steps in the right direction. This is a long war, with everything at stake. “I do what I can do and as much as I can do,” the president told me as we walked along Kotzebue Bay. “What I don’t want to do is get paralyzed by the magnitude of the thing, and what I don’t want is for people to get paralyzed thinking that somehow this is out of our control. And I’m a big believer that the human imagination can solve problems. We don’t usually solve them as fast as we need to. It’s sort of like two cheers for democracy. We try everything else, I think Churchill said, and when we’ve exhausted every other alternative, we finally do the right thing. Hopefully, the same will be true here.”
We walked a few hundred yards, then Obama stopped to chat with 2011 Iditarod champion John Baker. The president scooped up a sled-dog puppy to hold and was given a baseball cap to take home. At about 8:30 p.m., we motorcaded back to the airport and the president bounded up the steps to Air Force One. A small group of Alaskans waved at him from behind a chain-link fence and shouted goodbyes. He had been in the Arctic for about four hours — but that was four hours more than any other president had done. As I took my seat on Air Force One, the president was already in his leather chair at the conference table on the plane, still wearing his Iditarod hat. He said to his staff, “Let’s get to work.”