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Obama’s Big Climate Speech - Did it Cut the Mustard?


First, the speech

By any standards, and compared to any speechmaking we’re used to in Canada, it was brilliant. Why, by contrast, are Canadian politicians so dull and pedestrian?

  • The open confession of Earth’s beauty: “That bright blue ball rising over the moon’s surface containing everything we hold dear, the laughter of children, a quiet sunset, all the hopes and dreams of posterity, that’s what’s at stake.”
  • The clear statement of the threat: “The 12 warmest years in recorded history have all come in the last 15 years. Last year, temperatures in some areas of the ocean reached record highs and ice in the Arctic shrank to its smallest size on record, faster than most models had predicted it would. These are facts. … Here at home, 2012 was the warmest year in our history… The seas will slowly keep rising and storms will get more severe, based on the science.”
  • The clear endorsement of the climate science: “The overwhelming judgment of science, of chemistry and physics and millions of measurements, has put all that to rest. Ninety-seven percent of scientists — including, by the way, some who originally disputed the data — have now put that to rest.”
  • The clear calling out of the climate deniers: “I don’t have much patience for anyone who denies that this challenge is real. We don’t have time for a meeting of the flat earth society. Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it’s not going to protect you from the coming storm.”
  • The clear dismissal of the environment versus economy arguments: “The problem with all these tired excuses for inaction is that it’s a fundamental lack of faith in American business and American ingenuity. … Don’t bet against American industry. Don’t bet against American workers, don’t tell folks that we have to choose between the health of our children or the health of our economy.”
  • The clear call to act responsibly for future generations: “Our founders … charged us to make decisions with an eye on a longer horizon than the arc of our own political careers … someday our children and our children’s children will look at us in the eye and they’ll ask us, did we do all that we could, when we had the chance, to deal with this problem and leave them a cleaner, safer, more stable world?”
  • The clear call to political and democratic activism: What we need in this fight are citizens who will stand up and speak up and compel us to do what this moment demands. … Tell them what’s at stake. Speak up at town halls, church groups, PTA meetings. Push back on misinformation. Speak up for the facts ... Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest. … Make yourself heard on this issue.”
  • And hey - this is the President of the United States saying all this, the leader of one of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nations, not just some punk from a think-tank. So as KC Golden from Climate Solutions says, It’s Game On!

Next, the analysis 

The Climate Action Plan itself is here as a White House Infographic, and here in full detail

As much my heart beats with a shared resonance, however—and I would surely have been applauding along with the Georgetown students—my head is cradled in my hands at the inadequacy of what is being proposed.

Most - perhaps all - of the failure is not within Obama’s control. He presides over a nation so divided in its rhetoric, so corrupted by its campaign financing rules, and so dysfunctional in its structures of governance that every step of political progress is immediately mired down in partisan mud.

  • The Target: The 2020 target that America has set to reduce its greenhouses gases is woefully inadequate. Europe’s target is 20% below the 1990 level. The American and Canadian target is 17% below the 2005 level, which amounts to a measly 3.6% below 1990, a full 500% less than Europe. (US GHGs). BC’s target is better, at 33% below the 2007 level. Globally, if it were possible, we need to be cutting our emissions by 50% by 2020.
  • A Price on Carbon: There’s no mention of the single simplest and most powerful tool in the climate action arsenal, putting a price on carbon, as British Columbia and other jurisdictions around the world are doing; Obama knows that Congress would simply flip the bird at him were he to try again.
  • Natural Gas: Obama has bought into the deluded belief that natural gas is ‘clean’ and something to be proud of, whereas in reality, the methane emissions associated with fracking make it worse than coal in its impact on the climate. In spite of this, there’s bullish talk of natural gas as a “bridge fuel”, and encouragement for its use around the world, including as a fuel for heavy vehicles.
  • The Climate Action Plan acknowledges methane’s harmful role, and commits to develop a comprehensive interagency methane strategy, but whether it will have the willpower or the teeth to confront the rampant fracking industry is a complete unknown. Even the science in the Plan is fudged, stating that methane’s global warming potential is “more than 20 times greater than CO2”, when it has been listed as 25 for several years and will be raised to 33 in the next IPCC report. And that’s over 100 years. Over 20 years, which is what matters given the urgency of the approaching calamity, methane traps 105 times more heat than CO2, and the fracking industry trails belches of methane wherever it drills.
  • Carbon Capture from Coal: Obama has renewed his commitment to the dubious hopes of carbon capture, for which he is providing $8 billion in loan guarantees to help rescue the coal industry. Is Obama’s faith in carbon capture a technicolor dream? Meanwhile, there’s not a word about limiting or controlling coal mining for export in the northwest. Here’s David Roberts' take (from Grist).
  • The Keystone Pipeline: Trying to interpret the President’s comments is like trying to read tea leaves: the pipeline will go ahead “if the net effects do not significantly exacerbate the problem of climate pollution.” Net effects? Significantly? There’s enough wobble-room there to go either way. What is significant is that the President has understood the fundamental reason why so many people are determined not to allow it to proceed. It’s not local impacts: it’s the climate, stupid. And it’s John Kerry who will decide, not Sarah Palin. Here’s more David Roberts’ astute analysis.

So What’s Good in the Plan?

 Quite a lot, once you have accepted The White House’s extremely constrained field of action:

  • Carbon pollution standards for new and existing power plants, which have never existed before. The details of how this will work have yet to be announced; to learn more, there’s another good commentary by David Roberts (again), from Grist.
  • Leadership on renewable energy, with the commitments to build a further 10 GW of renewables on public land by 2020, 3 GW on Department of Defense lands and 100 MW on federal subsidized housing stock, and to increase federal spending on clean energy by 30% to $7.9 billion (which includes spending on nuclear and clean coal).
  • Further fuel economy standards for heavy trucks beyond 2018, which is important for truck manufacturers, who need to plan ahead.
  • New goals and standards for energy efficiency in appliances and buildings, with ambitious energy-saving and carbon reducing targets. Here’s a useful commentary from ACEEE.
  •  A commitment to expand the Better Buildings Challenge to multi-unit residential buildings (MURBS), and to build energy efficiency factors into mortgage underwriting and appraisals. This is a complex area that the BCSEA is tackling, so it will be good to see progress south of the border.
  • The commitment to act nationally and internationally to reduce HFCs, the refrigerant which has (crazily) been used to substitute for HCFCs to protect the ozone layer, even though it’s a potent greenhouse gas.
  • The commitment to tackle methane emissions - while simultaneously working to grow the natural gas and oil industries, which produce methane as a side-effect of production.
  • Lots of initiatives around climate adaptation and resilience, acknowledging that there will be no shortage of trouble ahead.
  • An interesting proposal to work to negotiate a new global free trade treaty in environmental goods and services, eliminating tariffs and barriers.
  • The expressed desire to reduce fossil fuel subsidies globally, and to eliminate them entirely in the 2014 federal budget. The Republicans in Congress will doubtless laugh, and phone their fossil-fuel funders to say ‘don’t worry’.
  • The commitment to seek a global agreement beyond Kyoto at the 2015 global climate conference that is ‘ambitious, inclusive and flexible’. That may be bla-bla-bla, since any US commitment will need to be approved by Congress, many of whose members have drunk the Tea Party cool-aid and are competing with each other to see who can make the craziest responses to the climate crisis, and bury their heads deepest in their fossil-fuel loaded campaign finance troughs. 

What about Canada?

Here’s where it gets interesting, since Harper has said repeatedly that Canada’s intention on climate change was to move in tandem with the US. As long as they did little he got away with it, but now that there is renewed movement, Canada has clearly been put on the spot.

Will Harper follow with similar standards to regulate the carbon pollution from Canada’s fossil-fuel power plants? Will he expand the use of renewable energy? Will he tackle energy efficiency in multi-unit housing? Will he take initiatives to address the methane emissions from natural gas fracking? Will he remove fossil fuel subsidies in the government’s 2014 budget? The answer to all of these questions will almost certainly be silence.

Just last month, in a conversation at the Council on Foreign Relations, Harper answered a question from Jeff Laurenti of the Century Foundation about the melting Arctic ice and global warming by repeating that “we need a mandatory international protocol that includes all significant emitters … but there is still not an acceptance in many countries of the need for mandatory targets,” (how very convenient), and how in “developed countries like ours, where people are still saying they need jobs as a consequence of the recession … we're not going to simply be able to put caps on economic growth as a way of achieving environmental targets.” Back to the tired old canard about environment versus economy.

Harper is simply not playing the same game as Obama, whether it’s understanding the science of climate change, understanding the urgency of the crisis, proposing solutions, hiring the best people to implement them, or supporting climate science, let alone advocating climate activism by students and everyone else. (“Speak up at town halls, church groups, PTA meetings. Push back on misinformation.”)

Obama even endorsed the fossil fuels divestment movement, and called the tar sands the tar sands.

Did Obama’s speech cut the mustard? Maybe not, but it is probably the best Obama can achieve, given the fractured state of American politics, and it’s far more encouraging than the tar sands mayo-politics we’re getting here in Canada from our climate-obscuring, oil-beholden government.

Meanwhile, here in British Columbia, we have our own politics to address, with the new Liberal government in office that was elected on the promise of expanding fossil fuels (natural gas), and needs to be re-persuaded of the urgency of renewed climate action.


Two responses from Sightline, in Seattle:

Obama’s Climate Message, by Anna Fahey

Obama’s Climate Failure, by Eric de Place

PS The phrase ‘cut the mustard’ refers to the extremely thin, sharp blade that was needed to cut the leathery crust in a barrel of maturing mustard.