When he received his party’s nomination for president in 2008, Barack Obama stated that future generations would look back and say that "This was the moment when the rise of oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal." He pledged to make the United States a global leader in addressing climate change because, as he told another gathering, it is "a security threat, an economic albatross, and a moral challenge of our time."
The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza reported this past June, "The President has said that the most important policy he could address in his second term is climate change, one of the few issues that he thinks could fundamentally improve the world decades from now."
And yet, as we know, his actions (or, more accurately, inaction) thus far belie these fine words. Rather than helping to build a mandate for his second term around climate change, he was all but silent on the subject during the recent campaign. Though admitting that it wasn’t a "hoax," as his opponent claimed, he was nevertheless completely remiss in not presenting a major policy statement outlining his intentions for the next four years around, say, a carbon tax or building a green economy. Though the conventional wisdom had it that the subject was political poison, polls indicated that 70 percent of Americans not only acknowledge climate change, they also believe that it is human caused, and that we need to switch to lower-carbon emitting sources of energy to avoid certain catastrophe. These represented potential votes.
More revealing, perhaps, this is also the president who supports the Alberta tar sands, and arctic and offshore drilling. He has become the "drill, baby, drill" candidate that he ran against in 2008, seemingly oblivious to the potential disastrous consequences which were starkly outlined by Bill McKibben in his Aug. 2 Rolling Stone article "Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math."
McKibben wrote that scientists and governments believe that any warming above a 2°C (3.6°F) rise would be unsafe. We have already raised the temperature 0.8°C, and computer models calculate that even if we stopped increasing CO2 levels today, the temperature would still rise another 0.8 degrees. In other words, no matter what we do, temperatures will still reach three-quarters of the way to the 2 degrees we must avoid. He went on to discuss how the fossil fuel industry is estimated to have five times more oil, coal, and gas in its known reserves than scientists think is safe to burn to keep the earth in livable shape. If all of this is burned, it would equal about 2,795 gigatons of CO2, or five times beyond the 565 gigatons scientists estimate that we can burn and still have some hope of staying below the 2 degrees threshold.
In short, and as graphically evidenced by the droughts and firestorms out West this summer, the Frankenstorm Sandy in the East this fall, and the unprecedented melting of Arctic ice that outstripped scientific computer models, we must seriously reduce the burning of fossil fuels - including leaving as much of it as possible in the ground - if we’re to survive as a species.
So who do we have as our president? On the one hand, Mr.Obama did make Detroit agree to better gas mileage standards and directed $90 billion in clean energy investments during his first term, but on the other, he’s yet to pursue measures, or assert a leadership, commensurate to the unprecedented crisis we face, as was sadly evidenced by his disappointing performance at the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen.
Ultimately, the big question is how independent of Big Oil can Mr. Obama be? After all, to make a meaningful intervention into global warming and climate change entails greatly reducing our current extraction frenzy, and re-directing government subsidies and support away from Big Oil to alternative sources of energy. Not only would this have a negative impact upon Big Oil’s record-breaking profits, it would adversely affect the significant investment these corporations have already made in technology and infrastructure to extract oil from the more challenging and expensive shale, tar sands, and deep water sources.
Such is the success of these efforts that earlier this month, the annual report of the International Energy Agency (IEA) stated that the United States would overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s leading oil producer by 2017 and will become a net oil exporter by 2030. Can President Obama stand up to such a juggernaut, even in the name of the rest of us 99.9 percent? Can he hear voices, like that of Michael Levi, senior fellow for energy and environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, who stated that "The (IEA) report confirms that, given the current policies, we will blow past every safe target for emissions."?
We should know which president we have in January when Mr. Obama delivers his second Inaugural Address and annual State of the Union message. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of these two speeches. With only an 18 month window of opportunity to build a mandate before the 2014 Congressional midterms and 2016 presidential campaigns become major distractions, the president must sound the urgency of acting, right now, as he sets his agenda for the next four years. No longer having to concern himself with being re-elected, and with an eye on his historical legacy, this is a unique (albeit, fleeting) opportunity for the president to step forward and be the leader he has promised to be.
In short, will Obama put people above profits, and choose to be a climate president?