Obama's climate crusade – Part II

[USA] That changed in the second term. “I think his (Obama) 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.”

The view from Air Force One of Kivalina Island. Pete Souza White House
The view from Air Force One of Kivalina Island. Pete Souza White House

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.

Continue reading: Obama’s climate crusade – Part III

Read also: Obama’s climate crusade – Part I

 

View original article at:  Obama takes on climate change: The Rolling Stone Interview

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