Obama's climate crusade – Part III

[USA] 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.

President Obama visits Kanakanak Beach. Pete Souza, White House
President Obama visits Kanakanak Beach. Pete Souza, White House

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.

 

Continue reading: Obama’s climate crusade – Part IV

Read also: Obama’s climate crusade – Part II

 

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

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