Obama's climate crusade – Part V (final)

[USA] 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.

President Obama collecting meltwater runoff from the ice of Exit Glacier. Pete Souza/White House
President Obama collecting meltwater runoff from the ice of Exit Glacier. Pete Souza/White House

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.”

 

Continue reading: Obama’s climate crusade – Part I

 

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

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