Climate Politics

Barack Obama’s Climate Speech: A counter-article

This article is written by Sébastien Burgess.

Barack Obama’s speech at Georgetown University on Tuesday, June 25th marked an anticipated political event and set important guidelines for climate change legislation for the United States moving forward. Barack Obama has been dealt a very difficult hand since becoming President of the United States in January 2009th. An economic crisis of unprecedented proportion and a science-denying, climato-septic Republican-led Congress has made his political margin of maneuver to deal with climate change policy extremely limited.

In 2009, the American Clean Energy  and Security Act of 2009 which would have established an ambitious cap and trade system for the United States passed the House of Representatives but died on the Senate floor. Everything went downhill from there, the 2010 Republican Legislative victory temporarily sealed the fate of significant greenhouse reductions legislation to be passed in Congress. In fact, in 2011,the House of Representatives was deemed to be the « most anti-environmental house in the History of Congress »[1] as House Republicans voted a record 191 times to weaken environmental regulations including 27 votes to block action on climate change legislation and this in a year which saw record drought, flooding and wildfires.  The only way Obama could possibly influence climate policy was through direct executive action during that span such as setting limit on car exhaust for US car manufacturers to produce cars that average of 35.5mpg by 2016 for example[2]. Good-willed but woefully inadequate political initiatives for a country that contributes to close to 20% of worldwide Co2 emissions annually  and whose citizens emit around 17.2 tons of Co2 per capita per year.

Fast forwarding to June 25th speech now, which despite its clear benevolence, perspired of political opportunism,  as Obama had carefully avoided the slippery slopes of climate change talks for the past two year yeas, a politically dangerous topic in the United States that Obama was electorally « wise » enough to avoid during his election year. Now comfortably settled into a second term with nothing to lose moving forward and after 4 years of climate inaction, the 44rth U.S. president could courageously roll up his sleeves and attack the most serious topic our generation and our children will face this coming century.

Obama’s speech in some ways was a milestone and establishes coherent guidelines in terms of reducing greenhouse gases and launching a war on coal, the urgency of elaborating climate adaptation plans in the United States and the importance of re-imitating climate talks at the UN level.  It is a necessary document which hopefully will launch the country into a new dynamic of increased renewable energy use, cleaner consumption and increased awareness about the impending climate threat. However, upon further study, it falls well short of the mark and of launching a necessary global impulsion, a push that the United States could and should embrace to lead the way into a cleaner and more sustainable 21st century.

Low ambitions

The 20-page document presented by Obama’s administration and detailed in his 45 minute speech at Georgetown University suffers from a fundamental and inherent fallacy. It is still based on a commitment of greenhouse gases emissions 17% from 2005 by 2020 levels, which has been recognized by the global scientific community as desperately too little, too late and which only represent a puny 4% cut from 1990 baseline in the case of the United States. In order to avoid the catastrophic 2°C degree threshold by the end of the century, the IPCC (UN panel of scientists) have indicated that cuts of 25 to 40% of greenhouse gases were needed in order to achieve the below-2°C ambition by 20100 which was agreed to under 2009 Copenhagen Accord.


Obama looking younger at COP-15 in Copenhagen in 2009.

Natural gas –  Keystone

At the core of Obama’s climate plan is America’s increasing dependence and switch to natural gas fracking which he described as « cleaner-burning natural gas » which will produce jobs, cut carbon emissions and lower power costs. Apparently forgotten in his glossy depiction of natural gas fracking, are the gaping interrogations about unacceptable risks of air and water pollution in many U.S. counties which still lack adapted legislation to new fracking practices and the pending issues of methane leaks from fracking which some scientists have recently argued generates a greater greenhouse gas footprint than other types of fossil fuels on time scales of up to a 100 years.[3]

Continuing on his path of supporting unproved and potentially dangerous practices for the environment, Obama handed $8 billion in loan guarantees for fossil fuel technologies such as carbon capture and sequestration.   Finally, Obama didn’t clearly establish his position on the imperative of striking down the  Keystone XL pipeline project and promised to ratify it only if « net effect » doesn’t « significantly exacerbate » carbon pollution. Aside from aggravating the environmental disaster-in-the-making already happening in the Alberta tar sands regions of Canada if the project were to fully go through (destruction of the local boreal forest through tree clearing, huge water use, release of naphthenic acid, mercury, and other contaminants in local waterways, destruction of local wildlife), it is estimated that tar sands emit 10 to 45% more greenhouse gases than combustion of conventional oils. [4]

tar sand exploitation

Tar sand exploitation scarring the landscape in Alberta, Canada

Obama admittedly has to face the  catastrophic threat of climate change through executive power only, having been shamefully left by most of his Republican counterparts in Congress. This leaves his with a more reduced arsenal of political options to tackle the issue, with needed initiatives such as establishing a cap-and-trade system completely off the table for now. Obama’s speech should be praised but certainly not exempt of intense scrutiny. With a little over three years left in his second term, Obama must be held accountable to stay true to some of the promising  dynamic he established in his speech and exhorted to do everything in his power to systematically set the bar as high as possible to pave the way for adequate climate legislation not only at the United States level but also for the rest of the world.

About the author: Sébastien Burgess, born in Paris in 1989. Graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in Conservation and Resources Studies. Lives in Mexico City where he works as a cartographer on local environmental projects and sports commentator. Has been involved in environmental activism since his college years and is a proud member of CliMates since its creation in 2011.
Follow me on Twitter @BurgessSeb

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