Obama’s Climate Action Plan: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Yesterday, President Barack Obama gave a rousing speech to promote his new Climate Action Plan. In it, he used a number of keywords that those concerned about the increasingly violent state of the world’s climate might appreciate. He used the term ‘tar sands,’ when making the equivocal statement that he ‘wouldn’t approve the Keystone XL Pipeline unless it was proved to be carbon-neutral’ and in his uplifting conclusion he used the terms ‘Invest’ and ‘Divest’ — slogans the climate movement have used in their efforts to shift investment funds from fossil fuel companies to those that support renewable energy.

The speech earned praise from the likes of Bill McKibben, Chris Hayes, Michael Mann, and Joe Romm. Joe Romm labeled Obama a ‘climate hawk,’ Michael Mann gushed saying:

“It is the most aggressive and promising climate plan to come out of the executive branch in years and President Obama should be applauded for the bold leadership he has shown in confronting the climate change threat head on.”

Bill McKibben noted that Obama ‘had begun to advance the country in a sane direction.’ And Chris Hayes, citing the ‘invest, divest’ line from the speech, claimed these were the most ‘crypto-radical lines the President has ever uttered.’

And there is much in the plan to be praised though, perhaps, not enough to earn President Obama the label of ‘climate hawk,’ despite his very encouraging statements and use of language. In fact, there is compelling reason to believe that the Obama plan represents a response that is a too little, too late confrontation with a growing age of consequences.

The Good: Begins to Lay the Groundwork for Comprehensive Climate Policy

When we cut past the, admittedly encouraging, rhetoric and look at the nuts and bolts of the Obama plan, what we find are a few moderate steps in the right direction and a structured Action Plan that begins to lay the groundwork for a comprehensive climate policy. These steps in the right direction, however, may well represent walking when we should be running (see more on this in ‘The Bad’ and ‘The Ugly’).

The keystone (pun intended) of this plan is to establish carbon as a pollutant and to set in place a framework to begin direct legal regulation of the potent greenhouse gas: carbon dioxide (CO2). This is important because it spells the beginning of the end for CO2 emissions from a policy standpoint. It involves re-tooling and working with existing power infrastructure and supply lines to find ways to reduce CO2 emissions. So this first step is well worthy of the ‘good’ label.

It is worth noting that the US has achieved serious reductions in CO2 emissions over the first five years of Obama’s Presidency. These reductions were achieved via a combination of switching to a greater reliance on natural gas, markedly increased vehicular fuel efficiency standards, a rapidly increasing adoption of renewable energy generation, increased building efficiency and light bulb efficiency standards, and an increased reliance on biofuels (which currently uses a portion of the food crop to fuel vehicles).

Obama has also been helped by a massive campaign by environmentalists to shut down the nation’s dirtiest coal plants and to halt new construction of these carbon belching behemoths. These campaigns are one key reason why renewables and natural gas have had the opportunity to take greater market share.

If other countries around the world had achieved the CO2 reductions America has seen during Obama’s tenure, we would be in a much better place globally. Total CO2 emissions would have begun to fall off. Instead, the world has seen successive gains in the volume of CO2 dumped into the atmosphere with the total hitting nearly 32 gigatons this year. So US achievements in this area are both positive and noteworthy (Good).  But they occur against a very stark global background.

Natural gas, however, does have a darker side (see Bad and Ugly) in that its enhanced production via fracking results both in more methane emissions even as it threatens local water supplies. Obama is right to seek to regulate industry, via his action plan, in an attempt to reduce methane leaks. Sadly, his speech and plan had no content involving threats to water, which appears to have been left out.

Obama’s proposal to remove all funding for new foreign coal plants, except in the poorest of countries and when carbon capture technology is applied, can also be labeled ‘Good.’ It represents starting to apply pressure on almost all countries to begin to remove this most polluting of all greenhouse gas sources or to construct means to capture and store the carbon emitted. It could well be labeled extraordinarily good because it will give the US the opportunity to diplomatically oppose massive new coal plant construction projects on the books for India and China unless Carbon Capture and Storage CCS facilities are added. This particular policy measure does look rather ‘hawkish’ so I’m tentatively hopeful we may see more diplomatic effort on the CO2 front. If such policies are aggressively applied we could see a start to a falling off of new coal plant construction as well as some of the first actual applications of CCS (making renewables more competitive vs coal).

Lastly, the Obama plan includes a raft of new alternative energy and efficiency measures. These include setting aside enough public land to support new renewable energy projects for 6 million homes, a number of increased building efficiency standards, constructing gigawatts worth of wind and solar capacity for US military bases, and a number of more minor, but still worthwhile, measures. Such efforts can all well be labeled ‘Good.’

In sum, these policies seem to represent a grand vision on climate change that seeks to:

1. Regulate and reduce carbon emissions at the source.

2. Begin putting in place the regulatory precedent for requiring fossil fuel facilities to capture carbon, both in the US and overseas.

3. Target new coal plant construction overseas for removal of US funding or, otherwise, pressuring nations to build CCS at these facilities.

4. Reduce methane emissions that result from hydraulic fracturing.

5. Continue to increase renewable energy adoption while pushing efficiency standards higher.

6. Establish a precedent whereby the US can employ diplomacy in an effort to reduce carbon emissions worldwide.

When taken together, Obama’s approach is far more rational than those submitted by Mitt Romney during the 2012 Presidential Campaign. At this point, Mitt would be submitting his policy to rapidly drill our way to oblivion while ignoring the fact that climate change is a problem altogether. Obama, on the other hand, moves gradually but decisively in the right direction. So all the efforts above are positive innovations. As such, we can expect loud and outrageous opposition to this, somewhat rational, approach to come screaming up from the ranks of conservatives. The ‘job killing’ rhetorical horse will be beaten to death yet again. So everyone prepare.

But despite the fact that Obama’s evolving climate policy is far, far better than anything submitted by the lunatics, deniers, fossil fuel cheerleaders, and curled into the fetal position while waiting for doomsday republican party, it still has a number of gaping holes in it. In short, there is reason for serious concern that Obama’s climate policy does not move fast enough.

The Bad: Slow Motion Carbon Reductions, Promoting Fracking Overseas, Pumping North American Oil and Gas Production

Though Obama’s proposed climate policy begins to construct the regulatory ‘stick’ to use against emitters in order to reduce carbon dumping into the atmosphere, it doesn’t apply this stick very liberally. Obama’s plan only calls for the US to reduce its total emissions by another 3 gigatons by 2030. Since the US in on track to dump 102 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere between now and then, the 3 gigatons reduction is less than 3%. This, somewhat blase, reductions plan is hardly worthy of the term ‘climate hawk.’ It’s more like a climate chicken trying to cross the road to climate hawk fame and getting creamed by an oil tanker on the way across.

Hyperbole aside, it is worth raising the question: does a US role as climate leader require more than a 3% total reduction in planned emissions between now and 2030? I would say the answer to this question is, unequivocally, YES. A more worthy and, safer for our kids, target of 20%, 30%, or even 50% by that time is what should be on the table for US climate leadership. By comparison, if the world took such an approach, global CO2 emissions would total in excess of 522 gigatons between now and 2030. This snail’s pace rate of reduction would surely consign ‘the kids’ to a devastating 2 degree Celsius warming by the end of this century and a brutal 4-5 degree Celsius warming long-term. It also almost assures that large-scale emissions will continue long past 2030, an event that puts in place serious risk of even more catastrophic consequences.

Even worse, the Obama plan openly pushes for the use of US hydraulic fracturing technology overseas. Recent reports show that fracking has added 11% to the world’s oil and gas reserves, thereby adding to the total volume of fossil fuels on the world’s oil and gas company books that will need to stay in the ground to prevent a climate nightmare. Yet the Obama administration appears keen on promoting this new technology. As a result, the conservative 11% addition to oil and gas reserves may well double to 20% or more — creating the potential for far more trouble than the US solves by cutting carbon emissions by 3 gigatons at home. It also dramatically eats into any gains policy-makers may achieve by reducing new coal plant construction. Further, there is no guarantee that the methane leaks associated with fracturing and which we are struggling with so mightily today will be responsibly contained in foreign countries. To wit, the countries most likely to make wide-spread use of fracturing — Russia, China, and India — are least likely to responsibly regulate these sources.

So it is worth noting that though natural gas burns cleaner than coal in power plants, new sources produce large volumes of methane via extraction and as such it cannot rationally be viewed as a bridge to anywhere but a climate change nightmare. The gas plants, extraction, and pipeline apparatus will create a carbon emitting structure that will last for many decades — perhaps 80 years or longer. So investing in its wide-spread expansion is a very, very risky endeavor. Though better than coal, it is certainly no leap frog, and use of the term bridge is highly questionable. In short, we achieve climate change game over faster with coal, slower with gas. So, at best, the expansion of natural gas production worldwide may buy us a little time. But even these marginal gains are called into question by the expanded methane emissions resulting from hydraulic fracturing. Meanwhile, the pace of climate change advances at such a rate as to indicate we have very little time left.

Lastly, the Obama plan continues to hint that North American oil and gas production will continue to expand for some time. Both his tacit support of expansion of domestic oil extraction via fracking and his continuing ambiguity on the issue of the Keystone XL Pipeline continue to be causes for concern.

Though Obama has rhetorically distanced himself from the ‘tar sands’ Keystone XL pipeline, there is no clear indication what his decision will be on a structure that is, in large part, already pre-constructed. Pipes are being laid at a feverish pace and simply wait signatory approval by leadership before they are joined. Should Obama not approve the Keystone Pipeline and endure a massive and vicious backlash from powerful vested business interests, we can shift this particular issue to the ‘Good’ category and even put a climate hawk feather in Obama’s cap. But this critical climate issue remains up in the air. Now, in all fairness, I had written earlier that we shouldn’t have the Keystone Pipeline without a comprehensive climate policy which pushes to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Sadly, I must say that the push for a 3% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions over the course of 17 years is no-where near enough to allay my concerns. So, in light of a notably robust regulatory advancement but with paltry goals, I must continue to fervently support efforts to block said pipeline.

In light of these policy initiatives, it is worth noting that Obama is granted the unenviable position of attempting to balance an economic system that requires growth to survive against a coming climate catastrophe made worse by the exploitation of a resource upon which our economies are still mostly tooled to rely: fossil fuels. Obama appears to be attempting to keep the machine humming and build in fixes (renewables) while at the same time partly promoting economic expansion via enhanced fossil fuel extraction. Obama’s plan seems to, at least in part, cut against his rhetoric. If Obama were truly serious about achieving growth outside the structure of fossil fuels, he would promote alternative energy sources more and begin a more rapid cut-back of emissions-based fossil fuel use. His approach, therefore, is still heavy on the side of traditional, fossil fuel-based, growth and less so heavy on the side of safety for our children. His plan is extraordinarily risky and leaves open a high chance of serious climate change harm coming down the pipeline. On the other hand, I wouldn’t label his plan blatantly stupid. I reserve that for when republicans counter-propose with their ‘drill the world into oblivion and burn coal ’til the world burns’ mantra.

Together, slow motion carbon emission reductions, support for fracturing in the US and overseas, and continuing ambiguity over the Keystone XL Pipeline represent the ‘Bad,’ dark underbelly of an otherwise positive proposal. These particular issues raise the question of whether or not Obama’s new climate policy is serious enough to provide substantial help in addition to preventing and reducing the harm rumbling our way like a freight-train that inexorably accumulates steam and velocity.

The Ugly: Preparing Communities for Climate Disasters

Now we get to the Ugly part. The part that makes real all the troubles I’ve been doing my best to highlight here. The part where Obama talks about hardening communities against climate change.

Obama noted in his speech that he would set aside funds to make communities more resilient to climate troubles that are already emerging and are likely to continue to get worse at least for decades to come. He also noted that, in some cases, it may be impossible to prevent damage in some areas, so a system would be put in place to ensure that money is sent where it is likely to do the most good and not wasted in areas that cannot be saved. He didn’t use these exact words, but the implication in his speech is clear:

Some communities will probably not survive what we’ve already set in motion.

On the front line of our expanding climate emergency lies the coastal cities of the US and the world. In particular, Miami, has fallen into the cross hairs as a city that will be very difficult to save. Under current emissions scenarios, it is possible that the world will see a 10 foot or more sea level rise over the course of this century. In such a case, Miami would nearly be impossible to save. It sits on porous limestone and is surrounded on all sides by waterways. Few areas in Miami are more than 6 feet above sea level. Even if Miami were encircled by lines of barriers and levees, like New Orleans, the water would seep up through the limestone. City planners are aware of what’s coming. Some of the suggestions for saving the city including raising the whole structure (like Galveston) or even putting it on stilts.

Miami is just one example of a community under assault. Everywhere along the thousands of miles of US coastline, communities will face flooding, rising waters, and increasingly powerful storms. It is likely that there will not be enough in the way of resources to save all of these communities. And it is this new, Ugly, reality that Obama, for the first time, broaches in his speech. Communities will be harmed, homes, businesses, valuable infracture will be lost. In some cases, entire cities may well be lapped up by the ocean.

We were warned of this possibility more than 30 years ago. And had we aggressively pursued policies to reduce greenhouse gasses and to aid developing countries in building renewable energy infrastructures, we could probably have avoided the troubles we now stand at the brink of. Now we face rising costs, rising damage, more powerful storms, more rapidly rising seas. Now our President raises the entirely real possibility that some communities may well need to be abandoned. That funding must go where it is most needed and most useful.

This is the very definition of triage and we are currently involved in planning for climate change triage for our communities. A more clear sign that we are in the grips of a growing emergency could not be seen than this: the President proposes triage funding for coastal communities now under severe threat from storms and rising waters. And this was the ugly part of Obama’s speech. Not because he was wrong in proposing it. But because it is terrible that we have come to this pass. Because it is terrible that we must now begin to assess the potential loss of our communities. Potential losses in the billions and trillions of dollars. But more importantly, potential losses to lives and livelihoods.

Considering these emerging realities brings new urgency to light. Obama’s proposed policies, though rational, are not fast enough, do not cut fossil fuels deep enough, and do not promote the renewables strongly enough. We don’t need to begin walking in the right direction to avoid serious trouble. We need to begin moving with a measured and rapid urgency.

Links:

Obama’s Climate Speech

Obama’s Climate Action Plan

Joe Romm Says Obama Goes Full Climate Hawk (I somewhat disagree)

Anne Petermann, Ecologist and Global Climate Justice Advocate, Says Obama’s Climate Plan is ‘Greenwash’

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