Obama’s Insanity on Climate Change
by Ian Sinclair
Observing the US presidential race from the UK, on election night Joss Garman, Greenpeace UK’s Policy Director, tweeted “Fingers crossed America votes for enlightenment values/sanity #fourmoreyears #Obama2012”. A Twitter-addict, I challenged Garman on Obama’s environmental record, to which he replied: “Relative to the unhinged leadership of the US Republican Party, Obama is pretty much the definition of sanity”.
Obama, of course, has long been making the right noises about climate change. “This is the moment when we must come together to save this planet”, the then Democratic presidential candidate warned the world when he spoke in Berlin in 2008. “Let us resolve that we will not leave our children a world where the oceans rise and famine spreads and terrible storms devastate our lands.”
However, as US dissident Noam Chomsky wryly notes about Brand Obama, “It is wise to attend to deeds, not rhetoric” because “deeds commonly tell a different story.” So what exactly is Obama’s record on climate change?
Although forgotten by most people today, it is important to remember that in 2010 the US President reversed his campaign promise to retain a ban on offshore exploration. His decision to open up over 500,000 square miles of US coastal waters to the oil and gas industry was “cosmic bad timing”, according to author Naomi Klein. Three weeks later the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, releasing around 4.9m barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico before it was capped in July.
Since then Obama has certainly angered the fossil fuel industry by pushing renewable energy but, as CNN reported in the summer, “there is no evidence that he is trying to ‘shut down’ traditional energy.”
Infact, Obama’s inability or unwillingness to take climate change seriously was already clear from the way he approached the December 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference. For UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown the meeting in Copenhagen was “the most important conference since the second world war.” Not so for Obama, who only confirmed he would be attending the summit two weeks before the start of the talks (just two months before he had enthusiastically travelled to Denmark to support Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympic Games). The President further compounded the negative feelings directed at the US by turning up with a paltry offer to make 17 percent reductions in carbon emissions on 2005 levels by 2020. In comparison the European Union pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 20 percent on 1990 levels by 2020. For Peter Brown, Assistant Director of the Quinnipiac University polling institute, this obstructionism was further proof Obama was “a conservative voice among world leaders” on climate change. Predictably, the talks were a failure, with 350.org’s Bill McKibben explaining Obama “has wrecked the UN and he’s wrecked the possibility of a tough plan to control global warming.”
The increasingly terrifying backdrop to all of this inaction is a hardening of the scientific evidence for man-made climate change. Furthermore, a new report by the US National Center for Atmospheric Research found it has been the more extreme predictions about global warming that appear to be the most accurate. It is frightening facts like these that led PricewaterhouseCoopers to recently note “Governments’ ambition to limit warming to 2°C appear highly unrealistic.” According to the accountancy firm the glacial level of global action on climate change means that even doubling the world’s “current rate of decarbonisation, would still lead to emissions consistent with six degrees of warming by the century end.” If temperatures soar by six degrees by 2100, climate change expert Mark Lynas warns we will “face nothing less than a global wipe out.”
Following the precautionary principle, in 2009 the American Nobel Peace Prize economist Paul Krugman wrote “In a rational world… the looming climate disaster would be our dominant political and policy concern”. But US politics are very far from the rational world. Accordingly, climate change was virtually invisible in the 2012 Democratic and Republican presidential campaigns. There were certainly differences between the candidates – Romney ridiculed the idea of man-made climate change, while Obama accepts it as scientific fact – but, as Chomsky noted, in practice the differences were “about how enthusiastically the lemmings should march toward the cliff.”
And herein lies the problem for those, like Garman, who frame Obama’s politics solely in terms of how they compare to his GOP challenger: if you view US politics through the prism of this simplistic, media-driven binary opposition you will fail to see that both Democrats and Republicans pursue policies that are clearly insane for the future of the planet.
Turning to the future, the first major climate change test of Obama’s second term will be his decision on the proposal to build the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada’s hugely polluting tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico. “If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate”, argues James Hansen, the Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Science. “If this sounds apocalyptic, it is”, added Hansen. “Sea levels would rise and destroy coastal cities. Global temperatures would become intolerable. Twenty to 50 percent of the planet’s species would be driven to extinction. Civilisation would be at risk.” According to a Financial Times report earlier this month “oil executives and analysts expect the president to give the plan… the go-ahead in the first half of next year.”
Only a large and boisterous social movement exerting huge amounts of pressure on Obama will be able to stop the pipeline and force him to support effective policies to combat climate change. As the great, late left-wing historian Howard Zinn wrote during the 2008 US Presidential Election: “Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House”. And to be most effective this resistance needs to be informed by an accurate analysis of the Obama Administration record, rather than what we all wished the record was. Zinn himself, like Garman, supported the better candidate on election day but warned “Even when there is a ‘better’ candidate, that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore.”