Obama: The Sham Environmentalist
by Ian Sinclair
26 January 2017
What grade does President Obama deserve for his environmental policies? According to the BBC the Obama Administration should be awarded an “A-” for negotiating the 2016 Paris climate agreement, introducing new regulations governing pollution from US power plants and designating 548 million acres of US territory as protected areas.
The Guardian anticipated this positive assessment of Obama’s actions on the environment, with a 2014 leader column asserting that “President Obama’s commitment to fighting climate change has not been in doubt”.
This support for Obama was taken to extraordinary lengths by last year’s BBC documentary series Inside Obama’s White House. With the 2009 United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen heralded as the final chance to save the planet from dangerous levels of climate change, the BBC’s one-sided account explains Obama worked to solve the climate crisis in the face of Chinese intransigence (the Chinese – and not the US, apparently – “were afraid of the impact on their economy”). With India, Brazil and South African joining China in a supposedly secret meeting “to stop the climate deal”, the film excitedly tells a story of Obama crashing the party to force an agreement on China in a sincere attempt to save the planet.
There is, of course, more to the story. As the US historian Howard Zinn once noted, “The chief problem in historical honesty is not outright lying, it is omission or de-emphasis of important data.”
In contrast to the BBC’s hagiography, George Monbiot, arguably the most knowledgeable environmental commentator in the UK, noted at the time that “The immediate reason for the failure of the talks can be summarised in two words: Barack Obama.” Bill McKibben, a leading US environmentalist, concurred, arguing Obama “has wrecked the UN and he’s wrecked the possibility of a tough plan to control global warming.” Missing from the BBC’s account, Canadian author Naomi Klein highlighted a key reason behind Monbiot’s and McKibben’s conclusions: “Obama arrived with embarrassingly low targets and the heavy emitters of the world took their cue from him.”
How low? The European Union went into the talks promising to cut its carbon emissions by 30 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Obama – whose commitment to fighting climate change, remember, “has not been in doubt” – offered a measly four percent cuts below 1990 levels by 2020. Obama was “the conservative voice among world leaders” when it came to climate change, “supporting the least-aggressive steps”, noted Peter Brown, the Assistant Director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, in the Wall Street Journal.
The attempt to block significant action on the international stage broadly mirrors the Democratic president’s (in)action domestically during his first term. The Guardian’s Suzanne Goldenberg uncovered an important spring 2009 meeting at the White House between the Obama Administration and leaders of the US green movement in which, incredibly, the environmentalists were told not to talk about climate change. With the Obama team apparently concerned about attacks from industry and conservative groups, Goldenberg noted the meeting “marked a strategic decision by the White House to downplay climate change – avoiding the very word”, which in turn produced a near total absence of the issue during the 2012 presidential campaign.
Goldenberg reports that “environmental groups, taking their cue from the White House… downplayed climate change” after the meeting. McKibben, who attended the summit, was one of the few people to speak out against the strategy: “All I said was sooner or later you are going to have to talk about this in terms of climate change. Because if you want people to make the big changes that are required by the science then you are going to have to explain to people why that is necessary, and why it’s such a huge problem”.
While the liberal media was dazzled by Obama’s Christ-like campaign rhetoric about slowing “the rise of the oceans” and healing the planet, in office the first Black president pursued an “all-of-the-above” energy policy. This, according to environmental journalist Mark Hertsgaard, “made the United States the world’s leading producer of oil and gas by the end of his first term.” Writing in 2013, McKibben provided clarification: “We are… a global-warming machine. At the moment when physics tells us we should be jamming on the carbon breaks, America is revving the engine.”
What about the Environmental Protection Agency rules Obama introduced in 2014 to cut carbon pollution from power plants by 30 percent? These are certainly a step in the right direction but, as Kevin Bundy from the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute noted, the proposals are “like fighting a wildfire with a garden hose – we’re glad the president has finally turned the water on, but it’s just not enough to get the job done.”
Internationally, the ongoing UN climate talks continued to be a fiasco in the years after Copenhagen, with the Guardian’s chief environmental correspondent John Vidal laying the blame in 2012 “squarely on the US in particular and the rich countries in general.” Vidal continued: “For three years now, they have bullied the poor into accepting a new agreement. They have delayed making commitments, withheld money and played a cynical game of power politics to avoid their legal obligations.”
Troublingly, the widely heralded Paris Agreement – for which the liberal media have repeatedly congratulated Obama for realising – is looking increasingly like a red herring. Though the text of the accord agrees to hold the increase in the global average temperature to below 2°C, and pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5°C, a recent survey of a number of leading climate scientists and analysts by author Andrew Simms found that not one thought the 2°C target would likely be met. Speaking last year to the Morning Star top climate scientist Professor Kevin Anderson said the pledges made by nations at Paris would likely lead to a catastrophic 3-4°C rise in global temperatures (“and probably the upper end of that”).
Asked by Hertsgaard in 2014 how history will judge the 44th president on climate change, senior Obama adviser John Podesta replied that while his boss “tried to address the challenge… fifty years from now, is that going to seem like enough? I think the answer to that is going to be no.” Writing in The Nation earlier this month, Hertsgaard reconfirmed Podesta’s conclusion: “Obama did more in his second term, but nowhere near enough. The climate emergency is still advancing faster than the world’s response, not least because of the United States’ inadequate actions.”
Two lessons about climate change can be taken from the eight years of the Obama Administration. First, it is clear the liberal media such as the BBC and the Guardian cannot be trusted to give an accurate picture of what Obama actually did in office – what George Orwell called the “power of facing unpleasant facts”. Second, many of the positive steps Obama took on climate change were arguably down to grassroots pressure. For example, the Obama Administration’s cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline which was going to transport oil from the deadly Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico was, as McKibben and Hertsgaard have argued, a victory for the indigenous-led grassroots resistance movement.
With the climate change-denying President Donald Trump and his powerful supporters threatening a bonfire of US environmental regulation and international climate agreements, it is essential the US and global green movements grow substantially and become more active and effective. Terrifying though it is to contemplate, it is no exaggeration to say that the very future of humanity rests on the outcome of this struggle.