Obama and Climate Change: The Real Story
350.org leader Bill McKibben is a great communicator. His latest commentary, published in Rolling Stone, makes some excellent points, yet earns a place on our Wall of Shame today. In this commentary, McKibben laments:
“By the time Obama leaves office, the U.S. will pass Saudi Arabia as the planet's biggest oil producer and Russia as the world's biggest producer of oil and gas combined. In the same years, even as we've begun to burn less coal at home, our coal exports have climbed to record highs. We are, despite slight declines in our domestic emissions, a global-warming machine: At the moment when physics tell us we should be jamming on the carbon brakes, America is revving the engine.”
This, no doubt, is very disappointing news, well articulated. And I applaud McKibben for etching these words spoken by President Obama last year into the public memory:
"Over the last three years, I've directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We're opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We've quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We've added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth, and then some….. In fact, the problem… is that we're actually producing so much oil and gas… that we don't have enough pipeline capacity to transport all of it where it needs to go."
Huh? Why would a U.S. President who, as McKibben reminds us, declared in 2008, "In my administration, the rise of the oceans will begin to slow,” brag in 2012 about increasing rates of fossil fuel development?
McKibben offers this explanation:
“…there were plenty of cynics who said Obama and his insiders were too closely tied to the fossil-fuel industry to take climate change seriously. But in the two years since, it's looked more and more like they were right – that in our hope for action we were willing ourselves to overlook the black-and-white proof of how he really feels.”
No doubt the money and power of the fossil fuel industry has played a part in this country’s continuing love affair with oil, gas and coal even as we watch weather disasters, oceans rising, and Arctic ice melting. Still, I’m putting McKibben’s commentary on the Wall of Shame this morning for what it leaves out. Headline notwithstanding, McKibben has not given us “the real story.”
Conspicuously absent from this piece, and indeed from all McKibben’s messaging over the last few years, is the primary reason for both the President’s fossil fuel development brags and the administration’s lack of effort to get serious about curtailing greenhouse gas emissions:
Obama worships economic growth.
Yes, money has corrupted our political system, and that does play a significant role in preventing good public policy. But make no mistake, our insistence on economic growth above all else is the single biggest impediment to sound environmental, and therefore sound economic, policy.
Bill McKibben knows this. He’s been an outstanding environmental journalist for years. His books, Deep Economy and Eaarth, don’t tap dance around this truth. But look at the messaging of 350.org, look at what Bill has written during the last few years. He’s a great speaker, and he’s doing important work, but his public comments also ignore the fact that we cannot come close to adequately addressing climate change if we insist on concurrently growing the U.S. or the global economy. His followers have the impression we can continue our lives of conspicuous consumption free of worry if we just power them with renewable energy rather than fossil fuels. Changes in lifestyle and changes in our economic system are never brought up.
There are optimists who believe we can pull a technological rabbit out of the hat and sustain economic growth while drastically reducing carbon emissions. According to McKinsey & Company, "to meet commonly discussed abatement paths [and keep growing the global economy], carbon productivity must increase from approximately $740 GDP per ton of CO2e today to $7,300 GDP per ton of CO2e by 2050—a tenfold increase.” But that is betting on a hope and a prayer, and - even if successful - it will not address the myriad other mortal wounds growth of the human enterprise is inflicting on our life-supporting ecosystems. McKibben’s books would indicate he is not of that mindset.
I expect he has considered telling folks the inconvenient truth – that we can’t have our cake and eat it, too. But my guess is he’s decided that reducing CO2 emissions to minimize climate disruption is a tough enough sell, without adding to its unpopularity by connecting it with economic contraction. That’s his choice and I think I understand the strategy. He gets a lot more media attention and has a much larger email list than GrowthBusters (which tells the full truth about what must be done), so it must be working to some extent. I’m not going to Monday-morning quarterback him on that.
It occurs to me that the President understands the real truth just as Bill McKibben does. But like McKibben, he knows he will lose his critical mass of support if he tells us to turn down the heat and put on a sweater. He has to sleep with himself at night. He may even understand his failure to tell the public the full truth and to promote truly sustainable public policy means that future generations (if there are any) will not judge him to be a great president. His pandering to a public that wants only good news will be a significant contributor to a future of nothing but very bad news.
I appreciate and applaud Bill McKibben for what he’s doing. And I think there is a place for every strategy in this struggle. But I am going to point out here, today, that this eloquent, passionate, inspirational leader of the climate movement is - just like the President - not telling us the full truth about what needs to be done. Just so you know.
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