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Obama and Climate Change: The Real Story

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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.

Guilty or not guilty? Please vote to let Bill McKibben know your level of disappointment. As you consider year-end charitable giving, we hope you'll consider this project worthy of your tax-deductible support. Scroll down to comment.

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  • Guest
    piyush Monday, 23 December 2013

    Well written Dave. As good as Bill is in what he has accomplished so far, this does belong to wall of shame. I think the time has come now for Bill and the entire environmental community, most of which know about the real cause, to come out publicly about it. His do the math film actually does have one fleeting mention about growth if you noticed but it needs to be front and center sooner than later I think. Fortunately, many including myself were swift to write comments about the root cause in the comments at Rolling Stone and there are many comments about this. I mentioned in my comment that Obama has clearly stated that he will not do climate legislation if it comes at the cost of economic growth (CASSE and of course here at this site it was critiqued quickly when it came out) and it is a fact that economic engine is literally powered presently by an ever increasing use of increasingly poor quality (in terms of low energetic content and high co2 emissions) fossil fuels and besides climate change, we have many other significant problems stemming from this endless growth religion.

    I have participated in every rally in DC that 350 has organized and in the first one I put on the growthbusters T-shirt and went. Many approached me curious about it and I spread the message. It was interesting to see how many environmental groups were simply addressing the symptoms and not the root. Bill himself saw the t-shirt when passing by where I was standing and mentioned (he knows of course he is in growthbusters movie) that Edward Abbey (whose famous quote is on the T-shirt) was his friend. As you mentioned, Bill obviously knows about it but is careful given the fragile support that climate movement has (nowhere close to what it should be given the scale and severity of the problem) and has to walk a fine line. Part of the reason may be that he does not have many equivalents in the economics profession of what is James Hansen and in general the science community are in the climate world that would back him up and the usual neo-malthusian arguments would turn up against him. It would help if the scientists started taking interest in connecting the dots with the economic system and come out publicly on this one (e.g we have our lone star Tom Murphy here but most scientists are following the "silent lie"). In the economics profession, we have of course Herman Daly and others in the CASSE but they are still not as heard of in the mainstream as perhaps Hansen who first made the congress aware of the problem being on the leading edge of the research early on. I don't know, I am trying to guess like you are doing, perhaps it is a mix of things but we can only hope he can make a clear call on this soon. We need a serious debate about reforming economics fundamentally given all the crises that are emerging now all over the world with economic aspirations out of touch with the reality. Even the pope has opened his mouth on questioning the economic regime although not from the same angle necessarily but if we get enough from a variety of societal domains, there may finally be a possible change. We really need a million people march in DC demanding an economic transformation to a steady state economy.

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