Is Obama blowing his best chance to shift the debate from the dirty, unsafe energy of the 19th century to the clean, safe energy of the 21st century?

The silent threat of the unknown hovers over Mr Obama at all times. By force of oratory, Mr Obama could revitalise the energy debate and alert Americans to the dangers of business as usual. Or he could wait for a brighter day. Fortune, in this case, may favour the brave.

That’s Edward Luce in his optimistically headlined Financial Times piece, “From disaster can come a new direction for US energy” (reg. req’d).

Luce is the latest in a long, long line of people, urging, pleading, and begging Obama to speak out on the gravest threat — and greatest opportunity — the nation faces (see Tim Wirth: “The president should deliver a major speech on climate change to the American public, using all the props and charts he can muster to bring the message home. The public interest requires it”).

If you can’t explain to the public now that there are hidden costs of our addiction to fossil fuels, that fossil fuels are injurious to our health, the environment and national security, when can you?  Heck even Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic opines:

If the Democrats do not use this disaster to advance the energy bill ASAP, they may miss a critical moment to escape the oil-addiction even George W. Bush acknowledged in his final years.

Dave Roberts writes at Grist:

What has become clear, to Graham and anyone else paying attention, is that Obama is not going to do an all-out push. If nothing else, his response to the Gulf oil disaster has made that clear. If he was looking for an opportunity to drive home the clean energy message, this was it — the Katrina of fossil fuels. Yet all he’s done is blandly reaffirm his support for offshore drilling. I haven’t heard a word about clean energy alternatives or, God forbid, efficiency, which if pursued seriously could save more oil than offshore rigs could produce, at a net savings rather than a cost, and with the added bonus feature of not occasionally leaking out and destroying entire American ecosystems and industries.

And here’s Maggie Fox, head of the Alliance for Climate Protection:

“This tragic event is a deafening wakeup call that America’s dependence on fossil fuels cannot continue. We know this dependence is a direct threat to our national security. This massive spill is a stark reminder of the environmental and economic dangers we face as well.”

Bill McKibben writes:

If that oil had traveled down a pipeline to a refinery and then into the fuel tank of a car, it would have wrecked the planet just as powerfully. We now realize, as we didn’t on the first Earth Day, that the slick of carbon dioxide spreading invisibly across the atmosphere is driving change on a massive scale: by raising the planet’s temperature, it’s melting everything frozen, raising the level of the ocean, powering ever stronger storms. In the Gulf, and in every other ocean on the planet, that extra carbon is turning seawater acid. You can’t see it, but it’s wrecking marine life far more effectively and insidiously even than the spreading oil.

And there’s no way to prevent global warming with better valves. The only way is by ending our addiction to fossil fuel with great speed.

Yes, everyone has the rhetoric right but the Speechmaker-in-Chief, who seems almost like a deer in the headlights, defending his pointlessly preemptive reach across the aisle on offshore drilling a few weeks ago.

Obama could explain how “Limited government can, and often does, lead to unlimited pollution and unlimited disasters.”  And, of course he could make the link to Goldman Sachs.  There are many, many ways to frame this — but one has to be interested in changing the debate in the first place, of course.

Ironically, the conventional wisdom in Washington DC is that the undersea volcano of oil unleashed by the BP disaster actually harms the dwindling chances for the climate bill because it makes the deal with Lindsey Graham and conservative Democrats on offshore drilling untenable.  Seriously, only in the Alice-in-Wonderland world of U.S. national politics would a fossil fuel disaster make it less likely that we would get a bill designed to wean us from fossil fuels!

As the FT notes:

Mr Obama will have to look for new ways to persuade Senate Republicans and centrist Democrats to support legislation to cap carbon emissions and invest in new energy. One approach would be for Mr Obama to throw his instinctive caution to the winds and use the disaster as an opportunity to instruct Americans in the realities of the country’s energy outlook.

Bottom line:  Leaders lead.  They seize opportunities to galvanize the nation toward a better future.  Or they don’t (see Doris Kearns Goodwin: “What would have happened right after September 11th if President Bush had called for a Manhattan Project for independence from Middle Eastern oil?”).

Sadly, for the nation and the world, Obama appears content to let even the modest action in the Kerry-Lieberman-Graham bill quietly die the death of a thousands cuts.

This is the way the climate dies, not with a bang, but a whimper.

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22 Responses to Is Obama blowing his best chance to shift the debate from the dirty, unsafe energy of the 19th century to the clean, safe energy of the 21st century?

  1. Mark says:

    Well said.

    Now is the time. What would you suggest is the best course of action that the 30,000 people reading this post and our friends and neighbors can take to change the path of Obama and Congress on energy and the environment?

  2. Frankie Valejo says:

    Americans want to have jobs. Obama is interferring with growth. 17% unemployment. Unemployed people don’t buy the politically correct new cars.

  3. This is very well said, Joe. This is his moment. If he doesn’t seize it, then it turns out he’s not the Green FDR, as we all had hoped, but the green Hoover. So let’s all make his job easier. Put every kind of pressure on him you can imagine. Friends don’t let friends miss their chance at history.

  4. Wit's End says:

    Seriously, what is he waiting for?

  5. mark says:

    I have a hard time even thinking about this catastrophe.

    I hate to say this but

    Some, maybe many people, including Obama, appear to be oblivious to what is going on.

    I am unable to understand this total lack of awareness.

    what is it going to take to wake this man up?

    If this won’t do it, It looks like nothing will.

    If he is unable to use this moment to stop calculating the politics, to make huge strides, he will have deeply failed, us, and the planet.

    I would say that Obama will then be fairly ranked of the worst leaders the USA/world has ever had.

  6. Chris Dudley says:

    We have worked ourselves into a perverse view of energy security. We have invested so much in the military might to assure oil supplies that oil has become a goal in itself. We think of it as fundamental to the engine of our economy. But it is not. In fact, with current oil prices, it harms our economy.

    Worse, domestic oil production leads the way in causing economic harm because it cannot proceed without high oil prices. The economic damage we suffer is only reflected in small part in the consequences of the risky efforts we undertake to produce oil domestically such as the current spill. No, the contribution of high oil prices to our trade imbalance and the strictures of foreign held debt cut much deeper.

    Oil at any cost is a fools policy, but it is the one we’ve got. We should have a cheap oil policy instead. We should contain demand to the level where the world oil price falls below $20/barrel. We should start with our own demand, but we should not forget that we have leverage on the demand of others. We, after all, provide the security for oil to move around the world. A cheap oil policy should end risky efforts to obtain oil such as deep water drilling or tar sand mining and we can end our use of oil both at low economic cost and low environmental cost.

  7. substanti8 says:

    In response to Frankie (#2), I’ll note that this blog is filled with information about the economic opportunity of non-carbon energy sources.

    “Obama is interferring with growth.”

    That’s complete nonsense.  Obama’s problem is that he is a strong proponent of capitalism, which is joined at the hip with growth.  That ideological imperative begs the question.  Do we really think that ignoring exponential mathematics will absolve us from having to face the physical reality of limits?  The ideology of endless growth is like an impossible hamster.

  8. Leif says:

    I doubt that President Obama has the time to read this blog site. Please take a moment to contact the White House.

    It is easy and
    some one is paid
    to read your comments
    and pass them on,
    at least the numbers pro and con.

    Help some lackey justify their existence.

    Hay Obama, lead the Nation,
    Give us climate education.

  9. Good thoughts, and I share the underlying deep enthusiasm to make hay while the sun shines, or seek shelter while the storm blows, or some other manifestation of real urgency. Enthusiasm aside, however, I actually think the prime political moment for Obama is still a week or two out, or possibly even a little more, once the oil has come ashore for one thing.

    As terrible and as firmly-instructive as this disaster is so far – horrible indeed – there is still a remote possibility that it could whimper out relative to probabilities and general expectations – if the preventer valve were to finally get shut off after all, for instance, and then winds were to blow the slick around until it disperses generally and gets mopped up by booms without a huge on-shore impact. It’s not like there’s a lot of data for predicting this actual scenario, with this grade of crude, and so on.

    I don’t think a whimper outcome is likely. But I do think it’s still enough of a possibility for the President to be careful with. For whatever reason, the front line of the spill has been pulling back and forth relative to the coastline in an erratic way:

    In addition, Obama needs to first do right on disaster response, for its own sake and to guard his flank from a ready-to-criticize media. Only then might be have license to use the disaster politically.

    Meanwhile, I do think the comment from McKibben is really brilliant, and beautifully put. Thanks especially for sharing that quote. (Nice antidote to Bjorn Lomborg on BCC just now.)

    Big direct Obama speech to the country on climate change? I’d love it, undersea oil gusher or not. I think it would help a lot.

  10. Jeff Huggins says:

    “When fortune comes, seize her firmly by the forelock, for I tell you, she is bald at the back.”
    – Leonardo da Vinci

    “Your goodness must have some edge to it—else it is none.”
    – Ralph Waldo Emerson

    “… the fierce urgency of now …”
    – Martin Luther King Jr.

    “Character is destiny.”
    – Heraclitus

    “What good am I then, to others and me,
    If I’ve had every chance and yet still fail to see
    If my hands are tied, must I not wonder within,
    Who tied them and why, and where must I have been?”
    – Bob Dylan, “What Good Am I?”

    “The wise man does at once what the fool does finally.”
    – Machiavelli (a paraphrase)

    “Time is swift, it races by;
    Opportunities are born and die …
    Still you wait and will not try—
    A bird with wings who dares not rise and fly.”
    – A. A. Milne

  11. Jeff R. says:

    I agree entirely with the sentiment of the post. But not only is Obama subject to the reelection pressures that face all politicians, he is influenced by his appointees and colleagues in Congress who are affected by our addiction to oil. Much of this nation’s prosperity has been facilitated (er, fueled) by cheap energy. Our way of life (which is the envy of much of the world, notwithstanding the fact that it sucks!) depends on it. Regrettably , this disaster in the gulf is not significant enough to inspire a collective will to sober up. Hopefully China will kick our butts in sustainable energy enough to inspire us to get on the wagon before its too late.

    Our best hope is still leadership from Obama.

  12. Matt says:

    Obama rather makes some stupid jokes about drones killing people instead putting more efforts into this oil spill mess.

    In the meanwhile the MSM seems to be losing the interest in the spill, even though it’s still leaking at the same rate.


  13. Andy says:

    Until there are miles of oiled beaches and dead birds washed up then nothing can be said. Images are needed to bring the point home. Obama is right to keep his powder dry for now. The first bits are washing up in Mississppi today so I guess we’ll see.

  14. Richard Brenne says:

    Bill McKibben (#3) –

    Incredibly eloquent quote and comments, Bill, as always (and I have a Green Hoover – it’s called a broom).

    The post and comments are all great, also as always.

    Here’s an open letter:


    Dude, this is it. I know you proposed off-shore drilling to take the wind out of Palin’s sails (maybe propose off-shore wind to take the oil out of her hair).

    I know you have your timetable of health care, immigration, then energy and climate. That timetable is seriously out of date. Unlike some in the other party, you can walk and chew gum at the same time. Scrap your timetable now. This is war.

    Kobe and Lebron have plans and timetables too until they see Westbrook, Rondo and Williams blowing past them and beating them, and then they adjust. It is time for you to adjust.

    As ArchitectureWeek (#8) suggests, you might need to play this for maximum impact just as Lincoln had to win a key battle to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. But you need to be ready. If the oil rounds the Keys to head up the East Coast, you must make the most important speech of our – and perhaps any – time.

    Then you need to quote McKibben’s quote above (come to think of it, you need to hire him as a speechwriter). You need to tell us you’ve been lying to us, as has every leader we’ve ever had who says or implies that we can sustain the unsustainable (Jim Kunstler’s phrase – hire him too).

    Instead of raising our expectations you need to lower them and tell us the truth, that what we were doing was always unsustainable and would inevitably lead to our own destruction (okay, now you’ve also hired Al Bartlett and Jim Hansen and Joe Romm).

    This is just a once-in-a-decade chance to tell us all this.

    You’ve often seemed like the only adult in a nation of selfish, greedy and stupid adolescents. Now you need to keep being an adult, grow up yourself and take this on. Yes, it might be as difficult over time as what Lincoln and King faced, but I believe you were born to do it.

    You’ve always had a Lincolnesque ambition but if that ambition is only to grow your own ego, we will all come to ruin.

    If that ambition is to shift our paradigm entirely from the bullet train toward our own destruction to something that allows survival, community and caring, then and only then will you be answering your calling.

    The time for predator drone jokes is over. Millions could tell that and similar jokes with your impeccable timing. But that is completely meaningless relative to the impeccable timing of your destiny that you need to answer right now.

    Tell us you made a mistake playing conventional cowardly politics by suggesting off-shore drilling. Tell us that we’re going renewable as fast as we possibly can, and faster than most might want.

    Tell us that you can only lead in the proportion that we follow you, and that you will fail and we will all fail unless we band together, supporting you and following you through rocky shoals in the dead of night. . .until we succeed.

    You might’ve just asked to be just another president, but we can’t afford just another president now. You have to be transcendent. You have it in you to do that, I’ve seen it.

    Now do it.

    Your Friend,

    Richard Brenne

  15. mike roddy says:

    Now w
    I understand why Obama gave away offshore drilling without getting anything in return. He wanted to show a little love to the oil companies, and the banks and investor funds that are in the trough.

  16. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    One of the questions about Obama’s evidently futile policy of appeasement of GOP/fossil fuel interests is just how he expects to get re-elected without the youth activism and youth vote – that he’s likely been turning off in droves.

    With Emmanuel (a supposedly consumate political fixer) as his cheif of staff, such an apparent blunder has to have some explanation. The “Icebergs Ahead” speech that climate and 2012 peak oil supply now demand, and that the Deep Horizon fiasco accommodates so well, could be the turning point to allow that re-election. Yet there is as yet no sign of anything stronger from him than BP having to pay for its mess.

    I think there has to be some factor that we are not yet discussing. Simple corruption I’d discount – there’s more to him than just being a covert prestige-&-wealth groupie. Likewise a plan for a single term of office – what would be the point of striving to get the presidency merely to fritter away the time of personal power ? Incompetence is a tempting explanation, but being a law professor implies a really exceptional intelligence. But something constrains his actions – and I doubt we can see clearly what it is, yet.

    The one possibility that might perhaps fit the circs is that he is convinced that the Bush era policy of brinkmanship with China over “Who can ignore global warming the longest ?” is as necessary now as ever, and he is still waiting for China to blink first. Certainly China’s rejection in Denmark of the 50% cut by 2050 as ‘inadequate’ was the first published expression of how seriously its president now takes the issue.

    Moreover, Obama’s gratuitous continued use of the 2005 emissions’ baseline (fabricated under Bush when he reneged on the US signature of the UNFCCC mandate with its 1990 baseline) was a clear diplomatic signal that in negotiations he’d be no more constructive than Bush. The stakes, of how swiftly the US must reduce its GHG outputs to agree a treaty, could scarcely be higher, so it is possible that he is set on making no serious move at all at home, to the extent even of appeasing the fossil lobby, until he has stared down the opponent’s resistance abroad.

    The line about “Give us a call when you get serious” has to be one of the oldest in the deal-maker’s lexicon. Notably, the greater the delay the more ominous the climate threat becomes not just to China’s people, but specifically to the communist government’s confidence of retaining power, as impacts (such as flood, dust storm and famine) start looming up.

    Perhaps it needs saying that if brinkmanship were at the core of Obama’s unexplained inaction, I’d call it one of the most reckless and foolhardy strategies of any adopted by a US president.

    Any other explanations of Obama’s strange conduct, or rather lack of rational conduct, welcome.



  17. Roger says:

    We at GWEN have been pushing for everyone to pressure President Obama to do climate education for many months. Please contact him now, too!

    We just returned from our Earth Day demonstration in front of the White House, asking Obama to speak out and lead on climate, as illustrated here:

    Hey, Obama, lead the nation,
    Give us climate education!!

    Obama’s no. = 202-456-1111.

  18. Roger says:

    Many superb thoughts above. Fantastic letters and words and ideas!!

    Now we need to convert all this potential energy to kinetic energy and actually CALL the White House at 202 -456-1111! Then get five others to call.

    Alternatively, write a hand-written letter, asking the president to ACT NOW! Address = President B. Obama, The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington, DC 20500.

    If we work together, we will multiply our impact! (Bad analogy, but think of getting a foot of rain in a a day, rather than in a month.)

    All together now, call or write our leader; ask him to lead on climate.

  19. Matt Dernoga says:

    ” only in the Alice-in-Wonderland world of U.S. national politics would a fossil fuel disaster make it less likely that we would get a bill designed to wean us from fossil fuels!”

    best line ever!

  20. Bill Hewitt says:

    A student of mine quoted Rosalyn Carter recently in a note to me: “A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go but ought to be.” It probably is long past time for Barack Obama – and John Kerry, for that matter – to quit playing politics with the expansion of oil and gas drilling, not to mention the ludicrous incentives for nuclear and “clean” coal. It is time for the President and the others to wake up and smell the clean tech.

  21. Raul Marchand says:

    Certainly the Secertary of Energy has been contacted by the
    commission on methane hydrates and given council on the
    need to treat methane from the sea floor as an energy source
    reaher than as just a hazard to oil production. It seems that limited
    exploration and production means different things to different
    people and corporations. Could the recient mapping of the
    sea floor be taken by the common oil rigger to mean business
    as usuall??

  22. Yogi -One says:

    I don’t know what Obama you people are seeing, but it isn’t the one I see.

    The Obama I see is BFFs with Goldman Sach’s alums Bernanke and Geithner. Right on up until the dirt started coming out on GS he was worshipping them, and going to them for advice on how to handle the economic collapse (Their advice turned out to be, of course – “give us nearly unlimited taxpayer money to gamble with!” – which he did).

    The Obama I see is the one who wasted no time in cutting the possibility of single-payer universal health care to shreds in order to appease the insurance industry. He probably thinks they are a bunch of “smartest guys in the room” too.

    The Obama I see is the one who refused to investigate the use of torture and other grievous ethical and legal failures of the Bush Administration, preferring instead to let them off the hook.

    I don’t know what Obama you people are seeing. The Obama I see is one of “them,” not one of us. He is a product, a brand name sold to the public under “Hope For Change”, which, when you look at it, is just another branding slogan on par with “Just Do It” (Nike) or “I’m Lovin’ It” (McDonald’s).

    He’s a McCandidate, and you fell for the propaganda.

    The letters have to be very blunt: only his actions count, now his pretty speeches are utterly devoid of content. The record of his actions is the only thing that can speak. And he’s been woefully short in that arena. “Hope for Change” has turned out to be he goads us on to keep hoping, while he doesn’t really change anything.

    You have to let him know the shell game is over. Let him know we see clearly that behind the flowery speeches, there’s not much in the way of solid results.

    And that is what is going to have to change.