The First Climate Test For Obama 2.0

Posted on

"The First Climate Test For Obama 2.0"

By Bill Becker

It has not taken long for Barack Obama to face the first big test of his resolve on combatting global climate disruption.

That test is the Keystone Pipeline, which would carry one of the dirtiest of all fossil fuels from the tar sands of Canada to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. Obama ultimately is “the decider” on whether or not to let the pipeline proceed.

A great deal has been written about the pros and cons of Keystone, including competing claims about its impacts on jobs, the environment, gasoline prices and so on. There is strong evidence that the money would be better invested in clean energy and associated jobs.

However, too little has been written about the moral dimension of Obama’s decision. That dimension is succinctly described by K.C. Golden, the policy director at Climate Solutions. He calls it the “Keystone Principle”:

We cannot abide any major federal action that results in long-term capital investments that lock in emission trajectories that make catastrophic climate disruption inevitable. More simply, we have much patient work to do over many decades to make it better, but we must immediately stop making it worse. We are in the “era of consequences” now. Each month brings new pictures of the victims. Today and every day from here forward, we can pledge ourselves to this and demand it of the Obama Administration: We will not allow major new investments in making climate disruption worse.

Allowing the pipeline to proceed is simply incompatible with any serious effort to reduce the consequences of climate disruption. On the other hand, killing Keystone would be solid evidence that Obama 2.0, liberated from re-election, is the climate leader we have been waiting for.

Keystone — in essence a pipeline that would bring persistent new atmospheric poisons into the United States and make us complicit with Canada in exporting them to other countries — is only one of several climate-related decisions Obama must make in the near term, each one a test of his resolve.

He must appoint a capable and courageous Administrator to replace Lisa Jackson at the Environmental Protection Agency. He and the new Administrator must use their powers under the Clean Air Act to expedite the regulation of new power plants; extend those regulations to existing power plants; crack down on methane emissions from natural gas production; and phase out the use of HFCs in the United States.

Another important test is how Obama will reconcile the inherent contradiction between his promises about climate leadership and his “all of the above” energy strategy. His bullish support for increased oil production directly contradicts the goal of mitigating climate change. The contradiction cannot be resolved by throwing money at carbon sequestration; it is an uncertain, costly, not-ready-for-prime-time technical fix that even if perfected would likely become our next Yucca Mountains.

Obama can redeem his energy policy by 1) explaining that while the Administration will weigh the benefits and costs of all energy options, it will support only the “best of the above”, and 2) ordering the development of a clear national roadmap to clean energy with steep off-ramps for fossil fuels and steep on-ramps for renewable energy.

If he deals with climate change decisively, Barack Obama can become a president of destiny well beyond his status as the first Black American elected and reelected to the office. He has all the evidence he needs about how climate change will destabilize our economy, public health and national security. He has an opportunity to guide the United States through a pivotal point in our history — our last big energy transition, a national policy that finally recognizes our codependence with natural systems, and an economy that fulfills the Constitution’s promise of life, liberty and opportunity for us and generations to come.

Our greatest presidents have put political calculus aside to do what was right for the United States and its role in the world. Lincoln did not shy away from the moral imperative to end slavery because of a recalcitrant Congress or the horrible cost of civil war. FDR did not shy away from the moral obligation to defend countries far away by turning American industry overnight into the world’s arsenal of democracy.

If these examples seem hyperbolic, then we don’t fully understand the real implications of global climate change or our unquestionable moral obligation to deal with it now.

– William Becker is executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project. The information, opinions and unattributed quotations in this blog are derived from “The Boundaries of Executive Authority”, a two-volume analysis of presidential powers by the Center for Energy and Environmental Security at the University of Colorado School of Law. See its analysis here and here.

« »

58 Responses to The First Climate Test For Obama 2.0

  1. Has anyone considered that the recent rise in gasoline prices is directly connected to the pressure that is being put on the Keystone XL pipeline decision? It may not be cause and effect, but if prices at the pump rise just now, and they have risen sharply in the last month, it might be harder to justify blocking another source of fuel stocks with the general public. We all know that this is the way politicians will spin the issue.

    • Sasparilla says:

      It’s very interesting Wesley…there isn’t a good reason for the recent rapid rise (price of oil hasn’t been climbing much) – its being blamed on refining restriction (plants offline converting to summer blends etc.). But certainly the oil industry wants that pipeline to go through for the refining and exporting of that Canadian oil.

    • The market is too big and too various, with too many players with divergent interests. The chances that the rise in price is a product of a conspiracy is extremely low. It’s a distraction.

      Energy commodities price at the margin. It doesn’t take much change in supply and demand–or more importantly, perceived FUTURE supply and demand, to affect prices.

      The best way to get away from gasoline price volatility is to use less of it. Nobody can conspire to make you do that differently.

      • I’m pretty much in your camp. If you go to gasbuddy.com and look at gas prices chart for the last five years you can see they always head upwards quickly staring in January. The exact same run-up happened last year and to the same level but it was a few weeks later in the year. Pattern is consistent but exact timing fluxuates.

  2. Keith Woodward says:

    Thanks for your article summarizing PBO’s policy debacle, my question for you is as the executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, what consideration has been given to development of Thorium MSR technology?

  3. paul magnus magnus says:

    “Keystone — in essence a pipeline that would bring persistent new atmospheric poisons into the United States and make us complicit with Canada in exporting them to other countries ” 

    Put another way, it is in essence a pipeline, if the decision is made not to implement, that would be a line in the sand, a signal that we are prepared to start tackling this issue with the necessary courage and sacrifice required.

  4. Greatgrandma Kat says:

    If it goes through our message to the rest of the world that Climate Change is not and will not be a threat to all our lives, both present and future will sound a death knell to any worldwide agreement on limits to carbon pollution.

    • Superman1 says:

      The only message that will go beyond the sound bites is reflected in the actions we take. And not actions for the sake of action, but actions commensurate with the scale of the problem. So far, we have not taken such actions with respect to the climate change problem, we are not taking such actions, and I see no plans of any type to take such actions in the future. That’s our message to the world.

      • David Smith says:

        So what actions would be “commensurate with the scale of the problem”. Please be specific. Share.

        • Superman1 says:

          Well, start with the problem. We have gone well past any ‘safe’ levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, as witnessed by events in the Arctic and elsewhere. The target temperature limit should not be 2 C, but 0.5 C. Throw in some safety factor, and we get ~0.2 C. We need: hard rationing of fossil fuel use starting today; rapid carbon recovery starting today; low-risk geo-engineering to quench the positive feedback mechanisms (if still possible) starting today. Chances of this happening: zero. Prognosis: terminal.

          • David Smith says:

            You are so full of [snip]. I thought maybe you possessed a secret sensibility that the rest of us hadn’t gotten yet. I was hoping to learn from you. Instead, I get nothing.

            Why do you spend so much effort at this if you truly believe “Chances of this happening: zero. Prognosis: terminal”.

            Assuming you have good intentions, you should maybe reconsider your tactics.

            [JR: OK, I disagree with Kal-el, too, but let's keep it civil. Same for you, Kal-el.]

          • Superman1 says:

            David Smith, “I was hoping to learn from you. Instead, I get nothing.” You should have learned one thing if you had read the post closely: we can’t get from here to there realistically!

          • David Smith says:

            I would say that we just haven’t figured out how to get there yet, so lets get busy. Just because we can’t see it yet we are still a long way from impossible.

      • Brooks Bridges says:

        Ah, yet another post from supernegativeman1. Same old, same old.

        Only point of your posts is to discourage action – sounds like something a fossil fuel stooge would do.

        A creative new approach to discouraging action is all I’ll give you.

        Bjorn and Andy Revkin have pretty well covered the “no action because we’ve got time” approach. Inventive of you to argue “no action because we’ve run out of time”.

        • Mark Belgium says:

          This is not about being positive or negative. Its al about the facts, reality. If you read, for instance, the link below, and then read the post of super-negative perhaps you find it more realistic then negative.
          http://www.skepticalscience.com/Macdougall.html

          • Brooks Bridges says:

            Mark, the data are depressing enough without someone constantly saying “Give up! It’s hopeless.”

            I’m all for realism but as I keep saying “real” realism includes:

            “We do NOT know for sure it’s hopeless”.

            But to keep discouraging people from action makes it more likely to be hopeless. We need to push the odds in the other direction.

          • Merrelyn Emery says:

            I just read the article in that link. The last line says: It is still up to us to influence the severity of the climate crisis. That seems pretty simple and straight forward – keep fighting! ME

          • Superman1 says:

            Brooks Bridges, Nowhere do I say ‘give up’, and nowhere do I discourage people from taking action. That’s your projection. But, if I had to bet the mortgage, I would bet there’s no way out. There may, and I emphasize may, be a slight remaining chance of a technical fix, but there is no way I could see it being acceptable economically or sociopolitically.

          • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

            Merrelyn, you know Pablo Casals’ apothegm- ‘The situation is hopeless-we must take the next step’.

        • Superman1 says:

          Alright, I’ll admit it; I’m on the payroll of Big Oil. They send me a seven-figure check every month for posting on CP. They know that, without my posts, you and the other ‘activists’ would give up your big homes, your SUVs, your quarterly long-distance flights, your processed goods and foods, and move to a commune in a temperate climate. There, you would live without heating or cooling, and would spend your days foraging in your organic garden. But, my posts are so demoralizing that you have resigned yourself to living out your years in your profligate Western lifestyle.

  5. Sasparilla says:

    Excellent article and well thought out. It is a test to see if the administration wants to tackle climate change realistically or not.

    It seems like the President wants to do some stuff on climate change, but only in political amounts (not realistic amounts) – otherwise we wouldn’t have his all in energy policy and the Administration wouldn’t have killed off any talk of a carbon tax during the Bush tax cut extension drama and during questioning after his recent speeches.

    Guessing he’ll approve the XL (all in energy policy), then over many years (hopefully before the next Admin can overturn them) get the EPA to tighten emissions restrictions on existing Coal Power Plants – and take victory laps along the way for both.

  6. Thanks for this excellent essay. It summarizes exactly what’s at stake in the Keystone decision.

    Unfortunately, I believe what we will get is approval of the pipeline accompanied by lots of spin from the administration. The polluters and their political allies will gloat. The unions, which have played into their hands for a few thousand jobs — that will ultimately destroy millions of jobs — will join in the celebration.

    They will all be happy for a while. Until nature does its thing.

  7. Dick Smith says:

    Somebody’s been reading Joe’s book. This is remarkably nuanced and effective writing. Becker’s description of where we are today — that we have entered “an era of consequences” — is pitch perfect.

    • Dick Smith says:

      Correction. Credit Golden with phrase “era of consequences” and Becker with the good sense to include that entire paragraph within his essay.

      • Brian R Smith says:

        Richard Heinberg in his book “The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies” (2003) spoke of “sitting down to a banquet of consequences”, which, if I remember, he mentioned was a phrase he borrowed from an earlier writer…

  8. Brooks Bridges says:

    Gail (forget last name) who used to post here frequently said a year or so ago she thought Obama might be playing a deep game. I’m hoping she was right.

    It’s going to be very hard for him to have made major plugs (which included ethical elements) for action in two recent speeches and then sign a permit for this abomination.

    That 40,000 strong march last Sunday should also show him the natives are getting restless and losing the support of climate action activists in the next election might be disastrous. He knows they represent the tip of a very large iceberg that unlike the Arctic ice cap, is just getting bigger.

    I think he’ll reject it.

    • David Goldstein says:

      Hey Brooks! Let’s hope this is not an omen: At the exact time of the climate rally in Washington, Pres. Obama was playing golf with 2 oil executives in Florida. My personal prediction: He will sign off on the pipeline and, in a ‘spin’ move, at the same time offer up some positive action to support green energy. Hope I am wrong.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      There is no ‘deep game’ going on with Obama. What you see (complete complicity with Big Business, disguised by occasional rhetorical flourishes, never followed up with concrete actions)is what you will get until 2016. Keystone was done and dusted long ago. The only rational course, in my opinion, is to abandon both Big Business owned parties, and put everything behind the Greens or other alternatives. At the same time organise to remove oneself, (if affordable), and one’s friends and allies, from the economic system, and sabotage it by refusing to consume our way to mass death. I cannot think of any other course that has a hope. Hoping for an Obama or any other product of the system to ‘wake up’ and choose life over mass death has zero chance of success. Even if Obama acted to any degree in the life-sustaining direction, he would do so at grave peril to his life, even if he could force anything through in the face of ferocious resistance.

      • David Goldstein says:

        Mulga- I live with a bunch of permaculture hippies in Eugene Oregon. They (I am a city boy from Philadelphia myself) have set up a year round farm on our 2.5 acres. We also have many fruit trees, nut trees and a tribe of chickens. We even have a nesting bald eagle pair just over our back fence in the Willamette River. I am going to do my best to enlist them as allies to 1) Set us up with fish 2) Identify and take out intruders who come to our gates after the collapse. And, of course, this being Western oregon, we have an abundant water table. We’re set!

        • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

          Permaculture was an Australian innovation, but like all ‘inventions’ it was based in that great edifice of human understanding that took millennia to pile up. And it has been set free to morph into innumerable new forms. I follow permaculture techniques in a desultory way, still needing to engage in wage slavery much of the time. I have mountains of permaculture magazines and Bill Mollison on DVD. It is quite difficult here at present, as the drought has returned with pitiful rain over the last six months, and days up to 45 degrees Celsius, which just obliterated all my small berry bushes. And the kangaroos and hares have been munching at the trees, as did a mob of sheep which wandered in from the neighbours while we were on holidays. Still, you keep on plugging away, although I expect climate destabilisation and erratic weather to make it very difficult.

  9. M Tucker says:

    With so much talk and protest about Keystone and, as Joe said, “We all need to “imagine life without fossil fuels,” since that is where we will are going to end up this century one way or another.” I have always thought it a good idea to educate myself on where we get our oil. It is not really easy to do. The MSM is usually not much help. The easily accessed business news sources like WSJ and CNBC are also not much help either, so when I get some solid reporting from the nontraditional sources I perk up. Over at Wonkblog they did a great piece last month called “Where the US imports its oil from, in one map” This includes imports from Canada. The article also talks about the proposed Keystone XL expansion. Others have picked up the piece since then. If we are eventually going to end the fossil fuel industry I think it is wise to understand just how fundamentally entrenched it is across multiple industries and how massively economically powerful it has become. Just knowing the gargantuan yearly profits the world’s largest oil companies, called the supermajors, make is just part of the story.

    Ending oil and coal will impact multiple industries and the consumer culture of Western Civilization. It is no wonder we see such powerful push back against the science of climate change. It is to be expected that politicians from both parties will not support legislation to limit CO2 emissions. Sure the Republicans dominate but the money and influence of the fossil fuel industry is so enormous that some Democrats also carry water for them. It is also important to understand that with the type of election system we have in the US to become a member of Congress, the President, or selected for a powerful cabinet post it is virtually required that you first must be extraordinarily rich, part of the 1%. So I am no longer surprised to find that even Democrats who support climate legislation are also heavily invested in the fossil fuel industry. That industry is part of the fabric of the financial world. So it comes as no surprise that there exists “A secretive funding organization called Donors Trust [that] spent the last decade funneling vast sums of money to an array of think tanks and activist groups, all dedicated to undermining the science of climate change and heading off the progress of climate policy.”

    I begin to wonder just how far these plutocrats are willing to go to achieve that “life without fossil fuel.” Sure some politicians are only modestly wealthy and some, like FDR, will work to limit the excesses of big industry and the banks but we haven’t seen much of that in the past 50 years. We haven’t seen any limit put on the banks that caused a worldwide recession since they became “to big to fail.” Now we must end an entire industry that has become a fundamental part of how the modern world works, which is a fundamental partner in other industries, which has become so much a part of world finance and investment. Frankly, I just have a hard time believing that enough of our wealthy leaders will come together to put into place regulations that will eventually lead to the end of the supermajors and the coal barons. Obama seems to be interested in “all of the above.” He has always promoted development of more fossil fuel extraction, not less. We have been waiting for a “climate leader” but I just can’t imagine that Obama is that guy. I just don’t think you can make him into someone he does not seem to be.

    • Good insights. It’s not just us against them, it’s us against us.

      Fossil fuels are not merely fundamental to Western society. They are the predicate. Without them, no Industrial Revolution or anything that follows–no electricity, no technology, no mass fertilizers, no advanced medicine, no mass transit, no clean cities.

      People will argue that there are substitutes for all these. And they’re right–the way there are herbal substitutes for heart transplants.

      We don’t get to two billion people living the Western lifestyle, or seven billion people alive at all, without the artificial stimulant of fossil fuels. It’s the agar-agar of this world-wide science experiment we’ve performed on ourselves. Now we’re at the edge of the Petri dish, and the supernutrient’s waste products have overtaken its life-giving capacity.

      • Superman1 says:

        “it’s us against us.” Exactly, but the last thing we want to do is admit that. Much easier to point at the plutocrats, the politicians, the energy companies, the media (none of whom are to be admired, by the way), than look in the mirror at the real problem. How can you win a war if you fight against the wrong enemy?

      • M Tucker says:

        My point is that this is nothing like switching from CFC’s. This is not going to be some sort of relatively benign transfer from fossil fuels to an easy substitute with the only problem being that we just need to get started. But I do advocate for getting started even if that means some relatively minor step like stopping the Keystone XL expansion. We need to protest every new fossil fuel burning power plant, protest every new play to develop oil and gas shale, protest expansion into the Arctic. I don’t care if TransCanada will find some other way to expand its development of tar sand. I don’t care if it will be like a terrifying game of whack-a-mole. We need to constantly agitate for our leaders to take action. We will get boneheaded leaders who will not fight for a climate bill that passed one house of Congress. Eventually we will get leaders with vision and courage. I don’t care how bad climate disruption gets we need to agitate, agitate, agitate until we get the leaders we need!

        I expect the fossil fuel industry to fight with every resource at their disposal to avoid their inevitable destruction. I expect it to be similar to ending slavery in America or ending the monarchy in France. It will be a long terrible fight. Finding suitable substitutes will not be easy. What to do about tires? What to do about lubricants? What will we pave our streets with? We have a lot more to think about than finding inexpensive carbon neutral substitute fuels that can be produced on a scale to rival the millions of barrels of oil consumed each day.

        We will make mistakes. Like corn-ethanol. Like the CFC substitutes that allow the ozone holes to slowly close yet are actually greenhouse gases. We will have seemingly impossible problems to overcome like what to do about nitrous oxide a more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2 and an ozone destroyer as well. But we can do this. It is not impossible. If we do not already have leaders who will help then we will protest and agitate and eventually get the leaders we need. If we start with weak environmental regulations and with the stopping of a second tar sand pipeline that will do nothing to end tar sand development then so be it. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

      • David Smith says:

        We are talking about the energy to run our machines. Who really cares where it comes from (except for those making zillions off old technologies). We didn’t have the technology to harness the sun’s power directly in 1850. Coal and then oil were necessary to get us to today. But now it’s time for the next step. Now we have the technology. The reason we are not moving towards it naturally is because powerful interests are stopping the natural flow of progress. We figured out how to get many building-sized mainframe computer of the sixties into a single smart phone in 50 years. That’s incredible. Your smart phone apparently uses less that a dollar of electricity in a year. That’s quite a leap of efficiency and there were no energy plutocrats blocking the way. We can figure out how to power everything and probably a lot more efficiently along the way.

        It’s not us or them. We all need to change.

      • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

        The problem is quite simple. How to maintain human civilization without destroying it through the pollution that arises from its activities, particularly fossil fuel use. Very difficult, but probably not insuperable, given our science, technology and wealth. The work of decades, but eminently doable.
        Yet we keep going backwards at accelerating pace, and, realistically, only a miracle will save us now. Why? Because global society is dominated by the Right, ie the greedy, violent, unscrupulous, egomaniacal fraction of humanity, those without human empathy and indifferent to the fate of others. In fact those innately hostile to all that is ‘other’ to themselves, racially, religiously, geo-political and ideologically. Until we remove the Right from its position as global overlords, well-forget about any long-term plans.

  10. The big win is an economy-wide rising price on climate pollution.

    Hopefully Obama is smart enough to use KXL to push for the big win. He already laid out the big win goal in his SOTU speech. KXL is a perfect lever to pry out the big win because he controls the decision.

    If I was Obama I would say: “first a market solution for climate pollution…then we can let the market decide on KXL. Let’s get politics out of climate solutions and let the marketplace pick the winners and losers based on the most climate benefit for the least cost.”

    He can use IEA reports showing world rapidly locking in climate failure with each new major fossil fuel infrastructure project that gets built without taking into account the climate impact of it.

    • I like the idea of hoisting the let-the-market-decide people on their own petard. It’s exactly what a carbon tax would do. If there were a carbon tax, investors would take that into account before putting in with this kind of project.

      But framing it that way would also legitimize the market as the preferred approach to GHG abatement. We don’t have time to let the market decide. We need a WW2-type response, with a similar set of government-directed emergency programs. Marshall Plans, Manhattan Projects, redirection of manufacturing, mandatory conservation–those sorts of things.

      Unfortunately, the President can’t impose a carbon tax–unless he wants to go for that WW2 moment now. He’s still fighting denialism and massive vested interests–people whose capital is tied up in fossil-related facilities, who will view any government move that reduces the value of those investments as a “taking.”

      The real answer is to convince these investors of the emergency, in small meetings, with people they respect. Obama has to turn some big, die-hard conservatives on this issue, like LBJ did on civil rights.

      • Ed Leaver says:

        I agree. If there were a way for the President to exchange Keystone XL for an incrementing carbon tax, that would be a huge win. Senators Bernie Saunders and Barbara Boxer have proposed such a tax. The prospects are dismal at best, but the President has got to get these issues out on the table and engage the denialists both in Congress and the public.

  11. Ken Barrows says:

    The man who has nominated Timothy Geithner and Jacob Lew to head the U.S. Department of the Treasury will approve Keystone. No doubt.

    If I am wrong, I will heartily congratulate you who are in the fight against it.

  12. Leif says:

    The longest journey begins with a single step. Please President Obama, Make it GREEN!

  13. BobbyL says:

    Maybe Obama will look at the plans of the large Canadian energy company Enbridge to bring tar sands oil into the US, which do not need his approval, and figure his decision on Keystone XL is not going to change much anyway so he may as well approve it and avoid giving the Republicans another issue. See http://sierraclub.typepad.com/compass/2012/09/enbridge-tar-sands-pipeline-would-be-bigger-than-keystone-xl.html

    • Bill Becker says:

      Perhaps it’s a choice between giving Republicans another issue and giving them another win. I’d rather give them the issue. They’ll find something to rant about anyway. And if they can’t, they’ll make something up.

      At some point, we’re going to have to stand tall against the opponents of rational climate risk management. They are not afraid to slug it out. We shouldn’t be either.

      • BobbyL says:

        I just don’t understand why some people are saying that if Keystone is stopped mining the tar sands will be stopped. The Enbridge project looks much more difficult to stop and it has a greater potential capacity for carrying tar sands oil to the US. If it stays on schedule I believe it will be completed in two to three years. Is Keystone being hyped as being more important than it is?

      • Agree–give them the issue, not the win. This is a streetfight. You can’t lead with niceness, or your chin.

        Giving them the win was Obama’s ongoing mode of failure in his first term. He seems to have learned that lesson. Although the thing about him golfing with oil execs while the climate rally was going on needs some explanation from him, fast.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      Who gives a stuff if the Republicans ‘have a new issue’, for the Galilean’s sake! Even if not ‘given’ an issue, they will concoct one, so the honourable and rational thing to do is give them as many ‘issues’ as they like, and fight them tooth and nail with rationality and humanity. Why are the opponents of the Right so shit-scared of them? They look like easy meat to me, for a leader with spine who believes in his cause, which, in this case, is the most noble imaginable.

  14. Bob Geiger says:

    There is a lot of talk in the comments section, but very little talk about the jobs impact of the pipeline. If we are to win the Keystone argument, we can’t cede the jobs argument to the other side. Studies show their jobs numbers are highly inflated and include mostly temporary jobs. We need to be knocking down their jobs numbers at every turn.

  15. Check out Unnatural Disasters for more on “President Obama, KXL, and Grotesque Moral Failures”

    http://unnaturaldisasters.org/2013/01/15/president-obama-and-keystone-xl/

  16. Shared the link to this article on
    http://www.ecopolproject.blogspot.com

    Check out our blog and follow us!