What Obama Said: The Optimist’s Translation

(Credit: AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Ever since President Obama made his statement about the Keystone XL pipeline on June 25, editorial writers, climate-action activists and Canadian officials have been speculating about the significance of what he said. We are picking through his words like tealeaf readers.

The President’s staff reportedly feels that the President’s statement was straightforward and that all the speculation is fascinating. But for those optimists among us who want to believe President Obama is finally ready to tackle the climate issue, it sounded as though some very important precedents might be taking shape in the White House.

Here’s what the President said:

Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.

Here is what we might read between the lines:

Carbon pollution is now a threshold issue. The President’s criteria for Keystone focused solely on the climate problem. President Obama has often said that the national climate conversation cannot ignore jobs and the economy. But his speech wasn’t about jobs or North American energy independence or our relations with our neighbor to the North. It sounded as though climate change has become the dominant concern — a pass/fail test — in decisions that have carbon impacts. Given the sweeping implications of climate disruption, that’s exactly as it should be.

The Administration is “doing the math.” In their separate assessments of the pipeline’s environmental impacts, the State Department and the Environmental Protection Agency both used life-cycle costs. EPA advised State to go even farther by including the social costs of carbon in its impact assessment.

That’s important for three reasons. First, it demonstrates that the Administration recognizes its decisions should be based on carbon impacts far beyond the United States. Second, its assessment of carbon impacts involves not only the pipeline, but also the well-to-weather impacts of the oil it would carry. That presumably includes the carbon intensity of how the oil is extracted and processed in Canada, the carbon pollution that would be created wherever the oil is burned, and the consequences of destroying part of Canada’s boreal forest, one of the most important carbon sinks in the world.

The third reason the Administration’s methodology is important is that the social cost of carbon analysis counts things we haven’t counted in the past, such as agricultural productivity, human health, and property damages from the increased risks of extreme weather.

The Administration’s use of these analyses shows it understands that greenhouse gas emissions don’t recognize borders, that anyone’s pollution is everyone’s problem, and that carbon emissions have widespread, multifaceted consequences that must be included in benefit-cost analyses of public policy decisions.

Tar sands oil is not inevitable. The dominant ethic of the carbon age has been simple: If a resource exists, we must find a way to use it. The State Department assumed that ethic would prevail — that if the Keystone pipeline weren’t approved, Canada would find other ways to get the oil to market. Based on that assumption, State concluded that the environmental impacts of Keystone didn’t count because they would occur no matter what the Administration decided.

To his credit, the President gave no legitimacy to this argument. Perhaps he has concluded that no matter how Canada responds to the rejection of Keystone, the United States should not be an accessory to the production and sale of this especially carbon-intensive fuel.

As the State Department finishes its analyses of Keystone’s impact, it should assume that Canada’s alternatives to the pipeline are by no means certain. While the President has no authority over what happens in Canada, the Canadian people do. British Columbia’s recent rejection of a proposed pipeline through its territory signaled that finding options to move the oil might not be easy. In fact, the Obama Administration’s rejection of Keystone could encourage more opposition to taking tar sands oil to market.

The global interest is the national interest. The President’s national-interest test has several dimensions, ranging from the selfish to the moral. The selfish dimension has to do with the world’s “carbon budget” calculated by climate scientists and made famous by Bill McKibben: If we want to avoid catastrophic climate disruption, we’ll have to leave 80 percent of the world’s proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground.

President Obama will have to figure out what the diminishing carbon budget means for his all-of-the-above energy policy and for the prospect of the United States becoming the world’s leading oil producer in the next few years. What’s already clear is that Canada’s production of carbon-rich oil would reduce the amount of fossil energy the United States and other nations could produce within the budget. If we believe that domestic oil and gas will remain important to our economy for the foreseeable future, then helping Canada hog the carbon budget is not in our national interest.

Touching on the moral dimension, the President said, “The final part of our [climate] plan calls on America to lead — lead international efforts to combat a changing climate. And make no mistake — the world still looks to America to lead.”

What the world is looking for is an America that has the political courage and moral authority to lead. Neither can be found in Congress, where there are more climate skeptics, deniers and sell-outs than the entire membership of the U.S. Senate. Our contemporary Congress has become the branch of government where moral leadership and political courage go to die.

As Obama recognizes, leadership must come from him and his Administration. His decision on the Keystone pipeline is a highly visible and symbolic example of how he will use his executive authority. Approving the pipeline would signal business as usual in America. We’d be Canada’s mule, moving its drug to market. Deciding not to permit the pipeline would show that when it comes to carbon emissions, Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy does not mean “anything goes”. It would show that in the interest of abating climate disruption, a “yes we can” President is willing to say “no you can’t”, even to one of its allies.

In sum, those of us whose hopes have been reignited that President Obama will fight the climate fight are inclined to interpret the tea leaves this way: carbon emissions are now a pass-fail test in the Administration; the Administration is doing the math made necessary by the world’s carbon budget; the President intends to do what’s right for the future of the global community rather than what the current Canadian government believes is right for Canada; and Obama may yet emerge as a leader for the Anthropocene era.

Maybe the Keystone project will force our political leaders to confront questions we should have confronted long ago. What are the limits of sovereignty in the age of climate change? What legal and moral obligations do nations have to protect the atmospheric commons for future generations? How should those obligations be enforced? When should carbon-cutting trump free trade? When will industrialized nations accept that whatever remains of the carbon budget, developing countries deserve most of it? When will the American people elect a Congress that believes “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” are intergenerational rights, not the privileges of one generation at the expense of those to come?

White House staffers may believe we’re overthinking the speech, and they’re probably correct. Nevertheless, it’s tempting to conclude that President Obama understands that finding answers to questions like these will be the most important part of his legacy, and time is running out.

William Becker is the Executive Director of the Presidential Climate Action Project.

48 Responses to What Obama Said: The Optimist’s Translation

  1. john atcheson says:

    Bill — here’s hoping you’re right. But if you read the EIS, they’ve essentially already made the finding the President says we must make.

  2. Mark E says:

    To understand what Attorney Obama said, think like an attorney. Don’t be a starry-eyed groupie who hears what they want to hear. Here is that quote from Lawyer Obama again:

    “Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest. And our national interest will be served only if this __________________ does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the ______________’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this (pipeline) is allowed to go forward.”

    Meaning #1 (what we want to hear): Read it by filling in the blanks with “TAR SANDS OIL”

    Meaning #2 (what he actually said): Read it by filling in the blanks with “PIPELINE”.

    Don’t be snookered by lawyerish wordsmithing! Obama has never publicly questioned the wisdom of 100% extraction of all tar sands oil.

    Moreover, if you were starry eyed by his big speech, please tell me what how he has used his bully pulpit, or the cameras, since?

    I still say the speech was a bone to those considering working for democratic campaigns or donating to candidates in the mid term election, and little more. God, I’d love to be wrong!

  3. Zimzone says:

    The fact that British Columbia, one of Canada’s own provinces, has already gone on record as opposing any western pipeline route, should make this an easy decision for State.
    OTOH, Canadians are buzzing about the terrible oil spill / explosion this weekend, reminded that this could happen in ANY town with rail services.
    I live near a railroad line in western MN & have personally witnessed at least a 500% increase in oil being shipped by rail.

  4. Leif says:

    Canada my soon have access to yet another shorter route to the world that is within their hands alone. The Arctic is becoming ice free for longer periods and the digging will be easier than across the the mountains. There is perma-frost to contend with but that has been manageable as proven by the AK pipeline. (At least for the present.)

  5. LW says:

    An easy wager is everyone responding here knows more about climate change than I do. As an average and very concerned citizen, what can I do to help President Obama buck up and not back down on this? That is, if there is any substance behind the lawyer speak Mark E so carefully pointed out? If I am reading Mark’s post correctly, I share the lack of faith in this President to stand up let alone lead on this.

  6. Superman1 says:

    You are obviously correct. And, on 5 March, the Chinese Premier described his energy policy ( My interpretation: all of the above.

  7. Superman1 says:

    “what can I do to help President Obama buck up”. The main, and perhaps only, thing any of us can do is to help organize a sufficiently strong majority that he has no choice but to accede to the wishes of the people. But, it has to be an activist majority, willing to do whatever is necessary to see strong actions taken.

  8. Bill Becker says:

    Note that I said this post was the optimist’s interpretation. Unless President Obama decides to leave this decision for his successor, I guess we’ll see whether optimism was warranted. Let’s hope so.

  9. Duncan Noble says:

    The rate of tar sands development will be determined by economics. KXL would increase the price/bbl of bitumen considerably, due to supply/demand considerations. Rejecting KXL would, in the worst case, delay tar sands development until alternative routes to market can be found. In the best case, rejecting KXL would be part of a cascade of events that deal a mortal blow to many tar sands projects. The case for saying that KXL will not increase carbon pollution is very thin, and getting thinner; it requires making a series of unreasonable assumptions that ignore reality.

  10. Mike Roddy says:

    Bill, thanks for your post- thorough and fair, as usual. I don’t think Obama will approve Keystone, or his words in that speech meant nothing.

    It’s a long way from this to taking serious action on global warming, though. As long as we’re still drilling away for all of the oil and gas we can find, and burning it as fast as we can, nothing will change. Obama has shown little inclination to slow down our consumption of fossil fuels, an unwise and very deadly position.

  11. BobbyL says:

    I think regardless of what he decides about Keystone, Obama is serious about climate change (although not to point of trying to stay below 2C which we probably thinks is no longer feasible). I don’t know how else to interpret his recent statements calling for action and calling it a moral issue and the fact that he is going to get the EPA to write regulations for emissions from power plants. His all of the above policy doesn’t mean to use up entirely all the sources of fossil fuels, it means to use all types of fossil fuels as well as nuclear, solar, wind, hydro, etc. The tar sands is just one source of oil. It has to be put in the context of all fossil fuels. It is possible to use them but only on a limited basis or we will wind up at 6C and higher. I think Obama wants to set limits on emissions from fossil fuels as well as other sources of greenhouse gaes by getting an agreement at the upcoming international climate conference in 2015.

  12. Mark E says:

    (1) Team up with professional-looking and professional-sounding business people who are also alarmed about climate;

    (2) As a unit, offer to work and/or donate to democratic candidates in the midterm elections who talk climate as one of their top 3 themes, and urge those people to get Obama to “buck up”.

    (3) Fear not to threaten – and follow through – to instead donate/work for the Greens, even if that means splitting the DEM ticket, because there is not a single plank in the DEM platform that will matter in 50-100 years if we fail to tame climate. A DEM who fails on climate today will be rued tomorrow, even if they are strong on every other DEM issue. Would anyone today care about women sufferage back in the early 1900s, if Hitler had won WWII? Nope!

    Founding Father Patrick Henry to the DEMs:

    “Give me CLIMATE ACTION or give me the GREEN PARTY!”

    Because there is not a single contemporary issue on the DEM agenda my kids will later give a rats behind about if we keep doing little on climate.

    Anticipating backlash about how much worse the GOP would be….. that’s fatal thinking folks. Bold action flows from those who courageously embrace truth and say what needs to be said. Remember what Gandalf said to Erestor at the Council of Elrond?

  13. Mark E says:

    About his speech…. a single uttering of wonderful words is…….

    so quickly forgotten.

    Did he mean it? Well, what’s he said since? Is this really such a stirring moral issue? Then why isn’t he adding a paragraph about it, each time he appears before a camera, instead of making one feelgood speech and then going largely dark (yet again)?

    I only promised to cheer Obama’s speech after he demonstrated continued speaking in the days after.

    And…… still waiting.

  14. Superman1 says:

    “Obama is serious about climate change”. What are your metrics for evaluating his level of seriousness; what are your evaluation criteria? Given the recent Nature paper showing we need twice the CO2 emissions reductions as those based on temperature considerations alone (i.e., we need 20%/annum global emissions reduction instead of 10% to stay within 2 C), what is Obama DOING to try and meet these goals?

  15. Mark E says:

    The promised coal plant regs are a large drop in the bucket. But it’s a really really BIG bucket…. and it’s hard to fill those with promises.

  16. BobbyL says:

    Or, “Give me CLIMATE ACTION or give me the JUSTICE PARTY!”

  17. BobbyL says:

    I said that I didn’t think his goal was to stay below 2C even though that remains the agreed on goal. As former chair of the IPCC Bob Watson said last year, 2C is largely “out the window.” I think the IPCC report next year on mitigation will clarify Obama’s thinking and that of other leaders about a specific goal.

  18. Mark E says:

    “…and also give us Instant Runoff Voting…” (at least in local elections)

  19. BobbyL says:

    Obama has too many other issues to deal with to meet your criteria. Egypt, Syria, a 7.6% unemployment rate, immigration reform, gun control, etc. He set in motion a number of actions to deal with climate change and the US is involved in international negotiations on climate change several times a year. He recently made an agreement with China on limiting HFCs, which are greenhouse gases.

  20. Superman1 says:

    BobbyL, “I didn’t think his goal was to stay below 2C”. How can someone be ‘serious’ about climate change and not have a goal of staying below 2 C? That’s the Extremely Dangerous region; would you enter an Extremely Dangerous building? Maybe you need to define the context of your use of ‘serious’.

  21. Mark E says:

    *NONE* of which will matter in 2060 when harvests in the Nile and Mekong deltas meet only 30% of need due to salt water intrusion, and we have climate refugees right here in our own country.

    If he doesn’t SAY it’s a problem every day, why should the average American, blinkered by their shifting baselines, THINK it’s a problem every day? Does the guy have a bully pulpit or not?

  22. “President Obama will have to figure out what the diminishing carbon budget means for his all-of-the-above energy policy and for the prospect of the United States becoming the world’s leading oil producer in the next few years.”

    Not in the next few years. ‘All of the above’ must end in the next few months, or it will probably be too late, in practical terms.

    2013: The Year of Climate Decision

  23. I’m hoping you’re correct in this analysis, Mr. Becker. State’s first report on the issue of carbon impacts was less than inspiring. However, let’s hope Obama is turning the corner on this most key of issues.

  24. BobbyL says:

    A politician who is serious about climate change might conclude that staying under 2C is very likely no longer possible given the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the rate that it is being emitted globally, and the messy global politics of climate change and therefore choose a goal above 2C knowing that the results might be catastrophic but also knowing that failure to get a global agreement by pressing uncompromisingly for reductions that are unacceptable to most countries could result in consequences that are far more catastrophic. Actually, I would say any goal of staying under 5C should be considered as serious. I believe that many climate scientists think that we must stay under 5C at all costs.

  25. It all hinges on how they do the “netting.” (“The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.”)

    I think the US is likely to cut some deal with Canada that allows KXL if Canada creates some massive offset (like a gigantic boreal reserve) or a collection of activities that can be construed as carbon-reducing.

    Of course, I would prefer Obama do the inverse: cut a deal with the Canadians so that DON’T have to build this thing.

    I would be interested to hear/read more impressions from Canadians. How would you feel if KXL is stopped at the US border?

    I agree with the above comment that the train wreck in Lac-Megantic is going to drive a lot of people to say, “pipelines are safer.” Which is true insofar as you accept that the whole tar sands enterprise should be undertaken at all. But mining and processing the tar is reckless, from a long-term human survival standpoint.

  26. fj says:

    It was a good speech but he has to back it up with immediate action.

    He has to become our true Commander In Chief.

    He has to mobilize the country to stop accelerating climate change at wartime speed.

    We must achieve rapid emissions reductions to near zero as fast as possible without the typical economic and other restraints used as excuses for not doing this since literally everything depends on this.

    Climate change will likely be still accelerating after emissions have been greatly reduced and he must:

    Create a vast array of resources to slow and ultimately stop runaway accelerating climate change.

    Create a vast array of resources addressing all problems caused by climate change.

    Create a vast array of resources to start restoration of our planetary home.

    We are in extreme danger and action on this scale must be done.

    To repeat:

    We are in extreme danger.

  27. Mark E says:

    So far, looks like

    “2013, the year of one climate speech”

  28. Superman1 says:

    BobbyL, “Actually, I would say any goal of staying under 5C should be considered as serious.” We need to have a glossary for this site, where words like ‘serious’, ‘painful’, ‘sacrifice’, et al are defined. We are obviously talking different languages here. 5 C is not only over the cliff, it is at the bottom of the abyss!

  29. Superman1 says:

    “‘All of the above’ must end in the next few months”. What are the odds of that happening?

  30. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Obama’s modus operandi is well-known by now, after five glorious years. Lots of Big Talk, lofty rhetoric, platitudes and truisms, to get the Obamatons’ Hope juices flowing yet again. Then, silence. A few good gestures, little bits of good work, but only if they do not impinge on business interests and prerogatives, like crumbs from the table. Slim pickin’s. But big action, the general assault on human emissions of greenhouse gases that is utterly imperative-not so much. I believe that if this ghastly impasse was really primarily the result of intense opposition by the Reptilicans, and Beelzebub knows, there has been plenty of that, then an Obama who really was determined to succeed in this ‘moral’ cause would use that intransigence to attack the Right head on, particularly as opinion polls say that he has a handy majority who believe in climate destabilisation, ready to be inspired. But he never does that, does he? He is either unbelievably cowardly, afraid of what it is hard to determine, or he is playing a game, acting a role, and he does not want to and has never intended to interfere with the fossil fuel interests, who, after all, are the very centre of the capitalist superstructure that rules the USA, and that appoints all US Presidents (then has their choice rubber-stamped in sham elections).

  31. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Arrange for Obama to have a back-bone implant.

  32. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Exactly! That’s the Obama Method. A grand rhetorical flourish, once a year or so, to get the Hope Dopes believing again, then silence. A really moral position that really is cognisant of the extreme peril into which we are heading would require reiteration of these truths week after week, and determined efforts to rally the populace. To fail in this effort would be tragic, but it would be morally correct, possibly even noble. To not really try is bad enough, but to feign effort, then passively submit to the Forces of Darkness- that is reprehensible.

  33. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Bobby, too enthusiastic shifting of the goalposts becomes simply silly. Talk of staying ‘under 5 degrees Celsius’ is simply rubbish. As Super points out, ‘under 5 degrees’ is equivalent to ‘under six feet’ in common parlance.

  34. Superman1 says:

    MM, “He is either unbelievably cowardly, afraid of what it is hard to determine, or he is playing a game,” There is a third option; his views of those opinion polls you cite so glowingly are congruent with those of Superman1; they will not translate into support at election time, especially if real sacrifice is required.

  35. Superman1 says:

    Bill, while I appreciate your effort and thought in generating this article, you need to go beyond possibilities and optimism to give a sense of realism. What are the odds of these events happenings, and on which would you be willing to bet the mortgage?

  36. BobbyL says:

    He’s not just giving occasional speeches. He’s acting. For example, he is trying to regulate emissions from power plants. I think he would say more if Congress took up the issue but with a flat earth party holding the majority in the House nothing can happen. He did blow it in his first term but I think he deserves a little slack now that he has said that he is focusing on this issue. The Republicans are hoping to make political gains based on what Obama is doing. The invective should be addressed toward them. Obama is on our side.

  37. BobbyL says:

    Scientists aren’t studying what would happen if we reach 4C or above for nothing. The reason they are devoting so many resources to this is that it appears very possible we will reach it. Many scientists feel it will we be a challenge to stay below 5C. When put put everything in a political context it is easy to see why. But activists should stick to the 2C goal (or lower for some) for now even though achieving it is extremely unlikely.

  38. BobbyL says:

    If he talked about climate change every day the media would eventually ignore covering it. They thrive on news, not repetition. In fact if the country heard it everyday most people would simply tune it out. I think the occasional announcement that is newsworthy has more impact.

  39. Mark E says:

    Not if his team reads Joe’s book, and then does intelligent messaging, making effective use of Obama on the scene of climate impacts, and asking members of the National Academy, standing next to him, to tell what’s coming.

    Where’s his flip charts, showing the cost of mitigation today vs the cost tomorrow?

    Where’s his sexy flash video showing the climate impact on rising food costs?

    Where’s his interviews with GOP locals in regions that are going solar for financial reasons?

    …. and where’s your imagination?

  40. Lawrence says:

    … only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.

    I read this as an instruction to the EPA (or whoever) to find that:

    “This project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”

  41. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    No more elections to face (so free to be ‘his own man’-only joking), and a problem, in any case, far, far, more vital than his remaining in office. And, as I said, no real effort to exhort the public to action.

  42. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    There is not enough time for prevarication. If, as I strongly suspect, Obama does nothing meaningful in the rest of his term, and ‘trying’ to do something about coal-fired power while pushing fracking is less than nothing, then eight vital years will be down the sewer. Then there is the prospect of a Reptilican successor, made more likely by the disillusion of Hope Fiends less chronically credulous and ever hopefully expectant than yourself. As this is the most vital problem to ever face humanity, let alone a US President, and as the scientific community is to all intents and purposes unanimous in its gloomy prognostications, this is now a question of near-term extinction for humanity. In that case, and Obama must have been apprised of the increasing possibility of that ultimately horrific outcome, his record has been derisory. Of course, others might have been worse, (we’ll never know)but that is no excuse for his lamentable failure.

  43. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    ‘Promised’ are they? Cross his heart and hope we don’t all die, I suppose.

  44. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Absolutely! The cop-out clause here is so plain, so blatant in fact, that those who still manage to kid themselves that there is any question over how Obama will act (how, indeed, he was always going to act)really do deserve our sympathy.

  45. BobbyL says:

    I think he could do those things if there was serious legislation at stake but there isn’t. It is hard to raise an issue when there is no legislation at stake and you have little power to act without Congress. Keep in mind that the climate change denying Republicans won the House in the last election (the people have spoken) and since Obama didn’t even mention climate change in his campaign last year he has no mandate on this issue from the electorate. That has to limit him politically. I think you are simply engaging in wishful thinking.

  46. BobbyL says:

    Let’s see what happens. I think you will be proven wrong. I believe that after the 2015 international climate meeting we will be able to make a full assessment of his accomplishments and failures. Also we will have the next four IPCC reports by then to better assess the situation, particularly with regard what is needed for mitigation.

  47. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Bobby, it has gone beyond mitigation. We need reversal, of carbon burning and pollution and of ecological destruction. We need the biggest human effort in history, thanks to twenty-five years of denialism and obstruction by the Right. Anything less is pointless.

  48. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    That’s like studying the death of Rasputin. Two degrees is the poisoning, three the shooting, four the strangulation and five the dumping in the icy river. Degrees of being well and truly stuffed. Five degrees means human extinction, the pace determining if it is near term or far. So far it looks pretty proximate.