President Obama made some candid remarks on climate change in a new interview with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. The interview airs Monday in the final episode of Showtime’s acclaimed climate series, “Years of Living Dangerously” and is excerpted in Friedman’s latest column.
Friedman began by asking if the president accepts the latest findings of scientists and governments regarding climate change and the globe’s consumption of fossil fuels.
If you take the UN’s climate study it basically says that if we go beyond 2 degree centigrade in global average temperatures since the Industrial Revolution, we’re going to cross into some really dangerous, unstable territory; Arctic melting, massive sea level rise, disruptive storms. The International Energy Agency says in order to stay under that two degree rise we’re really going to have to keep most of the oil and gas and coal — 70 percent is a rough number they use — in the ground. Do you agree with that?
Given that the United States was one of the countless countries that signed off on the UN Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment report, Obama’s answer should not be a total surprise. “Science is science,” he said. “And there is no doubt that if we burned all the fossil fuel that’s in the ground right now that the planet’s going to get too hot and the consequences could be dire.”
I can’t recall Obama being as candid about the realities of climate change and what must be done to address it as he is in this interview. He goes on to say:
We’re not going to be able to burn it all. Over the course of the next several decades, we’re going to have to build a ramp from how we currently use energy to where we need to use energy. And we’re not going to suddenly turn off a switch and suddenly we’re no longer using fossil fuels, but we have to use this time wisely, so that you have a tapering off of fossil fuels replaced by clean energy sources that are not releasing carbon … But I very much believe in keeping that 2 [degree] Celsius target as a goal.
When Friedman asked the president to name one thing he would like to get done to advance the issue of climate action, he was clear about what that one move would be.
The way we’ve solved previous pollution problems like acid rain was we said, “we’re gonna charge you if you’re releasing this stuff into the atmosphere. We’re gonna let you figure it out, but we’re gonna to tell you that you can’t keep dumping it out in the atmosphere and making everybody else pay for it.” So if there is one thing I would like to see, it’d be for us to be able to price the cost of carbon emissions.
The president’s embrace of a price on carbon is particularly surprising considering the administration’s public statements on the issue in the past. In 2012, for example, when Press Secretary Jay Carney was asked why Obama “seemed to almost go out of his way to dismiss the idea of a carbon tax,” Carney answered, “We would never propose a carbon tax, and have no intention of proposing one.”
Friedman also asked the president how he squares his strong commitment on climate action with the fact that in the State of the Union and other speeches he has repeatedly touted “how much we’re exploring in terms of off-shore oil on natural gas, coal.” This is a point we’ve made many times at Climate Progress.
Well, here’s how I think about it. We gotta meet folks where they are. I don’t always lead with the climate change issue because if you right now are worried about whether you got a job or if you can pay the bills, the first thing you want to hear is how do I meet the immediate problem? One of the hardest things in politics is getting a democracy to deal with something now where the payoff is long-term or the price of inaction is decades away.
Obama goes on to say that on fracking, environmentalists “are right, though, to be concerned if it’s done badly, then you end up having methane gas emitted. And we know how to do it properly. But right now what we’ve got to do is make sure that there are industry standards that everybody is observing.” But he immediately adds that this concern doesn’t “necessarily mean that it has to be a national law. You could have a series of states working together — and, hopefully, industry working together — to make sure that the extraction of natural gas is done safely.”
I and many others remain very skeptical a voluntary industry standard on fracking could work any better than voluntary standards have worked elsewhere in the energy industry.
Finally, Friedman discussed conservative climate denial with the President in this clip:
Friedman’s full interview with President Obama airs Monday night on Showtime.