Grading Obama on the Environment: F

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"Grading Obama on the Environment: F"

When Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, environmentalists were optimistic that their issues would finally become a priority at the White House. So how is Obama doing? Yale Environment 360 asked a group of environmentalists and energy experts for their verdicts on the president’s performance.

Yale e360 asked for my verdict.  I always try to take a science-based perspective, one focused on what future generations will say:

Obama’s overall record on energy and the environment deserves an F. Fundamentally he let die our best chance to preserve a livable climate and restore U.S. leadership in clean energy — without a serious fight.

Future generations are thus still headed toward a world of 10 degrees F warming, widespread Dust-Bowl-ification, ever-worsening extreme weather, seas several feet higher and rising several inches a decade, and a hot, acidified ocean filled with ever-worsening dead zones.

It bears repeating that most of the blame for this failure should go to the anti-science, pro-pollution ideologues. They have spread disinformation and poisoned the debate so that is no longer even recognizable. But the growing power of those ideologues is precisely why the country can only contemplate serious environmental or clean energy legislation when we have a Democratic president and large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. Obama not only failed to seize this one brief shining moment, but his own inactions have ensured such a moment won’t return for a generation. In particular, by failing to defend climate science from the disinformation campaign, he has made it that much harder to develop the political consensus for action.

Obama’s great accomplishments are the big boost to the clean energy economy in the stimulus, the boost to fuel economy standards, and the EPA’s endangerment finding — although the jury is out on whether that finding will actually lead to any significant change in our emissions trajectory. But these all pale in comparison to the failure to get a climate and clean energy bill and his silence on climate science.

This should come as no surprise to regular readers (see “The failed presidency of Barack Obama, Part 2“).  Or to climate hawks.

Assuming we fail to act to quickly cut emissions –  a tragic outcome that is increasingly likely — future generations will not care in the least about all of his other great “accomplishments.”  Quite the reverse — the fact that he did so much,  such as health care reform, will merely confirm to them that  he could have had a serious climate and clean energy bill, but he simply had other priorities.

I do think Obama may get one other shot at redemption on climate if he is reelected — through a grand budget deal that includes a high and rising carbon price.  But I see no evidence right now that he is interested in another shot.  He certainly is not laying the groundwork for any serious post-election climate action what with his misguided all-in focus on deficit reduction.

But his first-term grade is certainly an F.  I don’t share the perspective of most of the other people that Yale e360 asked, but here is the redoubtable Bill McKibben, author, scholar in residence at Middlebury College, and founder of 350.org“:

President Obama hasn’t yet caused “the rise of the oceans to begin to slow” or “the planet begin to heal,” and since that was his promise, I guess it’s been a less-than-stellar record. But of course everything is complicated in Washington by the existence of a know-nothing Congress. He put some decent money into the stimulus plan for green energy, and then he largely seemed to lose interest, punting on the climate legislation before the Senate. I might lose interest too if I knew I’d have to muster 60 votes to overcome Jim Inhofe, or if I faced the prospect of dealing with the silly men and women currently dominating the House of Representatives.

But that’s what makes it so sad that he’s failed in the places where he had complete control — most notably, he opened a huge chunk of Wyoming to coal mining earlier this year. The decision was the carbon equivalent of opening 300 coal-fired power plants. Why, if we expect Brazil or Indonesia to guard their rainforests, do we get to do this kind of thing?

So we’ll get what may be our final first-term read on his thinking this fall, when he decides (all by himself, with no Congressional involvement) whether or not to sign the permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline from Alberta’s tar sands. Since his most prominent federal climate scientist, James Hansen, has stated loudly that further tar sands development will mean it’s “essentially game over” for the climate, the stakes couldn’t be much clearer. We’ll be doing our best to remind him with large-scale civil disobedience in August.

C’mon Bill, you are being too generous.  You founded 350.org.  We  are at 390 (parts per million of CO2  in the atmosphere) and rising 2 ppm a year with no end in sight.

Now I recognize that by the 350 standard, we all pretty much deserve an F.  But there is only one president.  You can do better than “less-than-stellar.”  Heck, George W. Bush’s record was less than stellar.

Wait a minute.  Now that I think of it, Obama’s record has been stellar, in the way that a big star, after it goes supernova, turns  into a black hole….

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