The networks have called it for President Obama, who now gets a second chance on climate.
Obama’s legacy — and indeed the legacy of all 21st century presidents, starting with George W. Bush — will be determined primarily by whether we avert catastrophic climate change.
If we don’t, then Obama — indeed, all of us — will be seen as failures, and rightfully so. As a new PricewaterhouseCoopers report makes clear, anything other than aggressive efforts to slash carbon pollution starting ASAP likely means 7°F to 11°F warming globally. That would cause substantially higher warming over most of the U.S. and leave much of the “breakbasket of the world” in Dust Bowl conditions much worse than this nation has ever known (see “We’re Already Topping Dust Bowl Temperatures — Imagine What’ll Happen If We Fail To Stop 10°F Warming”).
By the end of the third decade of this century, all of American life — politics, international relations, our homes, our jobs, our industries, the kind of cars we drive, our diet — will be forever transformed by the climate and energy challenge.
Obama is the first president to articulate in stark terms both the why and how of the sustainable clean energy vision. In April 2009, he said, “The choice we face is not between saving our environment and saving our economy. The choice we face is between prosperity and decline.” In October 2009, he said at MIT, “There are those who will suggest that moving toward clean energy will destroy our economy — when it’s the system we currently have that endangers our prosperity and prevents us from creating millions of new jobs.”
Obama has some important clean energy and climate achievements — strong fuel economy standards, doubling renewable electricity, big boost in clean energy investment. But from a historical perspective, he has two fateful failures, the climate bill and his climate silence.
Yes, most of the blame for the failure of the climate bill should go to the anti-science, pro-pollution ideologues (see “Republicans demagogue against market-oriented climate measures they once supported“). They have spread disinformation and poisoned the debate so that is no longer even recognizable. Who could have guessed that the GOP champion of climate action would end up trashing a bill considerably weaker than the one he tried to pass twice?
Nonetheless, Obama let die our best chance to preserve a livable climate and restore US leadership in clean energy — without a serious fight (see “The failed presidency of Barack Obama, Part 2”). Equally tragic, Obama abandoned the modest messaging he did on climate in 2009 — while the disinformers redoubled their pernicious lies. To remind you of how much the President has muzzled himself, recall what he said about the “never seen before” Fargo flooding in March 2009:
“I actually think the science around climate change is real. It is potentially devastating,” Obama told reporters Monday. “If you look at the flooding that’s going on right now in North Dakota and you say to yourself, ‘If you see an increase of two degrees, what does that do, in terms of the situation there?’ That indicates the degree to which we have to take this seriously.“
Precisely. Yet this year we’ve had record heat, record drought, record wildfires — and record-shattering frankenstorms, but Obama has little to offer but climate silence.
From a historical perspective — and, I suspect from the perspective of most progressives — there are two huge differences between Obama and the anti-science crowd. First, Obama is the President of the United States, a person who can single-handedly determine the agenda and the national debate.
Second, most of those other people don’t know any better. But the President has surrounded himself with people like John Holdren and Steven Chu and Jane Lubchenco who know perfectly well that the science is increasingly dire about what happens on the business as usual emissions path (see literature review here). Team Obama would appear to have muzzled them, too, since they also aren’t speaking out as they were in early 2009 (see, for instance, Steven Chu on climate change [2/09]: “Wake up,” America, “we’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California”).
As the PricewaterhouseCoopers report makes clear “Even to have a reasonable prospect of getting to a 4°C [7°F] scenario would imply nearly quadrupling the current rate of decarbonisation.” And 7°F the century (probably much larger post-2100) would be the end of modern civilization as we have come to know it, “incompatible with organized global community” and “likely to be beyond adaptation” as one climate expert has put it.
For Obama to not have a failed presidency, for the nation and the world to have a shot at non-catastrophic warming, he needs to become a climate hawk. He needs to reverse his two biggest blunders. First, and easiest, he must use the bully pulpit to inform the public of how climate change is already impacting us now, of what’s to come if we keep on our current path, and of the myriad cost-effective solutions available today.
Second, Obama has to lead the nation to carbon pollution reductions of at least 17% versus 2005 levels — his Copenhagen commitment — so he can then lead the world toward a global deal. This may not be sufficient to avoid catastrophe, but it is necessary.
Obama has been given the (short-term) gift of abundant, cheap shale gas, which has cut into coal consumption. Combined with his fuel economy standards and the renewable/efficiency push (at the national and state level), that means he needs to insist only on a modest carbon tax in the forthcoming deal on debt and/or tax reform — or modest EPA carbon pollution standards for existing facilities.
In the coming days, Climate Progress will offer more detail on what strategies Obama should pursue nationally and globally. But the key point is that the window for action is closing.
So congratulations to Obama for the historic victory. Now it’s time to save your Presidency from the dust-bin of history and to save America from Dust-Bowlification.