The Burning Question: Can Obama deliver on climate change?

Where were you when Obama finally announced ambitious plans to tackle climate change yesterday, some five years after promising to do so as a presidential candidate? I found myself sitting in the offices of the Hub; a pioneering shared work and event space in Islington, North London, listening to Duncan Clark co-author of “The Burning Question”. Clarke eloquently argued, with the support of copious graphs, that “energy begets energy” and that it is only by addressing the fundamental issue of how do we leave carbon locked in the ground that we can succeed in addressing climate change. “We need to take on fossil fuels directly”, he says. Meanwhile in Georgetown University, President Obama is making a speech that many Republicans interpreted as a “war on coal”.

Perhaps the headline policy announced by the US President was the intention to empower the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to control carbon emissions from existing coal and gas power plants. These generating stations account for a third of all US greenhouse gas emissions. “Power plants can still dump limitless carbon pollution into the air for free,” he said. “That’s not right, that’s not safe and it needs to stop.” But it will be 2015 before these targets are even set and by that time the Republicans could be back in power leaving the policy to go up in smoke. No doubt that legal challenges will follow and as the clock ticks, Obama’s exhortation that “we don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society”, will become a time bomb with a rather short fuse. Any progress that Obama might make in office has already been undermined by a Republican vow to unwind any policies waged in the “war on coal”. A flawed political, electoral and judiciary system that expends vast amounts of energy pushing the machinery of progress in one direction and then the other, reflects the state of the global energy market and broader world economy all too well.

Con Ed power plant in Queens, New York City © 2012 Colin Cafferty

Power plant on the East River in New York City

The other big story was Obama’s announcement that he would approve the controversial Keystone XL pipeline (from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada to the refineries on the Gulf of Mexico) only if it “does not significantly exacerbate the climate problem.” But who’s definition of harm are we going by? The State Department has indicated that a pipeline is more environmentally friendly than transporting the crude oil by rail. And so the debate appears to be glossing over the fundamental question that is glaring us all (rather too warmly) in the face. Should the US facilitate the development of an energy source that unquestionably carries a higher carbon footprint than even conventional fossil fuels? This reframing of the debate on Keystone is an affront to our collective intelligence and must surely infuriate large swathes of American and Canadian folk alike.

Back in North London, Clark is talking about the pressing need to take on the fossil fuel industry. “The Burning Question” author sensibly advocates engaging the industry in the quest to address climate change. “What will it take to leave billions of dollars of fossil fuels in the ground?” he challenges. Do we realistically think we can persuade mining and energy companies to write off their fossil fuel reserves or for investors in the global markets to write down the value of their assets? One approach he advocates would be the development of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), a hitherto underfunded technology that would allow us to pump the CO2 from power plants into underground reservoirs where it can no longer warm the atmosphere. “Without CCS, the political will to leave fossil fuels in the ground will be that much harder” he points out soberly. Using all the tools at our disposal and converting the naysayers into “aye-sayers” are all sensible approaches but take a look at the position Obama now finds himself in. There is no stick long enough, no carrot sweet enough for a thick-skinned elephant and a stubborn donkey. He may be bypassing Congress now but just how far can he go with this approach?

So much of the wider political debate in the US is fuelled by fear – terrorism, gun control, loss of freedom and privacy. The US President’s proposals to build resilience towards climate change through strengthening of flood defences and soft infrastructure is the one policy announced yesterday that is most likely to succeed. And it is driven by fear. But most other proposed actions on climate change fuel fear in exactly the opposite way. The perceived attack on the fossil fuel industry and the angst over loss of jobs and quality of life in the US (even if unsubstantiated) needs greater reassurance from the left. A stronger business case needs to be made that can appease the concerns of those who stand to lose most from climate change legislation. Let’s hope that action on climate change will succeed because people believe it is the right thing to do rather than out of fear of averting another natural disaster such as the droughts in the American Midwest or hurricanes along the East coast.

Obama’s speech demonstrated that he definitely ‘gets’ climate change. He understands the moral obligation and he recognizes the sense of urgency. “I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing,” he told the audience at Georgetown University. Actions and not words are what we need and it’s a telling sign when a person of such influence on the world stage cannot make a significant dint on an issue that he directly connects with the very future of his own children. But for now, there is still hope; as long as the debate is kept alive and the belief that the next generation deserves better than what we are currently prepared to offer them.

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