Cass Sunstein is one of the smartest guys around and he played a big role in the Obama Administration. In a draft of a forthcoming article in the Harvard Environmental Law Review, Sunstein argues that “one of [the Obama Administration’s] priorities was to address the problem of climate change,” and he concludes: “With a paralyzed Congress, the executive branch proved able, between 2009 and 2016, to use regulatory authorities to take a remarkable variety of steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
I’m skeptical. The first Obama Administration’s climate policy was largely indistinguishable from George W. Bush’s and it fought having to regulate greenhouse gases almost as hard as its predecessor. Only after the 2012 election did it show any appetite for actual emissions regulation, and by then it was mostly too little, too late. As I’ve previously noted, the low priority Obama gave to climate issues makes his policy legacy fragile. While his second administration took some steps to reduce emissions, only about half of them will matter – and, as discussed below, even that may be outweighed by the administration’s mistakes.
Sunstein highlights four sets of regulatory measures and one policy achievement as remarkable steps. Let’s see whether these measures did any good, with one point awarded for each of the five:
Social Cost of Carbon (SCC) The idea of calculating the future economic impact of current CO2 emissions – as difficult and as flawed as it is – is an important regulatory concept. Sunstein is justifiably proud of the SCC, and of his role in producing it a little over a year after Obama’s inauguration. It has withstood review from a federal court, the Government Accountability Office, and the National Academies.
However, in only a single Obama-era regulation did the SCC provide the necessary justification in the regulatory cost-benefit analysis. That regulation – methane emission standards for oil and gas pipelines – is squarely in Scott Pruitt’s cross-hairs. Even the showpiece Obama effort to reduce CO2 emissions (the Clean Power Plan), EPA’s Regulatory Impact Analysis, calculated that the benefits of conventional pollutant reductions far outweighed the Plan’s compliance costs. Still, a full point to the Obama administration.
Light-duty vehicle standards Sunstein is effusive about the benefits of this 2010 rule:
“The EPA and DOT [Department of Transportation] estimated that their 2012–2016 standards would reduce total CO2 emissions by 960 million metric tons over the lifetimes of covered cars and trucks, and at the same time produce 1.8 billion barrels of oil savings. In total, the agencies projected that their standards would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from U.S. cars and trucks by about 21 percent by 2030.”
Remarkably, Sunstein omits any discussion of the role of California’s vehicle greenhouse gas emission standards, which are responsible for 100% of those benefits, beyond an aside noting that “In addition, the United States had to work closely with state governments, above all California, which was planning to impose greenhouse gas standards of its own that could end up driving the national market.”
The only thing EPA gets credit for is granting the required Clean Air Act waiver for California’s standards, a campaign promise that the President ordered EPA to make good on in his first week in office. Once the waiver was granted, California’s standards went into effect in California and more than a dozen other states, comprising about 40% of the U.S. car market. It was the California standards that produced the emissions reductions Sunstein attributes to the subsequent federal rule, because the auto industry had already announced that it would build a “California compliant” instead of one set of cars for states with the California standards and another for states that defaulted to the federal ones. The California standards were the de facto national ones, and the federal standards that followed a year later merely made the California standards the de jure ones as well.
Sunstein then doubles down on the second round of these standards, for model years 2017-2025, which “are expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 2 billion metric tons, reducing oil consumption by about 4 billion barrels in the process. According to the agencies, fuel savings and other benefits from the standards will far outweigh higher vehicle costs, with annualized net benefits ranging between $19.5 billion and $24.4 billion, and net benefits totaling between $326 billion and $451 billion over the covered vehicles’ lifetimes.”
This time not a word about California’s 2017-2025 standards, which are – again – the de facto national ones. Donald Trump almost certainly will axe the complementary federal standards, but unless he also succeeds in revoking the California waiver, doing so will not add a single ton to U.S. vehicle emissions. No credit to the Obama folks.
Heavy-duty vehicle standards EPA and DOT published the first-ever heavy-duty vehicle emission standards in 2011. According to Sunstein, these regulations were “legally optional,” giving the impression that this was pure climate altruism from the Obama Administration.
Not true. In 2007, Congress passed (and George W. Bush signed) the Energy Independence and Security Act, which mandated that DOT (in consultation with EPA and DOE) publish regulations creating a “fuel efficiency improvement program designed to achieve the maximum feasible improvement.” (For purposes of tailpipe standards, fuel efficiency and CO2 emission standards are the same thing.)
Maybe Sunstein’s “legally optional” language refers to the stringency of the standards. After all, the Administration has plenty of leeway to determine what is the “maximum feasible improvement.” But, given that not a single manufacturer sued over the standards, that doesn’t seem to fit either. However, EPA subsequently promulgated a second round of heavy-duty emissions standards, which Sunstein boasts (correctly) “does not appear to be compelled by the CAA.” Half credit on that basis.
Stationary Sources Sunstein begins his discussion of stationary sources with this:
“After the endangerment finding and associated developments, it seemed fairly clear that the EPA was under a legal obligation to regulate new sources, though the timing was not specified, and a lengthy delay would probably have been possible. With a proposed rule in 2014 and a final rule in 2015, the EPA imposed strict requirements for greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants.” (Emphasis in original)
Each Clean Air Act source category (power plants, refineries, steel mills, pipelines, etc.) has its own set of emission standards, and CAA section 111 says that every eight years EPA must review and, if appropriate, revise them. After the Supreme Court held in Massachusetts v. EPA that CO2 was a “pollutant” under the Act, you might think that EPA would have to add a new standard for CO2 when it reviews each category’s standards. However, in a 2008 decision refusing to regulate refinery CO2 emissions, the Bush EPA took the position that section 111 does not require EPA to now include CO2 emission standards. Instead, the only way to create CO2 standards for each of those sources is if EPA voluntarily imposes one. Thus, there is now no way to compel EPA to add a CO2 standard short of petitioning the agency to do so and, if the agency refuses, going to court in the hope that the D.C. Circuit finds that EPA’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious.” Anyone who has ever litigated against EPA knows how mind-bogglingly difficult it is to overcome the great deference courts give to this kind of EPA decision.
A year into the Obama Administration, EPA agreed to reconsider the Bush EPA’s refinery decision. After another year of inaction, EPA signed a settlement agreement promising that it would propose emission standards for both new and existing refineries by December, 2011, and that it would issue a final rule - with appropriate CO2 emissions standards - by November 12, 2012.
No such standards were ever proposed or finalized. More critically, in its eight years, the Obama EPA never reversed the Bush EPA interpretation that the Clean Air Act does not require that CO2 emissions must be included in the periodic section 111 review. The critical opportunity to reinterpret section 111 has, alas, been completely lost. Unless the D.C. Circuit can be convinced that the Bush/Trump interpretation is wrong (and EPA will get deference in its reading of the law), any regulation of CO2 from stationary sources now faces a multi-year, steeply uphill slog through the agency and the D.C. Circuit.
Sunstein does not discuss this, but proceeds to discuss the Obama Administration’s 2015 section 111 power plant standards (the Clean Power Plan). Again, however, he does not say what led up to that rulemaking. As with the refinery rule, a Bush EPA decision refusing to impose CO2 emission standards on power plants had been remanded by the D.C. Circuit and was sitting around at EPA when the Obama Administration arrived. And that remanded decision continued to sit, and sit, and sit, while the Obama EPA ignored repeated pleas from environmental NGOs and concerned states that it do something. After more than a year of this, the states and environmental groups threatened to sue to force EPA to comply with the remand order (friendly sue-and-settle this was not). EPA finally signed a settlement agreement in December, 2010, agreeing to issue proposed rules for both new and existing power plants by July, 2011, and final rules for both by May, 2012.
EPA then proceeded to ignore the Settlement Agreement (a habit with the Obama EPA). It did not propose new plant standards until March 2012, and did not propose any standards for existing ones. But then, in response to coal industry objections (during an election year), EPA withdrew the proposed standards and did not come up with a replacement until 18 months later. EPA finally proposed existing plant standards—the Clean Power Plan—in June, 2014, three years after it had promised to do so.
Because the new and existing plant standards were not finalized until 2015, they were still in court when Donald Trump took office. As a result, the Trump EPA will make sure that they are never implemented. Using the same three-year process to get to a final rule, if the Obama Administration had started work on these in 2009, they would have been done by 2012, and the legal challenges over and done with years ago. I’d assign negative credit but I’ll stick with just a zero.
Appliance standards I have no issue with anything Sunstein says about the fourth regulatory program he discusses, the Appliance and Equipment Standards Program, except for his boast that, “According to one estimate, these and other energy efficiency standards are expected to produce annual CO2 savings of 345 million tons by 2020.” He cites a DOE fact sheet, but agency estimates of their own achievements are notoriously inflated, and this estimate is 60% higher than the 216 million ton official estimate the U.S. submitted to the UNFCCC. But give them full credit anyway.
Conclusion My assessment: 2.5 points out of a possible 5. The Obama Administration simply did not make climate a priority, wasted enormous amounts of resources in its doomed power plant regulations by ignoring pleas (and violating agreements) to get these done sooner rather than later, and handed the Trump EPA an excellent excuse for doing nothing about any other sources by letting the refinery rule stand. History will judge.
By David Bookbinder, first published in the Niskanen Centre for Climate & Energy Policy, April 11, 2017
Obama's Climate Legacy: 8 years of troubles and triumphs
written by Evan Lehmann and Jean Chemnick...
When an environmentalist asked a recent adviser to President Obama what the future holds for confronting climate change, the answer cast a shadow on today's inauguration.
That was before almost anyone gave Donald Trump a shot at winning the presidential election. No one would match Obama's zeal on climate, the adviser said. At the time, it was widely thought that Hillary Clinton would succeed him.
"I have certainly heard a few people who know him fairly well say, 'We're not likely to get another president who is more personally committed to climate change action at any time in the foreseeable future,'" recalled George Frampton, who led the White House Council on Environmental Quality under President Bill Clinton.
That view is woven into the fabric of Obama's presidency. Many consider him the first U.S. leader to elevate climate change to the upper ranks of national policy. Over the last eight years, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have dropped 9 percent, according to the White House, and policies are in place to make deeper cuts in the power and transportation sectors.
But for all the credit that Obama gets, he has critics, too. There are holes in his eight-year record that could help Trump unwind some of Obama's accomplishments, like the Clean Power Plan and the Paris Agreement, they say. He prioritized health care reform over climate legislation early in his first term and then, after being stung by an abandoned cap-and-trade bill, he went almost silent on the issue for two years.
"One's tempted to look back at the Obama years with a rosier glow of nostalgia than they probably deserve," said Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org. "In energy terms, basically what the U.S. did was stop burning coal and start burning gas in large quantities. That was with the enthusiastic help and cheerleading of the Obama administration. The result has been a huge increase in the amount of methane flowing into the atmosphere. In total terms, greenhouse gases may not have decreased at all in the Obama years."
But is that a fair assessment? Not to Adam Rome, an environmental historian at the University at Buffalo. He said he believes Obama will be the high standard on climate for years to come. Future presidents will be measured against his actions, and most will fall short, he predicts.
"He's by far and away been the greatest president in addressing climate change," he said. "Even if some of what he's done gets undone, he's still going to be the measuring standard."
Facing a hostile Congress, Obama raised the profile of climate change globally, introduced numerous executive actions on everything from reducing emissions to minimizing flooding, and signed an international agreement that commits 195 nations to climate action. Overall, Obama made it clear that "this is a really, really important issue" in ways that no one else has, Rome said.
The 'climate president' The cadre of environmentalists who attend the United Nations' annual climate summits also complain about the administration's slow start. Many say it contributed to the collapse of the talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009, which failed to produce a global climate agreement. But while Obama's domestic climate strategy shifted course between the legislative defeats of the first term and the regulatory endeavors of the second, the administration maintained a laserlike focus throughout its eight years on forging an agreement that it could join without Senate approval.
"I think that they got what they wanted," said Karen Orenstein of Friends of the Earth, defining that as "an unregulated regime where each country does what it wants. And if a country is more likely to do good, it will do good. If a country doesn't want to do good, it won't do good."
While the progressive environmental movement and those countries that are acutely vulnerable to rising temperatures continue to doubt the bottom-up approach of the Paris Agreement, and whether it can deliver what science indicates is necessary to avert the worst impacts of climate change, it is clear that the Obama administration relentlessly pursued that architecture from the very beginning. And it defended it in November's U.N. meeting in Marrakech, Morocco.
But critics are skeptical about its lack of enforcement. The landmark deal of 2015 is mostly self-policing. Countries don't have to meet their emissions commitments under its language. The only things that are legally binding are requirements for nations to report their progress, and do it in a way that's transparent.
It's a model borne out of the United States' failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. That treaty took effect in 2006 without U.S. participation, after the Senate refused to ratify it and the George W. Bush administration abandoned it. And the Paris architecture is the opposite of what most countries expected. After the collapse of Copenhagen, the world was still invested in the idea that the biggest polluters should lead, by dividing up emissions-reduction and finance responsibilities among developed countries on a top-down basis.
But the Obama administration balked. It insisted that a nationally determined approach would be required. Instead of the world pointing fingers at big polluters, like the United States, each nation promised to do what it could to lower emissions. That benefited the United States. And it would help bring other countries like China and India to the table as equal participants.
To some, that's one of Obama's greatest achievements. When the United States announced that it had struck a deal with China to peak its rapid outpour of carbon dioxide by 2030, one of the deepest pitfalls to reaching a global pact had been safely bridged, said Frampton, the former chairman of CEQ.
"The reason he's going to be remembered as the climate president is because of the agreement with the Chinese," Frampton said, adding that it "reoriented the world community."
Did Obama waste time? Others see it much differently. The Paris deal essentially let the biggest polluters off the hook while transferring responsibility to smaller nations that disproportionately feel the impacts, but not the benefits, of the world's growing wealth, they argue. To Orenstein, the United States is responsible for undermining the environmental integrity of the process. Obama "was able to get the U.S. in, but what that also did was lower the bar for all developed countries, so now all of them have commitments that are not determined by science, they're determined by their own politics," she said.
But other analysts say the collapse of Copenhagen showed the world that climate diplomacy was undergoing a dramatic shift. It was on a parallel path to the world's reordering, going from a few superpowers to a growing egalitarianism. Obama personified that cultural transformation.
"In some ways getting to Paris was really a matter of getting beyond World War II and the Cold War, and the once-bipolar nature of global power to the importance of sovereignty for so many of the nations involved in the climate discussion," said Kevin Book, managing director for research at ClearView Energy Partners.
The bifurcated character of past environmental agreements was breaking down. Top-down pacts like the Montreal Protocol, established 30 years ago, assigned uniform obligations to nations based on their level of development. Copenhagen did too. But it would be the last gasp of "global federalism," as Book describes it. The community organizer in Obama was helping the world push against climate change with one shoulder. But some observers said the United States could have moved the process along earlier if Obama had prioritized climate change right out of the gate in 2009.
"Of course times were different, but the biggest difference was a U.S. [president] engaged in his second term and not engaged in his first term," said Saleemul Huq, director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development in Bangladesh.
While Obama "pulled out all the stops" in 2013, such as engaging with China on a series of bilateral agreements and weaving them into other multilateral forums, "it's also true that President Obama could have done everything he started and delivered in his second term in his first term and hence the Paris Agreement could have been achieved four years before it was," he said. Huq also criticized Hillary Clinton, Obama's first secretary of State, for being less active on climate than her successor, John Kerry. "Kerry [was] very knowledgeable and personally committed to the topic, while Hillary Clinton was not," he added.
Climate the 'greatest' threat The theme runs strong among Obama's critics that he was personally distant in the big legislative fight over cap and trade in 2009 and 2010, choosing instead to prioritize health care reform. A source in the power sector told E&E News in 2015 that Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, called him and other supporters of the legislation to say, sometimes "screaming," that the president was shifting his focus to the Affordable Care Act.
"We're moving to health care; we're not doing climate," Emanuel said, according to the source.
The climate bill whimpered into defeat in spring 2010. The Senate never voted on it, a stinging rebuke for a measure that narrowly passed through the House in June 2009.
Then things changed. Obama barely mentioned climate change for two years. Book said Obama could not have done a full-court press on climate during his first term. The political cost of the failed cap-and-trade bill, which helped fuel Democratic losses in the 2010 midterm, steered Obama into a defensive position in 2011 and 2012.
"The backlash against one-party rule, such as it was, in the first years of the Obama administration defined Obama's caution on climate and everything else," Book said. Obama could not have offered a Climate Action Plan in 2013 if he didn't retain the White House in 2012, the thinking goes.
Even as Obama was sinking into silence, his administration was busy behind the scenes on key climate actions, like establishing greenhouse gas standards for cars, said Bob Perciasepe, a deputy administrator at U.S. EPA at the time.
"A lot of people think that the administration only focused on climate change in the second term. That's not really the case," said Perciasepe, who's now president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.
Even as senators struggled to push cap and trade forward, EPA was proposing its endangerment finding. It was released in December 2009, establishing the agency's authority to begin restricting greenhouse gases on cars. That would grow to include power plants in 2015.
Pete Ogden, who was chief of staff to Todd Stern, the former U.S. special envoy for climate change, also rejects the idea that the United States did little on climate in Obama's first term: "I think that there may be a perception issue," he acknowledged when asked about some countries' expressions of frustration. "But if you look back to what was put on the table by the administration in 2009, it was actually quite aggressive, and going all the way forward to Paris ultimately totally consistent with where the administration ended up."
Inside the United States, Obama was overcoming his public paralysis on climate change. It was almost as if he was waiting to be re-elected. During his inaugural address in January 2013, Obama catapulted the issue to the top of his to-do list:
"We will respond to the threat of climate change," Obama said then. "Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms."
Going forward, Obama seemingly used every chance he could to speak about the risks of climate change. The executive orders came just as quickly.
In 2015, he issued an order to slash the federal government's emissions 40 percent by 2025, largely from the huge inventory of government buildings. Most recently, Obama ordered the national security apparatus to ensure that warming is "fully considered" in its "doctrine, policies and plans."
It's also clear that Obama diligently tailors his legacy. The [Obama] White House had a webpage listing 105 actions taken by Obama on climate change. It's called "The Record." [since removed by 45] And in case anyone might wonder whether Obama, indeed, is the strongest president on climate, it aims to put those questions to rest. For Obama, it says, "no challenge poses a greater threat."
By Evan Lehmann and Jean Chemnick, first published by E&E News, January 20, 2017
Obama and Climate Change: The Real Story
The president has said the right things about climate change – and has taken some positive steps. But we're drilling for more oil and digging up more carbon than ever.
written by Bill McKibben...
Two years ago, on a gorgeous November day, 12,000 activists surrounded the White House to protest the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Signs we carried featured quotes from Barack Obama in 2008: "Time to end the tyranny of oil"; "In my administration, the rise of the oceans will begin to slow."
Learn more: Global Warming's Terrifying New Math Our hope was that we could inspire him to keep those promises. Even then, there were plenty of cynics who said Obama and his insiders were too closely tied to the fossil-fuel industry to take climate change seriously. But in the two years since, it's looked more and more like they were right – that in our hope for action we were willing ourselves to overlook the black-and-white proof of how he really feels.
If you want to understand how people will remember the Obama climate legacy, a few facts tell the tale: By the time Obama leaves office, the U.S. will pass Saudi Arabia as the planet's biggest oil producer and Russia as the world's biggest producer of oil and gas combined. In the same years, even as we've begun to burn less coal at home, our coal exports have climbed to record highs. We are, despite slight declines in our domestic emissions, a global-warming machine: At the moment when physics tell us we should be jamming on the carbon brakes, America is revving the engine.
You could argue that private industry, not the White House, has driven that boom, and in part you'd be right. But that's not what Obama himself would say. Here's Obama speaking in Cushing, Oklahoma, last year, in a speech that historians will quote many generations hence. It is to energy what Mitt Romney's secretly taped talk about the 47 percent was to inequality. Except that Obama was out in public, boasting for all the world to hear:
"Over the last three years, I've directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We're opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We've quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We've added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth, and then some. . . . In fact, the problem . . . is that we're actually producing so much oil and gas . . . that we don't have enough pipeline capacity to transport all of it where it needs to go."
Actually, of course, "the problem" is that climate change is spiraling out of control. Under Obama we've had the warmest year in American history – 2012 – featuring a summer so hot that corn couldn't grow across much of the richest farmland on the planet. We've seen the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded north of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and the largest wind field ever measured, both from Hurricane Sandy. We've watched the Arctic melt, losing three quarters of its summer sea ice. We've seen some of the largest fires ever recorded in the mountains of California, Colorado and New Mexico. And not just here, of course – his term has seen unprecedented drought and flood around the world. The typhoon that just hit the Philippines, according to some meteorologists, had higher wind speeds at landfall than any we've ever seen. When the world looks back at the Obama years half a century from now, one doubts they'll remember the health care website; one imagines they'll study how the most powerful government on Earth reacted to the sudden, clear onset of climate change.
And what they'll see is a president who got some stuff done, emphasis on "some." In his first term, Obama used the stimulus money to promote green technology, and he won agreement from Detroit for higher automobile mileage standards; in his second term, he's fighting for EPA regulations on new coal-fired power plants. These steps are important – and they also illustrate the kind of fights the Obama administration has been willing to take on: ones where the other side is weak. The increased mileage standards came at a moment when D.C. owned Detroit – they were essentially a condition of the auto bailouts. And the battle against new coal-fired power plants was really fought and won by environmentalists. Over the past few years, the Sierra Club and a passel of local groups managed to beat back plans for more than 100 new power plants. The new EPA rules – an architecture designed in part by the Natural Resources Defense Council – will ratify the rout and drive a stake through the heart of new coal. But it's also a mopping-up action.
Obama loyalists argue that these are as much as you could expect from a president saddled with the worst Congress in living memory. But that didn't mean that the president had to make the problem worse, which he's done with stunning regularity. Consider:
Just days before the BP explosion, the White House opened much of the offshore U.S. to new oil drilling. ("Oil rigs today generally don't cause spills," he said by way of explanation. "They are technologically very advanced.")
In 2012, with the greatest Arctic melt on record under way, his administration gave Shell Oil the green light to drill in Alaska's Beaufort Sea. ("Our pioneering spirit is naturally drawn to this region, for the economic opportunities it presents," the president said.)
This past August, as the largest forest fire in the history of the Sierra Nevadas was burning in Yosemite National Park, where John Muir invented modern environmentalism, the Bureau of Land Management decided to auction 316 million tons of taxpayer-owned coal in Wyoming's Powder River basin. According to the Center for American Progress, the emissions from that sale will equal the carbon produced from 109 million cars.
Even on questions you'd think would be open-and-shut, the administration has waffled. In November, for instance, the EPA allowed Kentucky to weaken a crucial regulation, making it easier for mountaintop-removal coal mining to continue. As the Sierra Club's Bruce Nilles said, "It's dismaying that the Obama administration approved something even worse than what the Bush administration proposed."
All these steps are particularly toxic because we've learned something else about global warming during the Obama years: Most of the coal and gas and oil that's underground has to stay there if we're going to slow climate change.
Though the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009 was unquestionably the great foreign-policy failure of Obama's first term, producing no targets or timetables or deals, the world's leaders all signed a letter pledging that they would keep the earth's temperature from rising more than two degrees Celsius. This is not an ambitious goal (the one degree we've raised the temperature already has melted the Arctic, so we're fools to find out what two will do), but at least it is something solid to which Obama and others are committed. To reach that two-degree goal, say organizations such as the Carbon Tracker Initiative, the World Bank, the International Energy Agency, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, HSBC and just about everyone else who's looked at the question, we'd need to leave undisturbed between two-thirds and four-fifths of the planet's reserves of coal, gas and oil.
The Powder River Basin would have been a great place to start, especially since activists, long before the administration did anything, have driven down domestic demand for coal by preventing new power plants. But as the "Truth Team" on barack obama.com puts it, "building a clean future for coal is an integral part of President Obama's plan to develop every available source of American energy."
And where will the coal we don't need ourselves end up? Overseas, at record levels: the Netherlands, the U.K., China, South Korea. And when it gets there, it slows the move to cleaner forms of energy. All told, in 2012, U.S. coal exports were the equivalent of putting 55 million new cars on the road. If we don't burn our coal and instead sell it to someone else, the planet doesn't care; the atmosphere has no borders.
As the administration's backers consistently point out, America has cut its own carbon emissions by 12 percent in the past five years, and we may meet our announced national goal of a 17 percent reduction by decade's end. We've built lots of new solar panels and wind towers in the past five years (though way below the pace set by nations like Germany). In any event, building more renewable energy is not a useful task if you're also digging more carbon energy – it's like eating a pan of Weight Watchers brownies after you've already gobbled a quart of Ben and Jerry's.
Let's lay aside the fact that climate scientists have long since decided these targets are too timid and that we'd have to cut much more deeply to get ahead of global warming. All this new carbon drilling, digging and burning the White House has approved will add up to enough to negate the administration's actual achievements: The coal from the Powder River Basin alone, as the commentator Dave Roberts pointed out in Grist, would "undo all of Obama's other climate work."
The perfect example of this folly is the Keystone XL pipeline stretching south from the tar sands of Canada – the one we were protesting that November day. The tar sands are absurdly dirty: To even get oil to flow out of the muck you need to heat it up with huge quantities of natural gas, making it a double-dip climate disaster. More important, these millions of untouched acres just beneath the Arctic Circle make up one of the biggest pools of carbon on Earth. If those fields get fully developed, as NASA's recently retired senior climate scientist James Hansen pointed out, it will be "game over" for the climate.
Obama has all the authority he needs to block any pipelines that cross the border to the U.S. And were he to shut down Keystone XL, say analysts, it would dramatically slow tar-sands expansion plans in the region. But soon after taking office, he approved the first, small Keystone pipeline, apparently without any qualms. And no one doubts that if a major campaign hadn't appeared, he would have approved the much larger Keystone XL without a peep – even though the oil that will flow through that one pipe will produce almost as much carbon as he was theoretically saving with his new auto-mileage law.
But the fight to shut down the pipeline sparked a grassroots movement that has changed the culture of environmentalism – but not, so far, the culture of the White House. For me, the most telling moment came a month or two ago when it emerged that the president's former communications director, Anita Dunn, had taken a contract to flack for the pipeline.
The reason for fighting Keystone all along was not just to block further expansion of the tar sands – though that's required, given the amount of carbon contained in that expanse of Alberta. We also hoped that doing the right thing would jump-start Washington in the direction of real climate action. Instead, the effort necessary to hold off this one pipeline has kept environmentalists distracted as Obama has opened the Arctic and sold off the Powder River Basin, as he's fracked and drilled. It kept us quiet as both he and Mitt Romney spent the whole 2012 campaign studiously ignoring climate change.
We're supposed to be thrilled when Obama says something, anything, about global warming – he gave a fine speech this past June. "The question," he told a Georgetown University audience, is "whether we will have the courage to act before it's too late. And how we answer will have a profound impact on the world that we leave behind not just to you, but to your children and to your grandchildren. As a president, as a father and as an American, I'm here to say we need to act." Inspiring stuff, but then in October, when activists pressed him about Keystone at a Boston gathering, he said, "We had the climate-change rally back in the summer." Oh.
In fact, that unwillingness to talk regularly about climate change may be the greatest mistake the president has made. An account in Politicolast month described his chief of staff dressing down Nobel laureate and then-Energy Secretary Steven Chu in 2009 for daring to tell an audience in Trinidad that island nations were in severe danger from rising seas. Rahm Emanuel called his deputy Jim Messina to say, "If you don't kill Chu, I'm going to." On the plane home, Messina told Chu, "How, exactly, was this fucking on message?" It's rarely been on message for Obama, despite the rising damage. His government spent about as much last year responding to Sandy and to the Midwest drought as it did on education, but you wouldn't know it from his actions.
Which doesn't mean anyone's given up – the president's inaction has actually helped to spur a real movement. Some of it is aimed at Washington, and involves backing the few good things the administration has done. At the moment, for instance, most green groups are rallying support for the new EPA coal regulations.
Mostly, though, people are working around the administration, and with increasing success. Obama's plan to auction Powder River Basin coal has so far failed – there aren't any bidders, in large part because citizens in Washington state and Oregon have fought the proposed ports that would make it cheap to ship all that coal to Asia. Obama has backed fracking to the hilt – but in state after state, voters have begun to limit and restrict the technology. Environmentalists are also taking the fight directly to Big Oil: In October, an Oxford University study said that the year-old fight for divestment from stock in fossil-fuel companies is the fastest-growing corporate campaign in history.
None of that cures the sting of Obama's policies nor takes away the need to push him hard. Should he do the right thing on Keystone XL, a decision expected sometime in the next six months, he'll at least be able to tell other world leaders, "See, I've stopped a big project on climate grounds." That could, if he used real diplomatic pressure, help restart the international talks he has let lapse. He's got a few chances left to show some leadership.
But even on this one highly contested pipeline, he's already given the oil industry half of what it wanted. That day in Oklahoma when he boasted about encircling the Earth with pipelines, he also announced his support for the southern leg of Keystone, from Oklahoma to the Gulf. Not just his support: He was directing his administration to "cut through the red tape, break through the bureaucratic hurdles and make this project a priority, to go ahead and get it done."
It has: Despite brave opposition from groups like Tar Sands Blockade, Keystone South is now 95 percent complete, and the administration is in court seeking to beat back the last challenges from landowners along the way. The president went ahead and got it done. If only he'd apply that kind of muscle to stopping climate change.
By Bill McKibben, first published in Rolling Stone, December 17, 2013.