Last week President Obama delivered an hour-long speech on the subject of climate change. Speaking at Georgetown University the President covered the history of climate science, the importance of an international agreement and the moral imperative to act. Standing in sweltering heat, Obama delivered his new climate policy for America with trademark skill. It sounded good, strong, and clearly resonated with the young audience he was addressing. But what did it actually mean?
While we have to be pleased that climate change is back on the agenda in the United States, Obama is viewed with scepticism by those who have experienced having their hopes dashed. After the failure of Copenhagen 2009, a COP* which was viewed at the time as the chance to do something about climate change, Obama has continued to disappoint – well demonstrated by the fact that he only mentioned climate change once during the 2012 Presidential elections.
But even without the understandable once-bitten-twice-shy uncertainty with which environmentalists view Obama, bits of his speech seemed to flatly contradict his strong opening declaration for action on climate change. Obama boasted record levels of US oil production and natural gas mining. He skirted around the Keystone XL pipeline issue. And, it bears repeating – he boasted about increased US oil production levels.
Hopefully, the reason for my incredulity regarding Obama’s statements on oil is well appreciated by those reading. Oil? Really? After describing how climate change is already having multiple and serious effects on the citizens of America, never mind the rest of the world, and strongly asserting the need for reduction in CO2 to prevent run away climate change, he brags about increased oil production in the US?
As for natural gas – let’s examine what has been said and compare to what has been happening behind the scenes. Obama was proud to announce that the US has been cutting its CO2 emissions. In fact, as he was pleased to repeat, the US has been the biggest cutter of CO2 emissions since 2006. And that’s true; the US has been cutting its emissions. It’s been doing so by extracting shale gas and burning gas instead of coal. As gas is cleaner than coal this transition means that US CO2 emissions have gone down – but at the same time the US has been selling its coal to other nations, including our own, causing our emissions to go up.
So, while the President can brag about his own country’s achievements, he appears to have forgotten that the atmosphere is a global commons, and that there is a certain degree of hypocrisy in going green while profiting by selling your coal on to other nations – like gleefully boasting about getting clean while pushing drugs to other addicts – you continue to be part of the problem.
One thing this does achieve is that it places the US in an even greater bargaining position for COP 21**, and that could be cause for concern. Although the President spoke of the need for international action, he also talked about the need for developing countries to take action, and that’s a sticking point that has been the premature end of many a past negotiation. While Obama may have better relations with China and India, he now finds himself in an even stronger position to call the shots at Paris, and if he calls for the kind of unilateral action that is seen as unfair on developing nations, negotiations could flounder once again.
Of course, there is plenty of reason to speculate that the bits of Obama’s speech about oil and natural gas were aimed at Republicans. Although perhaps a braver man might have talked more about decarbonisation and renewables, it would not have been a wiser man, and Obama did not get to be President of the United States, a nation of such polarised opinion, without learning how to play to different audiences. But while we can hope that these more ambiguous parts of his speech were mere lip service and that his other strategies, including ending fossil fuel subsidies and new regulations for power stations, are being used to subtly undermine the fossil fuel industry and give renewables the edge – we are still going to have to wait and see. And time is not on our side.
So, Obama continues to be a wait-and-see President. For those of us who wanted clear and decisive action, this speech is probably the best we’re going to get. At least there was no underestimation of the problem and he viciously refuted climate scepticism with a single you’re-not-worth-my-time kind of blow. But while he allows debate to continue on the Keystone XL issue, and talks about natural gas as though he’s going to herald in a new ‘cleaner’ fossil fuel age, I don’t think he has my bet.
* Conference of the Parties
*COP 21 –- Conference of the Parties 22 scheduled to take place in Paris -December 2015