President Barack Obama could not have signaled more clearly in his 2015 State of the Union address that he intends to fight for his legacy on climate change in the face of a hostile, anti-science GOP-led House and Senate.
But it was what the President didn’t mention that could negate his climate legacy: free trade deals like the Trans Pacific Partnership that undermine local efforts to lower emissions, projects like Keystone XL that lock us into decades of continued dirty energy use, and the exporting of American-made coal, crude oil and natural gas to overseas markets.
Which is not to say that every policy position Obama laid out regarding energy and the environment entirely matched his lofty rhetoric about climate change.
At this moment — with a growing economy, shrinking deficits, bustling industry, and booming energy production — we have risen from recession freer to write our own future than any other nation on Earth. It’s now up to us to choose who we want to be over the next fifteen years, and for decades to come.
While Obama went on to list a number of achievements made in growing domestic renewable energy capacity under his watch, he also continued to pay lip service to an “all of the above” energy strategy—a strategy scientists tell us we most definitely do not have 15 more years to continue subscribing to.
We believed we could reduce our dependence on foreign oil and protect our planet. And today, America is number one in oil and gas. America is number one in wind power. Every three weeks, we bring online as much solar power as we did in all of 2008. And thanks to lower gas prices and higher fuel standards, the typical family this year should save $750 at the pump.
Given that the U.S. currently has the lowest gas prices it’s had in years, every SOTU Bingo game board across the country probably had an “American families saving at the pump” square this year. So, perhaps it was inevitable and even understandable for Obama to take a victory lap on low gas prices. Do the rest of his claims hold up?
It remains to be seen how long that freedom from foreign oil Obama claims will actually last, given that there are signs the shale boom is already going bust.
As Joe Romm points out over at Climate Progress, the wind energy claim is true—if you’re counting actual electricity from wind produced and delivered, not total installed capacity. And solar is indeed doing well in America—so well the industry is adding jobs at 20 times the rate of the rest of the economy.
But the Obama Administration quietly handed the oil industry a year-end gift that allows it to skirt the crude oil export ban, which DeSmog’s Justin Mikulka reports could make fracking for oil in the US more profitable. The controversial move also makes it easier to export Canadian tar sands oil from US ports, lest you forget this president is all about “all of the above.”
Free Trade Is Good For Polluters, Bad For The Climate
Speaking of exports, Obama made an appeal for fast-track authority to approve the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), though he didn’t say it directly:
Today, our businesses export more than ever, and exporters tend to pay their workers higher wages. But as we speak, China wants to write the rules for the world’s fastest-growing region. That would put our workers and businesses at a disadvantage. Why would we let that happen? We should write those rules. We should level the playing field. That’s why I’m asking both parties to give me trade promotion authority to protect American workers, with strong new trade deals from Asia to Europe that aren’t just free, but fair.
Ilana Solomon, director of the Sierra Club’s Responsible Trade Program, says so-called “free trade” deals like the TPP would threaten efforts to combat climate change:
“In order to combat climate disruption, we need to rein in the power of the fossil fuel industry and keep the majority of fossil fuels in the ground,” Solomon told DeSmog in an email. “But the Trans-Pacific Partnership would offer new rights to big polluters, including the right to sue governments in private trade courts over laws and policies that corporations allege reduce their profits.”
Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica lists a few more ways the TPP deal poses a sort of existential threat to Obama’s legacy: “As currently negotiated, the Trans Pacific Partnership would undermine President Obama’s commitments to empower the middle class, regulate greenhouse emissions, and make the financial and banking industries pay for their past sins.”
The president seemed to mention the need for international trade agreements at another point, this time as a preface to his most pointed remarks on global warming, but still no direct mention of TPP.
In the Asia Pacific, we are modernizing alliances while making sure that other nations play by the rules — in how they trade, how they resolve maritime disputes, and how they participate in meeting common international challenges like nonproliferation and disaster relief. And no challenge — no challenge — poses a greater threat to future generations than climate change.
As Naomi Klein documents in great detail in her latest book, This Changes Everything, no challenge poses a greater threat to efforts to combat climate change than free trade agreements, which is probably why Obama didn’t want to get into many specifics.
The “Keystone XL Clone”
Another topic Obama only referenced in passing was Keystone XL. Obama has said he will veto the pipeline if and when the Republican-controlled Congress passes legislation to force its approval, though he did not reiterate that stance in his speech. He mentioned it obliquely, however:
21st century businesses need 21st century infrastructure — modern ports, stronger bridges, faster trains and the fastest internet. Democrats and Republicans used to agree on this. So let’s set our sights higher than a single oil pipeline. Let’s pass a bipartisan infrastructure plan that could create more than thirty times as many jobs per year, and make this country stronger for decades to come.
The President didn’t provide further details on what should actually be called for in that bipartisan infrastructure plan, but one thing is clear: using Keystone XL as a baseline for job creation is not that bold of a choice, since it would only create about 35 permanent jobs.
And while Obama may be planning on vetoing the highly controversial Keystone XL, he hasn’t opposed all infrastructure projects that would make it easier to move tar sands crude and U.S. fossil fuels around the globe. In fact, as DeSmog’s Steve Horn reported, the “Keystone XL Clone” Obama permitted went into operation just last month.
Obama Is Not A Scientist—But He Knows A Lot Of “Really Good” Ones
Obama had some rather pointed statements for the Keystone XL boosters in the Republican Party—and not just his epic comeback when several of them applauded his remark that he had no more elections to run. Obama mocked the climate deniers in the GOP and their “I’m not a scientist” line, usually used right before arguing that we should do nothing about global warming.
2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record. Now, one year doesn’t make a trend, but this does — 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century.
I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists; that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what — I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.
That’s why, over the past six years, we’ve done more than ever before to combat climate change, from the way we produce energy, to the way we use it. That’s why we’ve set aside more public lands and waters than any administration in history. And that’s why I will not let this Congress endanger the health of our children by turning back the clock on our efforts. I am determined to make sure American leadership drives international action. In Beijing, we made an historic announcement — the United States will double the pace at which we cut carbon pollution, and China committed, for the first time, to limiting their emissions. And because the world’s two largest economies came together, other nations are now stepping up, and offering hope that, this year, the world will finally reach an agreement to protect the one planet we’ve got.
It was inevitable that Obama would tout his climate deal with China because, for all its faults, it is indeed historic—even though it is not nearly enough to keep the US or China from contributing to runaway global warming.
The Obama Administration rolled out one of the final pieces of its Climate Action Plan just last week—a proposal to limit methane emissions from oil and gas development. The Climate Action Plan is the basis for domestic action to honor our international commitments to combat climate change and the foundation of Obama’s climate legacy.
But as Mother Jones reports, the new methane rules would only apply to new wells and pipelines, not existing ones.
Meanwhile, methane emissions aside, if we burn all of the natural gas in the world we would be creating as much as 23 times the greenhouse gas emissions allowable under any reasonable carbon budget aimed at keeping global warming to just 2 degrees Celsius, according to Hugh MacMillan at Food & Water Watch.
When Obama touted “booming energy production ” the US has seen the past few years, he wasn’t just talking about wind and solar, of course. He was also talking about the oil and gas “renaissance” in the US, unlocked by technologies like high-volume horizontal slickwater hydraulic fracking.
It’s striking but perhaps not surprising, then, that Obama did not mention fracking even once in his speech. He might be sick of hearing about it, since his Administration was just sued over the fracking it has allowed in the Gulf of Mexico.
Friends of the Earth’s Erich Pica puts it succinctly enough in saying that “while the President is rightfully calling on Americans to ‘forcefully’ address global warming… his claim of climate change leadership is weakened by his administration’s continued pursuit of fracking and fossil fuel exploration and export.”
Image Credit: Pete Souza (Executive Office of the President of the United States) / Wikimedia Commons