Perspective — June 2, 2014, 3:14 pm

A Top Obama Aide Says History Won’t Applaud the President’s Climate Policy

How the president has undercut proposed EPA regulations by moving the goalposts on climate change

THE INCLINED PLANE, MOUNT PISGAH. Harper’s Magazine, September 1863

THE INCLINED PLANE, MOUNT PISGAH. Harper’s Magazine, September 1863

President Obama has just unveiled a new EPA regulation that would limit the emission of greenhouses gases from the nation’s power plants. This is his most high-profile attempt to combat climate change since taking office. Yet in an article to be published in the July issue of Harper’s Magazine, senior Obama adviser John Podesta predicted that history will judge Obama’s climate-change efforts as sadly insufficient.

In a two-hour interview conducted just weeks before his return to Obama’s inner circle as White House Counsel, Podesta told me that the president had been willing to take risks and expend political capital on the climate issue. “But fifty years from now, is that going to seem like enough?” Podesta asked. “I think the answer to that is going to be no.”

Podesta blamed Obama’s spotty climate record in part on the president’s top aides during his first term (aides who Podesta, as Obama’s transition director in 2008, helped select). The aides’ attitudes about climate change, Podesta recalled, were dismissive at best: “Yeah, fine, fine, fine, but it’s ninth on our list of eight really important problems.”

The Obama Administration’s newly proposed regulations on power plants illustrate how the president continues to fall short of what science demands in the face of rapidly accelerating climate change. From a scientific perspective, there is much less to these regulations than either industry opponents or environmental advocates are claiming.

The reason is rooted in the White House’s habit of moving the goalposts on climate policy. From the earliest days of his presidency, Obama has repeatedly chosen 2005 as the baseline year for any proposed cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. In backing the 2009 Waxman–Markey climate bill, for example, Obama pledged to reduce emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020. But the standard baseline year for measuring emissions — employed for decades by governments, scientists, advocates, and journalists around the world, and codified in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — has always been 1990. Given the proper 1990 baseline, Obama’s pledge amounted to a reduction of less than 4 percent.

The new power-plant regulation relies on similar accounting tricks. The 30 percent reduction promised by 2030 shrinks to a mere 7.7 percent when the 1990 baseline is applied, according to Kevin Bundy of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. And even that 7.7 percent reduction overstates the actual climate benefit of the regulations, says Charles Komanoff, an energy economist at the Carbon Tax Center in New York City. “Without a regulatory clampdown on fracking, much if not most of the carbon cutting will come from relying on fracked natural gas, bringing a surge in ‘fugitive’ methane emissions that will undo the carbon cuts,” Komanoff told me.

I interviewed numerous current and former Obama Administration officials for my forthcoming Harper’s feature, and not one of them could square the president’s massive expansion of fossil-fuel production — under his “all of the above” energy strategy — with his legal obligation to help limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.1

1 Often described as a tolerable level of warming, a 2°C increase would itself unleash harsh impacts, according to scientists.

“Wow, I don’t know,” Carol Browner, who headed the White House office on climate and energy policy in Obama’s first term, told me in a doubting tone. “I don’t know about two degrees.” John Holdren, the White House science adviser, simply declined to answer the question.

Podesta, however, acknowledged that Obama’s climate policy (as it stood last November) would not hit the 2°C target. “Maybe it gets you on a trajectory to three degrees,” he said, “but it doesn’t get you to two degrees.”

President Obama clearly grasps the urgency of the climate crisis and has taken important steps to address it. But it is his historical fate to be in power at a time when good intentions and important steps are no longer enough. Because the politicians who came before him, both in Washington and around the world, did not act boldly enough, Obama (like other current leaders) has a much steeper hill to climb. The science he is faced with — such as the latest declarations by the International Energy Agency and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that two thirds of earth’s remaining fossil fuel must be left underground if we are to limit temperature rise to 2°C — demand actions that seem preposterous to the political and economic status quo.

Perhaps all this places an unfair burden on president Obama.  But science does not care about fair, and leaders inherit the history they inherit.  What matters is what they, and the rest of us, make of it.

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  • https://paul.kishimoto.name/ Paul Kishimoto

    Indeed, what about “the rest of us”?

    The U.S. is stuck considering second-best (third-best?) measures—these executive actions under the Clean Air Act—which, without extension and expansion, will be inadequate to address climate change. Why? A whole host of reasons, including Congress’ failure to pass Waxman-Markey in 2009.

    An economy-wide carbon price, which would certainly be the most effective and least costly means to reduce U.S. emissions (and to link those efforts with similar measures in other countries), is not within the president’s executive powers; any attempt to set one up would immediately be struck down by the courts.

    Perhaps history will show that Barack Obama had a magic wand, which he could have waved to—hey, presto!—work a sudden change in the “political and economic status quo,” and conjure up new legislation that would somehow sail past this historically intransigent Republican House. Or, maybe, Americans’ scorn is better directed at those who’ve ruled out anything but partial measures.

    I look forward to reading the article, but I hope it’s better argued than this post.

    • philofthefuture

      We are a consumer driven economy, the more you take out of peoples pockets, the less they can consume. If you destroy the economy, you can’t afford to do anything, green or otherwise.

  • Justin Rhodes

    If President Obama “clearly grasps the urgency of the climate crisis,” then why the hell does he support an “all of the above” energy strategy? Because he wants to appear moderate, even if his position is unreasonable. What courage! His moderation is going to cause a lot of misery.

    • DDHelfrich

      Obama may be the single most identifiable leader of the USA, but he is not a king or a dictator. He has to act carefully, mostly according to the will of the majority, or with the next election cycle, see his political party trounced and see all it’s work go down the drain over the following years.

      • Justin Rhodes

        Obama hasn’t supported an “all of the above” energy strategy (which will intensify climate change and the misery that accompanies it) to get and stay elected. He’s done what he’s done because he has an aversion to challenging powerful interests.

        Another example: his tepid response to Wall Street’s recklessness, despite the widespread misery (to voters) caused by that recklessness. For heaven’s sake, Wall Street torpedoed the U.S. economy!

        Especially after hurricane Sandy (which caused a great deal of suffering to voters), there was an opportunity for him to do something that no president has done: forcefully and repeatedly explain why climate change is a threat. Of course, this would require him to gain a decent understanding of the the science and challenge (with a modicum of passion) politicians who continue to spout fantasies.

        The president has agency. He has the bully pulpit. He has the capacity to educate people and challenge the fantasy merchants. He has supporters who will back him. He isn’t running for re-election. So what the hell is he waiting for? More misery? For the polls to show that a majority of Americans finally realize that climate change is a deadly threat? He needs to stop posing as a leader and actually start leading.

        His moderation on this issue is dangerous and cowardly, and the suffering that will result from it will be vast.

        • angriestdogintheworld

          Perfectly stated.

        • philofthefuture

          The man was never competent to lead, too bad it took most people over five years to figure that out.

  • rand

    Many progressives would hold that Obama has not done all that he could, and this post underlines that even this more significant move is not enough. Whatever calculation was made to push the “all of the dirty above” energy policy and for Climate Silence through Obama’s reelection was contrary to his Hope and “Yes We Can” rhetoric. In the face of insanely anti-science and rabid opposition, neither has Obama done much more than mouth the words of “irreversible catastrophe”. A few percent here and there, does not a leader make.

    To the people on the Titanic, the ship was not sinking until the Captain gave the order to abandon ship. There is no Planet B, so it is up to Obama (or Hillary?) to sound the alarm and call for a moonshot-level national renewable energy program, ala Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson’s plan. America’s leadership is the best shot we have.

    To Hertsgaard’s point, what matters is what we do now. It is vital that everyone concerned about the climate to push as hard as possible. California (see this Tom Hayden article: http://tomhayden.com/home/the-great-unifier-california-against-climate-change.html ) and other areas need to be examples of the resolve and how to transition to solar, wind and water – the clean renewables. The New York Climate Summit in September (http://act.350.org/signup/readytomarch?t=1&akid=4629.371380.pZle1f) will be a test of public support: how many people can be in the street? If it takes hundreds of thousands to move even a “progressive” Obama presidency, then this is a prime historic time to “make it”, before its too late.

    • http://www.citizensclimatelobby.org/ Fred G

      We will never hit 350PPM again, and even solar and wind turbines us fossil fuels to make them. The rare earth metals used in production are considered toxic to the environment and also release pollutants that are thousands of times more toxic to the environment than CO2. I do not want to be here in 30 years much less 50. Below the equator will be the only livable space, if you can get in.

    • philofthefuture

      Again this idiotic idea that somehow the US can save the day or it’s “all our fault”. China just surpassed us in CO2 a few years ago and are already nearly double where we are. India isn’t far behind. We are already shuttering coal plants via natural gas, while they are both building a coal plant a week and will do so for decades. By the end of this decade we will be practically irrelevant in CO2 output, the developing world will swamp us.
      And no, they will not respond to “leading by example”, they’ve already telegraphed as much.

      • http://www.citizensclimatelobby.org/ Fred G

        Wrong! They already are!

  • Elana Stewart

    Obama has not been dealt an easy hand. Not only has he been burdened with cleaning up Bush’s wars and economic mess, he must face up to the fact that the planet is under-going rapid climate change which will result in great hardship, and probable extinction, of many species. And the main causative factor is the burning of fossil fuel which produces the very energy that powers the global economy, including the production of food.

    Obama is not only contending with Congress, he’s contending with the power of the petro-billionaires have very effectively used their wealth to promote climate change denial propaganda. They have managed to convince about half our population that it is not happening. Or if it is, it has nothing to do with fossil fuel.

    Citizen’s United has caused a huge shift in the balance of power in our country. The petro-billionaire Koch brother’s own lawyer succeeded in convincing conservatives on the Supreme Court that corporations are people and money is speech. That has resulted in short-sighted Congressmen/women, who want to keep their jobs, thus they serve the providers of their campaign cash, not their electorate. And certainly not the longer term welfare of the planet. I don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel, at least not one that will come from the top down. Ammending the Constitution to declare that corporations are not people, and money is not speech would be a start.

    • angriestdogintheworld

      Oh, BS. “Obama has not been dealt an easy hand.” What an absolute crock. What he was “dealt” was the kind of immense charisma and speaking style that filled stadiums with throngs of cheering people and sent him to the White House with a mandate for change and a huge reservoir of goodwill among the American people—all of which he squandered on publicly kissing the asses of people like Max Baucus and Olympia Snowe.

      The Koch brothers would never have been able to convince half of the American public that global warming is not happening had it not been for Obama’s abject failure as a leader. It was HIS JOB to use his bully pulpit and his astounding rhetorical abilities to push back against the lies. Asking the president to tell the truth about a coming catastrophe in an effort to prevent it is not too much to ask.

      And yes, the Republicans and short-sighted Democrats might still be blocking action. But six years of persuasion would have created quite a different consensus among the voters.

      Obama has never led on anything. He has acted more like a senate majority leader or a Chicago mayor than a president. He could have made a positive difference. He chose not to. It’s not about the hand he was dealt, it’s about his utter lack of character.

    • philofthefuture

      As Bush contended with the George Soros’s of the world, get over it.
      The economy happened on democrats watch. Compare the last six years of Clinton through the first six years of Bush when republicans ran congress to what’s happened since democrats took over. No contest. Obama inherited his own mess, if he didn’t want it he shouldn’t have asked for it.

  • joefromlowell

    I see a number of people citing the “all of the above” slogan. I wish people would operate more on the level of facts than slogans. Coal is clearly not part of the President’s energy strategy. Nor tar sands.

    But, apparently, I’m supposed to ignore the repeated assaults on coal power and the stiff-arm to the KXL project, because of a slogan.

    Taking a politician’s public pronouncements at face value is a really terrible way of understanding what’s going on.

    • Justin Rhodes

      It has taken Obama a mere FIVE-AND-A-HALF YEARS to finally dispense with his “clean coal” routine. In other words, coal has been part of his energy strategy for most of his presidency.

      And when did he “stiff-arm” the KXL project? He still hasn’t rejected the damn thing, despite the overwhelming evidence that it will intensify climate change. He should have rejected it the first day of his presidency. Instead, serious people have wasted precious time and energy trying to get him to do the blatantly obvious.

      The environment is indifferent to Obama’s middle-of-the-road act, and he will continue to behave this way until his apologists stop making excuses and demand that he do more.

      • joefromlowell

        You rebut yourself with you own argument: the climate doesn’t care about acts.

        Have you seen any “clean coal?” Have you? The climate doesn’t care if Barack Obama says pretty words for political reasons about “clean coal.” It only cares whether or not carbon is being released from “clean coal,” and it hasn’t been. And it won’t be.

        The climate also doesn’t care whether the KXL pipeline is killed in the most noble environmentalist fashion by endless delay, or whether it’s killed by formal denial. BTW, it would have been illegal to issue a rejection on the first day of his presidency, or even today, before the mandatory findings called for by the law are made. Having a denial overturned by the courts would be the worst possible outcome.

        Anyway, thanks for the assist. Indeed, the climate doesn’t care about acts – and acts are all you have to complain about.

        Barack Obama, greatest environmentalist president in American history.

        • philofthefuture

          Like it or not coal will continue to play a part in our energy, as Obama has stated. Also as he has stated you cannot just flip the switch, this needs to be a gradual move.

          The only reason we have an economy is because of fracking, that’s why he nor the EPA will not do anything to hinder it. Everyone talks about the Cheney bill, nobody talks about the fact that then senator Obama signed it.

          Ideologues on both sides have a problem accepting reality. Reality is we will transition to clean energy, reality also is it will take decades.

  • John Laumer

    Has President Obama ever been known for his interest in any of these outdoor activities: nature watching, hiking, camping, boating, skiing, swimming, fishing, hunting etc. Of course not. He’s an inner city guy. Going to Lincoln Park in Chicago for an afternoon stroll was probably as out-doorsy as it ever got for him . Out of touch with nature means not seeing much of any of the impacts first hand. Just what I’d expect from a big city lawyer who never stepped in the mud.

  • Edward Creed

    If Obama took the necessary steps to impact climate change, history would judge him as the last American president and the first American dictator. Break the Constitution or let the world die — that’s the choice.

    • dehdeh

      Since China already releases far more CO2 than the US, and India is close behind, exactly how is the US to save the world unilaterally?

      • philofthefuture

        You nailed it. If I remember, the analysis of the new coal rules will only reduce world CO2 1.5%. Meanwhile China and India are building a new coal plant a week and will do so for decades while we have drastically lowered our output.
        The US is quickly becoming irrelevant in world CO2 emissions, while we are projected to stay flat even without the coal rules, the rest of the world is projected to grow dramatically.

  • angriestdogintheworld

    History will not be kind to the Republicans, including Obama.

    • philofthefuture

      Actually history will not be kind to democrats, as Bill Clinton preached “It’s the economy stupid!” Check the polls, economic matters come first, climate change comes last. Food on the table tomorrow trumps lower CO2 decades from now every time.

      • http://www.citizensclimatelobby.org/ Fred G

        History will not be kind to George W. Bush, and the fools who voted for him. But again there is not much history left because no one really knows how many will survive 2 degrees centigrade. Never been done!

  • Paul Antompietri

    Did anyone fact check this? The 1990 number for CO2 emissions is 5039. The 2005 number is very close to the actual peak (2007) at 5999 – call it 6000. So choosing 2005 is actually stricter than choosing 1990. See table 12.1 in the Environment section here: http://www.eia.gov/totalenergy/data/monthly/

    • Gay

      Well, no. If you want to reduce by 30% the 1990 emissions, you hit the emissions rate of 3527. If you want to reduce by 30% the 2005 emissions, you hit a much higher discharge rate of 4200. Using 2005 data does not obligate us to reduce emissions to the lower safer level.

  • dehdeh

    Obama is constantly viciously assailed from the left as well as from the right. That means that he is in a moderate sensible and probably correct position. Lincoln noted the same thing.

    • angriestdogintheworld

      Actually, no. It means no such thing. The rabid, fact-free, anti-science lies from the right are not the equivalent of the accurate criticisms from the left. When one person is lying and the other one is telling the truth, the truth is not somewhere in the middle.

      • dehdeh

        Thank you for demonstrating your absolute conviction that anyone who disagrees with you is an unscientific liar. Now will someone on the right please reply to further demonstrate my point?

        • angriestdogintheworld

          Thank you for demonstrating logic is not your best suit.

      • philofthefuture

        Republicans: “Don’t worry, be happy!”, democrats: “The sky is falling!” Newsflash, they are both wrong. You cannot focus on the environment by bankrupting the country and killing commerce. Only the richest countries have the money to tackle climate change. It can’t be economy only, it can’t be environment only, it MUST be robust economy so as to afford green energy.

  • http://www.citizensclimatelobby.org/ Fred G

    I agree with the aid Podesta. Ever 2 degrees is a political target not one scientists agree on. It is time to look for places to hid when the bad times hit. South America anyone?

    • philofthefuture

      Guarantee it will be far worse down there. I’d place my bets on Canada, I’m as far north in Washington as one can get, if the poo hits the fan I thinks Seattle has ferry service to Vancouver.

  • EnviroFreak

    I have to agree with Justin. Many of us who were appalled by the extent of the Bush Administration’s general ignorance and pursuit of un-winable ideological wars were swayed by President Obama’s breath-of-fresh-air “Hope and Change” mantra. I for one am extremely disappointed with his action – or rather inaction – as President. He is a masterful campaigner but an extremely mediocre “leader.” As one who has demonstrated against the Keystone XL pipeline; donated repeatedly to anti-fracking groups and organizations; signed letters and petitions to both my representatives as well as the President seeking the defeat of the Keystone XL project, I am massively disappointed that the President continues to kick the Keystone can down the road, apparently hoping he will never have to actually “Just Say No!”

    And he was unable to bring our troops out of Afghanistan for six more devastating years, refusing to acknowledge the obvious: that all of the blood and treasure expended there has been for naught. You do not, indeed cannot, “convert”warring countries filled with religious zealots to rational people by invading them and preaching democracy.

    • philofthefuture

      If he says yes he pee’s off environmentalists, if he says no he pee’s off unions. Democrats can’t win if they lose either, what do you expect him to do? Why do you think there will be no decision before November? You think that’s by chance? It’s not sad what Obama’s doing, it’s sad you actually expected otherwise. Welcome to reality.

  • http://davidbiddle.net/ David Biddle

    It took so much mass energy to overcome the cognitive dissonance of slavery, apartheid, and the subjugation of women. Mass energy does not come from a President or a King. It comes from the people. Experience and history even tell us that leadership doesn’t even come from Presidents and Kings. If your answer is, “my hands are tied,” you are part of the problem. Your hands are not tied.

    We are not getting good leadership yet on this issue partly because we see it as either an environmental issue or a technology issue. Those are part of what’s at stake, but in truth this is a massive cultural problem that touches everything from the economy to our dependence on Internet communications to the deep sense of security and ease that cars, electricity, and pretty much all forms of entertainment give us.

    Does Obama’s “historic” decree change the game? Not really. It is a small step, though, and nudges us in the right direction. Now, go out this weekend and trade in whatever you drive for a hybrid plug-in; cancel your jet travel trip to Europe; and start prepping for September in New York City (http://ecowatch.com/2014/05/21/climate-change-nyc-sept-20/). There may well be a leader that emerges if enough of us show up. Who knows, that person might be you.

  • http://davidbiddle.net/ David Biddle

    I would hope Barrack agrees with Podesta. More importantly though, history should not be kind to any of us here in the twenty-teens. We’re still proving to be complete assholes…every single one of us.

  • philofthefuture

    The progressive mantra of “nobody is responsible” is coming home to roost. “The government must DO something!” Oh heaven forbid you buy your own solar panels and EV. Well sorry but that’s what it’s going to take, you can’t spend other peoples money on this one, you have to spend your own. Can’t afford it you say? Tough, suck it up and do it or watch the world fry. If Obama really did what was necessary half the population couldn’t even afford electricity, not even mass transit. Then you’d learn the real meaning of have’s and have not’s.
    It amuses me no end the people who will rail against Exxon or the Koch brothers then pull into the station and fill their tank. “But it’s not MY responsibility!” Obama will do little because he can do little. The only reason we have an economy right now is because of the fracking boom, kill that and you kill everything else including green efforts. Coal was a slam-dunk since natural gas was replacing it anyway. It’s down to individual responsibility and there is nothing stopping you, record low solar costs, Nissan Leafs, Focus electrics, Tesla’s, etc. There’s no excuse.

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