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.

Share
Single Page

More from Mark Hertsgaard:

From the July 2014 issue

Promises, Promises

Can Obama redeem his environmental failures?

From the September 1993 issue

The Question Bush Never Got Asked

Did he, as a Navy pilot, strafe a lifeboat?

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2019

The Story of Storytelling

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Myth of White Genocide

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
No Joe!·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the heart of the US Capitol there’s a small men’s room with an uplifting Franklin Delano Roo­sevelt quotation above the door. Making use of the facilities there after lunch in the nearby House dining room about a year ago, I found myself standing next to Trent Lott. Once a mighty power in the building as Senate Republican leader, he had been forced to resign his post following some imprudently affectionate references to his fellow Republican senator, arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond. Now he was visiting the Capitol as a lucratively employed lobbyist.

Article
The Myth of White Genocide·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The squatter camp outside Lawley township, in the southwest of Johannesburg, stretches for miles against a bare hillside, without electricity, water, or toilets. I visited on a blustery morning in October with a local journalist named Mophethe Thebe, who spent much of his childhood in the area. As we drove toward the settlement he pointed out land that had been abandoned by white Afrikaner farmers after the end of apartheid in 1994, and had since been taken over by impoverished black settlers who built over the former farms with half-paved roadways and tiny brick houses. You could still see stands of headstones inscribed in Afrikaans, all that remained visible of the former inhabitants.

Article
The Story of Storytelling·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The story begins, as so many do, with a journey. In this case, it’s a seemingly simple one: a young girl, cloaked in red, must carry a basket of food through the woods to her bedridden grandmother. Along the way, she meets a duplicitous wolf who persuades her to dawdle: Notice the robins, he says; Laze in the sun, breathe in the hyacinth and bluebells; Wouldn’t your grandmother like a fresh bouquet? Meanwhile, he hastens to her grandmother’s cottage, where he swallows the old woman whole, slips into her bed, and waits for his final course.

Article
Run Me to Earth·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

They were released.

For the first time in seven years, they stood outside in the courtyard of the reeducation center. They looked across at the gate. They remembered none of this. The flagpole and the towers. The cameras. Prany counted the sentries in the towers. He heard the rattle of keys as the guard behind him, wearing a green uniform, undid his handcuffs. Then the guard undid Vang’s. They rubbed their free wrists. Vang made fists with his hands.

Prany dug the soles of his new shoes into the dirt. He watched Vang’s hands and then turned to see the building they had exited. It resembled a schoolhouse or a gymnasium. The flag flapped in the wind. The sun on him. The immense sky. His neck was stiff. He knew that if they were forced to run right now his legs might buckle. Not because he was weak, but because in this moment, in the new environment, out in the open, his entire body felt uncertain.

Article
New Books·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Ten years ago, a week after his sixtieth birthday, and six months after his first appointment with an oncologist, my father died. That afternoon, I went to my parents’ bedroom to clear up the remains of the lunch my mother had brought him not long before he collapsed. A copy of Yiyun Li’s novel The Vagrants, which he’d asked me for after I reviewed it in a newspaper, was open on his bedside table. He had gotten about halfway through it. The Vagrants isn’t what you’d call a consoling book—it centers on a young woman’s unjust execution in a provincial Chinese town in 1979—and I had mixed feelings about it being the last thing he’d read. Perhaps an adolescent part of me had been happy to let him have it out of a need to see him as a more fearless reader than he might have wanted to be just then. Still, my father had read Proust and Robert Musil while working as a real estate agent. There was comfort, of a sort, for me, and maybe him, in his refusal of comfort reading.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

Classes at a Catholic school in Durham, North Carolina, were canceled in anticipation of protests against a lesbian alumna, who had been invited to speak at a Black History Month event.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today