Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Should we have Expectations of Obama on Climate Change?

In what will be one of the more unremarked but ultimately critical moves of his Presidency, Obama will today give a speech on climate change, providing some sense of the path the U.S. will take in the short term moving forward.  As demonstrated by the extraordinary mobilisation against the Keystone XL pipeline, protesters against which have dogged the President consistently on his visits to his California ATMs in Marin, Silicon Valley, San Francisco and Los Angeles, the grassroots are up in arms about Obama’s weak-kneed efforts to address climate change.

In his first term, Obama’s approach to climate change was technocratic.  Mother Jones sums it up thus: “he pledged action on climate change in his campaign in 2008, but the effort to pass a bill died in the Senate in 2010.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did take regulatory action on climate-changing emissions in his first term, including increasing the fuel economy of automobiles and the first-ever rules on greenhouse gases from new power plants.  But environmentalists were frustrated by what they saw as an unwillingness by Obama himself to make a strident push for comprehensive action on climate change”.

In a kind of irony, the problem with this technical, fiddling approach to climate change is that summed up by Lippmann when he remarked in a different context that “we have changed our environment more quickly than we knew how to change ourselves”.  These small moves will, in other words, do some good, but they do nothing to change the broad culture within which people assess their relationship to the environment and its health, meaning that they are not changes which will endure beyond Obama’s occupancy of the Oval Office.

The problem is that Obama could have chosen to make climate change a campaign issue.  It could have been his “cause” in 2012.  But he refused, and debate moderators declined to ask a single question about such a critical issue, ceding ground to the deniers, who in any other political context would be marginalised as a bunch of know-nothings, people who make an extraordinary virtue out of incredible ignorance.

I had to laugh when the President on Saturday, in a warm-up for his address as reported by Mother Jones, referred to climate change as “a serious challenge, but it’s one uniquely suited to America’s strengths”.

That’s about the silliest thing I’ve ever heard.  We are a country affected by a debilitating hubris, a conceit that there will be no consequences for our avarice, and that if there are, they will be felt either by other people in other lands, or by future generations in our own country and that, in any case, that’s someone else’s problem.

We are a nation that refuses to meet the eye of looming challenges until they overtake us—the fallout from our dreadful foreign policy, the drain on our economy caused by a behemoth prison industrial complex, the inevitable financial collapse caused by the government-endorsed rapacity of the financial sector, and now climate change—and then we have a knack for responding in a manner which abdicates responsibility, compounds the problems, and gives in to a culture of greed. 

In the meantime, the Republican Party, carrying out the wishes of its corporateconstituency, is doing its best to sabotage even the technocratic tinkering that Obama’s proposals are likely to include (for example, blocking the appointment of an EPA director).  In the Mother Jones article cited above, Kate Sheppard outlines measures that the President might embrace: altered emission rules for existing power plants, tougher efficiency standards for homes and appliances, more renewable energy development on public lands, and preparing the U.S. for climate impacts. 

None of these are bad things.  But they are small measures for a people with small ambitions and small concern for how their actions might impact subsequent generations. 

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