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A Keystone Moment: How Will Obama Decide?


Barack Obama is receiving accolades from liberal environmentalists for saying progressive-sounding things about global warming in his fifth State of the Union Address (SOTUA) last Tuesday. The reason for this praise is not mysterious. The President made some minimally decent comments about the leading issue of our or any time.

Mentioning the “dangerous carbon pollution that threatens our planet,” Obama said that “for the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change.” He noted that “the 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15” and that “Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods — all are now more frequent and more intense.”

“We can choose to believe,” Obama added, “that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can believe in the overwhelming judgment of science – and act before it’s too late.” 

Take that, American Petroleum Institute. The President knows that the dire consensus findings of climate science aren’t bogus.

But how excited do people who care about the fate of livable ecology really want to get about such rhetoric in light of the president’s actual climate record? I heard candidate Obama say similar green-sounding things in Iowa in 2007 and 2008 only to watch his presidency green-light expanded offshore oil drilling and almost single-handedly deep-six efforts to restrict global greenhouse emissions at international climate summits in Copenhagen and Durban. Obama has approved and celebrated (in the name of “national energy independence”) the environmentally noxious “homeland” practice of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”), whereby the carbon-industrial complex has discovered a deadly new way to waste energy and poison water supplies, and to extract and spew fossil fuels. Listen to the following judgment on the president’s less-than-inspiring climate policy résuméé in the latest issue of the legendarily Obama-worshipping magazine Rolling Stone:

Among all the tests President Obama faced in his first term, his biggest failure was climate change. After promising in 2008 that his presidency would be "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal," President Obama went silent on the most crucial issue of our time. He failed to talk openly with Americans about the risks of continuing to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, failed to put political muscle behind legislation to cap carbon pollution, failed to meaningfully engage in international climate negotiations [that significantly minimizes his terrible role in the failure of the global summits – P.S.], failed to use the power of his office to end the fake "debate’ about" the reality of global warming and failed to prepare Americans – and the world – for life on a rapidly warming planet. It was as if the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced became a political inconvenience for the president once he became elected (emphasis added). [1]

 The president’s inspiring words are one thing; policy deeds are something else altogether. That basic distinction ought to have been driven home once and for all by his first term, a grand tutorial on who really runs the country – a moneyed oligarchy that remains firmly entrenched beneath and beyond the nation’s formally democratic character.

But ok, fine. Let’s say you want to cut Obama some slack and give the nation’s first technically black president a second (or third or fourth or…) chance to be a green president (“green” as in saving the earth, not the color of corporate and Wall Street money) in his second term. He’s the only president we’ve got and, unlike all but a small number of elected Republican officials, he says he agrees with climate science, right? He can’t run for a third term and this is his chance to burnish his “progressive legacy” by (among other things) acting to help save the species (and other living things) from greenhouse gassing…right?

The fact that Obama defeated Mitt Romney last fall means there’s at least a chance of a decent decision. The Republican candidate promised to make signing off on Keystone XL his very first action as president and there’s no reason not to believe he would have acted in accord with that promise…right? 

As it happens, there’s a policy decision staring Obama in the face right now – one that goes close to the heart of the climate problem and “to act before it’s too late.” It received no direct mention in the SOTUA, but it had to be on his mind as tens of thousands of environmentalist protestors prepared gather in Washington to demonstrate around that decision.

I am referring, of course, to whether President Obama is going to give a thumbs up or a thumbs down to the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which, “if built, is slated to bring some of the ‘dirtiest’, oil on the planet from Alberta, Canada, to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast” (Michael T. Klare). How much of this “dirty,” that is tar sands, oil (extracted at great carbon-generating, water-wrecking, and ecology-despoiling expense from landlocked reserves of sand and clay in northwest Canada)? Alberta is home to a trillion barrels of this highly toxic but carbon-rich form of petroleum, equivalent to the conventional oil reserves of any nation except Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. According to leading climate activist and writer Bill McKibben, releasing this vast greenhouse reservoir into the atmosphere in coming years will “run the atmosphere’s concentration of carbon dioxide from its current 390 parts per million (enough to cause the climate havoc we’re currently seeing) to nearly 600 parts per million, which would bring if not hell, than at least a world with a similar temperature.”[2]

The leading climate scientist and current director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies James Hansen has been blunt about the consequences of spilling Alberta’s distinctively filthy greenhouse load on Mother Earth. It’s “Game Over for the climate…. If we turn to these dirtiest of fuels, instead of finding ways to phase out our addiction to fossil fuels,” Hansen noted in The New York Times last year, “there is no hope of keeping carbon concentrations below 500 p.m. — a level that would, as earth’s history shows, leave our children a climate system that is out of their control.” No wonder Hansen was perturbed to read Obama telling Rolling Stone that he expected Canada to exploit the oil in its huge tar sands deposits “regardless of what we do.” [3]   

The president who says he wants to honor “the overwhelming judgment of science…for the sake of our children and our future” may have it in his power to defuse this Epic Carbon Bomb. Since the Keystone XL pipeline crosses an international (U.S.-Canada) border, it’s the president alone who makes the final decision on whether the eco-cidal, environmentally exterminist project should proceed. And a negative judgment from the White House may do the trick to kill the corporate assault on Alberta tar sands for the near future, buying us more time to save a livable planet. This is because none of the other methods being considered to bring Alberta’s tar sands oil to the global market appear to be economically or politically viable. They all face steep barriers to profitability that are likely to undercut the massive fixed capital investment required to extract and transport Albert’s dirty oil outside of Canada’s limited market.

Obama may well be wrong if he believes that Canada’s tar sands oil is going into the atmosphere “regardless of what we do” – regardless, that is, in this context, of what he does. Obama’s decision is likely to either save or sink the tar sands industry. His approval would ensure investors “enough return to justify their massive investments. It would also,” Michael Klare notes, “prompt additional investments in tar-sands projects and further production increases by an industry that assumed opposition to future pipelines had been weakened by this victory.” [4]

How will the president decide? As will surprise nobody familiar with my writings on Obama since the summer of 2004, I am less than optimistic about the chances that he will respect the wishes of climate scientists and the protestors outside his gates. For what its worth, some of his post-election rhetoric is less than encouraging. When asked about global warming at his first post-election press conference, for example, the president said that “the American people have been so focused on our economy and jobs and growth that if the message is somehow ‘we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change,’ I don’t think that anybody is going to go for that” (emphasis added).

This was a dreadful, ecologically appalling statement in two key ways. First, Obama used the phrase “simply to address climate change” as if global warming was a minor matter compared to “jobs and growth.” That was a tellingly dismissive way in which to refer to what has become gravest current threat to human existence.

Second, Obama’s comment bought into what Mother Jones editors Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery rightly call “the jobs vs. climate action straw man….a false and outdated dichotomy propagated by those with a vested interest in the status quo….”[5] Tackling climate change and other environmental ills in a meaningful way means putting many millions of people to work at all skill levels to design, implement, construct, conduct, and coordinate the essential environmental, climate-friendly  retro-fitting of economy and society: the ecological re-conversion of production, transportation, office space,  homes, agriculture, and public space. [6]

In his SOTUA, Obama said that “The natural gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence. We need to encourage that. That’s why my administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new gas and oil permits.”  That sounds like a thumb up to Keystone to me.

It is relevant that Obama made no mention of Keystone in the address. It was a curious deletion in light of the imminence of his decision and the green-sounding rhetoric of his talk – a reflection perhaps of the vast resources the “energy industry” has been pouring into pushing (in the name of national “energy security” and “American jobs”) for the pipeline’s approval.

I could be wrong. I hope I am. I hope that Bill McKibben and his 350 comrades and allies make a loud and significant impact in Washington D.C. this weekend. It is a hopeful sign that Obama’s recently appointed Secretary of State John F. Kerry is a self-described “climate hawk” who says he will be deeply engaged in the State Department’s review of the pipeline.

Still, I will not be surprised if and when Obama does with some delay what Romney pledged to do right away. And I will not be surprised when a rising number of us on the green left are (for better or worse) considering the moral urgency of mass direct action and sabotage in light of a post-democratic political process that long ago sold its soul to the unelected, interrelated, and significantly petro-capitalist dictatorships of money and empire.

Paul Street ([email protected]) is the author of many books, including The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), Crashing the Tea Party (co-authored wit Anthony DiMaggio, Paradigm, 2011). His next book (tentatively titled They Rule), a study of ruling class power and its environmental (among other and related) consequences, should be available next summer or fall.

Selected Endnotes


[1] Jeff Goodell, “Obama’s Climate Challenge,” Rolling Stone, January 31, 2013, 41.

[2] Michael T. Klare, “Will the Keystone XL Pipeline Go Down?” Tom Dispatch.com (February 10, 2013) at http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/175648/

[3] James Hansen, “Game Over for the Climate,” New York Times, May 12, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/10/opinion/game-over-for-the-climate.html?_r=0

[4] Klare, “Will the Keystone XL Pipeline Go Down?” 

[5] Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery, “The Heat is On,” Mother Jones (January-February 2013), 6. 

[6] See Van Jones, The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems (New York: Harper, 2009), 10-11.

 

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