Obama Turns On The Hose

Barack Obama’s recent announcement on climate change is further proof of the liberal media’s never-ending supply of wilful nativity when it comes to the US president.

“The Obama administration unveiled historic environment rules cutting carbon pollution from power plants by 30 percent… spurring prospects for a global deal to end climate change”, heralded The Guardian. Noting it was the first time any US president had moved to regulate carbon pollution from power plants, Suzanne Goldenberg, The Guardian’s US Environmental Correspondent, explained the proposed regulations would cut carbon emissions from power plants 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Goldenberg provided supportive quotes from former Vice-President Al Gore, the Executive Director of the Sierra Club, the Chief Executive of the World Resources Institute (a “momentous development”) and the leaders of both parties in Congress. Of the report’s 1,400+ words just one unsourced sentence hinted at dissension: “The new rules were not as ambitious as some environmental groups had hoped.”

We shouldn’t be too hard on The Guardian though – this type of positive, unquestioning coverage occurred right across the media.

In reality the headline figure of a 30 percent reduction by 2030 is a lot less impressive than it sounds. This is because of the Obama Administration’s habit of moving the goalposts on climate change policy. So while the rest of the world uses 1990 as the baseline for measuring reductions in carbon emissions, the US uses 2005 – a far easier baseline figure to aim for as emissions were significantly higher in 2005 than in 1990. According to Kevin Bundy from the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute the 30 percent reduction in power plant emissions shrinks to just a mere 7.7 percent reduction when the 1990 baseline is applied.

Compare this to the 2007 recommendations from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). According to the IPCC industrialized nations should cut emissions by between 25-40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020 to have a good chance of keeping global warming under the internationally agreed 2oC. Moreover, many climate experts see the IPCC’s guidelines as conservative. For example, Professor Kevin Anderson, Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, recently pushed the European Union to pursue an “equitable and science-based 2030 decarbonisation target” of around 80 percent on 1990 levels. Regarding Obama’s new targets, Anderson, along with Dr Maria Sharmina, notes it “is a death sentence for many of tomorrow’s more vulnerable communities.”

The obvious mismatch between the science and US Government policy is the reason Bundy described Obama’s proposals as “like fighting a wildfire with a garden hose – we’re glad the president has finally turned the water on, but it’s just not enough to get the job done.” Erich Pica, President of US Friends of the Earth, agrees, arguing the new rule “simply doesn’t go far enough to put us on the right path.”

More worryingly, even Bundy’s calculations are too generous as they only refer to emissions from power plants – just one (significant) sector of the US economy. Putting the power plant emission cuts in the context of US national emissions Wenonah Hauter of Food & Water Watch and Janet Redman from the Institute for Policy Studies note “with the President’s targets, US economy-wide emission would still be above 1990 levels in 2030.”

We should, of course, be supportive of any steps taken, however small, to combat climate change – especially when it happens in the unwelcoming US political environment. So we should be prepared to defend the Obama Administration’s proposals from attacks from the right and the fossil fuel industry. However, we also need to be clear: given the size of the climate problem Obama’s plan is completely inadequate. Obama’s “historical fate is to be in power at a time when good intentions and important steps are no longer enough”, notes Mark Hertsgaard, The Nation magazine’s Environmental Correspondent. “The science he is faced with… demand actions that seem preposterous to the political and economic status quo.”

The good news is the emissions cut target is still to be finalised, and therefore open to influence from outside actors. With the stupendously wealthy fossil fuel-based industries lobbying hard it’s essential there is a mass movement to pressure the Obama Administration to institute more ambitious targets. To this end a massive rally is being organised in New York City on 20 September 2014 to coincide with an international climate summit. Back in the UK we can demand our government takes climate change as seriously as the science itself demands.

With climate change an existential threat to humanity, doing nothing is not an option.

Ian Sinclair is the author of The March That Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. He tweets @IanJSinclair 

*An edited version of this article was published in the Morning Star

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