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Notes from a Small Planet: Obama on Climate Change

Basia Yoffe
June 27, 2013

by Basia Yoffe

Basia ONlinePRESIDENT OBAMA'S SPEECH at Georgetown University on climate change should not make anyone rest easy about the issue. Climate activist Tim DeChristopher, who was imprisoned for two years for disrupting an auction of public lands to private buyers, said it pointedly: "If you take the policy parts out, it was a good speech."

Indeed, President Obama called on the students in attendance, and students nationwide, to stand up and educate the people around them about climate change: their friends, parents, church groups, clubs. This was clearly a call to action. And Obama committed himself to action, too, via executive orders. He can't address carbon pricing — that would take Congressional action — but there's a whole lot he can do.

Simply addressing the crisis was a breakthrough: This is the first presidential speech on climate change since the world became aware of it. Obama equated climate change-denial to "flat earth" theory and endorsed the solid scientific consensus about the human role in heating up the planet. He also made clear that there is nothing we can do to stop it from happening, and that it will take a long time for the climate to stabilize, even if we cut way back on carbon emissions. He announced that the Environmental Protection Agency will be regulating the carbon emissions of power plants. He announced carbon-cutting measures for federal facilities, including military bases. He announced a government Climate Data Initiative that will be vital for innovation and scientific discovery and public awareness. He spoke of forests as an vital "carbon sink," and pledged to preserve them. All good, and all important: This is the president of the United States speaking, and if he shows leadership in confronting the crisis of climate change, there is reason to think that Brazil, Russia, India, and China will respond with initiatives of their own.

I BELIEVE, HOWEVER, that our praise for the speech must be qualified. Obama essentially killed the climate change movement four years ago by keeping silent on the topic throughout his campaign, and he is now promoting natural gas (read fracking) as the "transitional" solution. He is signalling to the environmental movement that if we shut up about fracking, he may withhold approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. Destroying potable water supplies through fracking, however, is not a "transitional" strategy, not at a time when water is more and more becoming a precious commodity. In fact, the footprint of natural gas from shale rock is actually estimated to be 20 percent greater than the footprint of coal (twice as great on the 20-year horizon, and equal comparable over the course of 100 years).

Nuclear energy is also a significant part of Obama's plan. I set out my views on this in the current issue of Jewish Currents (Summer, 2013), which is now in the mail to readers. In my view, nuclear energy ceased to be really feasible when the Clinton Administration pulled funding for the next generation of nuclear power plants nearly twenty years ago — and we are all blessed by that fact.

President Obama's plan to deal with Climate Change is simply not nearly bold enough. Climate Action Tracker states that "the continuous global fossil-fuel intensive development of the past decade [which includes natural gas]" makes it unlikely that countries of the world will meet even their limited goals of curbing carbon emissions, and far more likely that "high warming levels of 4 degrees Centigrade" will be upon us by the end of the century. Only an "arsenal of democracy" type of national mobilization, aimed at transferring our country to 100 percent renewable energy within two decades, would be sufficient to avert this outcome.

Yet the president's capacity for making change singlehandedly is limited. The right is already describing Obama's initiatives as a "power grab," and will no doubt fight his executive decisions every step of the way, particularly through attacks on the federal budget. Built into his speech was a real call for help from citizens — the most eyebrow-raising moment of the talk came when he was listing what Georgetown students can do to fight climate change and proclaimed, "Invest, divest." This was an obvious shout-out to 350.org and its divestment movement, which I discussed in my May 6th blog. All of us should be participating in that movement. The president is begging us to.

Those of us who are alive today are privileged to have a real opportunity to change the course of human events, at least in small ways. In my first blog post I explained how a dozen phone calls can affect how an elected representative votes. Nu, read the president's plan and call him: (202) 456-1111. Tell what you like and don't like about the plan. Then see how you can support the divestment movement. If not now, when?

Basia Yoffe conducts the "Notes from a Small Planet" column in Jewish Currents and serves on the magazine's editorial board. She is active in the Green Chevre, among other Jewish environmental organizations.