Will Barack Obama Rescue Us from Global Warming?

by Paul Donahue

09 February 2009

Since the inauguration, we have been hearing lots of brave talk coming from the Obama administration surrounding the issue of global warming. Both President Obama and Secretary of Energy Dr. Stephen Chu have spoken of the tremendous importance of rapidly moving forward to curb our emissions of greenhouse gases. However, talk is cheap, it is actions that count. Will the Obama administration really rescue us from global warming? Perhaps I’m being overly pessimistic or cynical, but I would say that the short answer is “not likely”.

Certainly Obama will make some positive steps. In fact he already has, such as directing federal regulators at the EPA to reconsider the Bush administration’s past rejection of the application by California and 13 other states to set stricter limits on greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks and directing the Department of Transportation to draw up rules to implement a 2007 law requiring a 40 percent improvement in gas mileage for autos and light trucks by 2020. Undoubtedly, there will be more positive steps to come.

Just the same, for the next four years I am fully expecting to see way too little action, and that action coming way too late. I would like to be wrong, but so far the road signs tell me that my pessimism is right on track. Obama will unquestionably be better than George Bush on climate change issues. Bush set the bar so low that almost anybody would be better than him. But better just isn't good enough. The world is facing catastrophic climate change and we need action appropriate to the seriousness of that threat.

Here are some of the road signs leading to climate chaos…..

Having received significant campaign donations from the coal industry, Obama supports "clean coal" technology, an oxymoron if there ever was one. “Clean coal” is greenwash - the industry’s attempt to clean up its deservedly dirty image. Many of the “clean coal” technologies being promoted by the coal industry are still in the development stage and will take hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars and many more years before they are commercially available. “Clean coal” technologies are also extremely expensive in terms of day to day running costs. Moreover, “clean coal” methods only move pollutants from one waste stream to another. Between 7 and 30 percent of coal consists of non-combustible material that eventually just has to be disposed of. Even if by some miracle the combustion of coal could be made pollution-free, the extraction of coal is anything but that. Aside from the significant quantity of fossil fuels used in the extraction process, large areas of carbon-sequestering forest are being destroyed to get to the coal.

Also having received significant campaign donations from the nuclear industry, Obama supports nuclear power, a non-solution as it contributes considerably to global warming. He started off by choosing a Secretary of Energy who is very pro-nuclear. Secretary of Energy Dr. Stephen Chu, while a strong believer in the threat of global warming, is also a strong proponent of nuclear power. He has made numerous public statements to the effect that nuclear power must be part of the country’s energy portfolio. During his confirmation hearings he told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that he would help streamline nuclear loan guarantees that would help the industry construct several new nuclear plants and would push the Department of Energy to examine options for recycling nuclear waste.

Claims that nuclear power is “emissions free” are false. While the actual generation of nuclear power produces relatively little in the way of greenhouse gas emissions, substantial greenhouse gas emissions are generated across the entire nuclear fuel cycle. The process of mining and refining uranium emits large amounts of greenhouse gases, and a group of Australian researchers has calculated that these emissions will rise considerably in the future. As high-grade uranium gets scarcer, locating and mining it will become more energy intensive, with companies digging deeper to find the metal, refining more ore in order to produce it, and producing more pollution in the process.

 Obama also received significant campaign contributions from the biofuels industry and, consequently, he supports an increased reliance on biofuels. Are you seeing any pattern here? His support for biofuels comes despite their great potential to tremendously increase emissions of carbon dioxide. In the case of ethanol, there are minimal savings, if any, in either oil use or greenhouse gas emissions as it takes almost as much energy (supplied by oil) to produce a gallon of ethanol as the energy that gallon of ethanol will ultimately yield. Here in the U.S. farmers are removing acreage from the Conservation Reserve Program to plant the land to corn, and in tropical countries the demand for biofuel is driving deforestation. This destruction of forests and conserved lands releases enormous quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

The oil industry also contributed significantly to Obama’s campaign, with Exxon Mobil contributing more to Obama than to John McCain. Not surprisingly, back in August 2008 Obama signaled his support for a limited increase in oil drilling in offshore waters.

Obama supported the bailout of U.S. automakers. While this may have been a good thing for U.S. auto workers, rescuing an industry devoted to churning out extremely fuel inefficient vehicles was a decidedly bad move for the health of the atmosphere and stability of the climate.

Obama supports a cap-and-trade program for greenhouse gas emissions. These programs amount to little more than a license to pollute. It is already well established that the European Union’s cap-and-trade program has failed to actually reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Cap-and-trade programs allow some corporations to profit - hence their appeal to the business community - while the rest of us suffer the consequences of additional CO2 in the atmosphere.

As I write this (early February), Obama’s economic stimulus plan is still being debated by Congress. Right now the plan certainly includes some positive steps towards curtailing greenhouse gas emissions. It also continues mistakes of the past. At present both the House and Senate versions of the bill dedicate more than twice as much funding to automobile infrastructure as they do to mass transit ….$27 billion for highway and bridge construction and repair projects as opposed to $11.5-$12 billion for buses and trains. The Senate version also includes $11 billion in aid for interest payments on most auto loans and a sales tax deduction on cars.

On February 9th Obama pitched his economic stimulus plan at a town hall meeting in Elkhart, Indiana, an RV (recreational vehicle) manufacturing and retail mecca. Elkhart is the headquarters of nearly 40 RV companies, including Skyline, Coachman, and Holiday Rambler, and has been dubbed the RV Capital of the World. It has been said that the average gas-guzzling RV has the carbon footprint of a Third World nation. However, that did not stop the president from telling the assembled crowd, “Part of the problem in Elkhart that I heard about today was the fact that  - this is the R.V. capital of America. You've got a bunch of R.V. companies that have customers who want to purchase R.V.s, but even though their credit is good, they can't get the loan. Now, the businesses also can't get loans to make payments to their suppliers. But when they have consumers, consumers can't get the loans that they need. So normalizing the credit markets is, I think, step number two.” In a sane world, instead of bemoaning the fact that people can’t get loans to buy RVs, a president truly concerned about global warming would be urging people not to drive these monsters, some of which get only 5 miles per gallon.

Obama clearly plans to continue support for U.S. energy wars abroad. Afghanistan always was and still is a war to control energy pipelines and Obama has stated his intent to double the number of U.S. troops in the country. As for his campaign promises for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, our greatest energy war to date, the backsliding has already begun. Iran, with even more oil than Iraq, is still being threatened with statements such as the recent one by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs that the Obama administration “will use all elements of our national power to deal with Iran and to help it be a responsible member of the international community.” Can the most irresponsible nation in the history of the world be a fair judge of responsible behavior by other nations?

Most importantly, you can't "grow" the economy, Obama's primary goal, and successfully tackle global warming - they're contradictory objectives. The correlation between economic output and CO2 emissions is very strong. To have a prayer of avoiding catastrophic climate change we need to drastically scale back the U.S. economy and get away from the endless growth mentality of capitalism. Unfortunately, however, there is not an elected official out there, Obama included, who will tell that to the American people. You would think that the endless growth on a finite planet contradiction would be a fairly easy concept to grasp, but apparently not.

There are lots of good ideas out there for ways in which the U.S. could reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases. In fact, we have ideas in abundance, it's political will we lack. Politicians won't take many simple and very effective steps because they are afraid of offending one industry or another. When you start with the premise that your actions on global warming must not seriously impact the economy or harm powerful industries, you're dead before you begin. As an example, deforestation contributes about 25% of global warming emissions, and the logging of old-growth forests is the worst. With a stroke of the pen Obama could, as many environmentalists and climate scientists recommend, bring an end to old-growth logging in our National Forests.  But it is extremely unlikely that he is going to do that because it would offend the logging industry. For another example, turning to a vegetarian diet is the most significant step an individual can take to reduce his or her carbon footprint. Obama and his Secretary of Health and Human Services and his Surgeon General could all make a concerted effort to promote vegetarianism. But they won't do that because it would offend the beef industry. Hence, we're stuck with cap-and-trade programs and more nuclear power.

I know I’m being hard on the new president, but somebody needs to be hard because most of the Obama fan club is not. While he is only a few weeks into his new administration, most of his positions I have criticized are not new but are positions he supported most of the way through his campaign. Carbon dioxide is building up daily in the atmosphere, so what is an appropriate length of time to wait before criticizing him?

All in all, the plans, emissions targets and timetables that Obama supports fall well short of what is needed and are not going to save us from catastrophic climate change. So, if you accept the fact that global warming poses a significant threat to life as you know it, then you would be well advised to do what you can to push the Obama administration for “change you can believe in.” Failing that, I’d move out of the coastal plain and head for higher ground.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention that I never joined the Obama craze, I did not vote for him, and I am not glad he is in the White House.

Pacifica, California

09 February 2009