THE BLOG

A Power Outage in the White House?

01/23/2014 10:15 am ET | Updated Mar 25, 2014
T.J. Kirkpatrick via Getty Images

Say it isn't so, President Obama!

It was just one year ago that Obama boldly declared that he would respond to the threat of climate change in his inaugural address. While he reaffirmed his call for climate action in his 2013 State of the Union address and in a historic June 2013 speech at Georgetown University, it appears that the green tint of the Obama administration has grown a little dull.

The first indication that the Obama administration was beginning to fail on fulfilling a fossil-free future came after the leaders of several major American environmental groups wrote a joint letter to the president urging him to demonstrate greater clarity in his climate vision. The respectful yet passionate letter made a common-sense point about our present and future energy policies:

"We understand that the U.S. cannot immediately end its use of fossil fuels and we also appreciate the advantages of being more energy independent. But an 'all of the above'
approach that places virtually no limits on whether, when, where or how fossil fuels are extracted ignores the impacts of carbon-intense fuels and is wrong for America's future. America requires an ambitious energy vision that reduces consumption of these fuels in order to meet the scale of the climate crisis.

An 'all of the above' strategy is a compromise that future generations can't afford. It fails to prioritize clean energy and solutions that have already begun to replace fossil fuels, revitalize American industry, and save Americans money. It increases environmental injustice while it locks in the extraction of fossil fuels that will inevitably lead to a catastrophic climate future. It threatens our health, our homes, our most sensitive public lands, our oceans and our most precious wild places. Such a policy accelerates development of fuel sources that can negate the important progress you've already made on lowering U.S. carbon pollution, and it undermines U.S. credibility in the international community."

In response to this benign letter, White House special adviser John Podesta effectively told the authors to go screw themselves. With a scornful tone, Podesta lectured the leaders on the virtues of Obama's climate action plan before rudely dismissing their complaints:

"Given this context, I was surprised that you chose to send your January 16 letter to President Obama. The president has been leading the transition, to low-carbon energy sources, and understands the need to consider a balanced approach to all forms of energy development, including oil and gas production."


In other words, don't bother us with your silly principles.

If Podesta's hostility wasn't dispiriting enough for climate activists, President Obama's words in a recently released New Yorker profile were even more depressing. In response to a question by interviewer David Remnick about his second-term legacy, President Obama responded:

"I think we are fortunate at the moment that we do not face a crisis of the scale and scope that Lincoln or F.D.R. faced. So I think it's unrealistic to suggest that I can narrow my focus the way those two presidents did."

We don't face a crisis? So Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Irene never actually happened, to say nothing of the other extreme weather events that have occurred in the last five years? You mean we didn't actually break the 400-ppm barrier?

I gasped when I read that quote, in part because it played into all the right-wing stereotypes of Obama as the "celebrity President" who's more concerned with superficiality than seriousness. It was also a hard slap across the faces of climate activists who worked to put, and keep, Obama in the White House so that he would take aggressive action to address the ecological, economic and ethical crisis that is human-caused climate change. As Brad Johnson of HillHeat.com notes:

"Obama's presidency has been marked by a backing away from a sense of urgency about the climate crisis. 'Obviously there's great urgency in dealing with a threat to the entire planet,' Obama said as a candidate in 2007. In an October 2007 speech, he called global warming 'the planet's greatest threat,' 'the issue that will determine the very future of life on this Earth,' 'a fact that threatens our very existence,' and 'the most urgent challenge of this era.'

'Global warming is not a someday problem, it is now,' he said. He pledged 'to phase out a carbon-based economy that's causing our changing climate.' 'As President, I will lead this commitment,' he promised.

Six and half years later, global carbon pollution has continued to rise rapidly, fueled in no small part by Obama's 'all of the above' support for increased oil drilling, fracking, and coal mining."

Obama's "We don't face a crisis" philosophy explains, in part, his devotion to drilling and his fetish for fracking, which Bill McKibben has recently denounced in Rolling Stone and Politico Magazine. Yet I'm convinced this can't be the only reason Obama has apparently turned a cold shoulder to a warming world.

Is climate change too much of a psychological challenge for the president? Is it simply too much for him to confront the near-almighty power of the fossil fuel industry and the Republican (and some Democratic) politicians who are that industry's acolytes? Is it simply a challenge that's too big for him to handle?

Does he believe that he must satisfy a different constituency than climate activists -- namely, residents of both red and blue states who don't give a crap about climate, but who feel they have a divine right to "cheap" energy, no matter how much that energy might cost to future generations?

Or does he not have a real sense of the urgency of this issue? As much as we'd like to think that only the least-sophisticated among us don't fully understand the climate crisis, could it be that Obama is an example of someone who, despite his intelligence, is almost completely tone-deaf to the screams of those suffering from the storms?

I can't get into President Obama's mind, but I'm surprised that a certain concept isn't on his mind -- that of enlightened self-interest.

Even the most rabid anti-Obama activist cannot deny the pure love he has for his daughters Sasha and Malia. Obama has often spoken about the importance of being a good father to his children, and he is surely proud of the job he has done as a parent.

Yet you would figure that, as a father, he would be almost fixated on ensuring that his children don't grow up in a world contaminated by carbon pollution. You would figure that, in the name of protecting Sasha and Malia, he would rhetorically ravage David Koch and Rex Tillerson at every opportunity. You would figure that, seeing his legacy in the eyes of his daughters, he would stand up and declare that yes, he was indeed waging a War on Coal, since coal first declared war on our health and our future.

You'd figure Obama would shake with contempt for the carbon polluters, regarding them as the sort of people who would treat his daughters as second-class citizens.

Where is that contempt for the carbon class? Where is that moral indignation? To quote a man who tried, and failed, to win the White House in 1996, where is the outrage?

Perhaps the outrage -- the righteous outrage -- can only be found in the hearts and minds of climate activists, who realize they must keep the heat on both major American political parties in order to bring about a new era of energy in the US and the world. After all, when it comes to climate activism, Obama himself said it best six years ago:

"Change will not come if we wait for some other person or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we've been waiting for. We are the change that we seek."