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David Helvarg

David Helvarg

Posted: October 8, 2010 02:04 PM

A Tale of Two Presidents

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The government's own BP oil spill commission issued a recent report stating that the Obama administration underestimated the size of the BP oil eruption and then overestimated how much of it had gone away after the well was finally capped 220 million gallons later. On July 19, just after the oil was first sealed off, President Obama, leader of what is still arguably the most powerful nation on our blue planet, signed an executive order establishing a U.S. ocean policy to protect our seas, waterways and Great Lakes.

This policy is founded on what's being called, "ecosystem-based marine spatial planning," or what Admiral Thad Allen (USCG Ret.) refers to as "putting urban planning in the water column." In theory this will prevent future BP type disasters by better managing our many uses of our waters in ways designed to assure healthy public seas. This policy will shortly be launched by a multi-agency ocean council overseen by White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Nancy Sutley and Science Advisor John Holdren.

Still before creating his blue council, President Obama passed up a much bigger opportunity to transform both our economy and our seas. This was during his White House speech on the Gulf Oil Spill when--unlike JFK pledging we would be on the moon by 1970--he failed to set any dates or deadlines for cutting our dependence on fossil-fuels, say even a modest 20 percent by 2020. His failure to use the months long crisis to push for climate legislation or talk about moving forward with an environmentally responsible ocean policy is in marked contrast with another president I recently interviewed.

President Anote Tong of the Pacific island nation of Kiribati (capitol Tarawa, population just over 100,000) has established one of the largest marine wilderness parks--and UN World Heritage Sites--in his nation's Phoenix Islands, one of the last pristine places on our blue marble home full of sharks, corals and turtles. He did this two years ago despite the fact that sea-level rise driven by fossil fuel fired climate change threatens to overwhelm his nation by mid-century, forcing its population to evacuate its home islands. "We don't like the word refugee," he told me, "but we must prepare for relocation with dignity."

He believes that Kiribati's gift to the world (a marine park the size of California) should be reciprocated. In November he will be holding a meeting in Tarawa for the major CO2 polluter nations of the developed world to meet with the first victim states of the greenhouse century including his own, the Marshall Islands and the Maldives. These three nations are now slated to go the way of Atlantis, only in reality and for reasons we understand all too well.

With increasing saltwater incursions becoming a daily problem his approach to bipartisanship seems more robust than President Obama's attempts to find compromise with republicans on (failed) climate change legislation by offering to expand offshore drilling.

In Kiribati's parliament President Tong has threatened to deny funding for seawall construction to any member of the opposition who denies the reality of climate linked sea level rise in their districts or on their islands even as their constituents clamor for a response to constant erosion and flooding.

Given their inability to keep up with a global disaster not of their own making I asked President Tong what might be the future rights of submerged nations?

"These are new emerging questions," he told me. "What legally happens to our nation? Can we maintain our rights to our EEZ (200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone) or our World Heritage Site?"

"Can you envision your people being relocated intact, the whole population staying together in another place?" I asked.
"That's hard to envision," he admitted

While Kiribati and other island nations are slowly drowning, this summer saw Russia's forests burning, American cities sweltering (including a record-breaking 113 degree dog day afternoon in LA), large sections of Pakistan flooded and the Arctic summer ice cover reaching what one recent science report describes as a final "death spiral."

The catastrophic impacts of climate change on our lives both today and in the near future is one of the biggest and scariest issues the democrats in the House and Senate are not campaigning on as they face off against a number of demagogic deniers in next month's elections. Of course their party leader is named Obama and not Tong.