While President Obama has emerged as a strong leader on climate change, serious questions have been raised about his government's rush to ship coal overseas.
Late last year, President Obama stood with Chinese President Xi Jinping to reiterate their shared goal of aggressively tackling the issue of climate change. The official joint announcement in November offered strong and impressive-sounding language:
The United States of America and the People’s Republic of China have a critical role to play in combating global climate change, one of the greatest threats facing humanity. The seriousness of the challenge calls upon the two sides to work constructively together for the common good.
All this cooperation is of course very good, with the United States the largest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases and China with the largest overall volume of greenhouse gas emissions, it is imperative that these two countries in particular play a leadership role on tackling the issue of climate change.
But there's a wrinkle.
In fact, it is a really big wrinkle in the form of a black burnable rock that just so happens to be the single largest source of greenhouse gas in the world.
While President Obama is saying and doing many good things on climate, his administration is at the same time allowing very large amounts of coal to be mined and shipped overseas to countries like China and India where it will be burned, pumping an astounding amount of planet-heating greenhouse gases into our collective atmosphere.
In fact, according to analysis by Dr. Brian Moench and the Physicians for Social Responsibility, the greenhouse gas reductions that will result from President Obama's Clean Power Plan, will be wiped out if his administration allows planned new coal leases to go ahead in the Powder River Basin mining region of Montana.
Right now, the Obama administration's Bureau of Land Management is planning to give out 16 new leases to coal companies to extract a whopping 10.2 billion more tons of coal from the Powder River Basin.
If these leases go ahead and all of that coal is mined and burned, it would result in 16.2 billion more tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide being pumped into our atmosphere.
That is an absolutely astonishing amount of pollution. To put it into perspective, the total carbon emissions globally from fossil fuels in 2013 was 9.9 billion.
But here's the thing: if the coal is mined in the United States, but not burned in the United States, and is instead shipped overseas, the Obama administration does not have to take any responsibility for the resulting greenhouse gas emissions.
The president, technically at least, could stand by his country's commitment to climate change, but it is hard to believe that he could do it without crossing his fingers behind his back.
With all the smart people Obama has surrounded himself with, there is no way he cannot know this.
And it almost goes without saying, that President Obama knows we all share a borderless atmosphere which does not discern between coal burned in the US, China or anywhere else. All that greenhouse gas has the same impact on our atmosphere regardless of who burns it.
At the moment, the President remains a leader on climate issues. But if this coal deal goes ahead on his watch, that leadership will turn from a bright green ray of hope to a brown cloud of smog overnight.
Photo credit: U.S. Embassy The Hague
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