Obama's Two Faces on Climate Change

PHYSICS IS IMPLACABLE—it won’t bend even to politics.

Which is why it comes as bad news to see the charts on U.S. production of fossil fuels. During the Obama years, even as the president has been touting his administration’s success in reducing our domestic carbon emissions, it turns out that we’ve been drilling, mining, and fracking for more oil, coal, and gas than ever before. In fact, we’ve passed Saudi Arabia in oil production and are about to pass Russia in oil and gas output combined; meanwhile our coal exports have reached new highs. We’ve become the world’s biggest fossil fuel producer.

Which means that, precisely in the years when it’s become clear how much damage climate change is doing—the years of Midwest drought, of Hurricane Sandy—the United States has been bucking physics. We’re going in exactly the wrong direction.

The White House might make two arguments in response. One, it’s not their fault: The oil boom in places like North Dakota is all private enterprise. But in fact Obama’s done much to grease the skids for this boom: He’s opened up big offshore tracts for drilling, and even let the oil companies into the Arctic. His Interior Department has held auctions for vast piles of Powder River Basin coal.

In truth, when he’s being frank, the president has acknowledged this. Obama, who made it through his re-election barely mentioning global warming, has boasted again and again about his efforts to boost oil production. Here he is in 2012 in Cushing, Okla., against a backdrop of oil pipes:

Under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years. (Applause.) That’s important to know. Over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some.

They might also insist that they’re doing what they can to cut U.S. consumption of fossil fuels. And in at least a couple of cases they’d be right: They’ve enacted reasonably good standards on automobile mileage and on new coal-fired power plants.

But here again physics is the problem. If we’re digging the stuff up, it’s getting burned, if not here then somewhere else. And it doesn’t matter where. If U.S. coal gets shipped to China and then burned, the atmosphere doesn’t care: CO2 is a globally mixed gas, so in this case secondhand smoke is exactly as dangerous as taking the puffs yourself.

What’s going on is pretty clear: President Obama wanted to have it both ways. He’s wanted to placate the environmentalists he reached out to in his 2008 campaign (“In my administration the rise of the oceans will begin to slow”), and he’s wanted to placate the rich, powerful fossil fuel industry. The trouble, as I’ve said, is that physics gets the last word, and physics is sadly unimpressed by spin. Political reality is a powerful force, but reality reality trumps it every time.

Bill McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College and founder of 350.org.

Image: Marchers take part in the largest climate rally in U.S. history, Rena Schild / Shutterstock.com

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