I’d say Barack Obama’s long and often tenuous honeymoon with progressive Americans took what looks like a lethal blow in spring 2010. Maybe you could swallow hard and accept his compromises on health care, or the war in Afghanistan—at least you could argue that we were moving in the right direction. But that oil washing ashore in the marshes of Louisiana: That was Obama’s energy policy washing ashore.
Oh sure, Bush’s too. He and Vice-President Cheney (whose Halliburton firm was at least somewhat implicated in the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig tragedy) had, as usual, relaxed the relevant environmental regulations. But it was Obama himself who had stood up three weeks before the spill and announced that he was lifting a long-standing moratorium on offshore drilling in the name of “balance” between the “need to harness domestic energy resources and the need to protect America’s natural resources.” He added, “We’ll be guided not by political ideology, but by scientific evidence.”
In fact, the president has basically ignored scientific evidence when it’s come to energy policy. The scientific evidence is completely clear: We need a massive all-out effort to get ourselves off dirty energy. Not just, or mostly, because something can go wrong and the Gulf ends up awash in oil. Rather, it’s because when that oil makes its way “safely” to the refinery and then to the tank of your car, its combustion raises the temperature of the planet. The president’s greatest climate scientist, NASA’s James Hansen, has been unequivocal: Our current path is heading us quickly in a direction “not compatible with the planet on which civilization developed or to which life on earth is adapted.”
You want to know what that planet—where, among many other things, warm air holds more water vapor than cold—looks like? Nashville, Tennessee, had more rain in the first three days of May 2010 than in all of any previous Mays. It damned near floated away down the Cumberland.
So why is Obama busy making compromises with the energy industry, and standing aside as Sen. John Kerry struggles to come up with some piece of tepid legislation that wouldn’t really shift our trajectory? Because, I think, he’s decided that it’s not politically worth it. That the power of the electric utilities and the oil companies and the coal barons is too strong. Instead of chancing a fight he might lose, he’s willing to take some symbolic victory: a piece of legislation with the word ‘energy’ on the title page—what’s inside doesn’t much matter.
The trouble is, what’s inside does matter. Because we’re not dealing with political reality here; we’re dealing with reality reality. With the physics of trying to drill at 22,000 feet. With the chemistry of the carbon molecule. With things that have to be taken as they are, not as you wish they might be. Physics and chemistry are immune to spin, to charm, to rhetoric, to hope.
Maybe the BP spill will do two things. The first would be to grab the president’s attention so he could grab ours: He needs to go on TV and say, “That black slick you see is but a shadow of the far larger, invisible slick of carbon spreading out across our atmosphere. Let’s do something about it, something serious.”
The second, if that fails, depends on the rest of us. Forty years ago, in the wake of the oil spill at Santa Barbara, California, Americans gathered in record numbers for the first Earth Day. The result was the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. We’ve got work to do again. Angry work, that can’t be postponed just because we’ve got a decent man in the White House.
Bill McKibben is the founder of 350.org, and author of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (Times Books, April 2010).