The Perilous Contradictions in the President's 2014 State of the Union Address
Staying within prescribed climate change limits will be difficult under Obama's all-of-the-above strategy. Although Obama may be the greenest President in American history he is not doing enough to stave off the worst impacts of climate change. In his State of the Union address, he did talk about the veracity of climate change and the need to further reduce America's greenhouse gas emissions, however his ongoing support for fossil fuel extraction is dangerous and imperils hopes that we can tackle the issue of climate change before we reach irreversible tipping points.
The President made many laudable points during his address including his desire to increase protections for air, water, land and American communities. He quite correctly explained that, "we have to act with more urgency because a changing climate is already harming western communities struggling with drought and coastal cities dealing with floods."
The President touted the growth of solar power saying: "[W]e're becoming a global leader in solar too. Every four minutes another American home or business goes solar, every panel pounded into place by a worker whose job can't be outsourced."
The President has repeatedly stated his desire to put an end to tax breaks for the fossil fuel industry and use that money for fuels of the future (ie renewables). A point which he reiterated in his State of the Union address.
The President also touted his efficiency efforts including efficiency standards for new cars. He went on to suggest that he will be imposing new fuel efficiency standards for medium and heavy weight trucks. However, their is an irreconcilable paradox between efficiency and the expansion of fossil fuel.
The President indicated that he wants to “cut red tape” to help businesses build factories that use natural gas. As he explained, "If [natural gas is] extracted safely, it's the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change."
While natural gas could be made far less destructive if we could eradicate (or substantially reduce) methane leaks associated with extraction, it is easier said than done.
The President made the point that the U.S. has reduced its carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth over the last 8 years. He further indicated that he wants to set new standards for power plants which would tighten restrictions on CO2 emissions.
All of the above - Obama can't have it both ways
While efforts to reduce GHGs are beyond reproach, his overall strategy conceals an irreconcilable contradiction. Reducing GHGs is at odds with increasing domestic dirty energy exploitation. The simple fact is he cannot have it both ways.
Despite pleas from the leading U.S. environmental organizations to stop fossil fuel extraction, President Obama's State of the Union address indicates that he intends to move forward with his "all of the above" energy strategy.
The reliance on natural gas and oil may undermine efforts to stay within prescribed scientific limits. The first limit concerns temperature increases, the second involves greenhouse gas emissions. If we are to keep warming below the internationally agreed upon upper threshold limit of 2°C, we will need to stop pumping greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. It is widely known that the primary contributors of GHGs are fossil fuels.
This is the conclusion reached by numerous studies including the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which was published late in September 2013. According to the IPCC report, we cannot add more than another 140 gigatons of carbon globally (500 GtCO2).
If we continue to exploit and burn fossil fuels at the current rate, we will considerably exceed these limits. If we burn only 20 percent of estimated available carbon reserves we will have already reached the upper allowable limit of carbon emissions. If the remaining reserves are exploited there will be no way to stop runaway climate change.
We cannot afford to move forward with planned coal projects or the tar sands, nor can we afford President Obama's "all of the above" energy strategy.
In fairness, President Obama acknowledges the veracity of climate change but he is constrained by the Republicans in congress and the general ignorance of many Americans. We cannot appreciate efforts to engage climate concerns without factoring political considerations. Obama may be advancing domestic fossil fuels for political reasons, not the least of which is the impending midterms. If he loses control of the Senate, his efforts to manage climate change will suffer a serious blow.
A Ceres report titled, "Inaction on Climate Change: The Cost to Taxpayers." sees political factors as a major part of inaction. "[T]he reason for our collective shortsightedness is that the issue of climate change, and what to do about it, has become politicized in the U.S,” the report said.
Despite his considerable efforts (not the least of which is his climate action plan), the President can be faulted for failing to lead efforts to educate Americans. To create the political support we need to see, Americans need to be apprized of the implications of failing to act. Obama's State of the Union address focused on education and this could be expanded to include efforts to explain the rationale for action and expose the ignorance of climate denying Republicans who control the House.
More than any other single factor, people respond to economic considerations. The focus on the economy and jobs in the President's State of the Union speech is a reflection of this understanding. He needs to do a better job informing Americans about the price associated with climate change.
The President can do far more to help Americans apprehend the scope of the costs of failing to stay within the prescribed limits. Failing to heed these limits will result in a massive price tag that will cripple the U.S. (and global) economy and ultimately, irrevocably change life on Earth.
The costs of climate change
Evidence for these costs are not just part of some apocalyptic future, they are with us here and now. According to the the Ceres report, Federal and state disaster relief payouts are estimated to have cost every person in the U.S. more than $300. According to the report, the costs of climate change to taxpayers going forward will get worse and ultimately be "debilitating." A cogent argument can be made for acting now, as one dollar spent on prevention saves four dollars in damages. From this perspective mitigation efforts are a far better investment than adaptation.
“Continuing to ignore these escalating risks may be more comfortable than confronting the challenges of climate change, but inaction is the far riskier and more expensive path,” the Ceres report concluded.
"[T]he debate is settled. Climate change is a fact. And when our children's children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did," the President said.
However, "booming" oil and natural gas production is inconsistent with efforts to combat climate change. Reducing emissions while boosting domestic oil and gas production is a contradictory policy position. At a time when we most need the President to lead, we really got nothing new in this state of the Union speech.
The U.S. cannot simultaneously be a leading producer of fossil fuels and at the forefront of efforts to combat climate change. Selling the facts to the American public will not be easy, but it is necessary.
"The the shift to a cleaner energy economy won't happen overnight, and it will require some tough choices along the way," the President said. The question is whether he is prepared to make those tough choices.
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.
Image credit: scatteredView, courtesy flickr