Why President Obama’s strong words on climate change matter, despite his weak record

The World
President Obama speaks about climate science with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman on the Showtime documentary series "Years of Living Dangerously." The president's comments to Friedman that "we're not going to be able to burn" all the world's fos

“We're not going to be able to burn it all."

Ten words from Barack Obama that journalist Mark Hertsgaard says "constitute one of the most stunning statements ever made by a United States president."


Obama was being interviewed for the Showtime TV climate change documentary series Years of Living Dangerously. Reporter Thomas Friedman asked him if he knew about some of the the latest science on climate: that two-thirds of the world's known reserves of fossil fuels must stay unburned if we're to limit the industrial-era rise in global temperature to two degrees Celsius.

The president told Friedman yes, he accepted that science and ackowledged that “we're not going to be able to burn it all."

Hertsgaard said the statement was so remarkable "because it essentially turns on its head not just Mr. Obama's energy policy, but the energy policy that the United States has been following for many decades, which is to do as much oil drilling and natural gas exploitation and coal mining as possible."

And yet the statement went largely unnoticed, and, as Hertsgaard points out, is belied by Obama's own policies, which even with his recently announced crackdown on dirty power plants falls far short of what's needed to put the US and the world on track toward that two-degree limit.

So what do his words matter if they're not followed with action?

"I think it always matters what the president of the United States says," Hertsgaard said.

Yes, Hertsgaard acknowledged, Obama's own "all of the above" energy policies "go completely in the other direction. But let's not lose sight of the international aspect of this."

Under the Copenhagen Accord that Obama signed and championed at the last big climate summit in 2009, he says, "the United States is legally bound to do what it can to keep temperatures to two degrees Celsius. And I think President Obama is clearly looking forward to the next round of international climate negotiations. We’re supposed to be signing a Treaty in Paris in 2015, so I think Obama is mindful of that and probably trying to create the political space so that he can pursue policies that are more in line with that. "

Of course he’s also a lame-duck president. So why would he suddenly spend all this energy on climate change now?

"It's taken him six years to realize that he should not have been going the legislative route on this," Hertsgaard says. "He spent much of his first year in office trying to push the cap and trade bill, which was doomed, through Congress, when in fact he has had in his presidential authority from the day he took office — the power to deal with climate change, and in fact the obligation to deal with it under the United States Clean Air Act.

"So I think Obama sees this as part of his legacy. He’s talked repeatedly about his feelings as a father, that this is one of the most important problems facing United States and the world going forward," Hertsgaard adds.

But with the global economy and population undergoing rapid growth, how can we stop ourselves from burning all those fossil fuels? Are there really serious alternatives? Hertsgaard says there are.

"Let's start with Germany and California, two of the world's most vibrant and innovate and successful economies," he says.

"Germany has pledged, and is well on the way to getting rid of its reliance on not just fossil fuels but also nuclear power. In California, where I live, Gov. Jerry Brown has pledged to make the state carbon-free by 2050, and is imposing a lot of policies to do that.

"Meanwhile one of my favorite examples here is solar power. Fifteen years ago, very few people had cellphones globally, (but) now pretty much everyone has one. Solar power is now growing faster than that, and not just in Germany and California."

"But we have got to bring government policies into line with that two degrees Celsius goal. And that's where we need to see more people speaking, like President Obama, and above all putting in place the policies that could make that happen."

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