President Obama and The Climate Emergency


the_white_houseMuch of President Obama’s comprehensive new Climate Action Plan and energy policy is admirable and high-minded, but the eloquence masks some darker unspoken truths.


The following is a guest post.

John J. Berger, Ph.D. specializes in energy and environmental science and is the author and editor of eleven books including Climate Myths: The Campaign Against Climate Science (Northbrae Books, 2013) and the forthcoming Climate Peril: The Intelligent Reader’s Guide to the Climate Crisis.

President Obama and The Climate Emergency

 The President’s Climate Plan Is A Step In The Right Direction,

 But We Must Insist On More Effective Measures From the President and Congress

(c) 2013 by John J. Berger, Ph.D.

Much of President Obama’s comprehensive new Climate Action Plan and energy policy is admirable and high-minded, but the eloquence masks some darker unspoken truths.

The climate plan announced in his June 26th Georgetown University speech, begins, “. . . we have a moral obligation to future generations to leave them a planet that is not polluted and damaged.” The speech then echoes this theme, saying that we must act now, “as caretakers of the future,” on behalf of “our children and our children’s children.”

The President also graphically depicts the price Americans are already paying for global inaction on climate change. He cites the lost lives and livelihoods, ruined homes and businesses, the hundreds of billions of dollars in damages.

All this focus on the problem is laudable, as is the President’s exhortation to Americans to speak up about climate change and compel those in power “to do what this moment demands.”

Yet despite acknowledging the urgency of the problem, the speech of necessity, for political reasons, is moderate and restrained. No deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions or emergency measures. No calls for a carbon tax, no restraints on coal exports, fracking, or offshore oil drilling. No politically unpopular phase-out or moratorium on new coal power plants (though the President does oppose funding new coal plants in developing countries through international aid agencies.)

The Obama climate plan is thus nested comfortably in the embrace of Obama’s previously articulated, and politically guarded, “All of the Above” energy policy.

Because of the eloquent rhetoric, however, it’s tempting to view the speech as a landmark policy statement fundamentally reorienting American energy policy away from fossil fuels toward renewables and energy efficiency.

Maybe so. But while ostensibly the “opening bell” in an intensified Federal campaign against carbon pollution, the plan’s primary practical impacts are to accelerate the replacement of coal by another fossil fuel, newly abundant natural gas.

And unfortunately, when fracked gas comes from drilling operations with high leakage rates, the total amount of carbon pollution from drilling, transporting, and burning that gas are even higher than from burning coal.

Moreover, the climate plan’s most-touted measure—carbon pollution standards for new and existing coal plants—was already legally mandated. The Supreme Court in 2007 ruled that greenhouse gases are pollutants under the Clean Air Act. And EPA had determined in 2009 that they are threats to our health and welfare.

EPA, however, has dragged its feet ever since and failed to issue the regulations. The President’s announcement that EPA will finally act on this front—just when it was about to be sued for its inaction—is simply a rear-guard reminder to EPA to perform its legally mandated duties.

A critical major gap in the President’s speech is his failure to explain to the world what will happen if we fail to radically reduce global carbon emissions. The nation and the planet are in fact already in the grip of a global climate emergency.

Thus the moderate energy efficiency, clean energy, and preparedness strategies the President has pragmatically put on the table point us in the right direction and are desperately needed, but do not go nearly far enough.

An emergency has two basic components: it presents a grave threat to life, liberty, property, or the environment, and the situation requires immediate action. Climate change is obviously already doing grave damage to the Earth, and it threatens to do even more harm, per numerous studies. Thus it satisfies the first condition.

Because damage to the climate is essentially irreversible on time scales of interest to present generations, immediate action is necessary before further irrevocable harm is done. Thus the second condition for an emergency is met.

Data from the World Health Organization indicates that over the past 35 years, more than 5 million people have already died from increases in disease and malnutrition brought on by climate change.

These climate casualties have occurred even though the world has only warmed about 1.4° F since the dawn of industrialization. The future is far more menacing.

If we continue heating the world at the current escalating rate, billions of people will neither have enough water nor sufficient reliable, affordable food supplies, and tens of millions of environmental refugees will be on the move, hungry, sick, and desperate. This is a recipe for increased conflict and chaos in many parts of the world.

The warming to date is but a fraction of the heating that is already in store for us.  Even if heat-trapping gas emissions (largely CO2) miraculously fell to zero tomorrow, the atmosphere will get another 1–2° F degrees hotter, just from excess heat already absorbed by the oceans due to human activities so far.

But rather than curtailing emissions as much as possible, we’ve done the opposite.  The world’s emissions of heat trapping gases increased 58 percent between 1990 and 2012. We are now on track to increase global average temperatures by some 7° – 11° F by 2100. Some experts are projecting that 7° F could be reached by 2060 – 2080.

Such temperatures haven’t been seen on this planet in 5 million years. And those average temperatures would be roughly doubled in the continental interiors of the Earth’s land masses.

In the over-heated world only a few decades from now, up to 30 percent of the world would be in drought at any given time, up from one percent today. Moreover, an estimated 50 percent of land where crops now grow would become unsuitable for crops.

Even a temperature increase of 3.6° F would make our planet hotter than at any time in the past 800,000 years. Eventually that could drive the Earth’s climate past various “tipping points” at which “positive feedback” generated by the climate system itself initiates an unstoppable warming cycle beyond human control.

Climate change has already had an enormous impact.  For example, the frequency and severity of extreme weather events has greatly increased, just as climate science has predicted. Although no single weather event can be conclusively proven to result from climate change, financial losses from weather-related disasters are up sharply, setting global records.

Superstorm Sandy, Hurricane Mitch, Hurricane Katrina, and others collectively killed thousands, left millions homeless and caused damages approaching $200 billion.

The European heat wave of 2003 killed 35,000 people and did $15 billion in damage to agriculture alone.  The 2010 Russian heat wave killed 55,000 people and produced massive crop damages.

While heat waves like the European disaster were formerly expected only once in 500 years, such heat waves may become fairly common in the overheated world we’re now creating.

The President’s Climate Action Plan overall deserves our enthusiastic support, and as a public reaffirmation of our intentions to combat climate change, it will strengthen the President’s hand in crucial forthcoming international climate negotiations with developing countries.

Regrettably, however, the plan is still an early palliative step on the path to stabilizing the climate. If successful, it would just bring U.S. emissions back to a bit below 1990 levels when we were the world’s largest carbon polluter, and it proposes only a scant $8 billion for “clean energy technology across all [Federal] agencies.”

Yet the climate emergency today is even more threatening in fundamental ways to our long-term security than the terrorism and conventional military threats, on which we spend hundreds of billions a year, or the financial crisis of 2008, when the Federal Reserve committed $7.7 trillion to bail out troubled banks.

The climate emergency, too long neglected, needs to become a top financial as well as political priority.  Humanity’s deadliest common enemy is rapid and uncontrolled global climate change.


Some earlier CSW posts:

Obama’s climate action plan: The devil is in the follow-through

How will OMB treat EPA’s new power plant carbon pollution rule?

On Obama’s Climate Action Plan: Q&A with Al Jazeera English

This entry was posted in Obama Climate Plan. Bookmark the permalink.