Current CO2 concentration in the atmosphere

Some overnight thoughts on Obama’s speech

I didn’t want to respond yesterday to President Obama’s speech, as I thought it would be a good idea to mull it over last night and this morning. I think that was a good call, as there was a lot more meat to this speech than I (and most people, from what I’ve seen) expected.

Joe Romm (among many others) has posted the entire transcript of the speech, which I’ve used for quotes below.

Surprises

  • Keystone XL was not only mentioned, which surprised just about everyone, but Obama said:

    Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interests.

    And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact — (applause) — the net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward. It’s relevant.

    What does “significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution” mean, and how will it be determined? If you claim that the tar in the ground in Canada will find its way to a refinery and then gas tanks even without the aid of a US pipeline, it’s easy (if inaccurate) to conclude that the pipeline won’t increase CO2 emissions significantly. There seemed to be more wiggle room here than was necessary, which makes me a bit nervous, and I can’t tell if Obama has already decided what to do about the pipeline and is merely laying the groundwork for the announcement.

  • Call to activism.

    What we need in this fight are citizens who will stand up and speak up and compel us to do what this moment demands. Understand, this is not just a job for politicians. So I’m going to need all of you, to educate your classmates, your colleagues, your parents, your friends.

    Tell them what’s at stake. Speak up at town halls, church groups, PTA meetings. Push back on misinformation. Speak up for the facts. Broaden the circle of those who are willing to stand up for our future. (Applause.)

    Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. (Applause.) Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. (Applause.) Invest. Divest. Remind folks there’s no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth.

    And remind everyone who represents you at every level of government that sheltering future generations against the ravages of climate change is a prerequisite for your vote! Make yourself heard on this issue. (Cheers, applause.)

    Wait a second — did the President of the US really call on people to educate and activate others, a phrase I’ve been using on this site for over 10 years? Yes, he did, if not in so many words.

    Excuse me, I need a moment to compose myself.

    Also note the thinly veiled shout out to 350.org and their divestment campaign. He just gave that operation an immense boost, without spending a dime.

  • Explicitly calling out deniers and Republicans.

    The woman that I’ve chosen to head up the EPA, Gina McCarthy, she’s worked — (cheers, applause) — she’s terrific. Gina’s worked for the EPA in my administration, but she’s also worked for five Republican governors. She’s got a long track record of working with industry and business leaders to forge common-sense solutions.

    Unfortunately, she’s being held up in the Senate. She’s been held up for months, forced to jump through hoops no Cabinet nominee should ever have to, not because she lacks qualifications, because there are too many in the Republican Party right now who think that the Environmental Protecting Agency has no business protecting our environment from carbon pollution. The Senate should confirm her without any further obstruction or delay. (Cheers, applause.)

    And just a couple of paragraphs later:

    But I don’t have much patience for anyone who denies that this challenge is real. We don’t have time for a meeting of the flat earth society. (Cheers, applause.) Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it’s not going to protect you from the coming storm. And ultimately, we will be judged as a people and as a society and as a country on where we go from here.

    The first quote above seems like pretty standard political fare for Washington, albeit in a slightly more pointed delivery than we normally hear from Obama. But the second quote is where he performs a little political jiu jitsu and all but dares the intellectually and ideologically compromised deniers to double down. Of course, since all they know is how to attack, they will. This may be the surest sign that Obama not only knows the full story about climate change and the surrounding politics, economics, and psychology, but that he’s willing to play the long game. This sounds to me like a president who wants to make the deniers and obstructionists look as ridiculous as possible as a way to marginalize and politically neutralize them. And there’s no surer way to do that than to elevate the issue of climate change to a much higher profile position and pointedly call them out.

    For me, this was easily the most surprising aspect of the speech.

Non-surprises

  • Lack of a carbon tax or cap and trade plan. These weren’t an option, except as something he could has called on Congress to pass, and we all know there is zero chance of that happening until New Orleans has become the world’s biggest aquarium.
  • Further touting of natural gas for short-term emissions reductions:

    Now, even as we’re producing more domestic oil, we’re also producing more cleaner-burning natural gas than any other country on Earth. And again, sometimes there are disputes about natural gas, but let me say this: We should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because in the medium term, at least, it not only can provide safe, cheap power, but it can also help reduce our carbon emissions.

    I have to wonder what this implies for fracking regulation at the federal or even state level? And I really have to wonder what sort of political calculation went into this — it looks more moderate but at the cost of locking us into yet another fossil fuel that’s too carbon intensive for our circumstances.

Summary

  • Overall, I thought it was a much more pointed and muscular speech than I expected. Yes, he did the stirring imagery thing in a few places, but there was a lot more substance in those roughly 50 minutes than I was hoping to hear.
  • Was the plan enough to “stop the planet being beyond fixing” as one seemingly hyper-caffeinated headline writer called it? Of course not, and anyone who even thought it was possible to accomplish that goal in one announcement is either click trolling or knows virtually nothing about the climate change situation we’ve built over the last 250 years.
  • How much this plan winds up reducing CO2 emissions directly and indirectly (via gaining us leverage in climate negotiations, for example), remains to be seen. My guess is that the raw numbers will be quite underwhelming, but I would also argue that relying on that metric misses the point. Obama has changed the political climate (pun intended) by explicitly acknowledging the urgency of the problem and pointing us in a different policy direction. The speech felt to me like the clearest “genie out of the bottle” moment I’ve experienced in American politics.
  • President Obama made it very clear that how quickly and how far we move forward on limiting the human impacts of climate change are largely up to voters and consumers. He didn’t quote FDR’s famous line, “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it”, but it was there, between the lines.
  • The fundamental issue that so many of us have been talking about for years remains unchanged: We have to get off our collective asses and get to work, or our situation and that of our children and their children will only get much worse.

3 comments to Some overnight thoughts on Obama’s speech

  • Sasparilla

    Excellent article Lou, I was surprised and impressed as well – maybe we’ll finally turn the corner in the U.S. and be reducing emissions actively for a change. That said I found the following in a NY Times article (and it is just so this administration (and the prior one) based on the last 4 years):

    “Experts say he will be lucky to get a final plan in place by the time he leaves office in early 2017.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/26/science/earth/clean-air-act-reinterpreted-would-focus-on-flexibility-and-state-level-efforts.html?hp&_r=0

  • Lou

    Sadly, I have to agree on the 2017 timing. This will be an agonizingly slow process, thanks to the huge blocks of concrete currently impersonating Republicans (and a few Democrats) in Congress. I think we’ll get some helpful steps from the top, like EPA regs on power plants and a stronger focus on adaptation, but any real speed in this transition will have to be fueled by a grassroots movement. That means more single-issue voting, more boycotts, and above all else, more self- and peer education.

  • Sasparilla

    It sure is nice to see political movement to the upside for a change though, its been a long time coming. :-) Gotta soak this up.

    In other good news much of the U.S. coal industry’s stock has been getting pounded over the prior year (with a little bump after the speech) as investors flee…

    http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/markets/2013/06/25/obama-emissions-energy-stocks/2455167/