A change in political climate

In Obama’s second term, the issue of climate change may gain renewed traction.

By Luke Brinker

President Barack Obama reinvigorated the hopes of environmental activists when he declared in his second inaugural address that his administration would make climate change a second-term priority. Failure to tackle the issue, Obama said, “would betray our children and future generations.”

Despite an oft-mocked 2008 pledge to slow the rise of the oceans, the President gave climate change short shrift throughout most of his first term. Initial indications suggested that Obama’s first year in office would witness significant progress toward arresting climate change. In June 2009, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives narrowly passed a cap-and-trade bill sponsored by Representatives Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Ed Markey (D-MA), but the legislation languished in the Senate. That December, officials from around the world convened in Copenhagen for a high-stakes climate summit. Signaling his optimism that a deal could be reached, President Obama dropped in on the conference. But the meeting failed to produce a landmark agreement.

By 2010, Obama and the Democrats had consumed so much political capital on the stimulus and on health-care reform that there was little appetite for tackling yet another controversial issue. Fearing energy industry–funded attack ads, Democrats punted on the topic. They lost the 2010 midterms anyway. With Republicans in control of the House and Democratic ranks reduced in the Senate, the prospects for a climate deal diminished from iffy to nil.

What changed? The Obama who reclaimed the mantle of environmental protection earlier this year no longer had to worry about reelection. Not only did the President secure a second term in November, but Democrats also boosted their numbers in the House and strengthened their control of the Senate, creating more favorable conditions for a climate change accord. Finally, much as the horrific shootings in Newtown, Connecticut transformed the national debate on gun control, Hurricane Sandy forced many reluctant political players off the sidelines, lest extreme weather soon become the norm.

We’ve heard little from the President on climate change since his January address. (That said, earlier this month he did appoint Gina McCarthy, a fierce pro-environment regulator, to be the next head of the Environmental Protection Agency.) It’s not clear when or if Congress plans to take up the matter. For now, immigration reform and gun control are the two big issues dominating the political agenda. But that’s not to say there’s nothing Obama can do on the subject in the meantime.

On March 1, the State Department released an official assessment of the environmental impact of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline would transport oil from Canada’s tar sands through the Great Plains and down to Texas. In July 2010, the EPA estimated that tar sands oil would produce greenhouse gas emissions 82 percent greater than those from the average U.S.–refined crude. Somehow, though, the State Department report asserted that building the Keystone pipeline would have no real impact on climate change. The report appears to set the stage for official approval of the project. Formally, it’s up to the State Department to grant permission for construction of the pipeline. However, Obama has indicated that he will have the final say on the matter.

It’s difficult to square the State Department’s findings with the assessment of NASA climate scientist James Hansen, who famously stated in 2011 that “if the tar sands are thrown into the [energy] mix, it is essentially game over” for the climate. Any measures taken after the development of the tar sands would represent nothing more than a drop in the bucket. Curbing climate change can’t be accomplished simply by blocking the Keystone pipeline, but it will be virtually impossible if the pipeline is approved and thereby expedites production of tar sands oil.

The State Department’s analysis appears to be partly based on the judgment that the tar sands will be developed whether the U.S. builds the pipeline or not. Canadian officials have boasted that they will have no shortage of consumers if the U.S. demurs. China, for example, is eagerly seeking new sources of energy to fuel its burgeoning quasi-capitalist economy. It’s not obvious, though, why this should be an argument for the construction of the pipeline. It’s like saying that we’re going to be screwed anyway, so we might as well screw ourselves. If anything, it highlights the urgent need for a global agreement to solve climate change, complete with credits and supports for emerging economies like China, India, and Brazil.

While the State Department report is understandably disheartening for climate change activists, they can take solace in the fact that Secretary of State John Kerry is now at the helm of the department. Throughout his Senate career, Kerry devoted significant attention to the climate crisis, and in his Senate confirmation hearings, he indicated that he considered climate change one of the leading foreign policy challenges he would face. Having Kerry at the table makes it more likely that Obama will reach the right decision on Keystone.

Denying the Keystone permit won’t be enough for Obama to keep the promises he made in his inaugural address. But, it’s an essential first step.

Luke Brinker is a graduate student in the MAPSS program.