Obama's Energy Plan Cannot Seriously Address The Impending Climate Crisis

Obama's Energy Plan Cannot Seriously Address The Impending Climate Crisis

Janet Redman: The green energy plan outlined by Obama is full of too many contradictions, such as calling for the end of subsidies to coal and oil companies while facilitating the expansion of fossil fuel facilities -   January 29, 2014
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Janet Redman is co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network, where she provides analysis of the international financial institutions' energy investment and carbon finance activities. Her recent studies on the World Bank's climate activities include World Bank: Climate Profiteer, and Dirty is the New Clean: A critique of the World Bank's strategic framework for development and climate change. She has appeared on several radio programs and C-SPAN sharing positive visions for fair and equitable climate action in the United States and overseas. She is a founding participant in the global Climate Justice Now! network.


Obama's Energy Plan Cannot Seriously Address The Impending Climate 
CrisisJESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

In President Obama's State of the Union address, he announced how he would use his executive authority to act on climate change. Let's take a listen to what the president had to say.


BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: Over the past eight years, the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth. But 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.


DESVARIEUX: Now joining us to deconstruct his speech is Janet Redman. Janet is the director of Climate Policy Program at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.

Thanks for joining us, Janet.

JANET REDMAN, DIRECTOR, CLIMATE POLICY PROGRAM, IPS: Thanks very much for having me on.

DESVARIEUX: So, Janet, the president talked about the achievements of his administration, and he pointed to how over the past eight years the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on earth. What do you make of this claim?

REDMAN: Well, I think it's exciting and impressive that people are taking climate change seriously enough that we're talking about it in the State of the Union and that it's something--reducing emissions is something that Obama feels like he can brag about.

I think it's important, though, that we dissect it a little bit. There are three pieces that I think are critical when we're looking at the numbers that he's talking about.

One, of course, is that we've seen a lot of emissions reduced because we're moving away from coal. That's exciting. I think many of us have been saying for a long time we need to leave coal behind. There's no such thing as clean coal. And so this is exciting. But the reality is we're shifting to other fossil fuels, and in particular, as you heard Obama talk about, we're shifting to natural gas. So part of the reality of the number of us reducing emissions is that we may not be counting the whole emissions package that comes along when we do natural gas drilling. So what I think we're going to see as we talk more about the energy policy is in fact we may see a rise in emissions as we begin to measure the full greenhouse gas ramifications of natural gas drilling.

I guess there are two other pieces that I think are really important. One, while we may be reducing our emissions here in the United States, we're still consuming a lot of goods from other parts of the world. So part of the emissions package from China, from India, from other parts of the developing world are actually some of our own embedded emissions. And by embedded emissions I mean that those countries are producing cheap products that we purchase here in the United States, but they are counting the emissions from that production in their own statistics. So we're kind of missing a bunch of the emissions that are actually in our computer in the clothes that we purchase.

And then a third piece--and I think this is also important--is that of course we're seeing a downturn in our economy in the past eight years. So a piece of that reduction of emissions is actually because of slowed economic growth. So if we are actually coming out of a recession, or if we don't see a second dip in the recession, those numbers may change, those numbers will change slightly. We may not be in the same kind of trajectory or pathway as we just saw Obama talk about.

DESVARIEUX: And isn't it also true, Janet, that in terms of a percentage, though, of the total carbon pollution, we haven't gone down as much as he's claiming?

REDMAN: Certainly. I mean, I think one thing is what we've done in the past eight years, and another piece of the picture is what our overall responsibility is. We're still on the hook for about a quarter of the greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere released since the Industrial Revolution. And certainly we were only superseded by China in terms of overall national emissions about two years ago. That doesn't actually talk about per capita greenhouse gas emissions. So still we're very high on the top of the list in terms of how much greenhouse gas emissions we emit per person. We're less populated than places like China, so it makes sense that that country as a whole is emitting more than we are at this point, but that doesn't really give you the whole picture.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. And, Janet, he also mentioned the green economy and how his energy policy is creating jobs and leading to a cleaner, safer planet. Where are the real green economy proposals that he ran on?

REDMAN: You know, I think this is a problem with the idea of a green economy. It means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I think some people see the green economy as being fuel switching. And again, really, right in the center of Obama's green energy plan is a shift from oil and gas to drilling for natural gas.

So natural gas, as we've learned recently from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is actually a lot dirtier than we thought it was, one, because we release a whole lot more methane when we're drilling than we thought we did originally, and two, methane is actually 34 times as powerful as carbon dioxide is in terms of its greenhouse gas potential when released into the atmosphere. So the fact that the green energy economy is based on hugely expanding natural gas fracking and natural gas as a power source, both in electricity and fuel, is a real problem.

But then, of course, other pieces of that green energy economy and green economy are problematic as well, I think in particular the idea of energy efficiency, which is absolutely important--I think energy efficiency is critical. It means we use less energy if we do the same activities. What's really problematic is the idea that we can have energy efficiency, but then ramp up our consumption of energy overall, because we use more energy, even if we're doing it a little bit better. So that's--those two pieces, I think, are really problematic.

I think it's fantastic that we're retrofitting buildings. I think it's really important that he's talking about community resilience. That's actually a really critical piece of the puzzle when we think about climate change, both because of the impacts of climate change that are already visiting many of our communities, and particularly communities of color and low-income communities in the United States, but because resilience means more than just which kind of fossil fuel we're going to use that's a little less dirty. It also means how we take control of our food systems, relocalize our public transportation, really highlight public transportation, as opposed to a little bit less dirty cars, for example. So I think the package of resilience proposals is really exciting that Obama's talking about. And that's something that I wish he had said more about last night, to be honest.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Let's turn to that speech again and listen to something else that the president had to say about climate change.


OBAMA: But the 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.


DESVARIEUX: Janet, the president said that climate change is a fact. That's quite incredible that he said that in the State of the Union address. But if his policies are based on this sense of urgency, do you really see that reflected in what we're seeing now?

REDMAN: Unfortunately, no. I recognize that unfortunately Obama was in a tough situation. He's thinking about what he can possibly do without Congress. So, you know, he's using executive orders to do things like put regulations on carbon emissions from power plants through the EPA. He can regulate that. He's thinking about spending public dollars on different kinds of energy efficiency, etc.

But this idea of a all-of-the-above energy policy resonating or having any kind of congruency with the reality, the urgency of the climate catastrophe that's really unfolding in front of us is--like, it just doesn't connect at all. It's really unrealistic. I think that's for me the real--what's really troubling is just it's completely contradictory to, on one hand, celebrate the fact that we are digging up more oil out of the ground in the United States than we have in two decades, and then, on the other hand, saying we need to really deal with this problem as an urgent crisis. The two just don't connect. He's really speaking out of two sides of his mouth.

What would have been really exciting to hear him talk about is how do we divest from fossil fuels. He talked about stopping subsidies to oil, coal, and gas company, but then he also talked about cutting red tape for expansion of fossil fuel facilities. You can't really have both and be taking climate change seriously.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Janet Redman, thank you so much for joining us.

REDMAN: Thanks so much for having me on.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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