President Obama Makes Earth Day Proclamation in the Everglades

Janet Redman of the Institute for Policy Studies and Steve Horn of DeSmogblog.org unpack the contradictions in climate change policies laid out by the Obama administration

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

In the state where there was some controversy a few weeks ago, and humorous exchanges over whether Governor Rick Scott of Florida had banned the use of the word climate change from the state’s official lexicon, somewhat raggingly President Obama gave his Earth Day address in the state of Florida Everglades National Park. There he reiterated that the effect of climate change is grave, saying it can no longer be denied or ignored. Let’s have a look.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I’m going to keep doing everything I can to prepare and protect America from the worst effects of climate change, including fighting for clean air, clean water. Because in places like this folks don’t have time, we don’t have time, you do not have time to deny the effects of climate change. Folks are already busy dealing with it. And nowhere is it going to have a bigger impact than here in South Florida. No place else has to be paying closer attention to this and acknowledging it, and understanding that if we take action now we can do something about it.

PERIES: President Obama proclaimed that his administration is taking steps to combat the ever-growing signs of extreme climate change. But is he doing all that he can to contain fossil fuel extraction where most scientists are saying that what is in the ground must stay in the ground if we are to seriously contain the harmful effects of climate change?

With us to discuss the President’s Earth Day speech and his proclamation, as well as unpack his energy policies, is Janet Redman and Steve Horn. Janet is joining us from Washington D.C. She is the director of Climate Policy Program at the Institute for Policy Studies. And joining us from Madison, Wisconsin, is Steve Horn. Steve is research fellow for DeSmog Blog, and a freelance investigative journalist.

Thank you both for joining us today.

JANET REDMAN, DIRECTOR OF CLIMATE POLICY PROGRAM, IPS: Thank you for having us on.

STEVE HORN, RESEARCH FELLOW, DESMOG BLOG: Thank you.

PERIES: So let me begin by first getting your take on the President’s speech, and let me start with you, Janet, first.

REDMAN: Sure. I really appreciated the speech. I think it’s important that the President is sending signals that climate change is important. I think it was really fun that it happened in Florida and I appreciated the dig at Governor Scott there. And the dig at Inhofe, Senator Inhofe and the idea that just because we’ve had a colder winter this year in the United States that climate change doesn’t exist.

So I thought he did an interesting job of raising the science of climate change. I thought he did an interesting job of connecting our energy economy to climate change, and underlining the fact that we need to address climate change if we want a stable economy.

Unfortunately I think he missed an opportunity to really talk about the underlying cause of climate change, which of course is burning fossil fuels and altering our landscape in a way that releases greenhouse gas emissions. And he didn’t outline a serious attempt for the U.S. government to combat climate change, and the tools that they have available right now without a particularly helpful Congress. So I was still a bit disappointed.

PERIES: Steve, your take?

HORN: My take is not that different than Janet’s. I think it’s also important to note that we’ve entered election cycle 2016. This speech was of course part of, and it might not be seen this way by many, but I think it should be seen as sort of a first step towards Hillary Clinton’s campaign, Florida being a battleground state.

And you know, it’s important to note that at least one person on Hillary Clinton’s campaign team, John Podesta, is a major, has been for a long time a major supporter of natural gas as a bridge fuel, or fracking as a bridge fuel. And one thing that I discovered in my own reporting recently is that his brother Tony Podesta, who is the principal of the Podesta Group, he lobbies on behalf of a very powerful, looming LNG export terminal owned by ExxonMobil and Qatar Petroleum called Golden Pass LNG. And so that may go, that’s just one piece of the puzzle of many.

But I think that things like this outline maybe explanations for as to why the President does not really talk too much about fossil fuels or about what we should be doing in terms of energy solutions going forward, except for once in a while saying that he believes in an all of the above energy strategy. And so coming full circle, I do see this as a first step of many, of the Hillary Clinton for 2016 campaign. And I expect more of this, more talking about the deniers without actually talking about solutions to climate change that basically are false solutions, like fracking and other things.

PERIES: Steve and Janet, while it is really good to see President Obama taking and making such proclamations on Earth Day, the President actually this week also announced a new agenda to modernize energy infrastructure.

They say that the electrical grid needs to be updated to accommodate for more renewable energy use, such as wind power and solar energy, but also talks about gas and oil pipelines that need to be re-enhanced to prevent leaks. Isn’t this a bit of a contradiction?

REDMAN: I mean, this is exactly what you were just speaking to. This is part of the Obama all of the above energy agenda, and this is why it’s incredibly problematic if we want to actually address climate change.

In looking through, briefly looking through a bit of that agenda, what’s surprisingly missing is actually much mention of renewable energy. There’s a lot of mention about infrastructure around natural gas, there’s a lot of mention of different kinds of energy transport via rail, expanding and modernizing ports.

There’s a tiny bit of a mention about the environmental impacts of this expanded and modernized energy infrastructure. But it’s things like, wow, we really need to measure the fugitive emissions when we do fracking. That’s great, and we really need to think about an entire new set of pipeline networks to capture carbon dioxide, CO2, and pump it back into the ground. That’s a technology called carbon capture and storage, it’s a favorite of the United States. We’re working really hard to develop it with China. But basically what that says is we’re not going to stop doing coal, we’re not going to stop doing oil. We just want to capture the pollution, stick it in the ground, and call the problem over.

So I really take issue with the idea that this modernization of energy infrastructure has much of anything to do with renewable energy. There’s no mention of distributed energy, off-grid, minigrid, bringing that, bringing new kinds of renewable energy onto the grid. So we’re seeing some pretty major gaps if this is in fact one of Obama’s shining star in his energy policy as it relates to climate change.

PERIES: And Steve, did you note similar gaps?

HORN: What I noticed is that this sounds a lot like something that he already announced a few years ago in the executive order in March 2012 which expedites and quote-unquote, cuts the red tape on permitting for things like oil and gas pipelines, things like the southern half of the Keystone XL, which is also part, another piece of that executive order. And so in some ways this is more of the same. Of course there’s probably additional things to it, I will admit I haven’t sat and read through the whole thing.

But I think as Janet pointed out, the dirt is always in the details. It’s really important to read things like this and not only read the press releases that various government agencies, or in this case the White House, issue, and actually read the policy, and look at what is continuation of the already existing policy and what is actually new. And so I think that that’s an important thing to keep in mind for anyone who does happen to come across this press release. Go beyond the press release and actually read the policy itself.

PERIES: Now, President Obama is in a very tough place, between a rock and a hard place in a sense, with the Republicans controlling both the House and the Senate. There’s very little maneuverability here. What could he be doing that also gives way to a national discussion in the upcoming election, or what could he really do to antagonize the discussion more than he’s doing by way of just going to Florida and making these statements in the Everglades?

HORN: I think that there’s, I can think of two things right off the top of my head. Both of them have to do with pipelines, but doing some things a little bit differently than it seems like’s being outlined in his current energy policy. And that is one, there’s something called the Keystone XL, I guess the northern leg of it, that he still has the final decision on that. If he’s serious about climate change at all, of course the tar sands are carbon-intensive, [incompr.] heavy, diluted bitumen, or as they’re called, tar sands, that James Hansen has called a fuse to light a carbon bomb. So the first thing he can do is nix that.

Second of all is, I think something that’s kind of flown under the radar, a different pipeline. It’s called Line 67, that also crosses the border. And unfortunately his State Department has approved of this pipeline behind the scenes, or behind closed doors. It hasn’t gone through any of the process the Keystone XL has. That is, it hasn’t had any public hearings, it hasn’t had any environmental impact statement. And basically just through private emails that were, came out, arose of a–in a lawsuit right now, it’s going on in the U.S., there’s a court in Minnesota that’s–those emails are the way that Enbridge got this permit approval through the State Department.

So this lawsuit is really important, and still I guess the lawsuit could end today, and it would just, a judge would say okay, it’s over. If the–so maybe there would have to be a new lawsuit if Enbridge filed suit. But long story short, if the Obama administration said, actually, we’re nixing this pipeline, then it would kind of just be the same as Keystone XL. Both of these things would be signals that this administration is more serious, or getting more serious, about climate change. But for now, those still hang in the balance.

PERIES: Janet, what do you think he could be doing?

REDMAN: Yeah, I think there’s a–I’ll just pivot a little bit to the international world. He mentions this in his speech, this is actually the year that we are joining 195 other countries to negotiate the next climate deal. The next global climate deal that would follow on from the Kyoto Protocol. It’s happened–that negotiation is happening in Paris at the end of this year.

And right now Obama’s talking tough and saying, you know, the U.S. will show leadership in these international spaces. But the reality is that the U.S. is pushing a model that would tear apart the kind of regulation we’ve had in place since 1997. He’s basically saying, let’s do this idea of a pledge in review. Every country will come with a number they think is great. We’ll put it on the table, we’ll look in 20 years and hope that we’ve actually saved the planet. Instead of what many countries are calling for, which is let’s look at the science, let’s decide how much we have to reduce emissions, let’s divvy that up, and then let’s have an enforcement process that enables us to say you have to do what you said.

So Obama could stop pushing a pledge in review process, could talk about legally binding action that actually reflects the science that folks like James Hansen are saying, the kinds of reductions that we need to have country by country level.

The other piece that Obama is not doing a good job of signaling or bringing to the table is about climate finance. The money that the U.S. morally and legally owes developing countries to help them both adapt to climate change, largely a problem they’re not responsible for. Many of the, especially the least-developed countries. But also helping folks move to low-carbon development pathways. This is the idea that in many countries there are people who don’t have access to modern electricity, the kinds of things we enjoy here in the United States. It doesn’t mean they have to go without, but it means that they’ll need support to move past the cheap coal era that we were able to develop our roads, hospitals, schools, on the back of.

So both climate finance and delivering much more aggressive targets in a process by which we’re looking at a real climate deal, not a kind of collection of a, decentralized proposals for action that people think they might want to do, as opposed to what the science dictates. Obama can push that.

PERIES: Right. And then the other issue is really public lands being used for fracking. I mean, it was ironic the President in his speech was really appealing to people’s sentiments, talking about the next generation, providing passes for public parks for children so that they get to enjoy the natural wonders of the United States. But at the same time he’s making all sorts of leases and deals with the private sector to do fracking in public lands, and this is an issue you followed very closely, Steve. Can you give us some examples of the contradiction here?

HORN: Well, I think we have to look at the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015, in which first of all both chambers of Congress on a bipartisan basis and then the President signed off–of course it’s a much broader bill than just this issue. But one of the sections dealt with expedited permitting and public lands for oil and gas extraction. So in the case of the United States since 90% of that is fracking, that means fracking.

And so that’s what we’re dealing with. This is now part of law in the United States. And that’s what will dictate what happens going forward, unless a bill arises to reverse that. And in this case there actually is a bill being proposed to reverse that. It was announced first of all back then and during the previous session of Congress by U.S. Representative Mark Pocan, who’s actually in my district in Madison, Wisconsin. And then he just announced it again, with Jan Schakowsky of Illinois. Both of them have announced a bill that would undo that and basically ban fracking on public lands.

And so unless something like that happens or some, something in between what exists now, which is expedited fracking in public lands. What we have now is a regime that expedites for permitting fracking on public lands. That definitely, obviously contradicts Obama’s high-minded talk about taking care of public lands in his speech today down in the Everglades.

PERIES: And let me give both of you a last comment, and that is in relation to both John Kerry and President Obama. Do you think that these two people who really want to spearhead and do something about climate change is being impeded by any issues related to power, money, and electoral politics these days? And I’ll start with you, Janet.

REDMAN: Yeah, sure. Certainly. I think we all are pretty aware that with Citizens United, even before Citizens United, the private sector has unprecedented access to the decision makers and influence our decision makers through their dollars. It’s no secret that the oil, coal, and gas industry, that the fossil fuel sector is incredibly profitable and is able to continue pushing rule rigging that is in their benefit, and continues to rig the rules in their benefit. That’s part of why Keith Ellison and Bernie Sanders today introduced a bill to cut about $135 billion in taxpayer subsidies to the fossil fuel industries over the next 10 years.

So I think absolutely, Obama, Kerry, Jack Lew are in some ways very constrained by the fossil fuel industry. They’re constrained by thought leaders in the right like the Koch brothers, who are also advocating for a greater role of private sector, for expansion of the fossil fuel energy economy.

Those things all being true I think Obama–I think politicians would be smart to also listen to the groundswell of voices that are saying we want a clean environment, we want a healthy economy. We want a legacy from our leaders that actually recognizes that future generations are going to be holding leaders to account over years, and that this problem is unfolding today in our communities. It’s actually been, climate change has been impacting our communities for quite some time. We’re maybe just naming it as climate change. But people are getting way more savvy to the impacts in their own personal lives and their families’ lives. I’m hoping that this will help politicians be a little bit braver in their ability to stand by what they say is their dedication to the American public and to our environment.

PERIES: Steve, last word to you.

HORN: Last word for me is that I think that Exhibit A of the stranglehold that multinational corporations have over the U.S. and global system right now is the deal being negotiated right now and sadly spearheaded by the President. That is, the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And basically once again, if this thing passes, all bets are off.

And almost everything he talked about down in the Everglades would be null and void, in that this deal in particular gives so much power to multinational corporations over basically every nation-state, it makes multinational corporations akin to a global arbiter. And the global, sort of the global hegemon over all nation-states, and the power—and the legal power it gives. Even though there are sections of it that pay homage to environment, they’re all contradicted by other sections that say that multinational corporations have a right to sue if X, Y, Z happens.

So I think that that’s just yet another thing that is a troubling sign of the President, of President Obama’s, the Obama administration at large’s dedication to environmentalism, of tackling climate change in a serious way. I think that that’s probably one of the top grassroots environmental battles going on right now in the United States. Even though it’s not always talked about in terms of being an environmental battle, it definitely is in the terms of what its consequences will be if it does go through and if fast-track authority goes through, et cetera.

PERIES: Steve Horn, Janet Redman, thank you both so much for joining us today.

HORN: Thank you.

REDMAN: Thanks a lot.

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

End

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