Lauren R. Stevens: Poor climate for climate issues



President Obama will never satisfy those, like Bill McKibben, who regard climate change as the globe's great existential threat. Climate activist McKibben took Obama to task in a December Rolling Stone column. Yet the president's environmental record for 2013 shows considerable promise in things that he could do without the (unlikely) support of Congress.

The place to begin in evaluating it is his speech at Georgetown University on a June day so appropriately hot he repeatedly had to wipe the perspiration off his brow. Here Obama enunciated his environmental plan, most of it aimed at reducing carbon, the major cause of warming.

He directed the EPA to require the reduction of emissions from existing and future coal-fired plants, which are responsible for 40 percent of U.S. carbon. Fortunately Congress got around a roadblock to confirm Gina McCarthy as the EPA administrator. She has begun the process.

He set goals for U.S. production of renewables and for the federal government to use them. He made loans available for so-called clean-burning coal and other "advanced fossil fuels." He set the EPA and Department of Transportation to creating fuel economy standards for heavy trucks, buses and vans. He called for adaptation strategies.

He ended U.S. funding for fossil fuel projects overseas that do not attempt to capture their carbon. He said there would be a Keystone XL pipeline only if it "does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution." The pipeline, across the U.S. border, would facilitate development of Alberta's tar sands oil.


That he has not yet halted that project is the main rub for McKibben and other environmentalists, who give Obama grudging credit for fuel economy standards and power plant curtailment. They point out that while we are using less coal, we are also exporting more, with a net minus for the globe. And that while the Keystone decision hangs fire, the southern leg of the pipeline has been built.

Obama appears to regard hydraulic fracturing (fracking) as green energy, because its products are cleaner to burn than coal, while the process of extracting the oil and gas seems to many a strong environmental negative. In fact, though, all green energy has its detractors -- as though we could all survive a superheated climate without changing the way we live.

Certainly as the years go by, 2013 included, the climate crisis only deepens. During the Obama administration, disappointingly, the U.S. has not become the world's leader in the crusade to mitigate its effects.

Yet Obama's rhetoric on the problem, regarded as empty by some, has granted permission for politicians in this country and, indeed, in the world, to discuss and support the issue, as Suzanne Goldenberg, writing in The Guardian, has pointed out. She states that 2013 "was the year when climate change came out of the closet." That's something.

Unfortunately events domestic -- such as health care, congressional obstruction, invasions of privacy -- and crises abroad -- ethnic and religious fighting -- have sucked the air out of Obama's words and even his actions. Obama's a smart guy. He knows what the deal is with the climate. But he has allowed other issues have overwhelm it.

At least, that's how it looks from the White Oaks.

A writer and environmentalist, Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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