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President Obama’s Lethal Climate Legacy

Obama ran against “Drill Baby, Drill!” then turned the US into the leading producer of fossil fuels.

Legacy: anything handed down from the past, as from an ancestor or predecessor.

In The Assassination Complex, the new book by Jeremy Scahill and the staff of The Intercept, President Obama’s endless drone warfare is characterized as his “deadly legacy.” Now every president can assume the role of judge, jury and executioner in ordering executions anywhere in the world in the name of stamping out terrorism. Legacies, however, can only be judged from the perspective of future generations, and when children of millennials look back from the wisdom of their old age on the presidency of one Barack Hussein Obama, what he is almost assured to be remembered for most is his unconscionable, and frankly, inexplicable lack of leadership on the most pressing issue of this or any other time in our relatively brief history: the climate crisis. Given the corporate media’s obsession with anything that can serve to distract us from this existential issue, together with the endless material provided by a Trump/Clinton silly season, now is the time to call Obama out on his withering inaction in the face of accelerating ecological collapse.

In 2008, candidate Obama swept into office with the resounding promise to “turn back the tides” on “a planet in peril.” Scientists were crystal clear that the window of time to take drastic action was quickly closing at that time. Nearly 70 million voters, the most ever to vote for a candidate, presented Obama with a clear mandate. The leading climate scientist in the United States, if not the world, former NASA climatologist James Hansen, then took the unusual step of penning a New Year’s letter to Michele Obama at the White House, personally appealing to her as the mother of two little girls to prod her husband to follow through quickly on his promise to the American people. Dr. Hansen noted that:

There is a profound disconnect between actions that policy circles are considering and what the science demands for preservation of the planet. A stark scientific conclusion, that we must reduce greenhouse gases below present amounts to preserve nature and humanity, has become clear to the relevant experts. The validity of this statement could be verified by the National Academy of Sciences, which can deliver prompt authoritative reports in response to a Presidential request.

The first lady’s response to our nation’s leading climate scientist? The same government expert who first informed Congress about global warming back in 1988? Hansen was effectively blacklisted at the White House, and never granted an audience with either of the Obamas.

Then, just days before his first State of the Union address to the nation, the International Energy Agency (IEA) — a heretofore conservative intergovernmental organization established in 1974 to monitor oil reserves and energy-related issues — released a startling report advising world leaders that “Unprecedented climate change has Earth hurtling down a path of catastrophic proportions,” warning of “a continual unfolding of climate disasters” and “giant waves of migration and mass mortality” if drastic actions were not taken within the next five years. That is not the kind of language we had been used to hearing from staid scientific organizations like the IEA. What did our newly elected leader have to say about this imminent disaster in his first address to the nation? He barely even mentioned the climate crisis itself, let alone reference the well-timed IEA report.

As a climate activist who enthusiastically supported Obama’s historic run for the White House, it did not take long at all for myself or most progressives to realize that we’d been snookered. It may be hard to remember, but back then, we had a Democrat-controlled Congress, and the whole world was ready to follow President Obama’s lead. He had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to exercise that mandate at the global Climate Summit in Copenhagen in 2009, weeks after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, but instead of addressing global health, he chose to focus on reforming health care back home, in accordance with the insurance industry’s wishes. We now know that our delegation to Copenhagen included NSA spying on all other delegations, so as to control negotiations — and not for the better. Then, just two years later, Obama’s climate emissaries traveled to Durban, South Africa, and scuttled any chance of building on the expiring Kyoto Climate Treaty of 1997.

How ironic that our first African-American president should choose Africa to sentence millions of African people and animals to premature death because of the effects of our affluence. With tens of thousands of Africans marching for climate justice, former South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu pleaded with world leaders: “We are saying this is the last chance, please, for goodness’ sake, take the right decision, this is the only world we have, the only home we have, if it is destroyed, we all sink.” Instead, the marching orders from Obama were to extract concessions from all countries present that no enforceable commitments could kick in until after 2020 — after the IEA climate window would close shut on all future generations. Gushing with unanticipated gratitude, leading climate science denier Marc Morano effused:

Obama has carried on Bush’s legacy! So, as skeptics, we tip our hat to President Obama in helping crush and continue to defeat the United Nations process. Obama has been a great friend of global warming skeptics at these conferences!

Having succeeded in lowering the bar of expectations for climate action with Clintonian dispatch, President Obama finally sealed his lethal legacy with the empty rhetoric of the recently ballyhooed Paris Accord, which formalized the 2020 target date for inaction — and went even further to ensure that any “commitments” made would be completely unenforceable! In a fitting monument to Obama’s “watch what I say, not what I do,” the accord adopted a sensible goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, with a 2 degree cap. But the devil is to be found in the much more detailed national commitments incorporated into the agreement, which almost certainly will push us past the 3-4 degrees mark, and prompted Dr. Hansen to characterize it as a fraud:

It’s just bullshit for them to say: ‘We’ll have a 2C warming target and then try to do a little better every five years.’ It’s just worthless words. There is no action, just promises. As long as fossil fuels appear to be the cheapest fuels out there, they will be continued to be burned.

Scientists have concluded that at this anticipated level of abrupt climate disruption agriculture itself breaks down and there may not be any way to reverse warming at that stage because feedback loops will have kicked in and accelerated the process.

As the IEA warned in 2008, we are now seeing giant waves of migration, with approximately 65 million refugees worldwide. Many are fleeing conflicts largely sparked by abrupt climate change, such as the unprecedented drought that fueled the Syrian civil war. According to the British Defense Ministry, by 2020, another 60 million people could be displaced from desertified areas of sub-Saharan Africa, and by 2050, about 200 million people may be permanently displaced.

As for the IEA’s prediction of “mass mortality,” the World Health Organization estimates that more human beings die every two years as a result of fossil fuels than perished in the Holocaust. Let that sink in; it is not a story the corporate media is following. And, according to The Global Burden of Disease Study published in 2010 in the British medical journal The Lancet, there was a 523 percent increase in mortality due to “exposure to forces of nature” between 1970 and 2010, making it the fastest growing cause of death among the 235 categories monitored. For example, the heat wave of 2003 in Europe caused more than 70,000 deaths. In Pakistan, they are actually digging anticipatory mass graves to deal with extreme temperatures. The real problem with estimating climate mortality, apart from the fact that it mostly affects people of color in the developing world, is that affected regions tend to descend into war and conflict once food and water starts disappearing, and the deaths then get attributed to war. So far, about 400,000 have died in the Syrian civil war. But if you look at the most active war zones in the world, they match up rather accurately with those areas most impacted by rising temperatures — such as northern Africa and the Middle East.

Barack Obama is a smart guy — Harvard educated. He happened to be at the helm when the science became unassailable that we are in the midst of a full-on climate crisis. While it is difficult for some people to understand the full extent of this crisis, mostly because of the 40-year time lag between carbon emissions and climate impacts, Obama has sufficient scientific resources at his command to know exactly what we are doing and failing to do. He came into office with control of both houses of Congress and a clear mandate to act on the climate crisis, with scientists the world over sounding all the necessary alarms. But in pursuing an “all-of-the-above” energy policy, highlighted by the figurative explosion of fracking and the literal explosions of oil trains and deep sea drilling rigs, Obama has turned the US into the No. 1 producer of fossil fuels in the world. The value of federal government subsidies for fossil-fuel exploration and production increased by 45 percent under his watch, even as he turned what were once climate “treaty” talks into a subterfuge for global inaction. This, from the guy who ran against “Drill, Baby Drill!”

While the window of opportunity for alleviating the anticipated suffering of future generations and stemming the toll of species extinction was closing, Obama was cementing the most lethal legacy of any US president ever, because the Sixth Great Extinction could well include humans. Sit with that for a while.

Our oceans are collapsing into watery graveyards, even threatening the oxygen supply of future terrestrials, and after 11,000 years of remarkably consistent weather that allowed us to cultivate the land and develop cities and culture, declining soil productivity, disappearing water supplies and wildly variable weather in former fertile temperate regions forebodes the collapse of agriculture in a few decades, which is to say, the collapse of civilization itself.

How is that for a legacy?

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