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Is Obama Doing Enough to Fight Climate Change?

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Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present.

Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress where he leads the Center’s clean energy and climate advocacy campaign. He spent over 30 years working with environmental advocacy organizations and political campaigns. Weiss is an expert in energy and environmental policy; legislative strategy and tactics; and advocacy communications.

Subhankar Banerjee is an environmental humanities scholar and activist. Over the past thirteen years he has worked tirelessly for the conservation of ecoculturally significant areas of the Arctic, and to raise awareness about indigenous human rights and climate change. He has also been focusing on climate change impacts in the desert southwest. He founded, and is editor of the anthology Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point (Seven Stories Press). He was recently Director’s Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, Distinguished Visiting Professor at Fordham University in New York, received Distinguished Alumnus Award from the New Mexico State University, and Cultural Freedom Award from Lannan Foundation.


JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present. That’s according to a massive new government report from the National Climate Assessment.

In response to the report, President Obama gave a speech where he announced steps to address climate change. Here’s what he had to say.

BARACK OBAMA, U.S. PRESIDENT: Two years ago, I ordered $2 billion in energy upgrades to federal buildings. Today, I’m ordering an additional $2 billion in upgrades over the next three years. And these upgrades will create tens of thousands of construction jobs and save taxpayers billions of dollars.

And the Department of Energy is putting a new efficiency standard—set of efficiency standards in place that could save businesses billions of dollars in energy costs and cut carbon pollution—and it’s the equivalent of taking about 80 million cars off the road.

DESVARIEUX: That was President Obama a couple of weeks ago, responding to the national climate assessment.

Now joining us to discuss whether the president’s proposals are enough to combat climate change are our two guests.

Subhankar Banerjee is an environmental humanities scholar and activist. He founded and he is the editor of the anthology Arctic Voices: Resistance at the Tipping Point.

And joining us from Washington, D.C., is Daniel Weiss. He’s a senior fellow and the director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, where he leads the center’s clean energy and climate advocacy campaign.

Thank you both for joining us.



DESVARIEUX: So, we have this massive new report written and vetted by 300 experts and scientists. It basically says we’re currently experiencing the effects of climate change and it’s only going to get worse. So I’m going to first ask you, Subhankar, do you feel like the president is just paying lip service? Or is he really doing all he can do in this Republican-dominated house? Basically, could President Obama be doing more?

BANERJEE: President Obama could be doing a lot more. And I do think he’s paying lip service.

The first thing is that the good news is U.S. emission has been reducing. But it’s coming primarily from natural gas, which is being obtained from widespread fracking across the country. The president must revisit his fracking policy and actually ban it. But, unfortunately, today there is a report, just came out, that talks about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, in which there is proposal for massive increase of export of natural gas to Europe, and crude oil, which means expansion of fracking in the U.S.

Second thing is that coal extraction needs to reduce. The president needs to get a handle on that. There is an enormous expansion of coal export.

The third thing is that on the extraction side, the president must really stop the northern leg of the Keystone XL Pipeline rather than just keep delaying it as kind of a [incompr.] with the environmentalists.

And the other thing is that the Arctic ocean drilling, which the president himself got involved, fast-tracked it, really needs to be pulled back. It’s the worst form of drilling, the most dangerous form of drilling.

So those are some of the areas, the fracking, coal, arctic ocean, and the Keystone XL. I think these are the things the president can do something about.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Those are all really good points.

Dan, I’m going to have you respond. Do you think—let’s take the first one. Should the president be banning fracking if he’s really serious about climate change?

WEISS: Well, first, it’s important to note that no president, no matter who it is, could do everything or require everything that’s needed to be done to face the huge challenge of climate change. The United States, as well as other developed industrial countries, need to cut their total pollution by 80 percent by 2050. So no matter what the standard is, it would be impossible for any president, within the realm of the possible, to meet, to do everything that ought to be done.

Now, that being said, this president and this administration has done more than all of his predecessors combined to address climate change, and it’s a refreshing change after eight years of ignoring the problem under George W. Bush. We’ve already established the very first limits on carbon pollution from cars and heavy trucks, with another round of heavy trucks to come. We’ve doubled the amount of renewable electricity from wind, solar, geothermal, and other clean energy sources in his first few years as president. He’s about to issue the very first limit ever on carbon pollution from existing power plants, a pollutant that’s completely uncontrolled right now. These are just some of the things he’s done.

DESVARIEUX: But, Dan, I want to ask you—.

WEISS: Let me finish.

DESVARIEUX: Sure, but I want to ask you about those specific points that Subhankar raised. The banning of fracking—could the president be doing something about that?

WEISS: The president on his own could not ban fracking, except on federal lands. What he would need to do is get a law passed through Congress, which is extremely unlikely. But instead what he’s working on is to identify and require more controls on the methane pollution that comes from fracking. And methane is a very, very potent climate pollutant, far more potent than carbon dioxide. So he’s begun the process of limiting methane pollution from fracking. That’s a very important first step. Could he be doing it faster? Sure, but I think he’s making real strides in that area as well.

In addition, we agree with Subhankar that there ought to be a moratorium on any Arctic Ocean drilling. It’s the last place we want to be drilling in the world, when it’s a very hostile environment. We don’t know what the impact of an oil spill or blowout would be on the sea life up there. There’s no infrastructure to help recover from a spill. It’s just too dangerous to risk it.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. So you guys are both in agreement about the Arctic. What about the northern leg of the pipeline? Dan, you’re saying the president also should be rejecting that proposal?

WEISS: Absolutely. We believe the president ought to reject the Keystone XL Pipeline because it would dramatically increase the amount of carbon pollution in the atmosphere. However, they’re not going to make a decision on it till there’s a legal route from Canada through Nebraska. And until there is, there’s no need for him to make a decision. If he were to make a decision before a legal right is established—or a legal route (excuse me) is established, that could be overturned in court. So he’s got to let the process play out. And so far—he could have approved the pipeline several years ago if that was his intention. I believe ultimately that the president will reject Keystone XL Pipeline once there is a legal route through Nebraska.

DESVARIEUX: Subhankar, I want to get your take on what Dan said earlier about how the president cannot be the only one really fighting this battle against climate change and he doesn’t have the authority. Just talk about that a little bit more. What do you make of those comments?

BANERJEE: I totally agree with Dan’s comments early on that he made, not only President Obama, but all of the world leaders, because the challenge is very huge—like he said, 80 percent reduction by 2050. That’s a huge thing. And so all the president can do is not make it any worse. I mean, that’s pretty much. And maybe make a few things better.

So going back to a couple of points that Dan made that I do not quite agree with, which is the basic fact that President—kind of—right as he came in, he came out with his energy policy, called “all of the above”. And what that energy policy has done is two things.

On the side of the fossil fuels, it has empowered oil, coal, and, more recently, natural gas so much that—I would even argue, more so than even the Bush administration.

On the renewable energy side, yes, indeed there is positive news, because the new energy that is coming in into the energy market, just a new energy portfolio, that part is primarily renewable now, mostly renewable now. So that’s a good thing. But overall renewable portfolio stays at about, now, 4.5 percent, 4 percent or so. That the president can increase hugely, and it need to increase.

And some of the pollutions from light trucks and all of that that Dan mentioned is true, but we need to get a much bigger handle, and like I have been writing, you know, lately about getting a handle on the consumption side of things as well, about mass consumption, which is contributing to, basically, emissions in the end.

WEISS: You know, it’s important to note that the president without the support of the Congress doesn’t have a lot of tools. He can’t change laws by himself and he can’t provide money to invest in clean energy by himself without Congress. So he’s left using existing authority under existing laws, which he’s using quite well.

Now, when it comes to oil and gas production, he has not opened up any new areas that weren’t already open to oil and gas drilling. And, for example, today he just protected the new Organ Pipes National Monument out west.

The one area where I would agree with Subhankar is that there’s a lot of coal on federal lands that they ought to really be having a moratorium on leasing. We need to leave our coal that we own, that all Americans own, on federal lands in the ground. He has control over that, and his Department of Interior has gone ahead and leased it out, which is just going to add to the carbon burden. That’s one big thing that he could do right away that would be of great value.

DESVARIEUX: Subhankar, what do you make of Dan’s argument, basically that the president, he doesn’t necessarily—he’s not able to send out funds and things of that nature, you know, without the approval of Congress, his hands are really tied, there’s no Democratic majority in both houses of Congress. What do you make of that?

BANERJEE: That point that Dan made, right now this is true, but if you go back in 2000 [sic], that wasn’t true, really, because there was a Democratic majority, and yet we [incompr.] And, again, looking back sometimes we realize our mistakes, but it hasn’t happened. And right now, of course, I agree with Dan that in this Congress, Republicans—I mean, it’s very hard to get anything passed, and unless there is a law in place, some of these things are not possible.

However, what is possible, like the Arctic drilling, the president himself got involved and fast-tracked it. That was, again, a bad choice. Wyoming coal, the Powder River Basin, he fast-tracked that. That was a bad choice.

WEISS: You know, Jessica, it’s important to note that [incompr.] Congress isn’t just bad on this question. Remember, more than half of the Republicans in Congress do not believe climate science. More than half the Republicans are on record as either questioning whether or not climate change is happening at all or questioning whether or not it’s mostly due to human activity, even though 97 percent of climate scientists have agreed that (A) it’s happening and (B) it’s due to human activity. That’s how difficult it is.

By going back to when, in his first two years in office, he did have a Democratic majority in both the House and Senate. And look at what he did. He invested $90 billion in the Recovery Act to invest in clean energy. The New York Times called it the largest energy bill ever. They passed a comprehensive climate pollution reduction and clean energy reform act through the House of Representatives, but it died in the Senate because it needed a supermajority of 60 votes at a time when unemployment was the highest it’s been in 30 years. I went back and looked, and we’ve never had a major environmental law in the last 40 years passed with such high unemployment. The highest it’s been for any law ever passed was about seven and a half percent, or about a third lower. So all of those factors made it much harder for him to achieve all that he hoped to during his first two years in office. And then in 2011 the House became Republican, and what he had to do was not—he was not able to actually get good things done but to keep them from weakening existing environmental laws and weaken existing safeguards, and he’s done that successfully.

DESVARIEUX: Subhankar, what’s your response?

BANERJEE: Well, I mean, what Dan is saying, the first few years, I mean, generally that is true, but at the same time, the reality that we’re faced with is massive expansion of fossil fuel extraction, like just the day before the president released the—the National Climate Assessment was released, John Podesta went out—I mean, there was a White House briefing, and boasted about that U.S. is right now the largest oil and gas producer in the world, largest natural gas producer in the world. Now, these kind of statements, again, empowers that lobby and the industry that—is that what we should be doing? Or, on the other hand, this climate assessment report, honestly, something the whole country can connect with and actually relate to because its people, their loved ones, their communities are all being affected, so if this report the president goes around and promotes it in a positive way, we could probably get a lot more done.

And again I go back to the report because this is a very unique thing. It’s not just a science report. It’s something anybody across the country can relate to.

But the reality right now is that we are stuck with this expansion of fossil fuels.

And one of the things I want to bring up is setting up what we would call kind of a playbook for the oil industry, oil and gas and coal industry, that we are setting up these infrastructures in place right now by various projects. For example, if Arctic starts, we’re talking about 50 years of drilling. If Keystone gets approved or whatever happens, another 50 years. So—or fracking gets in—puts in place, another 50 years. So we are actually setting up in place infrastructure in place that’ll keep us on the path of fossil fuel for the next 100 years.

WEISS: You know, Jessica, it’s important to note that nearly all of the expansion of oil and gas production under President Obama has occurred on state and private lands. Those are lands that the president, without that support of Congress, cannot really address.

He has, however, put in the first rules to control pollution from oil and gas production that will start taking effect next year. In addition, he’s begun the process to establish limits on methane pollution, which is a bad climate polluter, on fracking on state and private lands.

But President Obama cannot go to rural Pennsylvania or he cannot go to the Balkan in North Dakota and he can’t go to the Eagle Ford in Texas and say, stop drilling. He can’t do that even if he wanted to.

DESVARIEUX: So, Subhankar, is that true? The president, is he really just powerless at this point? It’s state and private lands, really.

BANERJEE: I agree with Dan on that. That is the situation. On state and private lands it’s a much harder thing. I agree.


WEISS: And the big challenge is, you know, what he’s got to start doing now is, for crying out loud, let’s stop leasing coal, which is by far the most carbon-polluting fuel that’s owned by all Americans, let’s leave that coal in the ground. We don’t need to be producing it. For one thing, not only are we going to be producing it, but it’s going to be exported. So that means it’s going to go to benefit some other country, and we’re not even getting adequately compensated for that. So let’s leave that coal in the ground.

In addition, we need to take additional steps to invest in alternatives to oil that will help us reduce the need for oil in the country. Right now 90 percent of our transportation is fueled by oil, which means, if we don’t get it from American sources, we’re going to have to get it overseas. So the president has tried to establish more investment in infrastructure for electric vehicles and investments in public transportation and the production of advanced biofuels. We need to do a lot more of that. But, again, he needs Congress’s approval to do that.

DESVARIEUX: Subhankar, I’ll let you have the final word.

BANERJEE: Okay. Let me comment on the export part precisely, even while we are reducing emissions, that we are actually increasing the export of both natural gas and coal. And Cove Point is a good case in point.

I think we need to carefully look at what is happening with not only emission at home, but also export that’ll increase emissions everywhere.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Subhankar Banerjee, thank you so much for joining us.

BANERJEE: Thank you so much for having me, Jessica.

DESVARIEUX: And, Dan Weiss, thank you for joining us as well.

WEISS: Thank you for having me, Jessica.

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

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