On September 8, The New York Times published an interview with President Barack Obama in which he discussed the rapidly approaching, and already present, dangers of climate change, along with the threats that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump would pose to the environment as president.
Reflecting on his climate legacy in the interview, President Obama reinforced his concerns about and dedication to acting on climate change, but his rhetoric fails to match up with his broader record, which notably includes overseeing the United States' rise to the top spot among fossil fuel producers worldwide.
Indeed, in the interview, President Obama referred to climate change trends as “terrifying,” a statement which is hard to argue with considering the overwhelming scientific evidence. The Times also mentions the president’s successes in putting the Clean Power Plan in place and his role in committing the United States to the Paris climate agreement.
President Obama also attempted to explain why getting through to people on climate change can be so challenging, as The Times noted:
“What makes climate change difficult is that it is not an instantaneous catastrophic event,” he said. “It’s a slow-moving issue that, on a day-to-day basis, people don’t experience and don’t see.”
Climate change, Mr. Obama often says, is the greatest long-term threat facing the world, as well as a danger already manifesting itself as droughts, storms, heat waves and flooding. More than health care, more than righting a sinking economic ship, more than the historic first of an African-American president, he believes that his efforts to slow the warming of the planet will be the most consequential legacy of his presidency.
The article goes on to discuss the number of ways that the president has reached out to other countries to help fight climate change, and how he’s talked about the issue at length, especially during his second term as president. But there is one vital piece of information missing from The Times’ coverage of Obama’s climate legacy: The fact that he has done even more for the fossil fuel industry than his predecessors, including the ones who literally used to work for oil companies.
There are two very distinct issues here: The first is the president’s limited success in actually reining in carbon emissions and protecting the environment, and the other is his simultaneous approval and expansion of fossil fuel projects.
When discussing the limitations of President Obama's record of action on climate change, it is important to factor in the obstruction coming from the climate change-denying Republican Party that currently holds majorities in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.
With the legislative branch of government currently dominated by a party that overwhelmingly denies the reality of climate change, it isn’t very surprising that the president's environmental agenda has struggled as a result.
For example, the cap and trade legislation that President Obama championed was shot down in 2010 in part by Republican obstructionism in the Senate, allowing a business-as-usual scenario to continue for greenhouse gas emissions, which were slowed somewhat by the Great Recession but have since rebounded along with the economy. The Times article also notes that the Koch brothers and their Tea Party super PACs played a considerable role in killing that legislation.
And even though President Obama was able to make the Clean Power Plan a reality, legal challenges from Republican officials and fossil fuel industry lawyers have delayed the implementation of that plan, which would require states to regulate emissions from the electricity sector.
Sadly, it isn't just Republicans providing opposition to the president’s climate plans; plenty of “centrist” Democrats have joined in as well. The most notorious Democrat fighting the climate agenda in Washington, D.C. is Senator Joe Manchin from coal-dominated West Virginia. As a notable example, Sen. Manchin helped destroy a bipartisan bill that would have reduced power plant emissions years before the Clean Power Plan was drafted.
Perhaps President Obama's shortcomings on climate change action could be forgiven or even dismissed, if it weren’t for his administration’s willingness to open up federal lands and waters to fossil fuel industry exploitation. That’s where the real disappointment lies.
Looking at some of the numbers on this issue reveals a pro-industry approach toward energy production. When President Obama took office in 2009, domestic oil production was at about 5.1 million barrels a day. By April of 2016, that number had climbed to 8.9 million barrels a day, which CNN notes is a 74 percent increase in just 7 years.
Under President Obama’s watch, the United States has become the largest fossil fuel producer on the planet when accounting for both oil and liquefied natural gas production. In terms of just crude oil production, the U.S. falls to third place, behind Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Oil and gas obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) now accounts for 50% of U.S. oil production, and, thanks to the Republican-controlled Congress, the 40-year-long ban on crude oil exports was lifted.
Meanwhile, the government is still auctioning offshore oil and gas leases, even after President Obama presided over the largest ever oil spill in U.S. waters. Fracking continues its incredible boom, despite reports showing a rise in human-caused earthquakes related to fracking wastewater injections.
While the president may not have personally approved all of these projects, as leader of the United States and a purported leader on climate action, he bears the responsibility for allowing them to happen and not doing more to stop them during his administration.
What the president said in his New York Times interview is true; climate change trends are absolutely terrifying. But the United States will be hard-pressed to make meaningful progress on climate while continuing to give the fossil fuel industry so much support and access for a purpose so utterly opposed to that goal.
Watch President Obama's edited interview with the New York Times below:
Image credit: Official White House photo.