It’s Not Easy Being Green: The Paradox of Obama’s Climate Strategy

Emmett McKinney

President Obama visited Alaska’s Exit Glacier this week, where he addressed reporters on the importance of a global climate response. [Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune]
Earlier this week, President Obama stood on the edge of Alaska’s famous Exit Glacier in the marquee moment of his Alaska trip. Before a crowd of reporters and local public officials, he emphasized the remarkable toll that climate change has taken on the glacier, noting that “We need to make sure our grandkids can see this.”

As he approaches the end of his presidency, Obama has gone further and further out on limbs to support causes that will define his legacy. One of these is combatting climate change, and this late-summer Alaska trip was intended as a public relations show of the President’s commitment to slashing American carbon emissions.

The juxtaposition of the President’s entourage with a shimmering glacier is picturesque, but the reality of the Obama administration’s environmental regime is far less idyllic. It is true that in the last few months, the administration has unveiled a flight of new climate change measures. The most prominent of these is the EPA’s final Clean Power Plan, which will cut carbon emissions from the U.S. electric sector by 30% by 2030. Earlier in June, the EPA and Department of Transportation also took aim at emissions from heavy-duty trucks. Add in the EPA’s new proposal to slash emissions from oil and gas drilling, and at first glance we would conclude that as the sun sets on Obama’s second term, a “green flash” has appeared on the horizon.

Much like the green flash of nautical lore, however, a closer inspection leads us to question the substance of the President’s environmental regime. Just a few days before the President stood on the edge of the Exit Glacier calling for a global climate response, his administration gave final approval to Shell Oil to begin drilling in the Arctic. As sea ice has receded over the last decades, deep-sea oil deposits that were once unreachable have become economically feasible. Fossil fuel interests have long had their eyes on such deposits while environmental groups such as GreenPeace and the Natural Resources Defense Council have launched extensive campaigns to keep oil platforms out of the Arctic.

Indeed, environmentalists have many reasons for alarm at the idea of oil drilling in these new areas. First, Arctic seas provide some of the most important feeding grounds for a slew of threatened species, including such icons as the polar bear, the humpback whale, and the Pacific salmon. Toxic waste and noise pollution would surely disrupt one of these species’ last sanctuaries. Next, if an oil platform were to blow out in the style of Deep Water Horizon, cleaning up the spill would be a logistical nightmare and tremendously expensive. Given the turbulent, even violent, nature of the Arctic Sea, such a disaster seems more a foregone conclusion than a simple flight risk.

Moreover, drilling in newly accessible Arctic deposits sends the wrong message about the impact of climate change. Scientists agree that a warming climate will exact an enormous toll on the world economy, but Arctic drilling casts receding sea ice as an economic opportunity. In turn, more extensive drilling will lead to greater carbon emissions, further melting of sea ice, and even more extraction. The “runaway greenhouse effect” feared by some scientists may result not from atmospheric imbalance, but from political myopia.

In addition to the approval of Arctic oil extraction, continued fossil fuel subsidies give reason for pause when evaluating Obama’s environmental legacy. Despite the President’s repeated attempts to cut fossil fuel subsidies, Oil Change International asserts that the US retains up to $52 billion in tax breaks for the oil and gas industries. Granted, a recalcitrant Republican Congress has gone to bat for protecting these fossil fuel concessions, and the President has a limited supply of political capital to spend. The Iran nuclear deal, the rapprochement with Cuba, and rollout of Obamacare are noteworthy accomplishments, to be sure—but they’ve left little room for long-lasting environmental reform.

These environmental shortfalls reveal the fundamental irony of the President’s “all of the above” energy strategy. By continuing to boost fossil fuel interests under the cover of supporting renewable energy and imposing higher safety standards, the Obama administration has gone for the old “bait and switch.” The significant investment required to build new oil platforms means that fossil fuel infrastructure will be “locked in” for decades, whereas a fluctuation in the energy market can quickly derail renewable energy development. Moreover, should a Republican president take office in 2016, the limited drilling allowed by the Obama administration could quickly expand to full-blown return to fossil fuel dependency.

Environmental heavy-hitters such as Bill McKibben have raised such concerns about the President’s energy strategy, which he has parried by pointing out that if we don’t drill in the Arctic, some other nation will. Allowing US companies to drill in the Arctic will have no net impact on carbon emissions, the argument goes, so we may as well support American business. Such an argument makes sense in absolute terms, but by deferring to other nations’ fossil fuel policies, the President overlooks the importance of leading by example on climate change. With the 21st Conference of the Parties approaching in December, the approval of Arctic drilling may well dilute the American negotiators’ ability to demand emissions cuts from other developed nations.

In review, President Obama has accomplished far more in the environmental arena than his immediate predecessors. The Clean Power Plan, increased fuel-efficiency standards, the blocking of the Keystone XL pipeline, the handshake agreement with China and the burgeoning of the solar industry are triumphs be lauded. When historians look back on his legacy, however, an asterisk may well appear next to the label, “green President.”