Are there any self-respecting environmental organizations out there that are still behind President Obama? After his State of the Union on Tuesday it's hard to imagine there could be. In his address, Obama proudly declared, "The 'all the above' energy strategy I announced a few years ago is working, and today America is closer to energy independence than we have been in decades."
Based what we know from the most recent climate science, Obama’s "all-of-the-above" energy policy is actually suicidal. To say that we’re approaching a dangerous precipice would be too optimistic or simply unrealistic. For a decade we were peering over the edge, but now we’re falling—how long and how hard depends on what we do this year and in the next few years.
The biggest reason for our desperate situation is our failure to address climate change. Obama acknowledges that the problem is real, but his approach to energy issues veers from reality. The more science we understand, the worse the picture looks: ice sheets and glaciers are being depleted and are retreating at faster rates than we first thought; ocean acificiation is on the rise; the last 30 years were the warmest in the last 1,400 years.
Scientists told us we needed to drop emissions of greenhouse gases drastically to avoid raising global temperatures above 2 degrees Celsius, but it’s looking like we’ll hit that level of warming in 30 years, if not sooner. Some new research says even this threshold is too high; that we need more aggressive plans for low-carbon economies—and quickly.
If we continue on our current path set out by Obama and other world leaders we’ll be welcoming the age of catastrophic climate change soon.
The effects will look different depending on where you live, but we know we’ll see an increase in the frequency and severity of storms, floods and droughts, more catastrophic wildfires, sea-level rise, and loss of animal and plant species — we're already seeing this.
We need policy decisions being made that use the best science we have on climate change as a benchmark, but given the political deadlock in Congress and Obama’s love affair with the natural gas industry, don’t expect much from national lawmakers.
Meaningful change at the international level through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has been small even after decades of meetings. What happens at (and leading up to) the annual Conference of Parties in Paris in 2015 will be a good indicator of our future. But based on previous meetings, it's hard to be optimistic.
The best way to shift to a low-carbon future is to make it an economic imperative. Clean energy simply has to be cheaper than dirty energy. (It already is if you figure in all the externalities, like emergency room visits for asthma thanks to dirty power plants, but we overlook that in our accounting.) In some places it’s happening (like recently in Minnesota where a solar plant beat out a gas plant based on economics). Europe is ahead of the game when it comes to wind in countries like Denmark, Portugal, Spain, Ireland, and Germany. Although even Texas, the heart of the U.S. oil industry, is about to hit 10 percent power from wind. This is great news, but our transition to cleaner energy needs to happen faster and in more places. Leveling the playing field by eliminating subsidies for dirty fossil fuels is a must.
Despite, or maybe because of climate change’s far-reaching impacts on our health, environment, safety, and economy it’s a difficult issue for some people to connect to. It’s too big, or too scary, or not tangible enough, or it’s been dipped in some sort of toxic political potion people don’t want to get near.
But it’s important that we dig in and face the issue… as soon as possible.
Last fall I interviewed Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Network, which seeks “to support community-led responses to peak oil and climate change, building resilience and happiness.” Hopkins was on a rare trip to the United States from his UK home. He came across the pond to shake Americans out of our complacency after learning that major U.S.. philanthropic organizations were getting ready to shift their resources from funding climate change mitigation to adaptation.
This is a scary premise. While we should be planning for the effects of climate change that are already happening and will be on the way—restoring wetlands, building appropriate infrastructure, rethinking municipal planning in flood areas, etc.—we can’t abandon the work to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change.
The quickest way we can try and right this ship is by addressing the way we use energy.
A key part of this is booming oil and gas production enabled by hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. Despite industry promises and Obama's cheerleading, we’re a long way from energy independence (we’re still importing 7 million barrels of oil a day). And more importantly, we’ll never get there because energy independence was never the goal of the oil and gas industry and their allies—their goal is to make money. That’s why industry proponents are pushing for liquefied natural gas exports, removing the crude export ban, and fast-tracking the Trans-Pacific Partnership. They want their products going to the most lucrative markets, plain and simple.
But Obama continues to push a false narrative when it comes to natural gas. He said: "If extracted safely, it's the bridge fuel that can power our economy with less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change." And he pledged to speed up more fossil fuel burning by cutting "red tape to help states get those factories built."
I've spent enough time in gaslands from California to Colorado to West Virginia to say that the practice is no where near safe, it's excused from federal regulations that protect our water, and Obama's EPA has dropped the ball on even studying it when problems have surfaced. His qualifier of "if extracted safely" is completely disingenuous.
Life on the ground in gasland communities tells a different story. We’re seeing the impact on home values, on properties, on threats to water, food, wildlife, health, safety, and jobs. It’s becoming obvious that this is about so much more than whether or not methane (which is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide) is migrating into water wells; it’s about a vast industrialization that effects the economic and social fabric of communities.
Thankfully, a bold grassroots movement of citizen activists is growing, challenging decision-makers at every level. Nowhere was this more apparent than in four ballot-box wins in the last election to ban or stop fracking in Colorado communities.
The idea of "safe" natural gas sounds a lot like the illusion of "clean coal." When it comes to coal today, the industry is hobbling along, but it’s not down and out yet. In fact, our use of coal for electricity ticked up slightly last year. But the future of coal rests in how much can be mined here and exported to overseas markets. Coal’s fate will depend on whether or not community pushback against coal export terminals continues to be successful. So far, it has been.
But if coal does finally go the way of the dinosaurs, what we replace it with will be of the utmost importance. If it means more gas power plants, we’re just trading one problem for another.
If it means more pipelines carrying dirty tar sands oil from Alberta, we’re really in trouble. Obama fast-tracked the southern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline, which opened earlier this month, throwing Texas and Oklahoma under the bus, but the fate of the northern portion that crosses the U.S-Canadian border is still undecided. Each day that goes by that Obama allows this question to hang in the air is another day he loses any remaining credibility when he talks about facing climate issues.
It’s not just energy that’s linked to climate change—water is intertwined as well. Where I live in the West, we talk about something called the "new normal.” Droughts are normal, fire seasons that rage harder and longer are normal, too. My home state of California just declared a drought… in January, our rainy season, as wildfires are burning in Southern California and Oregon.
What precious water resources we do have are further threatened by aging infrastructure, mismanagement, unsustainable development, thirsty resource extraction of fossil fuels, and weak-to-nonexistent regulation of safe drinking water (thanks, West Virginia for the unfortunate reminder).
These are the realities that we face — our problems are tough, but perhaps not insurmountable. We won't get there with "all of the above" or platitudes about America's greatness. This story doesn't end well unless we shift the narrative. It will take real leadership, at every level, and a resuscitation of civic participation. Let's work to make sure that Obama's next State of the Union isn't meant to make sure that industry CEOs are sleeping easy at night, but it meant to wake us from our slumber and get fighting for real change.
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