On closer examination, Obama’s remarks not-so-promising

When I heard President Obama dedicated eight sentences to resolving climate change, more than any president in years past and the issue most-highlighted in his 2013 Inaugural Address, I was elated.

Environmentalists like myself have grown impatient with Obama’s lackluster approach to climate change. During the last four years, the EPA routinely set out new regulations, then rolled them back when industry complained. Obama shut down Keystone XL, a huge victory for the environmental lobby, but did nothing to regulate carbon dioxide or methane emissions. As a climatologist, I’ve been all-too-aware that the clock is ticking, and it didn’t start today, rather a hundred years ago.

I bought the media hype. I trusted the New York Times when the front spread hailed Obama’s revived commitment to climate change. I only caught the speech in snippets, so I wandered over to the White House page to read the speech itself.

I was thoroughly disappointed. Buried half-way into the speech I found two graphs about climate change, although “relating” to climate change may be a more appropriate description.

Obama mentions climate change, but only in the future tense: “We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

This is disappointing because climate change is here, now, and has been for decades. The illusion that climate change is some far-off, impending doom damages the ability of scientists, such as myself, to show people how climate change has already affected their lives. Making it an issue for “future generations” and not for today’s generation distances the reality from the dangers we endure every day in our new climate.

The next line: “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires and crippling drought and more powerful storms.”

Giving deniers half a sentence in his speech (equal to the entire time he dedicated to climate change in 2009) was a mistake. By mentioning them, you validate their presence.

“The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult.” More difficult than long, but go on.

“But America cannot resist this transition, we must lead it.” We are already behind. 

“We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries, we must claim its promise.” Well, we’ve already ceded it to other nations by waiting this long to jump on board, but catching up certainly is possible. 

” That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure — our forests and waterways, our crop lands and snow-capped peaks.” We use our economic vitality  capitalism, to preserve “our treasure?” Capitalism is what got us into this mess, and capitalism alone cannot get us out. We need hard sanctions, regulations and investment BY the government in emerging technologies. Earth is not “our treasure,” it is the floor beneath the feet for which it allows to stand. It does not need us — we need Earth. 

“That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God.  That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.” Considering most scientists are atheists, I’m not sure the community will agree with this one. The Earth is not in our care — our future on this Earth is in our care This idea of ownership over the planet is dangerous and problematic. It dispels the scientifically accepted ideal that we exist only because the Earth became ripe for our success, and any souring of this planet will doom our species, but not necessarily the planet. 

All in all, very weak. Obama only used the terms “climate” and “energy” once in his entire speech. He didn’t bother to mention “warming,” “temperature,” “weather,” or any of the other keywords associated with climate at all.

Before my brothers and sisters at the climate desk begin leaping with joy, they should start holding their breath. The Governor of Nebraska recently changed his mind about the Keystone XL pipeline, sending the decision to either approve or hold the project back to Obama for a third time. If his commitment is real, he will reject this proposal. No person can stand on a principal of protecting the environment and halting global warming whilst he approves the single-most destructive polluter in the history of civilization.

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