Obama’s New Climate Initiative—And What He Didn’t Say

Global Development

Wedged somewhere between the SCOTUS decision dismantling section 4 of the Voting Rights Act and the other decisions from last week that more wisely struck down DOMA and Proposition 8 and just before Wendy Davis’ remarkable filibuster against a draconian Texas Bill (SB5) that would have closed abortion clinics across the state of Texas was a speech that might just save the planet. Naturally, the major cable outlets decided not to cover it.

At Georgetown University, last Tuesday, Obama delivered a true stemwinder on climate change, outlining the man made causes and reconfirming the scientific consensus. More importantly he emphasized the moral dimension of fighting climate change, arguing that preserving the environment for our children and our children’s children takes precedence over the convenient politics of today.

“Those of us in positions of responsibility, we’ll need to be less concerned with the judgment of special interests and well-connected donors and more concerned with the judgment of posterity,” Obama said, “because you and your children, and your children’s children, will have to live with the consequences of our decisions.

In an odd way, despite the awkward timing of his speech, landing smack in the middle of one of the busiest news cycles of the season, his argument is fitting, and consistent with the DOMA ruling and even Wendy Davis’ marvelous filibuster. They all spring from a similar sense of moral outrage.

Since the beginning of the Obama administration, main stream environmentalists have been playing a kind of hide and seek game with the administration who wanted to make the argument that environmentalism was economically efficient, without necessarily relying on the far more important point that lack of carbon caps could effectively destroy our planet.

In his big Tuesday speech, however, the President went full climate hawk, with an extensive discussion of climate science, extreme weather impacts, the absurdity of denial, and the moral urgency of action.
“The question is not whether we need to act,” Obama said in his speech at Georgetown University. “The question is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late.”

Couched within that context, Obama went on to strike a blow at polluting industries by announcing that the Executive branch EPA would start capping carbon output, regulating carbon like any other pollutant.

“Today about 40 percent of America’s carbon pollution comes from our power plants,” said the president, “Right now there are no limits to the amount of carbon pollutions those plants can dump into the air. None.”
“We’ve got to fix that… So today for the sake of our children and the health and safety of all Americans, I’m directing the Environmental Protection Agency to put an end to the limitless dumping of carbon pollution from our power plants and complete new pollution standards for both new and existing power plants.”

All over the country, you could hear oil and coal executives’ anguished screams.

The really nice thing about this? It depends on Congress doing exactly nothing; which is excellent news since that has been their default position for the last 5 years. Instead, the EPA, an executive branch agency will carve into the carbon levels of new and existing plants forcing them to use carbon neutral technologies.

“We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society,” Obama quipped.

There’s more. Obama also called for an end to the public financing of new coal plants overseas:

“Today I’m calling for an end of public financing for new coal plants overseas, unless they deploy carbon capture technologies, or there’s no other viable way for the poorest countries to generate electricity. And I urge other countries to join this effort. I’m directing my administration to launch negotiations toward global free trade in environmental goods and services, including clean energy technology, to help more countries skip past the dirty phase of development and join a global, low-carbon economy.”

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune was cautiously optimistic, “President Obama is finally putting action behind his words.” He said, but he remained steadfast in his call for an end to the Keystone XL Pipeline, which wasn’t explicitly ruled out by the president, who said, “I know there’s been… a lot of controversy surrounding the proposal to build the pipeline, the Keystone pipeline that would carry oil from Canadian tar sands down to refineries in the Gulf. And the State Department is going through the final stages of evaluating the proposal. That’s how it’s always been done.

But I do want to be clear. Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interests.

And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution. The net effects of the pipeline’s impact — the net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward. ”

To give you a sense of the stakes, the Keystone XL pipeline is not only a symbolic heart for the environmental movement in the U.S., but former NASA researcher and climate scientist James Hansen told the New York Times that if the Keystone pipeline were to go through it would be “game over for the climate.”

Outside of the Keystone Pipeline which remains an open question, environmentalists are also concerned about existing and upcoming trade agreements and what the President’s language on trade actually means. Again, it’s open for interpretation and the historical precedents aren’t favorable. The fact that no specific mention was made of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement which will likely be voted out this fall may be cause for concern. Sometimes what you don’t say is as important as what you do say.

Traditionally, free trade agreements like the kind the US is currently seeking to implement on the Pacific rim, the so-called TPP or Trans-Pacific Partnership grant foreign investors the power to sue governments in international tribunals for enforcing environmental laws. This is a problem. It’s also one reason why the Trans-Pacific Partnership is barely mentioned by this administration or the courtier press, even in speeches that explicitly address environmental issues. In fact, when the TPP is presented to congress it will likely be as a ‘fast-track’ piece of legislation which means no modifications will be allowed to the treaty and not much time for review of its thousand plus pages.

Again, this is a problem because such trade agreements have traditionally elevated individual corporations and investors to equal standing with each signatory country’s government.

For example, what’s known of the TPP so far would empower corporations to skirt national courts and sue our governments before tribunals of private sector lawyers under WTO jurisdiction; they could sue on such grounds as loss of ‘expected future profits.’

Most environmentalists can list on both hands the negative impact such rulings might have. The Department of Energy could lose its authority to regulate exports of natural gas to countries that have signed a “free trade” agreement with the U.S. The TPP could eliminate the government’s prerogative to determine whether the mass export of natural gas to TPP countries – including Japan, the world’s largest natural gas importer – is in the public interest. The resulting surge in natural gas exports would not only raise gas and electricity prices for consumers, but would ramp up the dangerous, chemical-laden practice of fracking.

But it’s actually worse than that. Not only could domestic agencies lose their teeth to effectively regulate. Such agencies, protectors of our public resources, our commons, can also be sued by corporations for interfering in profit driven trade.

Under current trade agreements, for example, governments have paid over $3 billion to foreign corporations in investor-state disputes under existing U.S. trade and investment deals. Over 85% has been handed to corporations attacking oil, mining, gas, and other environmental and natural resource regulatory policies. Exxon-Mobil just won a case over a Canadian province’s offshore oil regulations and a case has been filed against Quebec’s moratorium on fracking.

Corporations have also used investor-state cases as pressure tactics to avoid having to pay for environmental damages. Even the mere threat of an investor-state loss can pressure governments to weaken environmental and health policies.

In the 1990s, U.S. based Ethyl Corporation challenged a Canadian environmental ban of the gasoline additive MMT, considered a dangerous toxin, under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) investor-state provisions. Although many U.S. states ban the substance and the investor-state tribunal made no final ruling, an intermediate loss was enough to push the Canadian government to revoke the ban, settle with the foreign corporation for $13 million in taxpayer compensation and issue a public statement that the chemical was safe. No scientific evidence needed, apparently.

So it’s good to remember that along with Obama’s soaring rhetoric about our children’s future, and our moral obligation to ensure it, there are huge systemic issues at play, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Free Trade Agreements, in general, that are still not being talked about openly—in very specific ways.

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