It has been a long time coming, but it was – just about – worth the wait. Last Tuesday, President Obama finally put climate change front and centre on his critical second term agenda. It was perhaps apposite that he had to repeatedly wipe the sweat from his brow during the course of his 45-minute address (or full transcript here) about our warming planet delivered on a sweltering afternoon in Georgetown University.
Just because some politician reads lines off a teleprompter about the environment by no means guarantee they mean a syllable of it. Who can forget David Cameron and his Arctic photo op with huskies, where he cynically promised to deliver the “greenest government ever” to the UK.
Then there was our own Brian Cowen who, back in September 2009 at a UN climate conference in New York warned that failure to immediately tackle global warming would “put at risk the survival of the planet”. You could almost hear the guffaws all the way back to Tullamore as Cowen mouthed this meaningless bilge. Let’s face it, the closest Cowen came to green was his facial pallor during that infamous Morning Ireland interview.
So, let’s agree that words are cheap, and all the words in the world don’t mean that it ain’t necessarily so. This week was, I reckon, different. Obama’s speech ran to some 6,000 words. It was “by far the best address on climate by any president – ever”. That’s the considered verdict of the best US president the environment never had: Al Gore.
David Hawkins of the Natural Resources Defence Council was quoted as describing it as the speech environmentalists have waited 20 years to hear delivered. Famed climate scientist Michael Mann described it as: “the most aggressive and promising climate plan to come out of the executive branch in years”. Even Bill McKibben, a noted Obama critic, appeared to reckon that the president was deadly serious this time.
I confess to having been a chief cheerleader all the way back to 2008 for Obama as perhaps the only US politician capable of grasping the existential challenge of widespread environmental collapse.
Therefore, some five years and no action later, it’s hard not to feel entirely foolish in believing any politician spawned by the Tweedledumb-and-Tweedledumber US political system could ever even contemplate taking on the vested interests of Big Energy and perma-growth based capitalism to actually make a stand for the common good. After all, who’s making a buck out of clean air, drinkable water, a healthy biosphere or a stable future climate anyhow?
I watched the speech in full. For me, it was indeed the real deal. Obama the master orator repeated the phrase “carbon pollution” almost 30 times throughout his speech. It’s a hell of a better phrase that “carbon dioxide”, which nobody beyond the scientific community seems to actually understand.
It opened with an unfamiliar but powerful tale: from Christmas 1968, when the astronauts of Apollo 8 did a live broadcast from lunar orbit. “Later that night, they took a photo (‘Earthrise’) that would change the way we see and think about our world”, said Obama, who was just about old enough to remember, as a child, this momentous broadcast.
“It was an image of Earth — beautiful; breath-taking; a glowing marble of blue oceans, and green forests, and brown mountains brushed with white clouds, rising over the surface of the moon.
“And while the sight of our planet from space might seem routine today, imagine what it looked like to those of us seeing our home, our planet, for the first time. Imagine what it looked like to children like me. Even the astronauts were amazed. “It makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.”
From here, Obama explained the century and a half of scientific investigation and discovery that led to growing concerns that the rapid accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere “might someday disrupt the fragile balance that makes our planet so hospitable”. That was the view of the US National Weather Service, which began systematic recording of global atmospheric CO2 levels in 1958 under Dr Charles Keeling.
His eponymous Keeling Curve stood at just over 300ppm of atmospheric CO2 in 1958. This was, historically, anomalously high, well beyond the 180-280ppm range that global atmospheric CO2 levels have oscillated within in the course of the past million years or so. Since 1958, the Keeling Curve has climbed ominously.
On May 9th last, it broke the 400ppm level – almost certainly the highest level of atmospheric CO2 level in the last three million years. This represents an increase of over 25% in atmospheric CO2 levels in just over half a century – a rate of increase for which there is no analogue in the geological record.
“That science, accumulated and reviewed over decades, tells us that our planet is changing in ways that will have profound impacts on all of humankind”, said Obama. “The 12 warmest years in recorded history have all come in the last 15 years. Last year, temperatures in some areas of the ocean reached record highs, and ice in the Arctic shrank to its smallest size on record — faster than most models had predicted it would. These are facts.”
“So the question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late. And how we answer will have a profound impact on the world that we leave behind not just to you, but to your children and to your grandchildren…I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing.”
Obama then turned to address the near-certain responses of the special-interest funded naysayers by pointing out that every major environmental initiative, from the 1973 Clean Air Act to the Montreal Protocol on eliminating CFCs in 1987, to tacking leaded petrol, carcinogens in plastics or regulating tobacco, has been fought by the same cabal of monied interests whipping up a media storm by threatening apocalyptic economic consequences – that simply never come to pass. “We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth society”, is how the president himself memorably put it.
An environmental movement pioneered by Bill McKibben that is gathering some strength is divestment. Put simply, “you can have a healthy fossil fuel industry or a healthy planet, but not both”. The divestment movement targets investors, large and small, to get their money out of dirty energy. Universities, faith groups, pension funds, among others, are being challenged to get their money out of industries that are in the business of destroying the biosphere.
Obama took this movement centre stage when he said: “Convince those in power to reduce our carbon pollution. Push your own communities to adopt smarter practices. Invest. Divest”.
Probably the single most dangerous thing humans do today is burn coal. Every year some 8 billion tonnes are consumed, producing over 20 billion tonnes of CO2 in the process, as well as millions of tonnes of heavy metals, toxic fly ash, arsenic, low level radiation, SO2, carbon monoxide (CO), mercury and much else besides. If you charged an ecocidal maniac with responsibility for coming up with a global power source, that person would undoubtedly choose coal as the ultimate weapon of collective self-immolation.
Coal burning is an ugly relic of the 19th century industrial revolution, and should have long ago been consigned to the slag heap of history. But coal is dirt cheap, plentiful, and, as long as you aren’t paying for its environmental wreckage, it’s also hugely profitable. Those profits buy a lot of political and media leverage, and so Old King Coal keeps on killing – and making a killing – decade after decade.
Cleaner new technologies, like renewables and nuclear, are expensive (at least initially) and are frequently under attack from both the political Left and Right – an unholy alliance that plays right into the hands of the hydrocarbons industry.
There is an excellent series of expert commentaries on Obama’s landmark speech collated by the Science Media Centre. These include Prof Nicholas Stern, Bob Ward and Prof Myles Allen. Overall, there is a strong, albeit guarded, welcome for his specific initiatives, but particular praise for the return of the most sorely missing component – political leadership – to a crisis that is, at its heart, a crisis of politics and society at least as much as science and ecology.
We humans have caught ourselves in an elaborate trap of our own construction – we have painted ourselves and much of life on Earth into a stark evolutionary corner. I would sum up Obama’s message as follows: either we apply our considerable collective ingenuity to resolving this impasse, or our only lasting legacy to posterity will to have been the instigators – and victims – of the Sixth Extinction.
* As a postscript to this article, I was surprised to open the Irish Times the following day (Weds/26) to find not a mention of this speech, which did get a few paragraphs in some of our other dailies, as well as some limited pick-up by RTE. (The major US networks didn’t bother carrying it live). Thursday and Friday passed, and still nothing in the Paper of Record. I did try the limited means at my disposal to encourage the Irish Times to pick up the story, including offering an analysis piece, but to no avail.