What does Barack Obama think he’s doing?
The question is neither casual nor rhetorical, not when it comes to Obama and the climate crisis. Like the fictional case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Obama from the day he was first elected president has repeatedly said and done impressive things one day, only to turn around and say—and more importantly, do—appalling things the next. His current climate-change speaking tour is the latest case in point. Environmentalists swooned when the president, in a speech in Las Vegas on Monday, called out the Koch brothers for their free-market hypocrisy in opposing solar energy. But a review of Obama’s own climate record over the past seven years suggests he should be careful about calling the kettle black.
On Election Night 2008, Obama pledged to make “a planet in peril” one of his top three priorities as president. Once in office, his economic stimulus package gave a huge boost to renewable energy and he sharply raised fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks. But he also backed a cap-and-trade bill that at best would have cut emissions nationwide by a measly 4 percent. Then he didn’t bother to champion even that weak measure, helping to insure its defeat. Stung, the president went mute on the climate threat for the rest of his term, even as he crowed about an “all of the above” energy policy that made the United States the world’s leading oil and gas producer.
More of the same zig-zagging followed in Obama’s second term, but rarely has his climate incoherence been more evident than during the past month—and it’s poised for a crescendo in the days ahead. On August 27, the president visits New Orleans, a city that history should remember as the first great American casualty of the climate change era, to mark the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. On August 31, he flies to Alaska to discuss the impacts of climate change in the Arctic.
Except for South Florida, it would be hard to find two locations in the United States more vulnerable to the effects of rising temperatures than New Orleans and Alaska. Ice in the Arctic is already melting much faster than scientists had projected; James Hansen, the former NASA scientist who put climate change on the international agenda 25 years ago, recently published a study finding that melting ice could swell sea levels a staggering ten feet higher by century’s end if greenhouse-gas emissions are not cut much faster than planned. Ten feet of sea-level rise would render not only New Orleans and Miami but also New York, Washington, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and many other coastal cities effectively uninhabitable.