27 Jun 2013

Obama's climate speech for beginners

The amazing thing about this speech was that it was made at all. It lasted for nearly 40 minutes, consisting of 6,000 words. The transcript is here. Arguably, it's four years too late, but maybe it's a sign of the times that the excruciating climate wars are coming to and end. Or am I being naive (again)?

• So what does he talk about for 40 minutes?

The speech is strong on the background, strong on the science and strong on pointing out that previous bits of environmental legislation were passed into law with bi-partisan support. 1970's Clean Air Act went through the senate unopposed and then went through the House of Representatives with just one vote against. It was signed into law by a Republican president and strengthened later by another. But then it didn't threaten Big Oil, or at least not directly.

• You are suggesting that the strength doesn't last?

About halfway through, he starts on what an opportunity climate change mitigation can be. Here he begins to sound a bit desperate. Try this. A low-carbon, clean energy economy can be an engine of growth for decades to come. And I want America to build that engine. I want America to build that future -- right here in the United States of America. That’s our task. Stirring stuff, but the moment American politicians start going on about how great America is, I begin to have my doubts.

• And the meat? Where's the meat?

Not good.

1) He fudges on the Keystone pipeline decision. Passes the buck to the State Department which is currently evaluating whether it is in the national interest. I bet it is.

2) He backs fracking. His only caveat is that he calls it a transition fuel.

3) He backs more renewables but says nothing about funding mechanisms.

4) He commits government to buy 20% renewable electricity by 2020 - but doesn't define renewable - so it will probably be biomass, me thinks.

5) Makes vague commitments to encourage energy efficiency, but nothing like a Green Deal, as far as I can see. Maybe that's a good thing in itself!

6) Makes some federal funding for flood defences and water development projects - claiming this is mitigation work.

7) Nuclear power gets just one mention in the whole speech We're building the first nuclear power plants in more than three decades -- in Georgia and South Carolina but doesn't say whether he approves, nor does he show any interest or backing for new nuclear technologies.

8) Stresses that he's involved with international co-operation with China, India and Brazil. Comes up with the unintentionally funny line: my administration will redouble our efforts to engage our international partners in reaching a new global agreement to reduce carbon pollution through concrete action. So good news here for Portland Cement manufacturers!

9) Promotes Gina she’s terrific McCarthy at the EPA, and bewails the fact that she is being blocked at every turn by the Republicans. I like this line: We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society. Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it’s not going to protect you from the coming storm.

In truth, these are very weak measures indeed and make our own (hopelessly split) UK government look like the Green Party in comparison. But the significance of all this is that he made this speech at all, that he has put climate change back on the agenda in the USA for the first time since the credit crunch.

It's amazing to reflect that the anti-climate change campaign has been so successful over the past few years that the US President gets saluted as a hero for merely delivering a speech which mentions there might be just a small problem with carbon dioxide, whilst also giving the OK to a pipeline for exporting Canada's tar sands and also bigging-up fracking. No doubt, the Tea Party Republicans will be up in arms at the outrageous interventionist policies Obama is promoting, but secretly they must be delighted that the agenda has moved so far their way that a speech such as this is seen as a milestone.

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