When I noticed that the president delivered his weekly address on "our energy future," my first thought was "I wonder if he'll address climate change at all." The question of energy and the question of climate change (or global warming, whichever term you prefer) are inextricably linked. Although there are many arguments to be made in favor of switching from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy like solar and wind, the climate-related arguments are perhaps most urgent:
In their starkest warning yet, following nearly seven years of new research on the climate, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said it was "unequivocal" and that even if the world begins to moderate greenhouse gas emissions, warming is likely to cross the critical threshold of 2C by the end of this century. That would have serious consequences, including sea level rises, heatwaves and changes to rainfall meaning dry regions get less and already wet areas receive more.How many times did the president directly invoke climate change or global warming in his address? You guessed it. Zero.
In a crucial reinforcement of their message – included starkly in this report for the first time – the IPCC warned that the world cannot afford to keep emitting carbon dioxide as it has been doing in recent years. To avoid dangerous levels of climate change, beyond 2C, the world can only emit a total of between 800 and 880 gigatonnes of carbon. Of this, about 530 gigatonnes had already been emitted by 2011.
That has a clear implication for our fossil fuel consumption, meaning that humans cannot burn all of the coal, oil and gas reserves that countries and companies possess. As the former UN commissioner Mary Robinson told the Guardian last week, that will have "huge implications for social and economic development." It will also be difficult for business interests to accept.
Let's look at the transcript of this address:
Shortly after I took office, we invested in new American technologies to reverse our dependence on foreign oil and double our wind and solar power. And today, we generate more renewable energy than ever – with tens of thousands of good, American jobs to show for it. We produce more natural gas than anyone – and nearly everyone’s energy bill is lower because of it. And just this week, we learned that for the first time in nearly two decades, the United States of America now produces more of our own oil here at home than we buy from other countries.
That’s a big deal. That’s a tremendous step towards American energy independence.
Right at the start, we see the frame that Democrats seem to have adopted over the past ten years: reducing our dependence on "foreign oil," rather than reducing our dependence on oil itself. As the IPCC report shows, humanity needs to start leaving the oil in the ground if we want to guarantee our own future.
He then lauds the increase in natural gas drilling. Natural gas is often touted by its boosters, including Secretary of Energy Ernest Monitz as a "bridge fuel," but the life cycle GHG emissions for shale gas are actually greater than those of coal. The methane leaks resulting from natural gas drilling undo much of the climate gains it could offer. Climate issues aside, the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for natural gas extraction has led to a rise in earthquakes and groundwater contamination. The administration also has a troubling record of censoring EPA reports showing the dangers of fracking.
In the push to "drill, baby, drill," the Obama administration has actually protected fewer public lands than George W. Bush, Clinton, George H. W. Bush, or Ronald Reagan.
After speaking of gains in energy efficiency (a good thing by all means), he alludes to climate reasons, but he fails to give the issue the directness or urgency merited.
Here’s another thing. Between more clean energy, and less wasted energy, our emissions of dangerous carbon pollution are actually falling. That’s good news for anyone who cares about the world we leave to our kids.In the narrative arc of the address, this sounds like a subsidiary reason or benefit, with energy independence being the main goal. This part is just an added benefit. And there's no acknowledgement of the fact that the expansion of fossil fuel development, which he just praised, hinders this goal he claims to have.
I'd also take up a minor issue with the phrasing of the sentence "That's good news for anyone who cares about the world we leave to our kids." It should be good news for everyone; there is a universality that's missing, and such a lack of universality makes it sound like "those who care about the world we leave to our kids" are just a faction. I may be overreading this, but with speeches, precision of language is very important.
Obama's address also buys into the dominant myth that endless economic growth and a sustainable future are anything but irreconcilable, but that's a far more pervasive blindness.