Climate Change and Barack Obama’s Legacy
Revenue from fossil fuel extraction on federal lands by state, 2013. Note the offshore areas as well; the Gulf of Mexico is especially lucrative (source; click to enlarge).
by Gaius Publius
"The question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late."
–Barack Obama, 2013
–Barack Obama, 2013
This is another piece with not many pieces to remember. Unfortunately, though, the connections between the pieces I want to show you are actively obscured. My goals is to put all three pieces in front of you and let you see what they add to. It 's not pretty.
My take-off point is something written by Farron Cousins at the excellent DeSmogBlog. But I want to use the version published at Naked Capitalism, including Jerri-Lynn Scofield's brief introduction. Please click through for the whole thing. I'm going to be selective so you can see what matters most with one glance.
Scofield's intro makes three points in succession:
[T]he US rise to the position of the world’s third largest fossil fuel producer, [is] in part as a result of the fracking boom. While Obama and company have squawked about climate change, administration policy has actually fuelled that particular trend in fossil fuel extraction.That section contains the gist, the three pieces that I mentioned at the start.
The underlying New York Times article that sparked the author’s post ... comprise part of the ceaseless drumbeat of legacy journalism as the Obama administration stumbles toward its finish line. Am I alone in being absolutely sick of these assessments, which serve to whitewash what has been a very sorry presidency for progressives, featuring a long litany of disappointments?
- Under Obama, the U.S. has become a fossil fuel-producing giant.
- Obama is making pro-climate noise and doing anti-climate deeds.
- Obama current legacy quest requires he do both — make the noise while doing the deeds.
In Oneida County, Hillary Clinton touts U.S. oil-and-gas productionThe sellers of oil and gas, companies richer than god, usually sell increased U.S. fracking and oil production as providing "energy independence," an appeal to patriotism bereft of real love of country (similar to the way Budweiser beer, owned by a Belgian company, is now marketed as "American").
... Late into the lecture portion of Clinton’s Oneida County appearance, she referenced a report that the U.S. in on track to surpass Russia in domestic oil-and-gas production.
That’s good news, Clinton said.
“What that means for viable manufacturing and industrialization in this country is enormous,” she said to the crowd of 5,800 in Hamilton’s athletic field house.
"American" Budweiser beer is owned and produced by InBev through an intermediary company, AB InBev, which is primarily owned by the Belgian company that makes Stella Artois ("the Budweiser of Europe").
In the same sense that Budweiser is "American," support for increased U.S. carbon extraction is "patriotic." Budweiser is Belgian, and fossil fuel extraction will destroy us.
Obama's Legacy Billionaires
President Obama is now on his "quest for legacy" tour. He's saying things that will burnish his legacy, like expressing support for opponents of the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) which has sparked all the protests, including those led by native American tribes. At the same time, he's doing things, like pushing hard for TPP, the top item on every mega-corporation's wish list, so that he can finance that legacy.
Interesting two-step, burnishing the legacy with words that finance-the-legacy deeds erase. Think I'm wrong? Let's look at who finances presidential legacy libraries, and at what price. According to the New York Times (emphasis mine):
With High-Profile Help, Obama Plots Life After PresidencyMore — Obama wants to raise most of the billion dollars upfront so he doesn't have to do what Clinton did, engage in "endless fundraising":
...The dinner in the private upstairs dining room of the White House went so late that Reid Hoffman, the LinkedIn billionaire, finally suggested around midnight that President Obama might like to go to bed.
“Feel free to kick us out,” Mr. Hoffman recalled telling the president.
But Mr. Obama was just getting started. “I’ll kick you out when it’s time,” he replied. He then lingered with his wife, Michelle, and their 13 guests — among them the novelist Toni Morrison, the hedge fund manager Marc Lasry and the Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr — well past 2 a.m.
Mr. Obama “seemed incredibly relaxed,” said another guest, the writer Malcolm Gladwell. He recalled how the group, which also included the actress Eva Longoria and Vinod Khosla, a founder of Sun Microsystems, tossed out ideas about what Mr. Obama should do after he leaves the White House.
Publicly, Mr. Obama betrays little urgency about his future. Privately, he is preparing for his postpresidency with the same fierce discipline and fund-raising ambition that characterized the 2008 campaign that got him to the White House.
The long-running dinner this past February is part of a methodical effort taking place inside and outside the White House as the president, first lady and a cadre of top aides map out a postpresidential infrastructure and endowment they estimate could cost as much as $1 billion. The president’s aides did not ask any of the guests for library contributions after the dinner, but a number of those at the table could be donors in the future.
The $1 billion — double what George W. Bush raised for his library and its various programs — would be used for what one adviser called a “digital-first” presidential library loaded with modern technologies, and to establish a foundation with a worldwide reach. ...
Supporters have urged Mr. Obama to avoid the mistake made by Bill Clinton, whose associates raised just enough money to build his library in Little Rock, Ark., forcing Mr. Clinton to pursue high-dollar donors for years to come. Including construction costs, Mr. Obama’s associates set a goal of raising at least $800 million — enough money, they say, to avoid never-ending fund-raising. One top adviser said that $800 million was a floor rather than a ceiling.A few more names:
So far, Mr. Obama has raised just over $5.4 million from 12 donors, with gifts ranging from $100,000 to $1 million. Michael J. Sacks, a Chicago businessman, gave $666,666. Fred Eychaner, the founder of Chicago-based Newsweb Corp., which owns community newspapers and radio stations, donated $1 million. Mark T. Gallogly, a private equity executive, and James H. Simons, a technology entrepreneur, each contributed $340,000 to a foundation set up to oversee development of the library.And finally: "The real push for donations, foundation officials said, will come after Mr. Obama leaves the White House." How can you read that and not think, "When he presents the bill — the big ask — for what he did to please them."
I hope you didn't miss the talk of an "Obama foundation." Keep in mind, public corruption is now legal in America.
The Quest for Legacy Credibility
But you can't appear to be craven, money-driven, and go on a world-wide fundraising and legacy tour. You have to appear to care about the people. Nor can you launch a foundation if it looks like you promoted billionaire-friendly policies so billionaires will finance it. Thus his many "burnishing populist cred" speeches, backed by mainly ineffective, but headline-grabbing, actions. Thanks to a compliant media, the speeches outshine the deeds, or are never connected together.
Which brings us to Obama and climate change. To take one example, in 2013 Obama gave what was billed as a major climate speech in which he said things that suggest he really does get it about climate. Just a few brief snips, but do read it all. It's a very good speech (again, my emphasis):
[I]n the late 1950s, the National Weather Service began measuring the levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, with the worry that rising levels might someday disrupt the fragile balance that makes our planet so hospitable. And what they’ve found, year after year, is that the levels of carbon pollution in our atmosphere have increased dramatically.And:
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.
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 is not whether we need to act. The overwhelming judgment of science -- of chemistry and physics and millions of measurements -- has put all that to rest. ...Sounds like he gets it, right? It's entirely possible he does. Yet this is the man whose "Clean Power Plan" relies heavily on transitioning to methane, another greenhouse gas, that when burned, becomes atmospheric CO2. And it probably doesn't hurt that Exxon is the "largest natural gas producer in the U.S." Are you remembering the "legacy billionaires"? I don't think Obama has forgotten them.
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.
As a President, as a father, and as an American, I’m here to say we need to act.
Obama and the Dakota Access Pipeline
Keep Obama's excellent words in mind when you read the DAPL news as it evolves. If the DAPL pipeline is completed, the money giants financing it are "banking on being able to drill and frack for the oil ... over the coming decades," according to Hugh MacMillan, a senior researcher with Food & Water Watch (quoted here).
Remember that — supplying oil and gas, all to be burned, for "decades."
That's both dangerous (toxic, really) and lucrative. So, which banks are involved? MacMillan again:
Citibank is the bank that’s been running the books on the project, and that’s the bank that beat the bushes and got other banks to join in. So, we have Wells Fargo, BNP Paribas, SunTrust, Royal Bank of Scotland, Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi, Mizuho Bank, TD Securities, ABN AMRO Capital, DNB First Bank—and that’s actually a bank based in Philly; it’s not the DNB Bank based in Norway, which is actually provided several hundred million to the Energy Transfer family separately—and ICBC London, SMBC Nikko Securities and Société Générale.All of these names are candidates for the Obama legacy fund donor list, donors to the fund from which the Obama library and Obama foundation will spring. There has emerged some reasonably good (and headline-grabbing) news from the administration lately, but many are calling this news just posturing.
How will you know whether the administration is serious or not about standing with native Americans, and all Americans, in ending this project? When it ends the project using the authority it has without mass civil disobedience forcing them to do it. Or when the money a completed pipeline generates flows to its financers — Citibank, Wells Fargo, et al. Keep watching.
Despite His Words, Obama Won't End Extraction on Federal Lands
Which brings us to the end of Farron Cousin's piece. He rightly takes the president to task for saying good words and doing the worst of bad deeds when it comes to fossil fuel extraction on federal lands. Obama not only enables the carbon industry, he acts as one of their primary suppliers:
President Obama’s shortcomings on climate change action could be forgiven or even dismissed, if it weren’t for his administration’s willingness to open up federal lands and waters to fossil fuel industry exploitation. ...Yet fossil fuel extraction from federal land and water, overseen by the Department of the Interior, accounts for more than 20% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. From a study (pdf) commissioned by the Center for American Progress and The Wilderness Society:
Looking at some of the numbers on this issue reveals a pro-industry approach toward energy production. When President Obama took office in 2009, domestic oil production was at about 5.1 million barrels a day. By April of 2016, that number had climbed to 8.9 million barrels a day, which CNN notes is a 74 percent increase in just 7 years.
Under President Obama’s watch, the United States has become the largest fossil fuel producer on the planet when accounting for both oil and liquefied natural gas production. In terms of just crude oil production, the U.S. falls to third place, behind Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Oil and gas obtained via hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) now accounts for 50% of U.S. oil production, and, thanks to the Republican-controlled [but Democratic-enabled] Congress, the 40-year-long ban on crude oil exports was lifted.
Meanwhile, the government is still auctioning offshore oil and gas leases, even after President Obama presided over the largest ever oil spill in U.S. waters. Fracking continues its incredible boom, despite reports showing a rise in human-caused earthquakes related to fracking wastewater injections.
Today, taxpayer-owned gas, oil, and coal extracted from federal lands and waters by private companies are one of the nation’s most significant sources of GHG emissions, accounting for more than one-fifth of all U.S. GHG emissions. The U.S. Department of the Interior, or DOI, which has jurisdiction over the nation’s public lands, has no comprehensive plan to measure, monitor, and reduce the total volume of GHG emissions that result from the leasing and development of federal energy resources.The study also notes:
• Federal lands and waters could have accounted for 24 percent of all energy-related GHG emissions in the United States in 2012.Now reread Obama's "major" climate speech, especially this:
• Combustion of coal from federal lands accounts for more than 57 percent of all emissions from fossil-fuel production on federal lands.
• Methane pollution from venting and flaring from onshore federal leases rose more than 51 percent between 2008 and 2013, according to government data.
So the question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late. ... As a President, as a father, and as an American, I’m here to say we need to act.In light of Obama's deeds, what else can you see in his words, but a quest for an undeserved pro-climate legacy, financed in future years by anti-climate billionaires and their friends.
Obama's Real Legacy
Farron Cousins notes several ways in which Obama has been a "disappointment." There are many more, including the constant attempts to cut Social Security before he folded that tent. After all, just as it took Nixon to go to China; it takes a Democrat to cut Social Security, and Obama gave it a very good try for years.
So how will he be remembered? Will Barack Obama be remembered by his words and the twin ad campaigns that bookmark his presidency, the one that launched it, for example here...
I don't think Will.I.Am had any idea that Obama would follow his campaign's frequent "Yes, we can" with a frequent presidential "But no, I won't."
...and the one that will end it, the legacy quest you're now reading about?
Or will he be remembered for what he really did, and not what he appeared to do? Here's James Galbraith's bleak assessment (my emphasis):
And the President too is a young man. Unlike say Lyndon B. Johnson or Jimmy Carter, when his term ends he won't be able simply to go home. He'll need a big house in a gated suburb, with high walls and rich friends. And a good income, too, from book deals and lecture fees. He may be thinking about that now. ... [But] it won't save him. For if and when he ventures out, for the rest of his life, the eyes of all those, whose hopes he once raised will follow him. The old, the poor, the jobless, the homeless: their eyes will follow him wherever he goes.Galbraith was writing about Obama when he faces those he wanted to deprive of Social Security benefits. But he could also be writing about facing the climate-ravaged too.
Will Galbraith prove right? I guess, as with all legacies, only time will tell.