Obama’s climate change speech: Beneath the surface

26th Jul 2013

By Sarah Marshall, B.S. Environmental Policy


President Barack Obama last month gave a speech at Georgetown University on the issue of climate change, and to many, it was finally a concrete roadmap that addressed the host of interconnected issues regarding the state of the climate. To others, it still was not enough, and upon scrutiny, some aspects sounded better than they really are.

The 48-minute speech delved into topics such as vehicle emission standards, natural gas, coal-fired power plants, increased wildfires, food prices, investing in renewable energy, and the Keystone pipeline.


Obama made sure to keep the conversation positive by elaborating on how far America has come, championing the fact that, “our economy is 60 percent bigger than it was 20 years ago, while our carbon emissions are roughly back to where they were 20 years ago.”

Something that is sure to get a lot of backlash by Congress is “to end the tax breaks for big oil companies, and (to) invest in the clean-energy companies that will fuel our future.” This suggestion will mobilise lobbyists like never before, as it will directly affect shareholder profits for these oil companies. Yet, it shows that Obama is ready to address these problems in radical ways because subsidising dirty energy perpetuates its widespread use.


On the issue of power plants, Obama intends to put an end to limitless carbon pollution by these plants, since 40 percent of America’s carbon pollution comes from them. When it comes to coal-fired power plants in particular, one aspect of the coal industry that was conveniently omitted was export. According to David Roberts of Grist, a non-profit out of Seattle that publishes environmental news and commentary, companies that lease mineral rights from public lands via the Department of the Interior and Bureau of Land Management, may start exporting more coal as domestic demand decreases, where they can get heftier profits from developing nations such as China. Yet, there are barely any benefits for Americans, as these public lands are leased for “pennies on the dollar.”


Natural gas seems like the lower carbon solution to many less well-versed environmentalists. Its current mode of extraction, hydraulic fracturing, is extremely energy intensive and destructive. Many residents near points of extraction have found methane in their water, allowing it to literally catch fire. Still, Obama argues that natural gas is the way to transition off of more carbon intensive energy solutions, stating, “And today, we produce more natural gas than anybody else.  So we’re producing energy.  And these advances have grown our economy, they’ve created new jobs, they can’t be shipped overseas – and, by the way, they’ve also helped drive our carbon pollution to its lowest levels in nearly 20 years.”

The biggest issue missing from Obama’s speech was that of agriculture. Though he mentioned droughts worse than the Dust Bowl followed by torrential rains in spring, the American Government has never addressed the correlation between fertilizer, meat production, and carbon emissions. Meat production emits more carbon annually than vehicles. So, though vehicle emission standards may be an admirable goal to tackle, putting regulation on various methods of meat production as well as fertilizer usage and runoff could make a more significant impact.


Opponents of the TransCanada Keystone Pipeline are much more hopeful that the proposal will be shot down after Obama’s comments. “The net effects of the pipeline’s impact on our climate will be absolutely critical to determining whether this project is allowed to go forward.  It’s relevant.” The first EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) was majorly flawed, drafted by companies with ties to TransCanada, a “blatant conflict of interest” according to Brad Wieners of Bloomberg Businessweek. Another, perhaps less biased, EIS is in its final stages of completion, and will likely show that the pipeline will be “a carbon bomb” according to Bill McKibben of 350.org. Some are still unsure of whether the pipeline will curb tar sands oil extraction.


In all, Obama’s speech got him kudos from liberals. His willingness to give a fairly precise plan and be straightforward on the state of the climate, citing the scientific facts evoked a response from many of, “it’s about time!” According to Karl-Heinz Florenz, a German member of the European Parliament, “Yes We…Might!”



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