Talking Points

Official White House photo by Pete Souza
Obama has given Serious Lip Service to Combatting Global Warming — Is Action Soon to Follow?
The commencement of President Obama’s second term has been characterized by an abrupt shift towards climate rhetoric—rhetoric geared as much at pacifying the president’s environmentally conscious political supporters as at solidifying his own legacy. In not only his second inaugural address but also his fourth State of the Union speech, Obama gave precious minutes of lip service to “the threat of climate change,” acknowledging storms, wildfires and droughts of increasing intensity as demonstrative of the impact greenhouse gas pollution is having on our planet. But the president faces a litany of issues in over the next four years that will define how he keeps his promise to reduce carbon emissions and move into a cleaner energy future.

Already, one of the largest of these fights is heating up over whether Obama should approve construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, a project that would sanction the exploitation of Canadian tar sands and therefore production of the dirtiest kind of oil. On Sunday, February 17th, over 40,000 Americans held a rally on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. urging the President to make good on his climate promises by nixing Keystone and instead promoting investment in renewable energy. Among the attendees were activist and founder of Bill McKibben, as well as Sierra Club director Michael Brune and numerous leaders from environmental coalitions, interfaith groups and citizens who understand how much is at stake in Obama’s second term.

But proponents of Keystone, and opponents of clean energy, hold sway in numerous state legislatures, as well as in the federal government and the media. The simplistic and ultimately misleading narrative that oil infrastructure creates jobs and that Canadian oil is somehow better than Latin American or Middle Eastern oil threatens to overtake the debate. Despite evidence that Keystone would have minimal impact on job creation and would only lead to oil exportation to Asia, short-term economic and political thinking might trump long-term environmental and generational responsibility in Obama’s decision.

So what happens if the administration approves Keystone XL? Naturally, environmental groups and voters across the country would feel alienated and betrayed. According to a League of Conservation voters poll taken before the recent State of the Union address, 65% of Americans support taking steps to reduce carbon emissions; a Washington Post poll taken after the speech found 51% support for legislation to tackle climate change. On the one hand, these numbers signify how much a political risk the president would be taking in approving Keystone, despite the conventional wisdom to the contrary. On the other, they provide a hint at what Obama’s next steps might be if the pipeline is built, or the conditions upon which he’d approve it.

As the New York Times highlighted in its coverage of last weekend’s climate rally, the president might try to pacify his environmental base by proposing strict demands from Congress in exchange for his approval of Keystone. Already, democrats are using Obama’s climate rhetoric as an opportunity to advance national climate legislation; Keystone might be used as a bargaining chip in trying to force such a bill past the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. This sort of compromise would benefit the president and his party politically and could find acceptance from environmentally conscious activists and voters, however reluctantly.

But the potential of a climate bill should not distract from the environmental necessity that Obama cancels Keystone XL—the real changes taking place in our atmosphere do not respond to various political pressures. As Michael Brune commented at Sunday’s rally, “Whatever damage approving the pipeline would do to the environmental movement pales in comparison to the damage it could do to [the president’s] own legacy.”