I look back with some embarrassment on my enthusiastic posts when Barack Obama was in the early days of his presidency. I thought he was offering strong political leadership in addressing climate change. His words seemed unequivocal. Here he is speaking at the UN in September 2009:
That so many of us are here today is a recognition that the threat from climate change is serious, it is urgent, and it is growing. Our generation’s response to this challenge will be judged by history, for if we fail to meet it — boldly, swiftly, and together — we risk consigning future generations to an irreversible catastrophe.
And he was positive about facing that challenge:
As we meet here today, the good news is that after too many years of inaction and denial, there is finally widespread recognition of the urgency of the challenge before us. We know what needs to be done. We know that our planet’s future depends on a global commitment to permanently reduce greenhouse gas pollution. We know that if we put the right rules and incentives in place, we will unleash the creative power of our best scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs to build a better world. And so many nations have already taken the first steps on the journey towards that goal.
The rhetoric has changed substantially since then. In this week’s state of the union address there was certainly no clarion call to confront climate change. The term was used, and the science acknowledged, but only in passing in the context of his promotion of clean energy:
I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change. But here’s the thing — even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy-efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future — because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy. And America must be that nation.
One might think that’s OK. After all it will be clean energy that delivers us from the dangers of continued fossil fuel burning. But Obama makes room for fossil fuels; in fact he categorises natural gas as clean energy, along with the ever-elusive clean coal:
So tonight, I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal: by 2035, 80% of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources. Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal, and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all — and I urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to make it happen.
The administration are doing their bit on the fossil fuel front:
Over the last three years, we’ve opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration, and tonight, I’m directing my administration to open more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources.
He proclaims that the US has enough natural gas to last 100 years. And look what it will mean:
The development of natural gas will create jobs and power trucks and factories that are cleaner and cheaper, proving that we don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy.
Its extraction from shale is no problem:
And by the way, it was public research dollars, over the course of 30 years, that helped develop the technologies to extract all this natural gas out of shale rock — reminding us that government support is critical in helping businesses get new energy ideas off the ground.
But renewables matter too. He speaks approvingly of developments in that area and talks of a change in direction for government subsidy:
We need to get behind this innovation. And to help pay for it, I’m asking Congress to eliminate the billions in taxpayer dollars we currently give to oil companies. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but they’re doing just fine on their own. So instead of subsidizing yesterday’s energy, let’s invest in tomorrow’s.
In his espousal of renewable energy Obama may be well ahead of many American politicians. And while he now studiously avoids talking about climate change he also leaves it clear that he is no denier of the science. Which in some ways makes all the more puzzling the apparent assumption that natural gas can be regarded as a clean energy. It is a fossil fuel. When it is burned it releases greenhouse gases. Less than coal, for sure, but that doesn’t make it safe for the climate.
The seemingly unequivocal statements on climate change of the early days of Obama’s presidency have become a confusing muddle. Maybe that’s understandable in the intractable conflicts of American politics these days, but it should still be rejected as a far from adequate response to the reality of global warming.
[See also: Greg Laden’s take on the SOTU address at ScienceBlogs. GR]