"I am a firm believer that climate change is real, that it is impacted by human behavior and carbon emissions. And, as a consequence, I think we've got an obligation to future generations to do something about it." So spoke newly re-elected President Barack Obama at a press conference on November 14 when questioned by a reporter.
So what is Obama going to do about it? Probably not much, because it conflicts with other priorities such as jobs and growth—and there's nothing better for jobs and growth than a good old-fashioned fossil fuel energy boom.
Or is there? Despite the International Energy Agency's optimistic projections, the U.S. will not produce more oil than Saudi Arabia within a decade—unless Saudi Arabia deliberately decides to hold back oil (as pointed out by the inestimable Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations.) And the U.S. could only become energy self-sufficient if one counter-balances continuing oil imports from places like Canada (hello Keystone!) with increased exports of natural gas, as the IEA assumes.
Either way, that sounds like bad news for combating climate change, and it is. Burning all that fossil fuel leaves the world on a trajectory to "lock-in" temperature increases of more than two degrees Celsius in global average temperatures—and that's not even the worst case scenario. After all, last year set yet another record for global emissions of CO2.
Part of that is because world leaders, like Obama, are hedging their bets—pushing low carbon technologies such as nuclear or renewables but also clearing the path for expanded production of fossil fuels like coal and gas. In fact, the only thing standing in the way of Obama's "all of the above" strategy, which would mean burning even more fossil fuels in the future, is one thing—water.
Water is becoming the critical constraint for the development of a lot of these energy products. For example, fracking the Bakken shale in North Dakota for oil becomes impossible if there isn't enough water around. Already energy—both electricity generation and fossil fuel production—accounts for 15 percent of total world water use, a percentage that may grow without innovation in technology. And although there's plenty of water around for things like the tar sands in Canada, there isn't necessarily enough water for new tar sands mines in eastern Utah. After all, that mine, the first in the U.S., received a pollution permit because the powers that be judged that there wasn't enough groundwater around there to pollute anyway. And water scarcity is a big part of the reason the Obama administration's Department of Interior has scaled back plans for oil shale on public lands in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming.
Regardless, the oil shale will still be there, waiting to be extracted and burned. According to the IEA, it will have to stay in the ground to have any credible chance of restraining global warming to no more than a two-degrees-C rise in average global temperatures. In fact, the world can only burn about a third of the fossil fuels still out there if it is to stay on the right side of the two-degrees threshold.
There is hope. Renewables—wind and hydropower, mostly, but also solar—look set to continue to grow, potentially becoming the second-largest source of electricity in the world as soon as 2015, according to some IEA projections. And the U.S. economy is, in the jargon, de-carbonizing, or reducing the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by our collective economic activity. U.S. oil use peaked in 2006 and has declined ever since. Renewables have doubled thanks to Obama's stimulus and other policies. Coal plants are shutting down and natural gas plants are firing up. The question is whether Obama's all-of-the-above strategy turns the natual gas bonanza into a bridge to a zero-carbon future, or a prop for the full-carbon economy.
More hope comes from Obama's new fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, which are going to further drive down oil imports as the U.S. car fleet gets more and more efficient. That kind of efficiency—if repeated and extended worldwide—could go a long way toward buying time to combat climate change. That time could be extended even further if Obama and other world leaders followed through on promises to phase out subsidies for fossil fuels, which now constitute more than half a trillion dollars per year, according to the IEA. Furthermore, as Obama noted at the press conference on November 14 there are ways to make "short-term progress in reducing carbons [sic]" like eliminating methane leaks from natural gas pipelines and coal mines.
The world is going to need that extra time, especially given the absence of a commitment to CO2 capture and storage technology. Still, there's no time to dilly-dally: the planetary thermostat for the next millennia is being set in these early decades of the 21st century.
But the President has other items on his agenda first: tax and immigration reform, among others. Obama wouldn't even have addressed climate change without a direct question on the subject, given his impending visit to storm-tossed New York City, from a reporter. "I think the American people right now have been so focused and will continue to be focused on our economy and jobs and growth, that if the message is somehow we're going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don't think anybody is going to go for that," Obama said. "I won't go for that," he added, putting action off for "coming months and years." The planet does not have the luxury of that kind of time for Obama's promised "wide-ranging conversation" or "education" of the public.
The President may be aware that "what we do now is going to have an impact and a cost down the road," he's just not capable of doing much about it other than the kinds of things he has already done—new fuel efficiency standards for cars and the federal government, and the like.
Image: Obama enters press conference on November 14. Official White House photo by Pete Souza.