Obama’s Ambitious Plan To Reduce GHG Emissions Elicits Hope, Frightening Comparison to Kyoto Protocol

June 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

“The decisions that we make now will have a profound effect on the world that you inherit”

Just a few short hours ago, President Obama gave what was expected to be a landmark public statement, in which he outlined his plan to fight climate change and global warming. While he didn’t necessarily say anything “radical” – that is, we’re not reverting to a pre-industrial society – but he did continue his trend of boldly and matter-of-factly stating scientific truths that many other politicians – certainly no president or even most congressmen –  would usually have the guts and confidence to say. And, of course, if his plans are actually followed through on by the rest of the federal government, then we have some landmark moments – America’s first fully legislated climate action plan.

Though his speech began with some fairly typical remarks, including a framing device involving the “Whole Earth” picture (aka “The Blue Marble”) and the Apollo astronauts, and statements about increasing numbers of record “highs,” shrinking ice sheets, increasingly strong storms and rising sea level. He continued on, and spoke about Hurricane Sandy, droughts in the Midwest and Alaska, and wildfires in the American west. The statement that finally kicked his address into gear was more or less this: Americans feel the effects of climate change not just through environmental disasters, but through economic changes. Increased insurance premiums and taxes are a result of the increasing intensity of storms and of rising temperatures. Perhaps that statement isn’t a jaw-dropping first-of-its-kind statement, but it certainly tells us that Obama is looking at this problem from the right frame of reference.

Obama’s plan lays out three main ways he intends to lead this nation against climate change. First, the most obvious: Cut Carbon Emissions. Here’s where Obama hits it home though: It’s not necessarily about using less energy, or using “green” energy (though both would be nice) – It’s about using energy differently. Obama proposes once again, with perhaps his most convincing attempt yet, that natural gas should be our transition fuel, as he sees benefits in both energy independence (he notes as well that we’re building new nuclear plants and finally producing more oil than we import) and in its comparative cleanliness. He puts his full support behind Natural Gas, promising federal support to make extraction safer and more efficient. Obama’s new budget makes some bold moves to help achieve this first goal. He has asked for the removal of tax breaks for oil companies, and to continue to improve the benefits and breaks for clean/green energy companies.

Within the same goal of cutting carbon emissions, Obama tackles the omnipresent idea of using less energy –  a surefire, yet often unpopular method of reducing CO2 emissions. He reminds us that we have successfully increased fuel economy standards, including for large trucks, and will continue to do so again. In the next decade, he claims, our cars will go twice as far on a tank of gas. Perhaps the most important part of his plan to reduce energy consumption, however, is his efforts to lead at the Federal level. The Department of Defense is  updating to use multiple gigawatts of clean energy, and Obama is setting a goal that within 7 years, all federal buildings will get 20% of their energy from renewable sources. Bold, Mr. President, Bold. Combine that with new, stricter standards for appliances and lights, and we very well might have a fighting chance.

“This will not get us there overnight”

And with that comment, Mr. Obama hits the nail on the head. Step two in the president’s Climate Action Plan is to prepare America for the effects of global warming. Obama acknowledges that we can’t stop our carbon emissions in their tracks, and even if we did, there’s enough carbon buildup in the atmosphere that we would continue to feel the effects even after we’ve stopped producing greenhouse gasses. In the same vein as many authors have recently written (Skaarsgard’s Hot comes to mind), Obama makes it clear that we need to prepare ourselves for the inevitable. Plans to fortify New York Harbor, restore the Everglades,  and better preparing for droughts and floods are exactly what we need to be doing.

“We compete for business with them, but we also share a planet”

The “them” that President Obama refers to are other nations, to whom he plans for us to be a trendsetter. The third part of Obama’s plan is plain and simple to lead the world by example. He wants to push for concrete international agreements and to aid developing nations. This, however, is where I start to worry.

The beginning of Obama’s plan shows great political maturity. He’s done this before, and now he knows the best way to approach an issue like climate change. When he discusses clean energy and new standards, he makes the abundantly clear point that his will not cause any economical set backs. In fact, if it goes the same way as the examples he used – the Clean Air Act, the fight against Acid Rain, the banning of CFCs, initial changes in fuel economy standards, etc – then, he points out, we will see economic growth. “There’s no contradiction between a sound environment and secure economic growth,” he says. The “opportunity” for corporations to fight climate change “Can be an engine of growth for years to come.” Jobs, wealth, GDP – it’s all going to be fine.

So if economics aren’t going to be the downfall of Obama’s new plan, what will? Obama knows that he faces a divided congress, but he seems hopeful. Referencing the actions of Republican Presidents like Nixon, who pushed bipartisan legislation to solve some enormous environmental problems, he expressed his hope that Congress will come together, and flat-out just make his job easier. He urges Republicans to “call home” – after all, 75% of our nation’s wind power is produced in Republican districts, as does much of our Natural Gas production. But even if Republicans continue to create gridlock, Obama is prepared. Much of what he hopes to accomplish can be done without the help of Congress, who he claims is forcing the EPA, most significantly through the stalling of the appointment of Gina McCarthy as the new administrator, to “jump through hoops” because some Republicans think that “The Environmental Protection Agency has no business protecting the environment.”

Obama has also made it clear that the time for debating the legitimacy of climate change is over. Scientists (according to his data, 97%) agree that global warming is both real and worsened by humans. When Obama reviewed some of the basic facts of global warming and its effects early on in his speech, he did so without trying to convince anyone. As he later stated:  “I don’t have very much patience for anyone who denies that this challenge is real…We don’t have time for a meeting of the flat earth society.”  He’s ready to push forward in spite of opponents, and encourages his supporters to do the same, urging them to: “Push back on misinformation, speak up on facts.” So if the economy wont hold him back, and he’s prepared to work around gridlock and denial, where is his Achilles heel?

I return now to the third part of Obama’s plan, which, as I mentioned, concerns me.  So far, the President has proven himself to be a student of history, working the rest of his plan around the things that have derailed his, and others, environmental policy in the past. With his international aspects of the policy, however, I am forced to be less optimistic. I wholeheartedly agree with the President’s declaration of American exceptionalism, and with his call to lead the world by example, but his call for a concrete international treaty has some potentially devastating flaws.

Much of President Obama’s language regarding international cooperation – an agreement to concrete action, aiding countries that are most strongly damaged by the effects of climate change, and aiding developing nations so that might skip the “dirty” stage of development – invokes an unfortunate comparison to the failed Kyoto Protocol. While all of these goals are not only important, but in my opinion in fact the right way to go, these same suggestions were the foundation of the Kyoto Protocol. If one takes into account the complete lack of success with creating an international treaty (the very same roadblock our President seeks to overcome), its apparent that very little has improved since 2005 when the Kyoto Protocol failed. Copenhagen was only a moderate success, and Cancun followed with little of note. Only in 2011 in Durban did nations that dropped out of the Kyoto protocol, and some nations that were not subject to the Protocol but have since developed (ie. China) agree to even consider signing a “treaty-to-be-named-later.” Has anything changed that significantly that countries that couldn’t agree to the fairly lenient Kyoto Protocol are ready to be completely compliant? And what about developing nations and the global south – they’ve been promised aid for over a decade, and so far there has still been no help to industrialize, with or without fossil fuels.

The question that I pose as a result is this: How does Obama – whose diplomatic skill is more suited towards building, mending, and growing international relationships, and not so much the creation of international law – plan to lead the creation of a binding treaty, and what exactly does he intend to propose as a solution? I think it’s safe to say that the “First World” will again have the support of the Island nations, who are heavily affected and are not necessarily trying to industrialize, but how will he earn the support of the developing world, when, as previously mentioned, the global north has yet to make good on any of its environmental aid promises.

Then of course, there’s the domestic side of this international treaty. Though Obama is no Bush – that is, he won’t be echoing Bush’s infamous statement that “To control emissions of CO2 does not make sense for America” – he still faces the same problem that Clinton and Gore faced initially – getting the treaty ratified by the Senate. The Clinton administration faced Congressional gridlock for sure, but it was nothing compared to the gridlock in our modern Congress. This brings up another important question: Sure, Obama can use executive orders and various administrative departments to circumvent Congress with the domestic aspects of his plan, but there’s not the same kind of wiggle-room with international treaties. Does he hope to wait it out until a hopefully gridlock-breaking midterm election? Does he really think that he has the ability to convince his outspoken Republican opponents to see things his way? Sure, as a lame-duck, he’s got nothing to lose, but there’s a difference between taking a risk and running headfirst into a brick wall.

I look forward to seeing the changes we make domestically, and as the world’s second-largest producer of greenhouse gasses, I am ecstatic that we can begin to make some significant improvements. However, as the rest of the world, particularly China, continues on full-steam ahead, I hope that with further details of his plan, we begin to see his plans for the world as a whole. The world once thought the Kyoto Protocol would save the planet. I hope President Obama studies its failure well, because it might very well hold to key to our salvation.

Obama ended his speech on a poignant note, eliciting from his audience the same feeling that I felt just two weeks ago, when I stood at the top of Cofete, a peak on the Canary Island of Fuerteventura, looking out over the magnificent landscape that was in ultimate peril. It was there that I was reminded what it is the environmental movement stands for, and why I am myself a part of it. We are here, on the just-right planet, which had the just the perfect conditions to create life, and humans, and the beauty that is nature. As Obama said: “That’s what’s at stake.”



The Real Message of the First Thanksgiving

November 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

I can’t remember the time I first heard the story of the first Thanksgiving, but it very well may have been around kindergarten. We all know this story – the Pilgrims land on Plymouth Rock, and are helped to adapt to live off the land by helpful Native Americans – led by Squanto, of course. It was a celebration of the harvest, and only later did it become a national holiday.

As we grow older, we begin to learn a bit more about Thanksgiving and the Pilgrims. Certain details are revealed, corrected, adjusted. We learn that Pilgrims are often misrepresented as dressing like Puritans. We learn about the significance of the Mayflower contact. We learn about all those Pilgrims who died in that first winter. We learn about the massacres that occurred soon after. We learn about the way that this relationship with tribes like the Wampanoag quickly turned towards prejudice and persecution.

When we finally begin to know about something, we begin to contextualize it. You can the first Thanksgiving it as the epitome of intercultural exchange and understanding. On the contrary, you can see it as the beginning of the “white man” beginning his forceful dominance of the American continent.

I choose to see it as a parable of sustainable agriculture.

There’s an important question that kind of gets blown over in schools. Yes, the Native Americans showed the Pilgrims how to farm successfully, but why was this so?

The Pilgrims came from Europe, where farming was practiced much like it is in modern America – if perhaps, on a much smaller scale. Large, sprawling fields grew one crop at a time – usually wheat. Many, many peasants would work these fields night and day, from planting to harvest. What their field didn’t grow, they could trade or buy from others, or at least their Lords could and would.

When the Pilgrims first began to farm in New England, they more than likely attempted to model their efforts on those of their former homeland. This wouldn’t work here, however, and here’s why:

The crops grown in the Americas – in particular, corn – requires quite a lot of nutrition from the soil, and often removes most of the nitrates – one of the most important nutrient groups – within a few plantings. In Europe, similar problems were taken care of by a simple cycle of crop rotations. In Plymouth, however, there was neither the manpower nor the available farmland to do this. Thus, the information imparted by Squanto and his people was invaluable.

How was it that the Wampanoag taught the Pilgrims to farm? The method by which Native Americans had been planting and farming for countless centuries prior: Using the Three Sisters.

The Three Sisters is perhaps the most ingenious yet simple agricultural method ever devised. A few corn stalks – maize, as they would call it – are planted, surrounded by squash plants, and covered by climbing beans. The three work together, benefiting each other, creating ideal environments for each plant.

The maize, which is the largest grain provider of the three, provides a structure on which the climbing beans can grow. The beans in turn puts nitrogen back into the ground, while the squash works to prevent weeds and pests.

If modern farms took a note from the Native Americans, we’d be in much better shape agriculturally. Today, we are the Pilgrims of the modern era, and boy are we screwing up. We, just like our forefathers, are trying to farm in large monocultures – huge, one crop farms, that grow anything from corn to chickens to beef – and only that. There’s plenty wrong with this system of farming, and rather than listing them, I’ll just explain the solutions.

Polycultures. Polycultures are the solution. The Three Sisters are a perfect example of polyculture, and are exactly why and how the first Thanksgiving needs to become a something that teaches us more than history. In his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan presents the working of a “grass farm,” a pristine example of polyculture at work. On this farm, grass feeds the pigs and cows, who help the grass and other crops grow better via their manure. Pigs work hand in hand with the compost to create better crop outputs and to renitrogenate the soil. Without use of pesticides, antibiotics, or most industrial feed supplies, this farm, and those like it, produce unbelievable quantity at a fairly sizable quantity.

The other reason why this polyculture is to be preferred as the premeir method of farming is the low use of fossil fuels. The problem that the Pilgrims faced early on was, as I mentioned, the need for a large labor force to work their giant monocultures. In modern society, we have replaced the slaves and peasants of our past with tractors and plows, reapers and combines, all of which are making us slaves to big oil instead. A polyculture, since everything is produced on-farm, can be run with little manpower and little machinery – an incredible bonus for our nation and our planet.

On a final note, let me wish a happy Thanksgiving to all. I hope you are all safe and healthy, and lastly, I hope that we all learn from our past this Thanksgiving.



Obama: Country is Obligated to Tackle Climate Change

November 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Last week, I mentioned an uptick of Climate Change talk in the media. Today, as part of his fist White House press conference since March, he mentioned the need for climate change solutions. Here’s the Washington Post’s coverage of it:

President Obama said the country has an obligation to future generations to address the issue of climate change, but he acknowledged there is a palpable lack of consensus on the matter.

“I don’t know what either Democrats or Republicans are prepared to do at this point,” Obama said at his afternoon press conference.

The president noted that the political differences that arise on environmental issues extend beyond those falling along party lines. “There are regional differences,” he said.

But, he added: “we have an obligation to future generations to do something about it.”

Change is coming. Fast.


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