The Conflict Between Obama’s Climate Policy and Obama’s Energy Policy

By Michael Hoexter May 28, 2014, 5:45 AM 

With the Obama Administration recently publishing a frightening report on the effects of climate change, the National Climate Assessment 2014, contradictions in Obama’s orientation on climate and energy are placed in higher relief.  As part of the publication of the NCA2014, Obama took the time to meet with regional weathermen to discuss the contents of the report.   Apparently, Obama did not think or did not want the public to think of him and his Administration as lightly skimming over the dire warnings in the report as an afterthought.

In the meantime, we have experienced a pivotal moment in the discovery of the present and future effects of climate change, with current ice melting patterns ensuring with a high degree of certainty that the West Antarctic Ice shelf will detach and deliver anywhere from 1 to 3 meters rise in sea levels over a 200 to 500 year period or perhaps sooner.  So, talk of rising seas is, to those who heed the science, given much greater weight.  No one has worked out the policy implications of this still relatively distant future event, except that adaptation to climate change in or migration from the world’s very populous low-lying areas becomes a more concrete reality.

Subsequent to the NCA2014 release, speaking at a Wal-Mart in Mountain View, California, Obama was attempting to highlight Wal-Mart’s supposed “green” achievements, including Walmart being the largest commercial user of solar power in the US.  Obama utilized this backdrop to announce initiatives that involve encouraging voluntary energy efficiency and some more federal investment in energy efficiency as well as somewhat higher energy efficiency standards in national building codes.  Additionally there were a number of programs announced that would help commercial solar deployment, which is already rapidly increasing due to the plummeting cost of solar panels, facilitated by China’s pro-solar industrial policy. There was little in the plan that involved confrontation with entrenched interests, other than Obama’s off-hand remarks directed at climate deniers on the Right that they are the fundamental problem with US climate policy.  Even there, rather than engaging in political combat on a broader stage, Obama is retreating in terms of his proposals into the executive branch of the federal government rather than engaging in open debate with climate deniers in Congress over the fundamentals of policy.

At the same time, this is an Administration that has put up no significant barriers to the current rampant increase in fossil fuel exploration and infrastructure expansion: Obama celebrated once again at Wal-Mart the canard of “energy independence” as applied to domestic and North American fossil fuel production.  In comparison to the vastness of the climate issue and the pro-fossil fuel extraction policies of the Obama Administration, the new “green” initiatives are the equivalent of a thin, tin whistle.

In the Washington Post, Dana Milbank, one of the Post’s columnists who often follows Obama’s White House, observes how the contradiction between Obama’s climate policy and Obama’s energy policy plays itself out on a day-to-day basis in the White House briefing room. Milbank writes:

On the eve of the Obama administration’s release Tuesday of a report warning about grave consequences of climate change, presidential counselor John Podesta went into the White House briefing room and crowed about fossil-fuel production in words that could have been penned by Dick Cheney.

“The United States is now the largest producer of natural gas in the world and the largest producer of gas and oil in the world,” Podesta declared. “It’s projected that the United States will continue to be the largest producer of natural gas through 2030. For six straight months now, we’ve produced more oil here at home than we’ve imported from overseas.”


It was a jarring juxtaposition: a new warning Tuesday about threats to life, health and commerce posed by carbon emissions, preceded by a boast Monday about record levels of carbon-fuel production. This is the contradiction at the heart of President Obama’s climate-change policy.

Milbank is noticing what has been observed by many environmental groups in recent years:  that Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy runs directly in contradiction to his professions of concern about climate change.  Obama has pledged climate action even as he and his representatives boast of the record rise in gas and oil production in the US during his Presidency.

While we can explain this by stating that Obama is a complex and contradictory character, this explanation leads us to a fatalistic “cop-out” in terms of how we grapple together in public with our future as human beings.  Obama’s character complexity is something that he and his biographers can celebrate or get lost in but does little for the American and world publics at this crucial period in history.  Even counting a sea rise of one to three meters within a couple centuries, well-designed and executed government climate policies on a broad scale could make the difference between one, three and ten meters as well as the end of human civilizations and perhaps of our species itself.  Below are some plausible explanations that attempt to move the political and economic discussion forward.

Explanation 1:  Obama is a Political “Triangulator”

Probably the most sympathetic explanation to Obama and those who occupy the roles of uncritical Obama or Democratic party boosters, is that Obama is engaging constantly, even after his second-term election, in political triangulation, like his apparent role model, Bill Clinton.  The political theory behind this idea is that American politics runs in a reliable “Left-Right” polarity where certain issues and ideas are coded “Right” and others are coded “Left” in a fairly fixed manner.  A political figure who “triangulates” attempts to disrupt this polarity by occupying some of the issues of the opposite end of the polarity to 1) keep their opponents confused or at-bay in day-to-day political fights and 2) to gain electoral advantage with “swing voters” or “centrists” who might have a mix of political views and to therefore 3) maintain effectiveness in getting work done in the federal government by potentially strengthening electorally one’s own party as the party of majority views rather than those of a small fraction of the electorate.

In the triangulation view, Obama’s statements regarding climate are his concession to or courting of the leftward portion of the political spectrum, while his energy policy, in particular the oil and gas portion is an effort to at least head off attacks by the Republicans and the Right.  By combining expressions of concern about the climate, detailed climate reports that do not deny climate change, and executive branch initiatives like apparently new strict EPA regulations of carbon emissions from power plants, Obama is maintaining his credibility as a member of the Democratic Party and heading off wholesale attacks on his basic morality and sanity from the Left.  On the other hand, Obama by celebrating and spurring oil and gas production, is showing the public and Republicans that Democrats can ally themselves with the powerful extractive industries and present themselves as something akin to the hypermasculine “drillers” which the Republicans attempt to represent in their policy and public presentation of themselves.  If you will, there is a stereotyped male/female, “strength”/“vulnerability” appeal at work.  A more jaded view is that Obama and his Democratic allies have set up a “roach motel”, in the words of blogger Lambert Strether, a sticky trap for the progressives and environmentalists.  Once entrapped in the confines of the debate as defined by Obama, they can do him and his center-right agenda no harm.

While Obama will not run for office again, the political calculation in the triangulation view is that Obama is helping Democrats to win in the 2014 mid-term election by not offering Republicans a “liberal” flank to attack in the area of energy policy.  Obama thus, seemingly belatedly given his accession to many Republican demands in the middle of his Presidency, wants to preserve and enhance his legacy as President.  Via a focus on triangulation and the devotion to political chicanery it rests upon, Obama is dividing the existing now-traditional set of issues in a way that defies conventional political polarities but is at the same time, completely enmeshed in conventional assumptions of what certain types of policy signify on a political-cultural level.

Explanation 2:  Obama Fronts for Corporate Interests

Another, not necessarily mutually exclusive, explanation is that Obama has acted in terms of his policy preferences as a front-man for corporate interests, that he is a “corporatist” or “corporate Democrat”.  This explanation holds a lot of weight in reviewing the entirety of Obama’s Presidency.  His major reform, the Affordable Care Act, while delivering benefits to some, is structured as a massive hand-out to the insurance industry and healthcare industries more generally.  His Administration is aggressively pursuing trade pacts (Trans Pacific Partnership and equivalents) that install multinational corporations as essentially laws unto themselves, exempting them from national-level regulations in multiple countries.  His Administration has continued the policies of the Bush Administration in bailing out the major banks without imposing restrictive conditions or aggressive restructuring to prevent a recurrence of the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) of 2007-2008.  He continues to place loyal Wall Streeters into positions of responsibility in his White House, even after the first set Wall Street alumni have left his employ.  While Obama has made some off-hand comments that offended the sensitivities of Wall Street “fat cats”, his policies have treated with kid gloves the financial sector that crashed the world economy in the run-up to the GFC and with an implied respect and even awe.

If you are of the supposedly “realist” persuasion that asks “how could he not be a frontman for American corporate interests?” we only need to look the Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt whose policies ended up being highly profitable for American industry and, in effect, saved American capitalism.  Unlike Obama, Roosevelt did not generally take the pleas of industry representatives at face value and comply with them.  His stance and that of a number of previous US Presidents, is that government has a role to play that is independent of and sometimes needs to lead or oppose private industry and the short-term interests of the wealthy rather than follow them.  Whether the goal to save capitalism is an appropriate goal is a matter of dispute on the political Left but most on the political Left and elsewhere support the benefits of progressive government actions like those of Roosevelt for American civilization and overall social welfare. Of course, some might say our current electoral system is heavily dependent on large-dollar donors, but that would not prevent a leader from becoming, as did Roosevelt, a “traitor to his class” for the good of the many.  Apparently, Obama is not eager to be a traitor to the class that he is in the process of joining.

While not as close an ally to the oil and gas industry as the Republicans, Obama has proven to be a steadfast fossil fuel industry ally in his own right, which for instance has seen no substantive federal attempts at regulation of hydraulic fracturing, a.k.a. fracking.  The idea that the US oil and gas industry might become an export powerhouse is something that Obama or his representatives occasionally trumpet for both potential economic benefits and for geopolitical positioning benefits.  Mark Hertsgaard has argued persuasively that the United States is a de facto petrostate and therefore the privileged place of the oil and gas industry is assured in the pantheon of corporate interest groups that surround the government. In one differentiator relative to Republicans, Obama has however, not been an ally to the coal industry, perhaps either sincerely believing that natural gas is better for the environment than coal, a debatable proposition, or simply to create greater market share for natural gas by encouraging conversion of coal-fired power plants to natural gas.  The much heralded EPA regulations of fossil fuel power plants that are upcoming later this year, may have the effect of being a further boon to the natural gas industry, in requiring utilities to give up entirely on coal or experiment with untried coal carbon capture techniques.   These actions all support Hertsgaard’s petrostate hypothesis.

Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy also throws some favors the way of renewable energy technologies but, in this, his energy policy reflects the relative power and wealth of the various energy industries.  Despite Friday’s announcements, Obama has not shown himself to be much of a fighter for an aggressive expansion of renewable energies; these announcements are not breaking down barriers to expansion of clean energy but simply greasing the skids for mature trends within the industry.  There is no indication that Obama tends towards creating a “loading order” for types of energy as have California electric grid regulators, within which energy efficiency and renewable energy have precedence over fossil energy.  He has shown an interest in nuclear energy but this option is suffering from economic, technical, and public relations challenges after the Fukushima disaster.  He has called for more stringent energy efficiency in cars, which is probably his most aggressive “green” energy policy implemented to date.  In all of these, there are, of course, less vociferous and often smaller corporate interests that stand to benefit from some of these policies.  That Europeans and the Japanese have, more rapidly than the US, been weaning themselves off fossil energy for four decades with higher energy prices among other policy decisions, means that a turn to “green” will tend to favor many firms headquartered in other countries.

A corollary of the corporate frontman explanation is that Obama doesn’t really care about climate enough to override his default orientation towards supporting corporate interests and maintaining a comfortable or non-antagonistic relationship with the corporate elite.  His professions of concern about the climate are then simply afterthoughts or even downright lies to keep his base and others occupied while he pursues a strategy of simply supporting corporate interests, many of them in the oil and gas industries.

Explanation 3:  In Obama’s Energy Policy, Immediate Geopolitical Concerns Trump Climate

Not unrelated to Obama’s apparent commitment to representing the interests of large corporations and the US-as-petrostate hypothesis, is the notion that the United States will maintain or enhance its global political reach if it is also a major oil and gas producer and net exporter.  For example, operating almost entirely in the realm of fantasy, various political figures and pundits imagined that the US, could suddenly become a large natural gas exporter in response to the crisis in Ukraine, to wean Europe and Ukraine off Russian natural gas supply.  That the US would not have liquefied natural gas export capabilities until 2015 let alone the supply to export did not faze these geopolitical strategists.  The thought is that the US can diminish the influence of its geopolitical rivals by making China as well as other countries dependent on oil and gas produced in the US.

An element of truth in the geopolitical game is that having one’s own fossil fuel reserves and production are a basis currently of military power.  Furthermore having an economy dependent on imports of fossil fuels from hostile or unstable regimes is also a geopolitical and economic risk.  However, focusing energy policy on rampant domestic fossil fuel extraction and transport does not provide much geopolitical security in the medium and long term, especially if we know that we can reduce overall dependence on fossil fuels very rapidly by pursuing an effective climate policy and that fossil fuel extracted is simply sold on the international market, especially given the current plans of the North American fossil fuel industries.  The longer term prospect though is that climate change is a greater security risk than lagging other countries in exporting fossil fuels.

Explanation 4:  Obama has a Cautious, Conservative Character

It has been observed by many, including by this writer, that Obama is not nearly the progressive that some in the Democratic Party paint him to be, as well as not even close to the fiery radical, that the Right attempts to stylize him via racist stereotyping.  The observation of a fundamental small “c” conservatism in Obama is in no way contradictory of the previous three explanations.  Increasingly, after the haze of idealization and devaluation have cleared, people are seeing Obama for whom he more likely might be, a very cautious, self-protective man in, as of the moment, the world’s most important job.  While it took a great deal of ambition for Obama to run for the Presidency and he can be a brilliant rhetorician and speaker, Obama does not seem to have much in the way of imagination in terms of his policy prescriptions, hewing very closely to the positions of the dominant corporate-Democratic faction of his own party.

As Obama is so cautious, he is likely to design his policy proposals in a conciliatory way, as above, splitting the difference between those who have strong views either to the Left or the Right of him or compliant to lobbying corporations.  Thus, it is comfortable for Obama to be the “triangulator”, “centrist” or corporate conciliator, as all of these mean that he is put in the role of compromising between impassioned factions.  As “no-drama Obama” he can appear, at least in his own mind, to be the “adult in the room”, not subject to passions that would distort what he thinks is “real-deal” prudence.

In the area of climate and energy, this, of course, leads to aimlessness in his policy, as there is a requirement in this area, due to climate change and exhaustion of conventional “easy” supplies of oil and gas, to radically “disappoint” some interests and vigorously support other interests.    In addition, political leaders now and increasingly will need more generally to look ahead to the interests of those who are not yet represented politically in American democracy, i.e. the young and future generations.  Obama’s personality “comfort zone” does not fit the bold and confrontational task of dealing with the climate and energy challenge.

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