Obama memoir traces his climate evolution

Source: By Scott Waldman, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, November 18, 2020

When he was still a senator from Illinois, Barack Obama didn’t think much about climate change because he believed his constituents had bigger problems.

But the increasingly dire findings of climate scientists made him realize during his first race for the White House that addressing carbon emissions was essential for future generations, Obama wrote in his memoir, “A Promised Land,” released yesterday.

“For my constituents, many of whom were working-class, poor air quality or industrial runoff took a backseat to the need for better housing, education, healthcare, and jobs,” he wrote. “I figured somebody else could worry about the trees.

“The ominous realities of climate change forced a shift in my perspective.”

Obama said the activists who wanted him to propose a ban on hydraulic fracturing during his campaign didn’t understand how much it would cost him politically. It could have cost him the election by losing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, thereby blocking meaningful environmental policy.

“In a perfectly rational world, that might have made sense. In the actual and highly irrational world of American politics, my staff and I were pretty sure that having me paint doomsday scenarios was a bad electoral strategy,” he wrote.

Environmentalism came naturally to him because of his experience growing up in Hawaii, where it was easy to visit local waterfalls and beautiful beaches, Obama wrote. It was also a result of the time he spent in Indonesia, where he watched water buffalo roam in terraced rice paddies.

His mother instilled in him that for most of humankind, meeting their basic needs would always take priority over environmental causes. However, as he was preparing to run for office, he came to prioritize climate policy when he imagined his daughter living in a world transformed by global warming, where island nations would be swallowed by the sea and where more extreme weather would create refugees throughout the world.

“If I aspired to lead the free world, I decided, I’d have to make climate change a priority of my campaign and my presidency,” he wrote.

But running on climate 12 years ago was decidedly different from the current political landscape.

In the 751-page tome, Obama grapples with the difficulty of selling climate change as a political message, particularly since Republicans cast its solutions as an economic disaster. Even some Democrats were unconcerned about the issue at the time.

“Climate change is one of those issues governments are notoriously bad at dealing with, requiring politicians to put in place disruptive, expensive, and unpopular policies now in order to prevent a slow-rolling crisis in the future,” Obama wrote.

The book largely covers Obama’s 2008 campaign and his first years in the White House, which means there is no discussion of the Paris climate agreement or how Obama tapped top aide John Podesta in his second term to help him push through climate regulations. A second volume is expected to address the more meaningful climate policy he enacted in his second term.

Still, the book shows how the president who put in place the strongest climate action in American history came to understand its political toxicity.

Figuring that it would be nearly impossible to get climate legislation through Congress when he first took office, Obama noted, his administration turned to the massive stimulus bill as a way to support clean energy.

He wrote that clean energy technology at the time was largely seen as a novelty by the public, when there were few electric vehicles on the road and solar and wind struggled to compete with fossil fuels in the energy market.

Obama recalled how $90 billion of the $800 billion in stimulus funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act went to boost clean energy, which helped push the market forward. He acknowledged the failure of the $535 million loan to Solyndra, a solar company, and said it became a “PR nightmare” in which “Republicans revelled.”

Nonetheless, Obama wrote, the risk of failure was worth the cost of seeking solutions, and he credits the Recovery Act with saving the clean energy industry and allowing it to compete in an economy centered around fossil fuels.

“Getting things done meant subjecting yourself to criticism, and the alternative — playing it safe, avoiding controversy, following the polls — was not only a recipe for mediocrity but a betrayal of the hopes of those citizens who’d put you in office,” he wrote.

Obama said the economic crisis that he inherited at the outset of his presidency made the politics around climate policy more difficult. He tried to make an ally of Arizona Sen. John McCain, his onetime political rival and a rare GOP climate champion. Even though McCain had worked on the issue for years, he backed off once he faced a primary challenge from a conservative radio host, Obama noted.

Obama said he eventually turned to Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close ally of McCain who had a history of bucking his party’s message on climate. Obama wrote that he was concerned that drafting a Democratic-only climate bill would be meaningless unless it included a Republican standard bearer.

Relying on Graham was a mistake, Obama concluded. He wrote that Graham was unwilling to do anything on climate that could be politically risky and compared him to the guy in a spy movie who “double-crosses everyone to save his own skin.”

In the end, Democrats passed the Waxman-Markey carbon cap-and-trade bill in the House, and it died in the Senate.

The inability to pass climate legislation hobbled the U.S. position going into the Copenhagen, Denmark, climate summit in December 2009, he wrote. He said he had to urge world leaders to enact restrictive environmental policies without being able to get them passed at home. The talks seemed predestined to fail and become a “dumpster fire,” Obama wrote.

Without climate action from the United States, countries such as China, Brazil, India and South Africa were unwilling to cut their own emissions and to have them monitored by other countries.

The leaders of those countries attempted to craft a side deal that would have essentially negated the talks. Obama wrote that he barged into their secret meeting on the sidelines of the conference and pledged to financially support developing countries that took more aggressive climate action and make further reduction pledges in the United States.

He also threatened to publicly criticize the leaders if they tried to leave Copenhagen without doing anything.

“I’ve got a megaphone, and it’s pretty big,” he recalled telling the other leaders. “If I leave this room without an agreement, then my first stop is the hall downstairs where all the international press is waiting for news. And I’m going to tell them that I was prepared to commit to a big reduction in our greenhouse gases, and billions of dollars in new assistance, and that each of you decided it was better to do nothing.”

That worked. Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton worked to get more countries to sign up. The measures were ultimately viewed by climate advocates and other world leaders as a failure, and they pointed to China’s interference in the conference. Obama wrote that Copenhagen set the stage for a more important international climate agreement, the Paris climate accord.

“We’d succeeded in getting China and India to accept — no matter how grudgingly or tentatively — the notion that every country, and not just those in the West, had a responsibility to do its part to slow climate change,” Obama wrote. “Seven years later, that basic principle would prove essential to achieving the breakthrough Paris Agreement.”